The English hoard that has archaeologists excited
- Published: Aug 5, 2016, 7 AM
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 in York.”
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.
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