LONDON – A fresh mystery is gripping Britain's religious community: Just how did a treasure trove of rare medallions and coins collected by a former archbishop of Canterbury end up at the bottom of the River Wear?
The coins, medals, goblets and other religious items were found over the last few years by two divers, Gary and Trevor Bankhead, in the frigid, murky river waters that loop around Durham Cathedral, a Norman-style classic.
Research shows many of the artifacts are linked to the late Michael Ramsey, a former archbishop of Canterbury with longtime ties to Durham, a city 280 miles north of London where he served as bishop and spent some of his retirement years before his death in 1988.
The find was revealed Friday by cathedral officials — who believe the items may have been robbed from Ramsey — and by the Bankhead brothers, two intrepid amateur divers who collected the unusual items during a series of dives over the last three years.
A statement posted on the cathedral's Web site indicated that the brothers had found some 300 artifacts, including some of archaeological significance.
"Some of the artifacts appear to have close links to Archbishop Michael Ramsey, who retired to Durham in 1974," the statement read. "These include medals and medallions presented to him during his work and travels as archbishop of Canterbury. There is a silver trowel presented to the archbishop on the occasion of his laying of the foundation stone for a new church in India. Other items include a copper and enamel icon."
In addition, a gold coin apparently given to Ramsey by a Japanese Buddhist leader was found, along with a Russian icon, and precious medals that may have been given to Ramsey when he met Pope Paul VI in Rome in 1966.
Ramsey was archbishop of Canterbury from 1961 to 1974, and met many senior religious figures and world leaders during that time.
Cathedral officials declined to elaborate on the Web site statement, which suggests that the items may have been stolen from Ramsey after he retired to Durham.
"It is not known how these particular artifacts came to be in the river," the statement asserts. "There has been speculation for some time that the archbishop was victim of a burglary and this would seem to confirm it."
But Gary Bankhead does not believe a robbery was involved. Based on the location of the finds, he has concluded that Ramsey himself probably dropped the items into the river.
He thinks some of them were dropped from Prebends Bridge, a popular site near the retirement apartment where Ramsey lived with his wife in their latter years, as a slightly bizarre offering to the people of Durham.
"He was linked to the city since the early 1940s, and it's my belief that he did this as a votive offering to the river and to the people of Durham, who he loved," said Bankhead.
This unusual interpretation is supported by a friend of Ramsey's who told British newspapers that it is consistent with Ramsey's character that he would have thrown the items in the river.
Bankhead said the items were found in six locations, including four close to the bridge. He said tests suggest that items thrown from the bridge would have been found close to the actual locations. He said the dives were hazardous because of the extremely cold water and the poor visibility, often limited to about three feet.
Bankhead said it also is possible that Ramsey threw the items into the waters because of his Christian belief that a person enters the world with nothing and leaves it with nothing.
"In the last years of his life, he got rid of all of his finds, for that reason," Bankhead said.
He said the items were found on the river bottom, which is littered with sharp pieces of broken glass that regularly pierced the neoprene gloves he and his brother wore for protection.
The fate of the artifacts is not yet clear. The cathedral's Web site indicates that at least some of the collection will soon be put on public display at the cathedral, which draws visitors from throughout the world.
"It is hoped that many of them will be displayed next year when a new window dedicated to Michael Ramsey is installed in the Cathedral," the statement reads.
Bankhead said he and his brother are entitled to a 50-50 split on the value of the finds under the terms of a licensing agreement signed with Cathedral officials. He said he hopes church archives will better establish the origin of some of the coins, which may increase their value.
"A gold coin given by the pope to the archbishop of Canterbury is more valuable than just a gold coin," he said hopefully.