52,000 Roman coins discovered in England

frome hoard

A massive hoard of over 52 000 coins dating back to the third century AD have been discovered in a field near Frome in the English country of Somerset.  Archaeologists believe the hoard, which sheds light on the economic crisis and coalition government in the 3rd century, will rewrite the history books.

The coins were found by Dave Crisp, from Devizes in Wiltshire. He was using a metal detector when he first found 21 coins, and after digging about a foothe came across a pot filled thousands more. Mr. Crisp said, “I knew the find was important and I needed archaeological help, so I contacted my local Finds Liaison Officer. I have made many finds over the years, but this is my first coin hoard and it was a fascinating experience to take part in the excavation of it.”

Anna Booth, Somerset County Council’s Finds Liaison Officer, added, “Because Mr Crisp resisted the temptation to dig up the coins it has allowed archaeologists from Somerset County Council to carefully excavate the pot and its contents, ensuring important evidence about the circumstances of its burial was preserved.”

Archaeologists then set about the delicate task of excavating the pot and its contents. The hoard was then taken to the British Museum, so that the coins could be cleaned and recorded. This work was done within two months and represented about 400 hours’ work for the conservator team. The coins all date from between AD 253 to AD 293 were found in a large, well-preserved pot – a type of container normally used for storing food – and weigh around 160 kilograms. Since the pot containing the coins was found by the archaeologists to be already broken in the earth, the coins were removed from the pot in 12 layers, with each layer containing up to 16 separate bags of coins, a total of 67 separate groups in all.

Because of the weight of the coins and the fragility of the pot in which they were buried, the pot must have been buried in the ground before the coins were tipped into them. This suggests that this hoard is unlikely to have been buried because its owner (or owners) were concerned about the threat of invasion and, wishing to find a safe place to store their wealth, intended to come back and recover it later when the times were more peaceful. If that had been their intention, then they would have buried their coins in smaller containers which would have been easier to recover. The only way anyone could have recovered this hoard would have been by breaking the pot and scooping the coins out of it, which would have been awkward. It is thought therefore most likely that the person or persons who buried this hoard entrusted it to the earth without intending to come back and recover it later. Perhaps it was the offering of an agricultural community for a good harvest or favourable weather.

Each of the 67 groups of coins was washed and sorted separately and as a result we know that the great majority (85 per cent) of the coins of Carausius, the latest coins in the hoard, were contained within a single layer. This gives us a fascinating insight into how the coins were placed in the pot, as a group of coins of Carausius must have been tipped into the pot separately from the rest of the coins.

Carausius coinsOne of the most important aspects of the hoard is that it contains a large group of coins of Carausius, who ruled Britain independently from AD 286 to AD 293 and was the first Roman emperor to strike coins in Britain. The hoard contains over 760 of his coins, making it the largest group of his coins ever found. Amongst these coins are five rare examples of his silver denarii, the only coins of their type being struck anywhere in the Roman Empire at the time.

Roger Bland, Head of Portable Antiquities and Treasure at the British Museum said, “This hoard, which is one of the largest ever found in Britain, has a huge amount to tell about the coinage and history of the period as we study over the next two years. The late 3rd century AD was a time when Britain suffered barbarian invasions, economic crises and civil wars. Roman rule was finally stabilised when the Emperor Diocletian formed a coalition with the Emperor Maximian, which lasted 20 years. This defeated the separatist régime which had been established in Britain by Carausius. This find presents us with an opportunity to put Carausius on the map. School children across the country have been studying Roman Britain for decades, but are never taught about Carausius – our lost British emperor”.

The Coroner for Somerset will hold an inquest on Thursday July 22nd, to determine if the find is a national treasure. If the hoard is declared Treasure by the coroner, it is hoped it will be acquired by Somerset County Council’s Heritage Service. Stephen Minnitt, Head of Museums at Somerset County Council, said, “This is a find of great national importance and we are determined to raise the sum to acquire the hoard for public benefit. Hopefully it will be able to go on display in the new Museum of Somerset when it re-opens in 2011”.

In the meantime the coins have been washed and stabilised by a team of conservators at the British Museum, led by Pippa Pearce, and they are being studied by Roger Bland and the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s Roman coins specialist, Sam Moorhead. The British Museum is actively seeking funds to clean the coins fully: this will be a year’s work for one conservator. A selection of coins from the hoard will be on display at the British Museum from Thursday 22nd July until mid-August.

About 570 coin hoards of this period are known from Britain, a greater concentration than from any other part of the Roman Empire. The largest hoard ever found in Britain contained 54,912 coins dating from AD 180 to 274 and was found in two containers at Cunetio, near Mildenhall in Wiltshire; another hoard of 47,912 coins of AD 251-90 was found at Normanby in Lincolnshire in 1983.

Click here to go to the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s special section on the Frome Hoard, which includes a detailed account of the find

Click here to view a gallery of the the Frome Hoard, from Flikr

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