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Dancing with the Universe – The Infamous Wanborough Hoard of Atrebates Coins

By Wayne SaylesAncient Coin Collecting

with the kind permission of John Hooker
I’m sure that most are quite familiar with the infamous Wanborough Hoard of Atrebates coins. As the link here describes, it was a badly mishandled discovery which became a major impetus for the new Treasure Act to replace the old treasure trove laws. Pretty well every account of the hoard focuses only on the circumstances: a “packet” of the total was discovered; It was reported to a museum; At the inquest, the location was revealed in open court; There was an immediate “gold rush” of metal detectorists which wrecked a lot of the site; The police were called in and recovered some of the coins, but many thousands more entered the international market.

Wanborough HoardApart from that, the best account of the hoard details are recorded in Colin Haselgrove, Iron Age Coinage in South-East England — The Archaeological Context Volumes 1 and 2, British Archaeological Reports, British Series 184, Oxford, 1987, a brilliant work that, ironically, seems to have been read by very few archaeologists who constantly talk about looting and the importance of context for everything. If you happen to be one of those archaeologists, it’s probably best to preserve your ignorance because it paints a picture rather different from your Weltenshauung! It is also not an “easy read”: heavy in data, I found it most useful to read it three times, cover-to-cover and in quick succession.

So much for the background, now on to the postmodernist bit:

Back in 1963-6, I was already very interested in British Celtic coins, “ancient British” as they were commonly called back then. I used to visit Seaby’s in Great Portland St. on a regular basis. Often, I would ask if they had any ancient British coins. Most often, the answer was “No”, but sometimes they would have a British tin coin, common Iceni unit or a cast AE Durotriges stater that I could afford. On a rare occasion, a gold stater that I could not afford. Once, I bought a corroded Coriosolite stater, which changed the direction of my life.

The commonest Wanborough coin was the silver unit of Epatticus, difficult to find back in the sixties. I think I recall that one would cost a few hundred pounds back then, but my 1976 Seaby’s catalogue lists them at 150 pounds. The metal detector was already being used by 1976, but not by many — still, I think it had had already started to reduce prices a little. The Wanborough hoard changed all that. I bought some of the Wanborough coins in Calgary (of course, not advertised as such) within a couple of years of the discovery. The price of that Epatticus was then about a hundred dollars for a mint-state example, with rough ones going for about half that. They are much more expensive now, probably mostly around the 1976 price again. Of course, inflation must come into play.

In 1966, I was earning the princely sum of seven pounds, 10 shillings a week at a prestigious West End antique shop (Pearl Cross, St. Martin’s Court) as the shop’s young “gopher”. I had been offered the job not long after I left school. I got home, one day, from my first job at Southend Airport at the age of 15 and my mother told me that a man had phoned to ask if I would be interested in working for him in London at an antique shop. I had never met him, and was unfamiliar with the shop, although I had visited a couple of shops in the adjacent Cecil Court. Someone must have told them about me, but no one in Cecil Court had my address, so it was quite the mystery. I got the job at once, and when my father dragged me off to live in western Canada in 1966 I got the most glowing letter of reference from my former employer. Useless, though, because I was too young to be “bonded” at a jewelry store here at the time (jewelry, silver and clocks was — and still is, Pearl Cross’s specialty)

My time at Pearl Cross was life-forming. I got to meet some of London’s greatest craftsmen, and often got to see them work. Being the “gopher”, I was always dismantling clocks and taking them and other things to various restorers, metal-smiths, enamelers, platers, and so on. They all liked me because I was visibly impressed with their skills. I also worked in the shop and its customers were unlike anyone I had ever known.

One of the best customers was Marius Goring, They told me he lived at Hampton Court and was acquainted with Her Majesty. He always wore a duffle coat and scuffed brown shoes, and drove an old Humber. The only clues to his eminence were his five-carat diamond ring and his hand-made Havana cigars.

There was Princess Marina, who always made a grand entrance — all furs and diamonds, and of course, all manner of theatre people like some of the cast of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, which was playing at the New Theatre across the court. I used to often buy books at Marks & Co. around the corner, and I like to think that, once in a while, while I was browsing in the shop, Frank Doel was in the back corresponding with Helene Hanff in New York City.

My first experience with “provenance” came when, as part of my apprenticeship, I was taken on a buying trip one evening to a house in North London. The lady of the house wanted to sell some of her husband’s effects just after his death. He had known the emperor of Japan and once, when walking with the emperor in his garden, had picked up a pebble from the path as a souvenir. The emperor told him that he was not allowed to do such a thing and took it from him. Just before the man left Japan, the emperor presented him with a silver dish, duly inscribed as a gift from the emperor. At the centre of the dish was set that same pebble! The lady insisted that we should have the engraving removed before we sold it. The dish never found its way into stock. I suspect that my boss took it home with him.

