World Coins

Roman coin hoard found in England near Welsh border revealed

The discovery of a Roman coin hoard in Leominster, near the border with Wales, is a reminder that around 1,700 years ago, Roman soldiers were a common sight in the West Midlands region of England.

In early August 2015, the Portable Antiquities Scheme based at the British Museum, which records archaeological finds made by the public in England and Wales, announced details of a coin hoard that was discovered in July 2013 near Leominster. 

The hoard comprised 518 mixed copper coins struck in the second half of the third century A.D. 

The hoard was located in the Welsh Marches, the name commonly given to those parts of the English counties that border the principality of Wales. 

Leominster (pronounced Lem-ster) is west of Worcester (the birthplace of Sir Thomas Brock, who designed Queen Victoria’s portrait for her “Old Head” coinage) and south of Ludlow (a medieval town with a castle).

The historical market town of Leominster dates back to the seventh century. It is rich in “black and white” timber houses of the 16th and early 17th centuries that then, as now, overhung its narrow lanes, while the wide thoroughfare of Broad Street has gracious 18th century Georgian buildings. 

While meandering round the towns of the Welsh Marches it is easy to conjure up knights of old in armor, as well as individuals in Elizabethan, Stuart, and Georgian dress. Of course well before the middle ages, the land was inhabited by the ancient Britons, Celts, and Romans. 

Finding the hoard

A full investigation of the find site as well as the conservation and identification of the coins caused the two-year delay between discovery and disclosure.

The discovery was made by Jeremy Daw and Martin Fulloway, two metal detector enthusiasts who worked together as paramedics. Although the hoard is not a particularly large one, it is important, as it is well-preserved and the action of the treasure seekers allowed a full methodical examination of the site by professional archaeologists.

Fulloway described the day that the treasure-seeking duo struck lucky. 

“We thought it might be a horseshoe or some such rubbish,” he said, when one of the metal detectors indicated a “significant” indication that metal lay underfoot.

“As we were digging down through the soil with our hands, I spotted Jeremy had a handful of Roman coins. I shouted ‘STOP! I think we’ve got a hoard.’ We looked at each other and ‘punched’ the air.”

The PAS’s local representative Peter Reavill, the finds liaison officer for Shropshire and Herefordshire, really appreciated this restraint.

The coins were left in situ (at the site, as they were found) in the ground, which enabled a full-scale investigation to be mounted. With the help of the finders and the landowners, the hoard was removed as one block with soil around it, after the surrounding features had been investigated.

Researchers learned that the hoard had been placed within the ground in a small pit. However, its shape was impossible to identify archaeologically. This is frequently the case where discreet concealment occurs as the removed soil to dig the hole is replaced very swiftly afterwards. However, the investigation did reveal that the hoard was a single discrete concealment within an organic container, the top of which had been covered with small limestone stones. 

Fulloway remembers four of the coins being stuck to a stone, while others were loose in the soil.

The block was then transported to Birmingham, the United Kingdom’s second largest city, around 50 to 60 miles away, depending on which route is taken. X-rays at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery revealed that the coins had been placed in a series of three defined bags. Subsequent conservation work at the British Museum in London revealed that these cloth bags in turn has been placed in a leather satchel prior to being buried. Fragments of this satchel had been preserved by the coins corroding. Then a very interesting discovery was made.

Dried leaves were found as packing within the cloth bags and the satchel. This has never been encountered before with a Romano-British coin hoard. The function of the leaves is unknown. One theory is that they were a form of ancient “bubble wrap” to keep the coins from “clinking” while they were being carried. Another view is that the leaves could have been aromatic and therefore gave the concealed items a pleasant smell, which makes sense if the coins were a religious offering. But if the coins were instead being secretly buried, that would suggest the leaves acted as a sound barrier so as not to reveal the real contents.

Breakaway Gallic Empire

The 518 coins range in date from 260 to circa 290 A.D. and the assemblage is broadly similar in composition to the many Romano-British coin hoards concealed following formation of the breakaway Gallic Empire. 

This is a modern name for a breakaway part of the Roman Empire that actually functioned as a separate state from 260 to 274. It was established by Emperor Postumus in 260 in the wake of the barbarian invasions and instability in Rome. At its height, its territories included Germania, Gaul, Britannia and for a time, Hispania. Its capital was Trier in Germania. 

Following Postumus’ murder in 268, the Gallic Empire lost much of its territory but continued under a number of emperors and usurpers. Emperor Aurelian, the legitimate ruler of the Central Empire, reconquered it in 274. 

In addition to coins from the Central and Gallic Empires, the hoard contained eight coins of the Britannic Empire. This was a short-lived breakaway state of the Central Empire founded by naval commander Carausius in 286 when he usurped power declaring himself emperor in Britannia (and briefly in Gaul). Allectus, his treasurer, assassinated Carausius in 293 and became usurper-emperor. He was defeated by Constantius in 296 and the territory was reabsorbed into the Central Empire.

All but two of the coins are denominations known today as radiates. 

Originally, radiates were introduced by Emperor Caracalla late in 214 A.D. as a double denarius. They were distinguished from the single silver denarius by the radiate crown (i.e., with beams of light around the head of the emperor), hence modern scholarship calls them radiates as opposed to antoninianus (plural antoninianae), which is the name the Romans gave the denomination. By the middle of the third century, the radiates had driven the denarius out of circulation. 

Furthermore, because of the Roman Empire’s political and economic situation at the time, the radiates were increasingly debased and diminished in size. By the sole reign of Gallienus (260 to 268) they were essentially a bronze denomination with a 1 percent silver content. 

Under the United Kingdom’s Treasure Act of 1996, treasure is defined as two or more coins from the same find, provided they are at least 300 years old when found and contain 10 percent gold or silver. 

However, if the coins contain less than 10 percent gold or silver, there must be at least 10 of them to be judged treasure. It is therefore not surprising that Mark Brickell, the coroner for Herefordshire, declared the hoard treasure on May 11, 2015.  

The Treasure Valuation Committee, following advice from professional numismatists, will now value the coins. 

The committee’s valuation will be shared with the landowners and finders. As The Leominster Museum and the Hereford Museum has expressed an interest in jointly acquiring the hoard for display at Leominster Museum, they will be given several months to raise the money. 

Should they be unable to do so, the coins will be divided between the landowners and the finders. As the hoard is of local interest, fundraising may be successful.

Daw and Fulloway started treasure hunting 10 years ago and this is their biggest find.

Speaking about the moment the discovery was made, Daw said, “My brain said it was a hoard of Roman coins but my heart took a few seconds to catch-up with my brain. We were really happy. Martin was running around in circles for a few minutes. I imagine the feeling is like playing football and scoring the winning goal. It is not so much the value of the hoard — we knew it was bronze or copper — we are not looking at gold and silver or money to retire on. The most magical part for us was being able to touch and look at the coins — the first people for 1,700 years that have done so.” 

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