York is a gem of a city in England’s north that is steeped in
history. It has retained so many of its medieval buildings and narrow
winding thoroughfares that visiting is like walking around in a living
museum. Founded by the Romans in 71 A.D. as Eboracum, the city also
has a Viking heritage and the ambience of the Middle Ages, all open to
today’s visitors to explore and embrace.
Many years ago it was rumored that, as York was so full of material
of interest to archaeologists, the public utilities would only dig up
the streets at night, so as not to have to halt work in progress. In
more enlightened times this is not the case.
However, it is not just the city that is a dream for historians. Its
environs have also proved to be a treasure house.
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During 2007, in a field between York and Harrogate, 617 coins and 67
silver objects were found in a “sheet” of lead. Now known as The Vale
of York Hoard, it is the largest Viking discovery in recent times that
has been acquired in its entirety by a museum. It was valued at just
over £1 million.
However, an even larger hoard is now reported, exciting archaeologists.
Metal detectorist finds
On Sept. 21, 2014, David Blakey, a semi-retired lab technician and
amateur treasure seeker, was using his metal detector with the Dunelm
Metal Detector Club in a farmer’s field near the village of Wold
Newton, East Yorkshire.
The club had visited the area for the last six years and had found
the odd Roman coin and medieval object. On this occasion, Blakey’s
detector uttered a loud warning that metal was underfoot. His fellow
treasure seekers shouted encouragement, “Keep digging — it could be a hoard!”
Of course. Or it may have been only a piece of scrap metal that had
been covered by soil generations ago.
At nearly a meter, Blakey discovered the top of a ceramic pot. As it
later transpired, the pot contained 1,857 Roman copper coins known as
nummi (singular nummus), the largest and most important Roman hoard to
be found in the region.
Blakey, with some effort and assisted by fellow club members,
managed to lift the pot from the ground. They resisted the temptation
to empty it out, instead reporting the discovery to the local Finds
Liaison Officer, who works as part of the national Portable
Antiquities Scheme to record such finds made by members of the public.
The hoard’s discovery was only made public at the end of July 2016.
The contents of the pot was roughly equivalent to a Roman
legionary’s annual salary, three year’s salary for a carpenter, or six
years for a farm laborer. It could have bought 700 chickens, 2,000 of
the finest fish or 11,000 pints of ale. Handing over the pot intact
meant that archaeologists had the rare opportunity to excavate the
different layers to see how the coins were added to the vessel.
Insect remains attached to some of the coins also offered another
way of dating the contents.
The hoard represents an evocative illustration of the power politics
at the time, as the coins were issued by several co-emperors all
jockeying for ultimate power.
Andrew Woods, curator of numismatics at the Yorkshire Museum,
commented: “The discovery of the Wold Newton hoard has the potential
to reveal a huge amount about a crucial period of history. Buried in
307, the latest dating of coins in the hoard, it will provide new
insights into the rise of who became Constantine the Great and the
reshaping of the Western Roman Empire. From a local perspective, it
will help us to better understand how these huge changes affected life
in the farthest reaches of the Empire.”
In 305 A.D., the Roman Emperor Constantius led his second campaign
in Britain. His son Constantine accompanied him. Early in 306 the
Romans defeated the Picts in northern Britain. York was one of the
regional capitals in the Roman province of Britain and its legionary
fortress was the headquarters of the northern military command.
When the emperor was in the north of Britain, the city also became
the seat of the Imperial Court. On July 25, 306, Constantius died in
York. At this time, sons did not automatically succeed their fathers
to such positions of power, but on this occasion the late emperor’s
loyal troops proclaimed his son Constantine his successor. Constantine
reigned until his death in 337.
Elizabeth Hartley, who curated the Museum’s 2006 Constantine the
Great exhibition, explained, “The story of Constantine the Great began
She is emphatic that had Constantine not been with his father when
he died, “he would not have been handed the greatest prize — the right
of succession to his father’s title.”
When his father was appointed caesar in 293, which was a junior
member in the imperial college, Constantine was ensured a place at the
imperial court. However, he did not join his father’s court at Trier,
but that of the senior emperor, Diocletian, which was based
principally at Nicomedia in Asia Minor. There he received training for
high office, learning the skills of both statesman and soldier. He was
therefore well placed to step into his father’s shoes.
Being groomed for the position is one thing, but how did Constantine
earn the title “Great?”
Dr. Christopher Kelly, a leading expert based at Cambridge
University, says there are three main reasons.
“After nearly 80 years and three generations of political
fragmentation, Constantine united the whole of the Roman Empire under
one ruler,” he said. “He was responsible for restoring stability and
security to the Roman world. Constantine also abandoned Rome as the
most important city in the Empire. He built a new capital at
Constantinople — now modern Istanbul. In the next two centuries Rome
and Italy became vulnerable to barbarian invasions. The much more
easily defensible Constantinople (renamed Byzantium) lasted for
another 1000 years. But it was Constantine’s strong support for
Christianity that arguably had the greatest impact on European history.”
So why does the Yorkshire Museum want to raise £44,000 so that the
hoard can be displayed in York?
Woods explained, “It contains coins minted in York from the time of
Constantius who died in the city and then the first to feature
Constantine rising to power. This was a pivotal moment in York’s
history, but also the history of the Western World. We hope to now
save the hoard to make sure it stays in Yorkshire for the public to
enjoy, but also so we can learn more about this fascinating period as
well as why it was buried and to whom it might have belonged.”
The hoard will be displayed at the Yorkshire Museum until Oct. 9.
The museum has up until that date to raise the money.
To make a donation via Paypal, send payment via email.
Donations are also accepted by cash or check in person at the
Yorkshire Museum. Checks in sterling can be posted to the following
address: Accounts Department, York Museums Trust, St. Mary’s Lodge,
Marygate, York, YO30 7DR. Make check payable to York Museums Trust.