British Museum blog

The Beau Street Hoard: excavating Roman treasure, one coin at a time


Julia Tubman, conservator, British Museum

In November 2007, during a routine archaeological excavation in advance of building work in Beau Street, Bath (a stone’s throw from the famous Roman Baths themselves), archaeologists came upon what was clearly a very large number of coins contained within a cist (a stone-lined box). Upon further excavation, they quickly came to realise they were looking at one of the largest coin hoards found in the UK, representing quite a tumultuous time in Roman Britain – about AD 270.

Some of the coins from the hoard during the initial excavation © Cotswold Archaeology

Some of the coins from the hoard during the initial excavation © Cotswold Archaeology

When groups of coins that appear to be over 300 years old are found, they must be reported to the local coroner (according to the Treasure Act 1996). The coins enter what we call the ‘Treasure Process’ where, if necessary for identification, they will be cleaned in preparation for their formal declaration as Treasure and the property of the Crown, or eventual valuation. Usually this occurs at the British Museum, or in the case of Welsh Treasure cases, the National Museum of Wales.

The hoard was lifted in a single soil block © Cotswold Archaeology

The hoard was lifted in a single soil block © Cotswold Archaeology

In order to preserve its shape and context, the archaeologists cut around the hoard and lifted it in a soil block. As a metals conservator at the British Museum, my job is to excavate the coins from the soil and clean them up. The initial excavation should take about six weeks and during that time I will be regularly adding to this blog with updates of my work as it progresses. Colleagues from curatorial departments and our science team who are involved with the project will also contribute as the hoard gradually reveals its story.

The hoard in its soil block when it arrived in the conservation lab at the British Museum

The hoard in its soil block when it arrived in the conservation lab at the British Museum

The coins are currently held together by soil and metallic corrosion. They are blue and green in colour indicating the corrosion of a copper metal, which would have been used as a base alloy for the coins. Interestingly, within this copper corrosion is actually a layer of silver that was plated over the copper during the manufacture of the coins.

The coins have also maintained the shape of the cist they were contained within, as the soil and corrosion has concreted together. Looking more closely, we can even see that there are groups of coins within the hoard; which is because this large hoard appears to be composed of six individual smaller hoards.

We had an idea that this could be the case because in December last year Dr. Mavrogordato, from the Imaging Centre in the University of Southampton’s Department of Engineering Sciences, kindly took x-rays of the block. The resulting images show what look to be ‘bags’ of coins. We don’t know whether the bags themselves have survived (they could have been made of an organic material such as textile or leather), but the corroded coins have kept the shape of their containers and I will be looking for evidence of them.

The cleaning process is fine and detailed work

The cleaning process is fine and detailed work

As my job will involve excavating the hoard, knowing that there are individual bags of coins gives me a very good starting point as it means I can deconstruct the soil block bag by bag. It will be very interesting to see if the coins were bagged together for a particular reason; for example, if they were grouped by emperor or denomination.

I’ve cleaned a few loose coins already and, after stripping away the copper corrosion, I’ve found some very impressive silver surfaces (nicer than we had previously hoped!) Given the large number of coins in the soil block, I’m hoping to be able to clean as many coins as possible using chemicals such as formic acid, rather than by hand using a scalpel. I have 18 months to complete this project, so time is of the essence.

The hoard in May 2012 in the conservation lab, excavation underway.

The hoard in May 2012 in the conservation lab, excavation underway.

Initial estimates put the number of coins at around 30,000. After having excavated the block a little since then, guesses about the maximum number of coins in the hoard have decreased and estimates vary between everyone looking at it. Readers of the blog are welcome to suggest their own figures – I say no more than 22,000 coins, what do you think?

Removing the tough shell of the copper corrosion layer is important not just to find shiny surfaces but also to find the detail on the coins needed for identification by my colleagues in the Coins and Medals department, Eleanor Ghey and Richard Abdy (who will be blogging about the significance of the find next week). At this early stage in the project, I’m only cleaning the coins so that they can be identified: I’m not cleaning them for display, by completely removing all the corrosion or soil; that would require more time.

Some of the coins after being cleaned

Some of the coins after being cleaned

When looking at Roman coins, specialists will be hoping to identify features on the ‘obverse’ (side bearing the bust of an emperor or an important relative) and the ‘reverse’ (side bearing representations of deities, animals, and other important Roman symbols). The subjects depicted on Roman coins varied according to emperor and coins of more than one emperor could be in circulation at any given time. On both sides, revealing enough of the ‘legend’ (the writing around the edge of the coin) is important, especially where the figure in the centre is very corroded or worn. Eleanor and Richard will also be looking closely for any mint marks on the coins (usually on the reverse) which indicate where in the empire the coin was struck, so I’ll have to be very careful when cleaning to reveal as much detail as possible.

