British Museum blog

A hoard from the dawn of Roman Britain

Coin from the hoardEleanor Ghey, curator, British Museum

Sometimes as curators we are lucky enough to be brought the most amazing new finds that through careful study can offer a tantalising glimpse into the ancient past. One such discovery that sheds light on the earliest years of Roman Britain is now on display in the Citi Money Gallery.

Coins from the hoard on display.

Coins from the hoard on display.

In 2010 metal-detector user Jason Hemmings found – in a field in Dorset, southern England – what at first glance seemed to be just a handful of Roman and Iron Age coins. When he reported them to the Portable Antiquities Scheme it soon became apparent he had a hoard that can be closely linked to the years following the Roman conquest of AD 43.

It is a mixed sample of the different coins in use in Britain during these turbulent years. It contains worn silver Roman republican coins that had been in circulation in the Roman Empire for around 150 years and were also valued by local people as a source of silver. There were a few Iron Age staters, base silver coins issued by the native inhabitants of Dorset before the Roman conquest. Finally, and most significantly, there were copper alloy coins of the emperor Claudius issued between AD 41 and 50.

Coin of Emperor Claudius, Roman Imperial, AD 41-50

Coin of Emperor Claudius, Roman Imperial, AD 41-50

Official issues of the emperor Claudius are rare in Britain, although they were later copied in large numbers, probably to meet a shortage of supply. Two of the coins from this hoard are stamped with an official mark of approval found only in Rome and Britain. It is thought that these coins were produced in Rome in order to supply the invading army with useful currency whilst on campaign in Britain and may have even arrived with them. So they are likely to be close in date to the conquest of Britain in AD 43.

If this hoard belonged to a soldier, we can assume he was of lower rank, probably a legionary. At this time a legionary would have received an annual salary of 225 denarii. The hoard represents 4.25 denarii. A hoard of 34 Roman gold coins buried at Bredgar in Kent during the Claudian invasion – a vast amount of money more likely to have belonged to a high-ranking officer – is on display in Room 49. It is easier to imagine these coins from Dorset as the sort of sum carried by an individual: one of the lowest value Roman coins in the hoard would have bought two small sausages in ancient Pompeii!

Roman Republican coin, 100 BC

Roman Republican coin, 100 BC

So how did these coins get into the ground in Dorset? It could be that we are seeing the contents of a purse lost by a Roman soldier as the famous Legio II Augusta advanced through the county in the years immediately following the conquest (under the command of the future emperor Vespasian). Alternatively, the coins could have found their way into local hands, which might explain the presence of local issues alongside Roman ones.

The question of how and why coin hoards were buried in the Roman period is currently being investigated in a new AHRC-funded research project by the British Museum and Leicester University. It will study the large number of hoards now known from Roman Britain (about 2,700) with a view to understanding the circumstances of their burial and what changing patterns of hoarding behaviour tell us about the economy and society of the time.

Coin of Emperor Tiberius, Roman Imperial, AD 14-37

Coin of Emperor Tiberius, Roman Imperial, AD 14-37

For now, we can only speculate as to why these coins ended up where they did; while being grateful, of course, that some 2,000 years later we have the opportunity to try and tell their story.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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Filed under: Archaeology, At the Museum, Money Gallery, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, , , , ,

Roald Dahl and the Mildenhall treasure


Richard Hobbs, curator, British Museum

My first encounter with the Mildenhall treasure was back in 1977 when I was eight years old. I received a copy of the new Roald Dahl book, an author of whom, like many children of my generation, I was a huge fan. ‘The Wonderful story of Henry Sugar and six more’ was a collection of short stories (I still have it; perhaps it’s worth something, as a first edition) which bear more relation with Dahl’s rather macabre tales aimed at adults than the timeless classics for children such as ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ or ‘James and the Giant Peach’. Henry Sugar is a story about a man who discovers the ability to see through playing cards, and uses his gift to win vast sums of money in casinos. After the buzz of winning wears off, he starts to use his newly found wealth for acts of philanthropy: first giving his money away to random strangers (the cover depicts Sugar throwing wads of £20 notes out of a high storey window), then building orphanages.

