FOR 1,500 YEARS OR MORE, THE CACHE lay undisturbed in the flat farmland of East Anglia, about 100 miles northeast of London. A pirate's dream of Roman coins and jewelry, it had been buried in the early 5th century A.D., presumably to keep it out of the hands of invading Saxons. It was left to Eric Lawes, a 69-year-old retired gardener who was searching for lost tools last November, to stumble upon the hoard.

The treasure, possibly the most important discovery of Roman artifacts ever in Britain, officially belongs to the Crown, but Lawes and Peter Whatling, the owner of the land where the objects were found, will divide their value, estimated at around $15 million. "It's almost like winning the pools [Britain's lottery]," says Lawes, who lives on a pensioner's check.

Lawes had been scouring the area around his Suffolk home (with a $550 metal detector his wife, Getha, 68, gave him 12 years ago) when he unearthed a silver coin. Digging deeper, he found enough gold pieces to fill two shopping bags—and a solid-gold necklace encrusted with jewels. Further excavation, under the guidance of archaeologists, revealed a rotted wooden chest full of valuables, including 15 gold bracelets, a silver bowl filled with silver objects, a silver bust of a woman and about 1,000 gold coins.

The couple have already said they won't move from their two-bedroom cottage where they have lived for 23 years—their two grown sons live nearby. All Eric can think of buying are things that will ease the pain of Getha's arthritis—a new Fiat with power steering, or a Jacuzzi bath. He is, however, enthusiastic about inspecting his find at the British Museum, which now has it. Until now, he points out, "I've only ever seen the treasure covered in dirt."