A semi-retired builder searching for treasure in the east of the English county of Devon struck historical gold after recently uncovering a hidden hoard of around 20,000 coins dating from the Roman occupation of Britain, national newspaper the Daily Mail reports. The collection of coins, believed to be in the value of £100,000 (US $162,440) was chanced upon by builder and amateur metal detecting enthusiast Laurence Egerton in east Devon, an area in south-western England famed for its picturesque moors and fields.
The hoard of Roman money is believed to be one of the largest hauls of historical coinage ever discovered in the U.K. Egerton, aged 51, was in a local field searching for finds with his metal detector when he stumbled across the hoard of copper-alloy coins, possibly low-denomination coinage issued by the Roman Empire for use by their colonists in their northern most province. The Daily Mail reported that Egerton was so concerned about the possibility of his hoard being stolen that he camped out in the field for three nights, guarding the discovery site while archaeologists arrived to explore the site in more detail.
Dubbed the Seaton Down Hoard, the assortment of 22,000 copper-alloy coins may have been the accumulated savings of a private individual keeping the money safe for a ‘rainy day’ or an informal and well-hidden bank of wages perhaps left by a Roman soldier. It is likely the hoarder died or lost track of the burial site leaving the coins to lay unseen for nearly two thousand years. A picture supplied to the Daily Mail by the British Museum and picture agency Apex shows the Seaton Down Hoard contained in a heavy duty plastic box. The coins appear in still good condition despite being buried for two millennia, but all show signs of corrosion, namely a green rust called verdigris, caused by the copper in the coins reacting with moisture and acids from their surroundings. Many of the coins bear the usual emperor’s profile of Roman coinage and some show two standing figures which possibly have allegorical origins. An analysis by local historian Bill Horner determined that the coins dated back to between 260-348 AD and bear portraits of the Roman emperor Constantine, other emperors ruling alongside him, members of his family. Emperors that ruled either side of Constantine’s reign also make an appearance. According to Horner, Britain at that time was in a prosperous financial state with many Romans and natives flush with money. As one of the outermost provinces of the Roman Empire, Britannia, as the Romans knew it, was a relatively safe area at a time when rebellions on the European mainland against Roman colonial rule made matters unstable there. The Roman colonists in Britain escaped the worst of the tensions and maintained their high standards of living, building many luxurious villas in the south of England. However, freedom struggles and numerous invasions and episodes of infighting in the Empire soon brought financial uncertainty to the rich Romans and Romanised Britons of east Devon, who started hoarding as a security measure.
“Romanised farms, or Villas including several in East Devon, were at their richest.
‘But the province was ultimately drawn into Imperial power struggles that, along with increasing attacks from Germanic, Irish and Caledonian tribes, resulted in the rapid decline and end of Roman rule.
‘Coastal areas such as East Devon were on the front-line, and this may be the context for the coin hoard.
‘There were no high street banks, so a good, deep hole in the ground was as secure a place as any to hide your savings in times of trouble, or if you were going away on a long journey.
‘But whoever made this particular deposit never came back to retrieve it” Horner explained.
Believed to have been buried in the 4th century AD, the Seaton Down Hoard is only the third largest such discovery in recent times. In 2010, the Frome Hoard made headlines with its total of 52,503 coins. The second largest was the Nether Compton hoard of 22,703 found in the neighbouring county of Dorset in 1989. Laurence Egerton’s find has been declared ‘treasure trove’ under a Crown law for the protection of British antiquities. A Devon Coroner’s inquest held earlier this month saw the coins donated to the British Museum who are now holding the Seaton Down collection in storage.
A video shot by Egerton shows him wearing gloves and extracting the dirt covered coins from a pit in a muddy field. Despite the muck, archaeologists reckon that his find is one of the best preserved findings of coinage from the last centuries of the Roman Empire in Britain they have ever witnessed. The video later shows archaeologists working on site removing clumps of coins heavily concentrated in a non-descript part of the field.
Interest in the Seaton Down coins, which do not contain any gold or silver, have nevertheless soared between the many museums in Britain concerned with Roman antiquities. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter, the county town (capital) of Devon already houses a formidable collection of Romano-British artefacts from the local area and is eager to acquire the coins, and is running a fundraising campaign to purchase the coins outright from the British Museum to display for the benefit of local historians, researchers and students.
Although only reported this month, Laurence Egerton made the initial discovery in November 2013 after obtaining permission from the landowner of the field in Honeyditches, eastern Devon, where previously the remains of a Roman villa, or country home had been noted. The find was then reported to the landowner, a privately-owned company named Clinton Devon Estates, in accordance with the Treasure Act 1996, a parliamentary legal instrument aimed at safeguarding artefacts of national and historical value.
In an interview with the Daily Mail newspaper, Mr Egerton said: “It’s by far the biggest find I’ve ever had. It really doesn’t get any better than this.
‘Between finding the hoard and the archaeologists excavating the site, I slept in my car alongside it for three nights to guard it.
‘On this occasion, the ground where I was working was quite flinty and I found what I thought were two Roman coins which is actually quite unusual in Devon.
‘As I began working in a grid formation in the surrounding area I had a signal on the metal detector which means that there is probably iron involved.
‘Most detectors are set up to ignore iron but I decided to dig the earth at that spot and immediately reached some iron ingots which were laid directly on top of the coins’
‘The next shovel was full of coins – they just spilled out over the field.“
The coins may have originally being held in a cloth bag at the time of their deposition, but that the ravages of time and chemicals from the nearby soil might have caused the bag to rot away leaving the coins to scatter underground. The find is said to be unusual for the region as the county’s acidic soils would normally decompose any metal left in it, yet the coins are in a remarkable state of preservation.
The United Kingdom, with the exception of Scotland, became part of the Roman Empire in a 55 BC invasion of the area by renowned emperor Julius Caesar, who wrested control from the numerous Celtic tribes previously settled there. Many of the conquered Celts were permitted to continue striking their own coins, which were often modelled on imported Greek coins but made more simplified by the native minters. The Romans began importing their own coinage, mainly to pay Roman soldiers and imperial mercenaries stationed in the UK, and also began minting coins locally and to celebrate their victories in Britain. The gold aureus was used for large payments, but not much for day-to-day transactions. It had a fixed value of 25 denarii until at least 200 AD. The silver denarius was the main coin of value in general circulation. The low value coinage of sestertii, dupondii, and asses was struck variously in bronze, orichalcum and copper. Denarii were paid to soldiers at a rate of one a day, while asses, or aes, were believed to have been used to pay for supplies obtained from local traders by the Romans. However by the time of the Seaton Down Hoard, Roman British coinage had become almost worthless owing to imperial financial mismanagement and debasing of the hard currency.
“Builder unearths vast treasure trove of 22,000 Roman coins worth up to £100,000 – then spends three nights sleeping on site to guard his hoard” – Victoria Woollaston, Mail Online – Science & Tech/Associated Newspapers Ltd (26 September 2014) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2770576/Builder-unearths-vast-treasure-trove-22-000-Roman-coins-spends-three-nights-sleeping-site-guard-hoard.html
“Coinage In Roman Britain The Coinage Of Britain During The Roman Occupation” – Peter R Thompson, The Ormskirk and West Lancashire Numismatic Society http://www.numsoc.net/rombrit.html
Joanne Bailey, Twitter https://twitter.com/JBHist
“Seaton Down Hoard – 22,000 Roman Coins unearthed in Devon” – ClintonDevonEstates, YouTube GB (26 September 2014) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRq0SSgKvwo