Life became quite different for me than it had been when I was a young street-urchin living in Palace Gates Road in Wood Green. There was little history in that part of London. My friends and I had a little “gang” and our entertainment was distinctly on the wrong side of the law — but not oppressively so, like some of the older guys.

Once, at the age of 12, I was walking through Alexandra Park with my girlfriend, Diana, when we encountered about half of the Muswell Hill Mob. I was rather concerned about this. I knew that I might have to “defend Diana’s honour” and that could end up very bad for me! Fortunately, they were surprisingly civil, chatting with us for a while before waving goodbye and heading off to do whatever evil they had planned for the day.

I was what is now called a “gifted child”, but back then — according to one headmaster as he dragged me from my class, cane in hand, a “lazy bastard”. I had learned to read at the age of three and was devouring teen novels by four. At seven, it was Robert Louis Stevenson, a bit of Dickens, and my favorite of all: Jack London, who lives in my soul to this day. At school, I excelled in what interested me and ignored everything else. Think of a scaled-down version of Good Will Hunting. I despised mediocrity, it was either all or nothing. I didn’t like the “good kids”, they got tolerably good marks in everything, were teacher’s pets, spouted things like trained parrots, and undoubtedly left school for well-paid, pedestrian jobs. Worse still, some of them probably became academics of the gray majority — builders of the boxes that I like to think outside of (note the sentence construction — I also love to start sentences with “And” and “But”).

But what of these boxes of which I speak? Where is Derrida when we need him (Do we ever need Derrida?) Once, at the age of 11, I was walking with a friend back along the railway cutting that ran from the abandoned railway station behind Alexandra Palace. We had been wandering about Highgate Wood generally doing nothing. In the railway ballast left after the tracks had been removed, we found a few fossils and took them with us. As we entered Wood Green we saw a man working on his racing motorcycle and stopped to admire the bike and chat a bit. In the course of the conversation, I showed him the fossils and asked him if he knew anything about such things. He didn’t, but then he said something that changed my life from that moment on. He said, “Everything that you would want to know is in a book somewhere”. Of course, the son of a bitch had lied to me, but at that time, and until much later, I didn’t know that.

Books were entertainment, a refuge from drab Wood Green, the sound of dripping taps, and the clink of tea cups in boring relative’s living rooms as the clock measured time oh! so slowly — tick, tick, tick. I met him again after that summer, at my new school. He was my arithmetic teacher! Of course, arithmetic was boring too, so I ignored it. Many decades later, I met my wife. She was also a teacher, and I saw her inspire kids in just the same way (We do need these sort of people).

And so, I bid farewell to Jack London and resumed my studies in the non-fiction section of the library. These studies had been abandoned at the age of four when I was forced to go to school — what cruelty that was! I never forgave my parents. I had been very busy mentally cataloging the insect life in my back garden, but there was something else there too — the detritus of human existence, bits of broken pottery in the earth that I had disturbed to see what the ants would do. I read it all, correctly. Now, I would call it a natural “vanitas”. I saw our existence as temporary, we could so easily be forgotten and most of us will be forgotten. I asked my mother, “When I die, who will my next mother be?” She freaked.

In London, back in the sixties, and after I left the prison called School, the class system was rather different than it is now — there was a sort of “noblesse oblige” that does not exist much today. Regardless of your original social station in life, if you had that that certain spark — a passion, if you will, it was recognized by those at the opposite end of your social and educational spectrum who shared the same passion, and nurtured.

I walked into “Pearl Cross” one morning. Everything about the shop was much as I had left it the previous day that I had been there. Keith greeted me at the door, he was my immediate superior. The boss was not around. “We were just talking about you last week”, he said. It was 1999 and I had last walked out of that shop more than 30 years earlier. I was sorry that Dennis Strange — my old boss, was not around. He was still alive, though, and came in twice a week. I returned to visit him. He looked just like his father had looked back when. White haired, he was a picture of bliss: someone who had spent his whole life doing what he loved. It was a terrific reunion, but then some gray people came in to measure the place — his 99 year lease was about to run out. It had been in his family all of that time.

I said a fond goodbye and left to meet Joe for lunch. Joe Gillespie is an ex web guru and designer. A couple of years earlier, he had joined myself and my family for a holiday at the Sylvia Hotel in Vancouver, British Columbia. He was impressed by that city, its architecture and its polite and helpful people. “London is not like this anymore”, he had lamented at the time. Joe’s first customer in London, as a photographer and advertising designer many years earlier, was Camilla Parker Bowles who, at that time, owned a boutique in Chelsea. Joe is an unassuming and soft-spoken gray-haired man who came from a very poor background in Northern Ireland. His subsequent fame and fortune had never ruined him — the most delightful person you would wish to meet and a mentor to many young web designers. I think he has finally retired completely, but in 1999, he just retained his two favorite clients, for whom he created their product CDs: Sony and Canon. He said he loved to work with the Japanese, their word was their bond, and he never needed a legal contract with them. They paid him handsomely, and his bag contained a couple of their products he was given for his work – as yet not released.

