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coinhoards

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz ….
 

It has been said that archaeology stands on a foundation of potsherds, and it would be just as true to say that numismatics stands on a foundation of coin hoards. They provide us with the framework of our classification of ancient coins, and frequently a single hoard has provided us with enough material to study a whole series of coins and clarify it …

Lloyd R. Laing, Coins and Archaeology (1969)

A HOARD IS A BURIED TREASURE – a collection of valuable artifacts found in the earth. The word comes into English from Old Saxon (hord) and ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “to cover or hide.” It should not be confused with horde, from a Turkic root meaning “Mongol army” or anything that seems like a Mongol army, metaphorically.

There were no banks in the ancient world[1], so if you wanted to keep your money and valuables safe, you hid or buried them where they were unlikely to be discovered. If you never came back to retrieve them–because you were slain by invading barbarians or carried off by the plague–they’re still there, waiting to be found.

Editors love buried treasure stories, and in recent years we have been deluged with hordes of hoards. One factor that explains the increasing number of spectacular coin hoard discoveries is the availability of sensitive electronic metal detectors in the hands of hobbyists, notably in the United Kingdom.

saddle_hoard_groupPrecious metal hoards attract the most attention – for example the Saddle Ridge hoard. This group of buried rusty cans filled with 1,427 American gold coins (dated 1847 to 1894) was found in California in February 2013. But the largest ancient hoards tend to be masses of low-value base metal pieces, concealed during periods of high inflation and invasion or civil war.

The very beginning of coinage is documented by a hoard – a sealed clay pot holding 19 archaic electrum coins. It was deposited beneath the seventh century BCE foundation of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Additional coins were found scattered under the foundation stones when the site was excavated (1904 – 1905). Such “votive hoards” were permanent offerings to the gods, buried with no intent to recover them later. The coins and the pot are in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum; the British Museum displays high-fidelity replicas.

In 1969, three Egyptian workmen found and divided a hoard of about 900 archaic Greek silver coins in Asyut, 200 miles south of Cairo. The coins came from all across the Mediterranean world, and they offer a unique picture of the scope of international trade about the year 475 BCE. Two of the finders sold their portions to the same dealer and the coins arrived on the London market in 1970. The third finder sold his coins separately; the American Numismatic Society (ANS) in New York acquired many of them. In an extraordinary collaboration of dealers, collectors and scholars, some 870 of the 900 pieces were recorded, catalogued and published (Price and Waggoner).

Hoxne (1992)

On a mid-November day in 1992, Eric Lawes went looking for a lost hammer in a ploughed field near Hoxne in Suffolk. He came home later that day having found both the hammer and the largest hoard of late Roman gold and silver coins … ever recovered in Britain.” (Guest, 16)

The Hoxne hoard consisted of 579 gold, 14,191 silver and 24 bronze coins, along with an array of silver tableware and gold jewelry, all carefully packed into a wooden chest. The chest had rotted away completely but its metal fittings survived. The excavators carefully lifted the material out of the ground in sections. It was clear that the gold coins (weighing almost exactly eight Roman pounds[2]) were bagged separately, but the silver coins (about 56 Roman pounds) were simply poured into the chest. One of the most striking objects in the hoard is a solid silver tigress that formed one handle of a serving vessel.

hoxnehoard

Hoxne Hoard exhibit at British Museum. Image: (c) Mike Peel

The entire hoard was acquired by the British Museum, where selected pieces are on display (Room 49). The latest coins in the hoard were struck in 407 CE, about the time the last Roman legions were pulled out of Britain.

The value of the material was assessed in 1993 at UK£1.75 million. Adjusted for inflation, it would be worth UK£3.21 million (US$4.58 million) today.

Beau Street (Bath, 2008)

In 2008, British archaeologists excavating a site 150 meters (490 feet) from the famous Roman baths of the city of Bath (about 80 miles west of London) unearthed a fused mass of 17,400 Roman silver and alloy coins. This is the largest hoard ever found in a Roman town; most hoards are found in rural areas. The coins had been packed in eight leather sacks and concealed in a pit beneath a Roman-era building. Copper salts that leached from the coins preserved scraps of leather from bacterial decay. The oldest identified coin in the hoard was a legionary denarius of Marc Antony (32 BCE). The latest coins were from the reign of Tetricus, who ruled a short-lived breakaway “Gallic Empire” (270-274 CE).

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Beaux Street Hoard. Image (c) The Roman Baths Foundation

It is not clear whether the hoard was deposited all at once or gradually over a period many years. The contents of the bags were mixed, but one bag held mostly denarii of nearly pure silver, four bags held third-century “high-silver” radiates, and three bags held mostly “debased radiates” (less than 5% silver) issued after c. 260 CE. Coins tended to remain in circulation for decades or even centuries in the ancient world, but it is surprising that the hoard contained a coin that was 300 years old at the time of burial.

