Amelia Dowler, Curator of Greek and Roman Provincial Coins, British Museum
In 1908 workmen excavating foundations for a house in Fetter Lane (City of London) found 46 coins in a pot. The Rev’d FD Ringrose purchased the hoard and published an account in 1911 but focussed on describing the coins rather than the circumstances of the find. By the time the coins were bequeathed to the British Museum in 1914, there was no trace of the pot and no description of it either. There is no full account of exactly how the hoard was found and whilst Roman hoards are often uncovered in Britain (for example the Didcot, Hoxne and Beau Street hoards), the Fetter Lane hoard remains something of a mystery.
The Fetter Lane coins were all minted in Alexandria, in Egypt, between AD 58 and AD 284. At this period in the Roman Empire, official coins were produced at centrally controlled mints for use across the empire. However, many other mints also produced civic coins, usually in copper alloys, to be used in the local area. Coins had first been minted in Alexandria under the Ptolemaic dynasty (c.312–30 BC), which continued after Egypt became a Roman province in 30 BC. Unlike in most other provinces, Alexandria was a centrally controlled mint and the coins were initially made of debased silver before declining into a mainly copper alloy coinage. They circulated locally in the eastern Mediterranean and did not form part of the official Roman denomination system.
Coins used in the Roman province of Britannia were from official Roman mints and we know this both from coin finds and from references to coins at the time, such as at Vindolanda. Why then would these Alexandrian coins be brought to Britain where they formed no part of the currency system?
Over the past 200 years or so when unusual coins like these have been found in Britain they have often been dismissed as modern imports, perhaps brought back to the country as souvenirs from the Grand Tour, or by soldiers returning from service. There is a long history of these finds being dismissed, particularly by coin experts in museums and universities. I am compiling a catalogue of this material to look into this question further: are coins from the Mediterranean world (and sometimes further afield) modern losses or did they arrive in Iron Age or Roman times? These are coins – minted between the 5th century BC up to the end of the 3rd century AD – which would not have been part of a currency system in Britain.
This is a particularly relevant question today when the Portable Antiquities Scheme is regularly listing coins with similar origins to the database. The steadily increasing number of ‘foreign’ coins means that it is important to readdress this question rather than dismissing it out of hand. There are examples both of coins being found in known contexts, such as in the Sacred Spring in Bath, and also where we know that coins were modern imports, such as the Alexandrian coins found on the wreck of the HMS Pomone. For the majority of coins however we have no clear information about their findspots.
Where does this leave the Fetter Lane hoard? The fact that the coins were found together is also unusual: when ‘foreign’ coins like these are found they are usually single finds or are a rare foreign inclusion in a group of imperial Roman coins. The coins look in similar condition so it is quite likely that they were a group for some time despite the date range of the coins from AD 58 (during the reign of Nero) to AD 284 (during the reign of Carinus). It is unfortunate that the pot they were found in has been lost, as that might have supplied more information about what period they were deposited. There are a few plausible options to consider.
The coins could have been brought back as a souvenir group from Egypt by a Grand Tourist or by someone, perhaps a soldier, transiting through the Suez Canal. Souvenirs of this sort were fairly common and would have been reasonably cheap to buy locally in Egypt. After this they may have been put into a pot as a foundation deposit for a house in Fetter Lane at some point in the 1800s and were then found in 1908 during further works.
The coins could have been collected together in antiquity and deposited together during the Roman occupation of London (Londinium) after AD 50. From the dates of the coins themselves, this would have to have been after AD 284 when Londinium was a thriving Roman city. But why would this have happened? It is possible that these coins were collected together by a traveller or trader coming to London at this period. We know that the population of Londinium contained many foreigners who arrived during this time so the city was quite well connected to the rest of the Roman world. Perhaps these were kept as a memento of home or travels, or deposited for safe-keeping or as an offering for a safe journey to London.
Another intriguing proposition is that during the 3rd century AD there was a monetary crisis across the Roman Empire and at the turn of the century Roman coinage was reformed. At this point, local coinages ceased, leaving only the official Roman imperial mints producing coins. In Alexandria minting ceased in AD 297, shortly before the official reforms. It is possible that the coins were gathered together and brought westwards to fill gaps in the available currency, officially or unofficially. Or simply that when these coins became defunct they were gathered together to be used as a source of metal or kept by people thinking that one day they could use them again. However, there is no contemporary, corroborating evidence for these proposals other than the fact that there was a monetary crisis and a coinage reform.
Without any further context for the Fetter Lane hoard it is, for the moment at least, likely to remain an intriguing puzzle. By collecting together further evidence across the country, I hope to build up a picture of what kinds of coins arrived in ancient times and which arrived more recently.
The Fetter Lane hoard is currently on display in the Citi Money Gallery.
The Citi Money Gallery is supported by Citi.
FD Ringrose (1911) ‘Finds of Alexandrian Coins in London’ The Numismatic Chronicle (4th series) vol. 11, pp. 357–8