British Museum blog

From ancient coins, to Medieval gold: public archaeological finds revealed

Michael Lewis, Portable Antiquities Scheme, British Museum
Today, we launched the latest Portable Antiquities and Treasure Annual Report at the British Museum, with the help of Ed Vaizey, Minister for culture, communications and creative industries.

The report outlines the thousands of archaeological objects discovered and reported by members of the public through the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) in 2008 and to mark the occasion we had some of the more important or interesting finds on show.

Late Iron Age coin hoard of 840 gold staters, about AD 15-20.

Late Iron Age coin hoard of 840 gold staters, about AD 15-20. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

Among them was a Late Iron Age coin hoard of 840 gold staters from the Wickham Market area in Suffolk, dating to about AD 15-20. The coins were discovered in March 2008; and more were later found during an excavation of the findspot by Suffolk County Council’s Archaeology Service. It’s the largest hoard of Iron Age gold coins discovered since a similar hoard – the Whaddon Chase Hoard (Buckinghamshire) – was unearthed in 1849.

Unfortunately the Whaddon Chase Hoard was partially dispersed following its discovery, making it difficult to estimate the number of coins found. It is hoped that Colchester and Ipswich Museums will be able to raise the funds to acquire it, which is currently on display in Room 41 at the British Museum.

Roman knife handle from Syston, Lincolnshire.

Roman knife handle from Syston, Lincolnshire. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

Another intriguing find is a Roman knife handle from Syston, Lincolnshire. Its precise date in unknown. It was found by a man named David Barker and depicts an erotic scene involving two males and a female, and a decapitated head.
Only a handful of erotic knife handles are known from Britain, and this is of a new type. The significance of the decapitated head is unclear. The find has been acquired by The Collection, Lincoln.

On 7 August 2008 Darren Hoyle found a Medieval gold locket in Rolleston, Nottinghamshire, which dates to about AD 1450-1500. It has an inscription, which reads cauns [sauns] repentir (without regret), which may have been an amatory phrase. It is closely comparable to a similar object found as part of the Fishpool Hoard (also from Nottinghamshire), in 1966, which is on display in the British Museum.

The Fishpool Hoard is thought to have been deposited in May 1464, during the Wars of the Roses, and it is possible the Rolleston and Fishpool lockets were made by the same workshop. The Rolleston locket has been acquired by the British Museum.

Medieval gold locket found in Rolleston, Nottinghamshire, about  AD 1450-1500

Medieval gold locket found in Rolleston, Nottinghamshire, about AD 1450-1500. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

The PAS was established in 1997 to record archaeological objects found by the public, to coincide with the passing of the Treasure Act 1996, under which finders have a legal obligation to report precious Treasure finds. The British Museum now manages the PAS and administers the Treasure Act.

Since 1997 there has been a significant increase in the reporting of both Treasure and non-Treasure finds. In 2010, 90,146 archaeological objects were recorded through the PAS – a 36% increase on 2009 – and 859 Treasure cases, up 10%. These finds, are important clues for understanding the past, telling us where and how people lived, and what they did. They also offer a tangible link with everyday people, often ignored in written sources.

The finds recorded are of many different types, including flints worked into tools, coins and tokens, pottery, copper-alloy dress accessories (brooches, pins, buckles etc), as well as high-status gold and silver objects. Some are complete, but many are incomplete, broken and/or worn. Even so all have archaeological value.

Group of Early Medieval gold objects from West Yorkshire, about AD 600-1100.

Group of Early Medieval gold objects from West Yorkshire, about AD 600-1100. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

Most importantly, all finds recorded with the PAS have good findspot information. Archaeologists need to know exactly where a find was found to fully unleash its archaeological potential.

Without a findspot, the most spectacular discovery has almost no archaeological value. Conversely, if the findspot is known then it is possible to compare an object with others of that type, to see if there are distribution patterns, or learn more about the area where the find was discovered. Indeed, some common finds can be rare for a particular place, and therefore the findspot is of crucial importance.

A majority of the finds recorded by the PAS or reported Treasure have been found by members of the public; in fact the PAS only records object found by the public, though archaeologists too have a legal obligation to report Treasure.

Most archaeological finds nowadays are found by metal-detectorists, but now and again someone out walking or digging in their garden will make a chance discovery, and should take it to their local museum so it can be recorded with the PAS.

Now the funding of the PAS has been secured for the next four years there is great potential for the Scheme to further advance our knowledge of the past. Over the past few years there have been some amazing finds – such as the Staffordshire Hoard and Frome Hoard – and it is almost certain others will be found before long. But only if the finds are properly recovered and recorded will they have the potential to change the archaeological map of the country…

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  1. Pauline says:

    I find that the gold objects from West yorrkshire very well done, and so fine for this period. Would the gold have come from Wales perhaps?


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