The British Museum, which probably has the most skilled coin conservators in the world, is currently performing the massive task of separating and cleaning the coins. A catalog has been published (Ghey, 2014), and a selection is displayed in the Roman Baths Museum.

Jersey (Grouville, 2012)

In June 2012, two metal detectorists discovered a mass of 70,000 Celtic and Roman silver coins in a field in the parish of Grouville on the island of Jersey in the English Channel.

Embedded in the mass of coins were items of gold and silver jewelry. The mass, weighing about 750 kg (1650 pounds) and measuring 140×80×20 cm (55×31×8 in) was extracted in one piece. A Gaulish tribe, the Coriosolitae, probably buried the treasure around 52 BCE to hide it from conquering Romans.

2016hoard

The hoard is still being painstakingly cleaned, conserved and documented in the Jersey Museum.

Seville (2016)

In April 2016 construction workers digging a trench for pipes in a park in Tomares, Spain near Seville discovered 19 buried amphorae containing some 50,000 Roman coins. The amphora, a sturdy, usually ceramic vase with handles and a pointed base, typically holding about 26 liters (27.5 quarts), was the all-purpose storage and shipping container of antiquity. Ten of the vessels were broken by construction equipment, but nine remained intact.

The mass of coins weighed about 590 kg (1300 pounds).

The coins are from the period called the Tetrarchy, when four-co-emperors divided the rule of the Empire. The coins are surface-silvered bronze folles[3], substantial coins weighing about 10 grams, mostly struck after 294 CE in the names of Maximianus (286-305) and Constantine I (306-337). The coins appeared to be freshly minted, and may have represented the payroll for troops or officials. There was no Roman mint in Spain at this period, so the coins would have been shipped in from Gaul or the East.

Early estimates of the value of the hoard were sensationalized, as usual with non-numismatic media. High grade folles of Maximianus are common, and examples with full silvering typically sell at auction for US$100-$200 or even less.

The hoard belongs to the Spanish state, and will be cleaned, catalogued and (hopefully) eventually displayed at the Seville Archaeological Museum.

Collecting Hoard Coins

Most ancient coins are found in hoards, but sadly, their “provenance” (details of where, when and how they were found) is usually lost or concealed in the murky underground of the antiquities trade.

A casual search for the word “hoard” on CoinArchives Pro (a database of over two million coins sold at auction since about 1999) found 7,420 hits. But these were mainly occurrences in the titles of reference works cited in catalog descriptions of coins.

The United Kingdom is a bright exception because of its uniquely sensible laws. Under the 1996 Treasure Act, a hoard is legally defined as two or more precious metal coins that are at least 300 years old. Hoards must be reported, but the finder and the landowner are entitled to split the fair market value, as assessed by a committee of experts – provided that British Museum or local museums have the right of first refusal on the purchase. The voluntary “Portable Antiquities Scheme” covers lesser finds not classified as “treasure”. As a result we know more about the circulation of ancient coins in Britain than anywhere else in the world. Properly documented hoard coins of all periods routinely appear in UK auctions.

Notes

[1] As with most assertions about ancient history, there are scholars who will argue the point. But economic historians generally agree that the modern concept of banking was a creation of the Italian Renaissance.

[2] Late Romans often expressed large sums of money in terms of pounds of precious metal. The gold solidus of 4.5 grams was struck at a standard of 72 to the pound. The silver siliqua was struck at 144 to the pound, but most of the Hoxne siliquae were clipped by 25 to nearly 50%.

[3] Typically the follis was less than 5% silver, but this was chemically concentrated on the surface so the coins looked silvery when new.

References

Abdy, R., M. Allen, R. Bland, E. Ghey and J. Naylor. “Coin hoards from the British Isles 2012”, British Numismatic Journal 82 (2012)

Bland, Roger. “Presidential Address 2012: Hoarding in Britain: an overview”, British Numismatic Journal 83 (2013)

Bland, Roger and Catherine Johns. The Hoxne Treasure: An Illustrated Introduction. British Museum (1993)

Ghey, E. The Beau Street Hoard. British Museum (2014)

Guest, P.S.W. The Late Roman Gold and Silver Coins from the Hoxne Treasure. British Museum (2005)

Laing, Lloyd R. Coins and Archaeology. (1969)

Mouchmov, N.A. Le Tresor Numismatique de Reka-Devnia. Sofia (1934)

Price, Martin and Nancy Waggoner. Archaic Greek Silver Coinage: The “Asyut” Hoard. London (1975)
 


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