The Mildenhall treasure is one of the most important collections of late-Roman silver tableware from the Roman Empire.

The Mildenhall treasure is one of the most important collections of late-Roman silver tableware from the Roman Empire.

But I was more drawn to one of the other stories in the collection, simply entitled ‘The Mildenhall treasure’, and about a rather different type of discovery, the discovery of treasure: one of the few stories of Dahl’s career as a writer he based on real events.

As Dahl explains in his preface, he decided to re-publish the story, with a few tweaks, because this was not the first time the story had an airing. In fact, ‘The Mildenhall treasure’ (then entitled ‘He plowed [sic] up $1,000,000’) was one of the first pieces of journalism he ever sold as a fledgling writer in the immediate post-war years – Dahl was a fighter pilot in the RAF – to an American magazine called ‘The Saturday Evening Post’. In both versions Dahl creates a narrative around the discovery of the hoard of late Roman silver in the winter of 1942 at the height of the Second World War by local farmer, Gordon Butcher, subsequently excavated by Butcher and his boss Sidney Ford. (The story was republished for a third time in 1999, this time as a stand-alone book with illustrations by Ralph Steadman).

Dahl’s story stayed with me, and in the late 1980s when I was studying for an archaeology degree at University College London, I recalled Dahl’s story when the Mildenhall treasure was mentioned during a lecture on the archaeology of the later Roman Empire, taught by the legendary Richard Reece. Richard also alluded to a conspiracy theory surrounding the discovery of the treasure, saying that many believed it had been flown in to the military airbase at Mildenhall from somewhere in the Mediterranean, perhaps North Africa. I remember saying to him: ‘But what about Roald Dahl’s story? Surely that describes very plausibly how it was discovered?’, or words to that effect. My comment was met with a blank look. It only occurred to me afterwards that Richard had never come across Dahl’s ‘account’: it was, after all, published in a book for children.

The Great dish from the Mildenhall treasure.

The Great dish from the Mildenhall treasure.

Of course, staff at the British Museum knew the story very well, having been contacted about it by countless school children over the years. Indeed to this day many children, having read the story, are drawn to the Roman Britain gallery to see the treasure for themselves. But how valuable is Dahl’s account? Although his intention was first and foremost to tell a good yarn, it is not without worth to archaeologists seeking the ‘truth’ about the discovery. This is because it was based on what may have been the only interview with Gordon Butcher, the original finder of the treasure. As Dahl explains in his preface, he drove to Mildenhall having read about the discovery in the Times, persuaded Gordon Butcher to talk to him, faithfully noted down everything Butcher said, and, in Dahl’s own words, ‘wrote the story as truthfully as I possibly could’.

Having successfully sold it to the American magazine, he shared the fee he received with Butcher who sent Dahl a note saying ‘you could have knocked me over with a feather when I saw your cheque’. But because Butcher’s boss Sidney Ford, not Butcher, took the treasure home, after the treasure emerged from hiding in 1946 the focus shifted to Ford, and Butcher’s part in the whole affair was rather overlooked. It appears that no-one, particularly the archaeologists who investigated the circumstances surrounding the discovery, thought to ask Butcher what he recalled of the moment when his plough struck something in the ground – no-one except Roald Dahl.

Dahl himself came to see the treasure in 1946 when it was first put on display. Of the experience, he writes: ‘It was fabulous. I got the shivers… just from looking at it.’ He was not the first to be affected in this way and certainly not the last – myself included.

Richard Hobbs is curator of Romano-British collections and is currently on a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship to publish the Mildenhall treasure

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Filed under: Archaeology, Mildenhall treasure, Research, , ,

Finishing a 3D, 2,000 year-old Roman jigsaw puzzle: the Hallaton helmet unveiled


JD Hill, British Museum

This morning a rare and extraordinary Roman helmet was shown in public for the first time since it was buried 2,000 years ago. A decade after its discovery in Leicestershire, the painstaking process of reconstruction, and conservation is complete and it is ready to go on display at Harborough Museum.