Coins identified thus far have shown a real mix of the many Roman emperors of the third century AD (it was such a politically unstable time that many of them only got to reign a few years): Septimius Severus (AD 193-211), Gordian III (AD 238-249), Philip I (AD 244-249), Decius (AD 249-251), Trebonianus Gallus (AD 251-253), Aemilian (AD 253), Valerian I (AD 253-260), Gallienus (AD 253-268) and Postumus (AD 260- 268).

The Roman Baths Museum hopes to purchase the hoard and eventually display it to the public. It’s fantastic to know where the hoard might ultimately end up, and I’m working closely with curator Stephen Clews at the Roman Baths.

Find out more about the Beau Street hoard and the Roman Baths Museum fund-raising campaign.

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Filed under: Archaeology, Beau Street Hoard, Conservation, , , , ,

Pinning it down: the installation of the Money Gallery


Amanda Gregory, Senior Museum Assistant, British Museum

I manage the team of four Museum Assistants in the Department of Coins and Medals, and we are responsible for all aspects of practical collections care, which includes exhibition installation, loans, gallery maintenance, documentation and supervision of the Study Room, where any interested visitor can examine objects from our collection of over one million coins, medals, banknotes, badges and tokens.

The Citi Money Gallery installation is by far the biggest project I have ever dealt with, and one of the biggest challenges has been the schedule. In any gallery refurbishment, the objects are always installed last, after all the building, decoration and case refurbishment has been completed. This is to ensure that our collection material, particularly sensitive metal, is not adversely affected by fumes given off by paints and varnishes, a process known as “off-gassing”. The opening date is fixed, so if the initial building works overrun, the period we have to install the objects is squeezed.

Some money boxes ready to be installed in the gallery

Some money boxes ready to be installed in the gallery

We begin installing the first of over a thousand objects this week, and have three weeks to complete the task. In the meantime we have been laying out all of the panels for the wall cases and pinning the objects. As we have 48 panels to pin in a small department overflowing with numismatists, horizontal surfaces are at a premium.

Underwear with a concealed pocket to store cash

Underwear with a concealed pocket to store cash

As well as familiar objects like coins, medals, banknotes and tokens, we have had to tackle more unusual items such as a Barbie cash register, a beer-can shaped money box, and perhaps the most bizarre of all, a pair of lacy ladies’ pants with a concealed pocket to store cash. My colleague Henry nobly took up the challenge of pinning this item, which inevitably made him the butt of many lame jokes. Moments of levity like this, together with the plentiful supply of home-baked cake provided by a kindly curatorial colleague, have kept our spirits up during this challenging time.

The Money Gallery project is supported by Citi and opens in June 2012.

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Filed under: Collection, Money Gallery, ,

Making a new Money gallery at the British Museum

Catherine Eagleton, British Museum

Chinese Ming banknote, AD 1375

Chinese Ming banknote, AD 1375

The Money gallery at the British Museum opened 14 years ago, and was at the time a new way of displaying coins and medals. It represented a new way of thinking about the history of money, and changed the way museums around the world told this global story.

Now, a new partnership between Citi and the British Museum means we are able to redisplay the gallery, make changes to the design and content of the displays, and take advantage of new knowledge and new ideas in museology and monetary history.

We will be building on the results of an evaluation of the current Money gallery that has been done over the past few years. This gives us some clear pointers for how it can be clarified and updated, and we have already started a programme of consultation with key audiences to find out what they would like to see the new gallery containing, and what questions they have about money and its history.

Penny defaced by suffragettes, AD 1903. Crown copyright

Penny defaced by suffragettes, AD 1903. Crown copyright

The gallery will use money as a lens through which to look at the history of the world, as well as showing the different forms and functions money has taken and had around the world in the last 3,000 years or so. The challenge for me as the lead curator on the project is to work out how to edit a complex global story down so that it can be told in a single room. But here I am lucky to be able to draw on the expertise of my subject-specialist colleagues.

Gold coin of Abd al-Malik, probably made in Syria, AH 77 / AD 696-7

Gold coin of Abd al-Malik, probably made in Syria, AH 77 / AD 696-7

Throughout the coming year, members of the project team will be tracking the progress of this exciting project, here on the blog, right up to the opening in June 2012.

I’ll post something about once a month and, in between, there will be contributions from other people on how the project looks from their point of view.

We will be writing about (among other things) evaluation, object selection, text writing, design, conservation, and the tricky business of how you remove thousands of small objects from display and keep track of where they all are while the gallery works are in progress in the first few months of 2012.

The Money Gallery project is supported by Citi and opens in June 2012.

