Tristram Hunt: Search for Spitfire Holy Grail will light up legacy once again
TWO different fields, two very different discoveries. But both of them significant for Stoke-on-Trent.
In the land outside Lichfield, our Saxon past continues to offer up its riches. As ploughs keep overturning the land, even more wonders of our Mercian heritage are being unearthed. We thought we had done with the Staffordshire Hoard, but earlier this month the South Staffordshire Coroner ruled on the ownership of another set of gold and silver pieces found in the same field.
Some eighty one of the ninety one finds were deemed 'treasure' since they were over 300 years old and had a precious metal content above 10 per cent.
Experts from the Treasure Valuation Committee will determine their price and, with a bit of fund-raising, it is hoped they can join the 3,900 artefacts so successfully shared between Birmingham and Hanley.
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The find will be another helpful step in shedding some light on the Dark Ages.
Meanwhile, in Burma, other discoveries are afoot. In the final months of World War II, Allied engineers in Burma buried an estimated 120 Spitfire planes in near-pristine condition, rather than bear the cost of shipping or scrapping. This is three times the number of airworthy Spitfires that presently exist.
For enthusiasts of Reginald Mitchell, Stoke-on-Trent's most celebrated aeronautical engineer, and his remarkable warplanes, this is the Holy Grail.
And the man leading the quest for the last 17 years is farmer David Cundall, from Lincolnshire.
With the slow opening up of Burma to outside investment and tourism, Cundall has been allowed to develop a joint-venture scheme with a local firm and the Burmese government.
If everything goes to plan, Cundall's company will keep 30 per cent of the planes, his local partner 20 per cent and the Burmese government the rest.
And with working Spitfires selling for some £2 million a piece, it makes good business as well as great history.
Last week, Cundall believed he had found his prize. Lowering a camera into a buried crate in the Burma city of Myitkyina, he thought he had identified a buried spitfire.
The murky water meant they had to pause to pump out the wash and they cannot be 100 per cent sure, but Cundall described the find as 'very encouraging'. Certainly, 91-year-old war veteran Stanley Coombe, accompanying the search party, was excited.
He told the BBC: "I never thought I would be allowed to come back and see where the Spitfires have been buried. It's been a long time since anybody believed what I said."
The prospective find comes at an exciting time for our own Spitfire. If not quite buried in a crate, no one denies that the gallery housing Mitchell's Mark XVI masterpiece in the Potteries Museum could do with a bit of an upgrade.
It is a great asset for the city, but difficult to reconcile with the other elements of the museum.
What is more, 70 years on, a fighter plane designed with a fairly short life expectancy demands a lot of upkeep.
This was the thinking which inspired Reginald's great nephew, Julian Mitchell, to start fundraising for a Spitfire cockpit stimulator to sit alongside the plane.
Operation Spitfire aims to raise cash for the stimulator, which will then be used to generate further giving to restore the original plane. And the campaign has been given a welcome and characteristically generous boost with a £20,000 donation from Stoke City chairman Peter Coates.
So, how will the Burma find affect us? Well, hopefully it will revive interest in the aircraft and the remarkable life of Reginald Mitchell.
Given our great fortune in exhibiting one of the finest of his designs, it should be able to boost fund-raising. Perhaps we can invite David Caudell and his team to come to Stoke and talk us through his Burmese adventures?
But what both the Hoard and the Spitfires show is, first of all, the great value of our existing collections. These are historical subjects that remain hugely popular in the public mind, and the city needs to do everything possible to keep promoting the Potteries Museum.
Secondly, they reveal how so much of our history remains alive. As the ploughs keep churning the Lichfield sods, so our understanding of the seventh century grows.
And as the Burmese government allows archaeologists and enthusiasts to scour their airfields, so we in Stoke-on-Trent can begin to think in new ways of the legacy and meaning of Reginald Mitchell's work.
That is the excitement of the past – it is always changing.