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.”