Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Coin hoard buried in fall of Roman Britain estimated at £20,000

A hoard of over 400 silver coins buried during the collapse of Roman rule in Britain is expected to make £20,000 at auction after it was discovered by a metal detectorist.

The coins, found in Norfolk, include a rare commemorative issue depicting a phoenix — a symbol of Roman immortality and renewal — that may have been given to soldiers in 380AD, after the defeat of a Gothic army in the Balkans. By the time the coin was stashed, a generation later, barbarians were threatening Italy and Britain was in disarray.

It was in 2020 that the detectorist, who wishes to remain anonymous, found the first coins of the Colkirk hoard on arable land a few miles outside Fakenham. After hours of searching that produced a medieval halfpenny and a few buttons, he had decided to call it a day. Starting back to his car he found a single siliqua — a late Roman silver coin. Searching the immediate vicinity, he found more of the coins almost at once and had recovered around 40 by the end of the day, from an area of about 20m2.

Roman silver coins of the 4th and early 5th centuries as excavated near Fakenham in Norfolk. Photo: Noonans

The next day he found a similar number of siliquae. Over the next two years, he returned as often as possible, working around Covid lockdowns, to increase the total number of finds to nearly 300, from an area of almost a third of an acre. Late in 2021, an excavation at the site found more coins concentrated together in an area of 1.5 metre radius. No trace of a container was found and experts believe the coins were deposited together loose or in a container made from organic material that subsequently decayed.

Altogether, 432 coins were identified as belonging to the hoard, dating from about the mid 4th century until the early 5th century. Nigel Mills, coin and artefact specialist at Noonans, said: “The hoard is likely to have been deposited at the beginning of the 5th century, with the latest coin of Honorius dating no later than 402. Other Roman treasure finds of gold and silver also from East Anglia such as the Hoxne and Thetford hoards reflect the wealth and importance of the area.”

Significantly, some of the coins were “clipped”, with silver cut from their edges. According to the auctioneers, it is likely that those Roman coins left in circulation after a halt of new shipments were gradually clipped by the Romano-British, with the clippings recycled to produce new, unofficial coins. One coin in the Colkirk hoard, lot 165, purports to be a late 4th-century coin of emperor Arcadius, but is an unofficial issue of this type. It may have been minted shortly after the end of formal Roman control around 410.

Unofficial copy of a late 4th-century coin of emperor Arcadius, possibly minted in Britain after the end of Roman rule. Photo: Noonans

The catalogue notes for the coin, estimated at £60-80, observes: “As such, it could be regarded as one of the earliest medieval coins struck in Britain.”

This suggests that the hoard was buried during or soon after the end of Roman rule when parts of Britain are likely to have been in great turmoil. Other finds made nearby in the 2021 excavation included early Saxon-period brooches. The auctioneers believe it is possible, albeit “highly speculative”, that the activities of Saxons were linked to the Colkirk’s hoard’s burial. As the catalogue states: “Perhaps the depositors of the hoard were fleeing the owners of the brooches!”

Events in early fifth-century Britain remain hotly contested by archaeologists and historians. However, early sources such as the British monk Gildas claim that there was conflict between Romanised Britons and Saxons in eastern Britain around this time. People of Germanic origin had served in the Roman army in Britain and others probably arrived both as mercenaries and settlers after the year 410. Recent studies of DNA show significant migration from the continent, along with subsequent mixing with local Britons.

An extremely rare third-miliarensis coin of Theodosius I depicting a phoenix on a globe and minted at Trier. Photo: Noonans

After the hoard’s discovery, it was recorded with the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme and reported to the coroner as treasure. It has since been returned to the finder, who, in agreement with the landowner, decided to offer it for sale. The first part consists of 73 lots, coming up for auction in a sale of ancient coins and antiquities at Noonans Mayfair today, December 5. These lots are expected to fetch £10,000-12,500. Many of the other coins will be offered for sale by Noonans next spring, taking the complete pre-sale estimate to around £20,000. 

Nigel Mills, of Noonans, said the highlight of the hoard was a coin that appears to have been a presentation piece, issued when the empire’s economic troubles meant soldiers received large chunks of their pay in occasional grand ceremonies.

He explained: “The most interesting coin is an excessively rare presentation silver third-miliarensis issued by Theodosius in 380AD. The coin has on the reverse a phoenix standing on a globe with the legend PERPETVETAS (“perpetuity”). At this time the empire was ruled jointly by Gratian, his half-brother Valentinian II, and Theodosius, so this coin together with a coin of each of the other co-emperors could have provided a donative payment of a miliarensis celebrating a military victory. This coin is only the fifth known specimen (the other four are in museums) so this is the only one available to buy. We expect it to fetch £2,000-2,600.”

A siliqua of Magnus Maximus, an accomplished general who was proclaimed emperor by troops in Britain. Photo: Noonans

Research that will be published in the Numismatic Chronicle suggests this issue may have been struck in the aftermath of a defeat of the Greuthungi Goths by emperor Gratian in 380, in order to meet the financial obligation to his veterans.

Other interesting coins from the hoard include siliquae of Magnus Maximus, a Spanish general who was proclaimed emperor in Britain in 383 and who seized control of large parts of the Western Roman Empire from Gratian before he was defeated by Theodosius I and executed. He was later claimed as an ancestor by many Welsh rulers and celebrated in poetry. Estimates for his siliquae in the sale start at £60-80.

Among lots in the forthcoming Noonans sale that are not from the Colkirk hoard are coins of the usurpers Carausius and Allectus, who, successively, ran a breakaway state in Britain and parts of Gaul in the late 3rd century. One coin, estimated at £700-900, is a denarius of Carausius, struck to the 3.9g silver standard of emperor Augustus, which had long since been abandoned.

The coin also carries the inscription RSR, which has been recognised by historian Guy de la Bédoyère as standing for Redeunt Saturnia Regna (“The kingdom of Saturn returns”). It appears that, through his coinage, Carausius was portraying his reign as a return to higher standards and old Roman traditions after decades of decline and civil war — a new Golden Age.

The image at the top of the article shows a silver coin of emperor Arcadius from the Colkirk hoard immediately after its discovery. Photo: Noonans

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