After lunch, I dragged him off to Spinks as I had brought a little Langyao bottle-vase of rare form that I thought I might need to sell. I was patient with the woman at Spinks. At first, she did not recognize it entirely. Its crackle was subtler than most you see about, and it did not have the celadon base of the inferior varieties, but one of fine white glaze with just a couple of little “pin-holes” deliberate, so that it would not be perfect. It was liver-shaped with a carefully trimmed foot rim, unctuous to the touch. It had the smallest layer of white at the top. It was Imperial ware — and of course, because of its blood and liver connotations, did not have the Emperor’s mark. Spinks only wanted to pay me 800 pounds for it, so we left. I still have it, and it, or the money it gets will go to my daughter.

Joe had been sitting, bolt upright and silent, in a chair near the door of that department all this time. As we left the building, he gave this huge sigh of relief. “I was too afraid to open my mouth!” he said. “Why?” I asked. “I didn’t want her to hear my accent”, he replied. I was shocked — this famous and talented man was intimidated by his imagined class. I apologized to him, saying that it was not my intention to make him so uncomfortable and had no idea that this would happen. We went to the closest pub!

A few days later, I was back in Oxford, where I had been staying in order to inform the Institute of Archaeology that I would design and my wife would build an on-line Celtic Coin Index. I was walking down a narrow street, behind a professor who was wearing robes and seemed in a hurry to get somewhere. An Indian or Pakistani woman was walking fairly slowly in front of us with a toddler in tow. I heard the professor say “Get out of my way, woman!” I was shocked at this, and before I could think of something particularly nasty to say to him, he was gone. I understood why Joe had reacted the way he did.

So why all of this in an article about the Wanborough Hoard? If one takes a good postmodernist approach it is all very important. What I see through my eyes is not what is, neither is what you see through your eyes. Our observations are as much ourselves as what we observe. It is a dance where we lead and the universe follows. Sometimes, a number of us get together within a temporary, and carefully constructed matrix and we build ourselves a box to contain what we create, together. If we are not vigilant, that box starts to look like reality, and it captures us. We lose our freedom and what is just a box can seem like the whole universe. We can see other boxes, though, but from within our box they look just like other boxes. Snug, smug and secure within our own box we think that we are looking out from reality, and that the contents of all of those other boxes contain things that are not reality.

What is the universe’s response to this? It forgets us, because we can no longer dance with it — we are stuck in a box! Frustrated by this, the universe then does its best to dance with all of the boxes together. It finds this quite difficult to do and often has to eliminate a few boxes who can’t keep step with the rest. But at best, it is a clumsy dance full of trial and error. We call this evolution. Those of us who are vigilant quickly step outside of our box and say “I am here!” and the universe either starts to dance with us or at least marks us down on its dance card for later.

So what becomes of those people who still think that their own box is the entire universe? They die, turn to dust, and are forgotten. What they created for themselves starts to fragment, and eventually becomes little potsherds in a boy’s back garden in Palace Gates Road, Wood Green. The boy is more interested in the insects that crawl over them. The insects contain life. One day, and to his horror, his parents place him in box called School, and if he does not get out of that box in time it will capture him and he too, will be forgotten. When he escapes from his box, he plants a tree, raises a child, and writes a book. Problem solved? Well, not exactly.

The universe, with gratitude, accepts the gift of the tree and they contribute to each other. The child is also similarly favored, providing that her father has not tried to make her just part of his box that he has just left. She too, must dance with the universe in her own way, being wary of others who might place her in a box later. That danger is ever present and might manifest itself anywhere — in the form, perhaps, of an Oxford professor in hurry to attend a ceremony in his own box. If she is lucky, she will encounter someone who has rejected the box that others have placed them inside and thus step out into the sunshine nurtured by someone like a teacher fixing his bike on the street, or Joe, taking a fledgling designer under his wing and allowing them to learn while being themselves. All of these nurturers are agents of the universe, and they are dancing too.

The orchestra takes a break, and the universe returns to her table and reaches for the book, or perhaps views a painting, or listens to someone’s idea. There are so many things that she does when the music pauses. If she sees that the book, painting or idea is original, this pleases her, and she emits something we do not understand, but it gives our bodies’ brain certain chemicals that makes us feel wonderful and endorphins that ease our physical pain and exhaustion from all of the creating we have been doing. However, if she finds no originality and discovers that it is just another expression of an old and tired out box that someone else had created a long time ago, then it, too, gets trashed and turns to dust. Even if it survives, say, as a book in a library somewhere, no one ever opens it covers and looks inside. Even if the book’s original idea becomes commonplace, people still will look at again to see where they have come from and its author achieves a sort of immortality within the universe. The spirit of Plato, Mozart, Darwin, Cezanne and Einstein will last as long as humans walk the earth. They have become part of the universe too.