Filed under: Collection, Money Gallery, , , , ,

Unearthing the story of the Hackney Hoard

Ian Richardson, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, British Museum

Ian Richardson holds up one of the gold coins. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

Ian Richardson holds up one of the gold coins. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

On 18 April 2011, the Coroner for Inner St Pancras (London) concluded an inquest into the ‘Hackney Hoard‘ of 80 gold American double eagle coins.

The coins had been found buried in a residential back garden and it was for the coroner to decide if they qualified as ‘Treasure‘ and were the property of the Crown.

As a group of precious metal objects deliberately hidden with the intention of being recovered at a later date, the coins met most of the criteria for Treasure, but in a surprise twist, the family of the original owner of the coins came forward to claim them successfully.

The coins were minted between 1854 and 1913. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

The coins were minted between 1854 and 1913. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

The court heard how Mr Martin Sulzbacher, a German Jew, had fled Nazi Germany with his wealth and settled in London in 1938.

When Mr Sulzbacher was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ in 1940 and sent to Australia, his family, fearing an imminent German invasion of Britain, buried his coins in the back garden of their Hackney property. Tragically, they perished in the Blitz and the property was destroyed.

When Mr Sulzbacher was allowed to return home, he was unable to locate the coins amid the rubble and destruction. 70 years later, they were found by accident as the residents dug a frog pond for their garden.

The coins were found wrapped in greaseproof paper, in a jar. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

The coins were found wrapped in greaseproof paper, in a jar. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

Mr Sulzbacher passed away in 1981 but his surviving relations were made aware of this recent discovery, and came forward to claim the coins. The coroner determined that the coins were not Treasure because the Sulzbacher family had sufficiently supported their claim. The Sulzbachers graciously gave permission for the coins to be displayed at the British Museum for a week following the inquest.

But how did the British Museum become involved in this historical mystery in the first place?

The answer lies with one of the newest and smallest departments in the Museum, Portable Antiquities and Treasure. The coins of the Hackney Hoard had been discovered by residents who reported them to an archaeologist working for the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS).

The entire hoard. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

The entire hoard. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

The PAS is a network of specialists called Finds Liaison Officers (FLOs) based at museums and universities throughout England and Wales who record finds of archaeological objects made by individuals in those countries.

The Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure coordinates the PAS and runs the online database where this information is stored and made accessible to researchers, students, and the general public. The department also performs much of the administration of the Treasure Act 1996 by keeping a registry of all the finds of potential Treasure made every year, and helping to ensure that the most important of those finds are acquired by public museums.

Each coin is a $20, known as a 'Double-Eagle'. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

Each coin is a $20, known as a 'Double-Eagle'. © Portable Antiquities Scheme

In the case of the Hackney Hoard, the Finds Liaison Officer to whom the discovery was reported worked with the Department of Coins and Medals to write a report on the coins for the coroner, and produced the information for the database record.

The hoard is a totally fascinating find. Most of the finds recorded by the PAS (over 90,000 last year) and reported as potential Treasure (850 last year) are older than 300 years old, and represent a vast array of object types and coins from prehistoric times through the period of Romano-British settlement and into the middle ages.

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Filed under: Archaeology, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, , , ,

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This is Room 56, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC. It's the next in our gallery series for #MuseumOfTheFuture. Between 6000 and 1550 BC, Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (now Iraq, north-east Syria and part of south-east Turkey) witnessed crucial advancements in the development of human civilisation during the evolution from small agricultural settlements to large cities.
Objects on display in Room 56 illustrate economic success based on agriculture, the invention of writing, developments in technology and artistry, and other achievements of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians, who lived in Mesopotamia at this time.
Objects found at the Royal Cemetery at Ur are of particular importance, and you can see the Royal Game of Ur in the foreground of this picture – the oldest board game in the world. Our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery space is Room 55, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC. The civilisations of Babylonia and Assyria flourished during the first millennium BC. Political developments resulted in the incorporation of the entire Near East into a single empire, while increased international contact and trade influenced the material culture of the region.
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'Boundary Stones' carved with images of kings and symbols of the gods record royal land grants. The development of the Assyrian state and empire, until its fall in 612 BC, is illustrated by objects excavated in its palaces. Mesopotamia’s highly developed literature and learning are demonstrated by clay tablets from the library of King Ashurbanipal (r. 668–631 BC) at Nineveh, written in cuneiform script. It's time for Room 54 in our #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery series – the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Anatolia and Urartu 7000–300 BC. Ancient Anatolia and Urartu form an important land link between Europe and Asia and lie where the modern Republic of Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and north-west Iran are located today. Objects in Room 54 show different cultures from prehistoric to Hellenistic times.
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