Buried Treasure Legends

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Legends of buried treasure another common element of folklore that defies proper explanation despite a great variety of cases within the theme. Many of the cases in Sussex were recorded by archaeologists who when digging at a particular site, were told by the local population that a certain valuable object was buried at the site. Due to the influence of the archaeologist, most of the places these legends are attached to are hillforts, the true extent of the phenomena not being known. The items reputed to be buried tend not to be nebulous hoards of unidentified riches, but specific objects of gold or silver, one of the most popular being someone buried in something valuable such as a coffin or armour.

Treasure Chest

For the legend to be creditable, it has to be difficult to find, otherwise why hasn't someone dug it up? Legends of guardians have sprung up related to treasure legends such as Serpents, Ghostly Black Dogs and The Devil.

Why these legends are so frequent and similar is not known. Perhaps locals have found old coins or artifacts at sites, or the legend is created to explain the purpose of an earthwork by the local people, but there are elements in the mythology of older peoples which may give an explanation for these legends.

Saxon Origins?

The Saxons had certain views about ancient earthworks and burial mounds which may explain some of the stories that have survived today. In the epic poem, Beowulf, the hero fights a monster, generally seen as a Dragon which resides underground in an old earthwork and guards a treasure hoard. The mound, according to the poem, already contained the treasure before the arrival of the Dragon, for instance, when describing the arrival of the Dragon at the mound the poem speak of : "A mound all ready waited on the plain, near the sea, new on the headland, protected by secure arts." and "The aged Dawn-Raider found the pleasurable hoard standing open.". The earthwork itself is described in the following ways : "Earth hall... burial chamber under the ground", "sheer-walled stone-refuge" and "not convenient at all was the way-in afforded under the earth-rampart". The Saxons apparently thought of many ancient sites in a similar way, as the homes of treasure guarded by Dragons.

Sussex Examples

As has been said before, most of the buried treasure legends in Sussex relate to hillforts and other ancient earthworks, the focus seems to be on sites occupied by ancient peoples. It is interesting to note that while there were only four hillforts built in the Middle Iron-Age as compared to a greater number in the Early and Late Iron-Age's, these four all have popular buried treasure legends, compared to only a few from the many remaining in other ages. While this may be because the Middle Iron-Age forts are more impressive, covering a wider area with more substantial ramparts, and therefore attracting more interest from the local population which carries the tradition of the particular legends, it is interesting to note that these four forts have in common a large quantity of ritual pits where various objects seem to have been buried as votive offerings. This was first noticed in relation to Mount Caburn which has a substantial number of these pits but little sign of habitation. The other three forts in question are The Trundle, Cissbury Ring and Tarberry Hill. The legends attached to these places and many others are given below.

Golden Calves

Legends of Buried Golden Calves seem to be quite popular in West Sussex, perhaps a reference to the Golden Calf mentioned in the Bible. There are two buried in hillforts, one at The Trundle, allegedly by St. Paul, and one at Highdown Hill. Excavations at Highdown produced no calf but plenty of high status finds from the Saxon burial ground. A third example, on a hill but without a fort, is on Clayton Hill where as at The Trundle, the calf is protected by The Devil. There are two old tales that relate to the protection of the buried calf by The Devil, referred to as 'He', at the Trundle :

"In the Downs there's a golden calf buried; people know very well where it is - I could show you the place any day. Then why doant they dig it up? Oh, it is not allowed; he would not let them. Has anyone ever tried? Oh, yes, but it's never there when you look, he moves it away."

Another tale tells of someone actually trying to dig it up :

"You know, there's many a one that tried... My dad used to say as his grandfather got up early on Holy Sunday an' went along to the place an' started digging. An' he actually ketched sight of a lump o' gold, an' then he was almost deafed by a clap o' thunder, an' when he looked again, the gold was gone."

In another version of the story, the calf is not the treasure but the protector, in the form of a ghostly calf, set on The Trundle to guard an unidentified hoard for a group of Vikings before they headed west to fight the men of Chichester at Kingley Vale, where they were slaughtered and the line of barrows on Bow Hill raised over their dead kings. The ghost of the calf is said to be heard crying in the nearby woods of Goodwood on a certain night of the year.


Other places in Sussex have treasure protected by ghosts and monsters, such as at Cissbury Ring, where there is said to be a tunnel leading to Offington Hall near Salvington. According to the Legend, at the end of the tunnel was a treasure so owner of the Hall "had offered half the money to anyone who would clear out the subterranean passage, and several persons had begun digging, but had all been driven back by large snakes springing at them with open mouths and angry hisses". The real tunnels under Cissbury, the flint mines, probably don't reach as far as Offington, though may be an explanation for the existance of the legend.

Another hall with a treasure and guardian is Chiddingly Place, where a crock of gold was guarded by an evil spirit in the form of a black hen. The hen sat there undisturbed until a thief tried to make off with the gold. The hen attacked with such violence that the man was knocked senseless and was found to be mad when he came round. After the attack, the hen flew through the east window, bending two thick iron bars which were left pointing outwards.


Another class of treasure in Sussex is that of rich burials, which mostly occur in East Sussex. Under the Long Man of Wilmington is said to be buried a Roman in a gold coffin and just to the west on Firle Beacon is said to lie a silver coffin, sought after according to the locals, by the local rector who used to walk a lot on the Downs above Firle. Another silver coffin can be found just a little further along the Downs at Mount Caburn, along with a Knight in golden armour. All these sites have folklore regarding Giants attached to them and both Windover Hill on which rests the Long Man and Firle Beacon are crowned by Long Barrows. Though there isn't a Long Barrow at Mount Caburn itself, there are three nearby on the area of the Downs it occupies. Another Long Barrow with a treasure related name is "Money Burgh", which overlooks the River Ouse just upstream from Newhaven. A round barrow which has more cause to deserve its name is the "Money Mound" in the Weald between Handcross and Lower Beeding. Though the barrow was originally a Beaker barrow, it later became a focus for ritual activity, first in the Iron-Age and continuing into Roman times when over 150 Roman coins were buried in the mound as votive offerings, the discovery of which gave the mound its name.


It is said that to search yourself, for treasure on Tarberry (or Torberry) Hill near South Harting, you will need treasure yourself :

"Who knows what Tarberry would bear,
Would plough it with a golden share."


"He who would find what Tarberry would bear,
Must plough it with a golden share."

The treasure said to be buried on Tarberry Hill, which is capped by an Iron-Age hillfort, was allegedly placed there by the Royalists and left when the men were caught by Cromwell's men. The villages of Bosham and Amberley are said to have been similarly blessed by the king's men.


Lastly, as folk memory dwindles, we are left with a muddle of places containing unspecified treasure such as Hollingbury, Pulborough Mount and a wood near Fittleworth. Though the treasure at Chanctonbury Ring is also unspecified, it is said to have a ghostly companion searching for it either in the form of an old man resembling a Druid or a Saxon from the Battle Of Hastings. This legend seems to have been transposed from a barn called Gurth Barn at Chancton Farm below the hill, where after the barn was destroyed, a hoard of about 3000 Anglo-Saxon silver pennies, mostly of Edward the Confessor, were found in 1866. Apparently the story of the searching Saxon ghost existed before the find at the farm and was described as either an "Old Saxon" who used to haunt the barn, or that "a very aged man, with a long white beard, is occasionally to be seen, towards the dusk of the evening, poring on the ground, as if in search of some hidden treasure".

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