I was going to write a blog supporting public pressure for our glorious leaders to rethink their catastrophic policy re A-Level results. Even after the U-turn, I remain enraged that the psychological health of our most precious youngsters transitioning to adulthood has been jeopardised by a five-day ordeal. But something wonderful happened this morning and if you have a few minutes to spare, you might be cheered up by what made me so happy.
Nearly every day I come across someone who should have been discussed in A People’s History of Classics, which I published with Henry Stead earlier this year. But there are not many small children in it and I am devastated that nine-year-old Isabel Cutler, a working-class Geordie whom I discovered this morning, will have to wait for the second edition.
We devote several pages in ch. 7 to all the farm-workers, navvies, gardeners, miners and grave-diggers who discovered most of the Roman-era antiquities in British and Irish collections. But this little girl managed to escape our notice, despite finding one of the most important Romano-British objects in existence while playing on the banks of the Tyne.
The ‘Corbridge Lanx’, a tray for distributing food and drinks at banquets, is a stunning example of late-Roman decorated silver plate, made in Asia Minor or North Africa in the 4th century CE. Apollo stands at the entrance to his shrine on Delos, with Athena, Artemis his sister and his mother Leto seated. Athena is also beautifully depicted; the other female may be Leto’s sister Ortygia. The detail stands out even better in the 1736 engraving.
A local court record for May 1735 states that “Isabel Cutter, daughter of Thomas Cutter of Corbridge, blacksmith, aged nine years… did on or about the tenth day of February last past find an ancient silver piece of plate in a great measure covered with the earth, one end sticking out of the ground, at a certain place within this manor near the north bank of the river Tyne by the water edge.”
Lucky Isabel! Finding treasure is every child’s fantasy. I wonder what she made of those gorgeous pagan goddesses—children of her age usually love Greek myths. And I hope her blacksmith father was nice to her—he sold it to the local goldsmith, making more than £30 for it (now worth about £8,000, which may have felt like a lot of money, but I suspect he was ripped off). The loaded Duke of Northumberland subsequently acquired it and his descendant bestowed it on the British Museum in 1993. If anyone can tell me more about Isabel Cotter—incorrectly said on Wikipedia to be a cobbler’s child—I would be eternally grateful.