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Kingston Brooch unearthed near Canterbury 250 years ago today


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This is the story of how one man's relentless drive to unearth the secrets of the past led to a truly extraordinary discovery...

The Reverend Bryan Faussett was a determined man.

Rev Bryan Faussett. Picture: World Museum Liverpool
Rev Bryan Faussett. Picture: World Museum Liverpool

Driven by a fascination for antiquities, over a 16-year period he doggedly excavated more than 700 ancient burial mounds and graves around east Kent.

For each dig, he kept meticulously detailed records in his notebooks and diaries.

It was an interest he had held from his youth, when he collected 5,000 Roman and English coins.

Indeed, he is today regarded as one of the most prolific barrow explorers of the 18th century.

Yet after decades dedicated to unearthing hidden treasures, when it came to the first glimpse of the most extraordinary discovery of all he was incapacitated.

The North Downs run through Kingston, where the brooch was found. Picture: Google
The North Downs run through Kingston, where the brooch was found. Picture: Google

The historic moment came on August 5, 1771 - 250 years ago today.

For the previous four years he had been digging up hundreds of graves along the old A2 Canterbury-Dover road on the Downs above Kingston. Hundreds more were explored in the nearby villages of Bishopsbourne, Bekesbourne, Barfrestone and Shepherdswell, as well as in Chartham.

When it came to searching grave 205 from the Kingston Barrow group on that fateful day, the Rev Faussett was sat in his carriage, doubled-up in pain from a severe attack of gout.

It was left to his son Henry to carry out the excavation.

Under a large burial mound he found a huge grave with a sturdy coffin. Inside was the skeleton of a small woman wearing a golden brooch.

The remarkable Kingston Brooch found in an Anglo-Saxon grave near Canterbury on August 5, 1771
The remarkable Kingston Brooch found in an Anglo-Saxon grave near Canterbury on August 5, 1771

We can imagine how Henry would have hurried towards his stricken father and held out the relic.

Would the Rev Faussett have known at that moment the significance of what they had unearthed?

His notes at the time describe it as “one of the most curious and, for its size, costly pieces of antiquity ever discovered in England”.

Today, their discovery is known as the Kingston Brooch. It is the largest and finest Anglo-Saxon brooch of its kind that has ever been found.

A whopping 8.5cm in diameter, it is believed to have been made between the years 600 and 625, during the political ascendancy of the Jutes under Aethelberht, King of Kent. Whoever crafted it decorated it with more than 830 separate pieces, including garnets (dark red stones), blue glass and shell.

Kingston’s new village sign in honour of the brooch was unveiled in 2002
Kingston’s new village sign in honour of the brooch was unveiled in 2002

Researchers at Liverpool Museum, where the ornament is now kept, believe the woman found in the grave must have loved the brooch as it is quite worn and repaired, suggesting she put it on regularly.

The relic had originally been offered to the British Museum but was declined by the trustees. It was sold to collector Joseph Mayer in 1855, who later donated it to Liverpool Museum.

Here it had a lucky escape when German bombs fell on the city on May 3, 1941, almost completely destroying the building.

Before the war, the museum’s staff had realised the priceless items it held were at great risk and so organised a great evacuation, finding all types of temporary homes for the objects.

George Youlton, a museum attendant, later recalled: “I remember taking some to St Martin’s Bank near the Town Hall. Among them were the Mexican Codex or Calendar, the Kingston Brooch – a rare Anglo-Saxon find – and the linen girdle that belonged to Ramases the Third. They remained there until we collected them after the war.”

"When we move objects today we do things a little differently..!"

The brooch then survived another disaster. After the war, the museum’s director took the brooch to London for a BBC quiz show called ‘Animal, Vegetable Mineral’.

On their way back up north the train derailed. The museum director was safe, but the Kingston brooch dropped out from his pocket and was lost. Yet in an amazing stroke of luck, it was later found on the train tracks.

A museum spokesman said: “When we move objects today we do things a little differently!”

The brooch is celebrated locally in Kingston with the village sign, erected in 2002, depicting the historic ornament.

Rev Faussett died at Nackington on January 10, 1776, and was buried in the chancel of Nackington Church on February 17, alongside his parents and infant son Charles, who had died in 1755. A monument was later erected in the church.

The brooch remains at World Museum Liverpool.

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