Roman rings beach find 'treasure'
Ancient gold and silver jewellery unearthed by an amateur treasure hunter have been credited with shedding fresh light on the Romans' links with Ireland.
The two ornate Roman gold rings and silver buckle found by retired civil servant Brian Murray on Murlough beach in Co Down date to around the 4th or 5th century AD.
The artefacts were officially declared as treasure during a special sitting of a coroner's court in Belfast.
Unlike Britain, the Romans never undertook a full scale invasion of Ireland so the finds have added a new dimension to the ongoing historical debate about the extent of the empire's contact with the island.
Dr Greer Ramsey from the National Museums Northern Ireland said Roman historical writings made references to merchants voyaging to Ireland.
"Roman rings like this in Ireland are extremely rare and there is an ongoing debate on what was the nature of Roman contact in Ireland," he said after the treasure trove hearing.
Dr Ramsey said it was possible the jewellery hoard was being worn on a body washed up from the sea.
"How it actually ended up in the sand dunes is a matter of conjecture," he said.
"I suppose there are several explanations.
"It is possible it belonged to a burial, to someone who was buried at sea.
"It is equally possible that somebody was wearing it when their ship went down."
He said another potential explanation was the items were deliberately buried in the sands as an offering to a Roman god ahead of a sea journey.
"Before those rings turned up there was little of that exceptional quality (found in that part of Ireland) so it is putting the north east of Ireland on the Roman map," he added.
Mr Murray, 65, was actually looking for artefacts left by a more recent foreign power when his metal detector bleeped last February.
Murlough beach was used by the US Army in the Second World War as a training location.
The treasure hunter from Newtownards, Co Down, was walking along the beach searching for old American army badges or bullet casings.
"I went down the beach and came back and I found the small ring first and within five minutes I had retrieved the other big ring and the buckle," he said.
"I am a keen fan of (Channel 4's) Time Team so I knew I had something sensational.
"It was like fishing for mackerel and catching a salmon - it was unbelievable."
A panel of experts from the British Museum will now assess the value of the items before they are returned to Northern Ireland.
In normal circumstances, National Museums Northern Ireland would pay half the value to the land owner and the other half to the finder.
But coroner Suzanne Anderson heard February's find was not entirely straightforward.
The area of Murlough beach above the mean high tide mark is owned by the National Trust while the remainder is the property of the Crown estate.
The coroner was told Mr Murray had a permit to metal detect on the Crown estate sands but not on National Trust property.
The court heard that Mr Murray contends the find was made on the Crown lands but National Trust archaeologist Malachy Conway told Ms Anderson the location actually sat on the Trust's part of the beach.
The issue around the find location is also set to be deliberated by British Museum experts when they meet to value the artefacts later this year.