But what of those people who, having stepped outside of their box turn their own creation into another box and then retreat back inside where they feel it must be comfortable? The universe, slowly, starts to turn off the taps of those lovely chemicals until the flow stops. They must then make their own chemicals, with drugs, alcohol or other worldly pleasures of some form — even apathy can become a pleasure. The problem is it does less and less and demands more and more and it becomes a very strong box indeed, one that the universe will cast aside with a casual sweep of her hand.

Let’s look inside one of the boxes marked “Wanborough Hoard”, the very box I gave a link to at the start of this article. Why this one among all of the other boxes marked “Wanborough Hoard”? Because its author, Suzie Thomas is still very much alive within her box and she might break free of it at anytime. She sees a few things that others have not, but she has not quite lost all of her shackles yet.

The universe reads “commodification” and giggles — that is the door to this box! The universe also smiles kindly at the touches of humanity, at least some people are not being cast aside.

What did the Wanborough situation create? New laws to prevent the same thing happening again? Sure, but that is just box building again. A box stays built the way it is, you can tell this easily — it doesn’t change, or it becomes more so and even more solid. The universe only rewards creativity. There has to be newness in the isness or its entropy for all!

The paper posits a stone that has been tossed into a pond but has made no ripples, or at best, has ripples that travel only a short distance and then stops! Come on Suzie, get that brain working! This is not how the universe works. If you really want that sort of thing, it can only take place within a box obeying very different rules to those that the universe is operating with. Yes, you can do that, but once you take it outside the box it loses corporeality. Inside the box, it has substance, but remember what the universe does with boxes that lose step and get confused by the rhythm. You really don’t want to do that. The universe and Bob Dylan are both saying “That he not busy being born is busy dying”

So where did those ripples really go — you know they are still traveling, right? The universe is a very big pond indeed.

The Wanborough Hoard, at least the parts of it that got away, went around the world and worked their magic. People started buying metal detectors to find even more, and what do you know? They did! The little coins inspired me and many more, Some of us started to collect and write about them. The literature and the research ballooned. Before all of that there were only a few people working on this stuff — Sir John Evans in the 19th century, then much later, Commander Mack, and the very great Derek Allen who was a friend of two friends of mine, a smallish assortment of lesser known scholars and a few collectors who could wait for the occasional British Celtic coin to show up at Seaby’s. I was one of the latter before I climbed on to the shoulders of a few giants. It was too small a flow to reach escape velocity, you need much larger numbers for that sort of thing.

Wanborough was our salvation. The commodification of Celtic coins eventually created even conferences about the things! Evans would have shaken his head in disbelief if someone would have predicted such a thing to him.

So what would have happened if the restrictions preceded the hoard? The site would have been excavated and the report, if it was ever published, might have been read by a few inhabitants of boxes, but two weeks later, the world would have forgotten about it and the hoard, itself, would be in its own box in the bowels of the British Museum, soon to be forgotten. A few might have gone on display as entertainment, or something to look at before the rain stopped.

Don’t believe me? I have worked at a museum. Get permission to randomly look in their storage cabinets and boxes to see what you might find. It will amaze you to see what has been forgotten and is sitting in boxes while the universe dances on.

Do you want proof of what I say? go here:

This is the bibliography that Philip de Jersey constructed at Oxford for the Celtic Coin Index and was migrated to the online version. Analyze the dates and their frequency, plot it out and compare it to metal detector use. People found coins, they asked about them, Those they asked started to look more and write. Some of the collectors turned to scholars and wrote more. This is a frozen view — it stops in about 2002. It is even bigger now.

This is what those commodification ripples achieved and they are still moving. This is how the universe works — growth, expansion and small deaths along the way, but it is surviving. Conservationists are trying to freeze time, but it will all turn to dust for them. We need death to continue life. Things evolve only outside of the boxes that people try to create to save them. Inside the boxes are just forgotten bodies.

People don’t like this — it scares them. Some academics see commodification as a bad thing. A few of them look at coin dealers as maggots, but without maggots, dust mites, and dung beetles we would soon be buried in our own muck. They do not know that many of these coin dealers and collectors sometimes make amazing discoveries — they are dancing with the universe. Even more of them are inspiring others to take to the floor.

It is so poetic: through variety and recombination, we avoid entropy. Look at the dna molecule, one of the universe’s greatest hits that she loves to dance to because it is ever-changing. It is a sestina that contains only four different words, and it keeps changing. How amazing is that?

© John Hooker, 2011.

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