The helmet after conservation

The helmet after conservation

Still in the soil block in which it was found, the fragile helmet was brought to the British Museum where initial study in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research revealed a much more complex assemblage than had been expected.

The block that the helmet pieces have been extracted from

The block that the helmet pieces have been extracted from

British Museum conservator Marilyn Hockey, and colleagues Fleur Shearman and Duygu Camurcuoglu undertook the micro-excavation, stabilisation and reconstruction of the hundreds of fragments – a task described as being like a 3D jigsaw puzzle. Thanks to this process we know the helmet was probably made between AD 25 and AD 50 and that it was crafted from sheet iron, covered with silver sheet and decorated in places with gold leaf.

A reconstruction drawing of how the helmet might have originally looked. Illustration by Bob Whale

A reconstruction drawing of how the helmet might have originally looked. Illustration by Bob Whale

This decoration features a wreath, the symbol of a military victory, and a scallop-shaped browguard, which shows the bust of a woman flanked by animals. The cheekpieces depict a Roman emperor on horseback with the goddess Victory flying behind and, beneath his horse’s hooves, a cowering figure (possibly a native Briton).

Clearly, such an object would not have been cheap to produce, so we can say with some certainty that it was the property of someone very important, perhaps a high-ranking Roman officer.

 


 

It was found by members of the Hallaton Fieldwork Group and professional archaeologists from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services and caused quite a stir at the time. The original finders joked that they’d discovered a “rusty bucket”, but in fact they’d got one of the earliest Roman helmets found in Britain, believed to have been buried in the years around the Roman Emperor Claudius’ invasion of AD 43.

But that wasn’t all they’d found. Some 5,296 Iron Age and Roman coins were also unearthed, most of them locally-made and dating to about AD 20/30-50. That’s almost 10 percent of all known surviving British Iron Age coins – and the largest number of Iron Age coins ever excavated in Britain – found at this one site.

Most of the hoards included Iron Age silver coins, as well as a small number of Iron Age gold and Roman silver coins

Most of the hoards included Iron Age silver coins, as well as a small number of Iron Age gold and Roman silver coins

Add to that, evidence suggestive of ritual feasting dating back to the first century AD and the significance of this discovery really begins to emerge.

Collectively these finds became known as the Hallaton Treasure and were acquired by Leicestershire County Council with help from a large number of funding bodies, organisations and institutions.

But why was it buried in east Leicestershire (very likely by the hands of native Britons)? The answer is; we just don’t know. But there are a number of theories.

Perhaps it was actually owned by an important local man who served in the Roman cavalry before or during the Roman conquest. He might have chosen to bury his highly-prized helmet at his local shrine as a gift to the gods on his return home.

Or, perhaps it was a diplomatic gift to a supportive local population. It has also been suggested that it was spoil of war, or captured during a battle or a raid.

British Museum conservator, Marilyn Hockey with the helmet

British Museum conservator, Marilyn Hockey with the helmet

We may never know for sure why this amazing collection of objects ended up buried in the east Midlands, but it certainly speaks of a fascinating moment in the history of this part of the world and, in its current state, the skill and dedication of conservators, scientists, archaeologists and curators here at the British Museum and in Leicestershire.

As for the helmet, if you ask me it will become a new iconic object of the Roman conquest. Future books and TV programmes about this momentous event will have to feature it. That’s the sort of key find this is.

The Hallaton Helmet will be displayed permanently at Harborough Museum, Market Harborough, Leicestershire from Saturday 28 January alongside the other finds from the Hallaton Treasure. The helmet will not be on display at the British Museum.

Find out more about the Hallaton Treasure

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Filed under: Archaeology, At the Museum, Conservation, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, Research, , , ,

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