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The Frome Hoard – The largest pot of Roman coins ever found in Britain

Sam Moorhead
Silver siliqua of Gratian (AD 367-83) found by Dave Crisp © Somerset County Council

Silver siliqua of Gratian (AD 367-83)  © Somerset County CouncilIn April 2010, Dave Crisp started to find some late Roman silver coins scattered across a field near Frome – these 62 coins represent a scattered hoard, probably from the same find as 111 similar coins found on the farm in 1867.

However, in pursuit of these coins he had an unusual signal.  He dug down 18 inches to find some pottery and coins; he realised that this was the top of a coin hoard so he stopped and filled the hole in.  This was incredibly responsible behaviour that cannot be praised enough.

Dave immediately contacted his Finds Liaison Officer in Wiltshire, Katie Hinds, who then contacted her opposite number in Somerset, Anna Booth.  Somerset County Heritage Service quickly organised for a local archaeologist, Alan Graham, to lead on the excavation of the hoard.  Between April 23rd and 25th, Alan, the FLOs, Dave Crisp and members of the landowner’s family excavated the hoard.  I first heard about the hoard during the excavation, when Katie Hinds informed me that the pot was about 25 inches in diameter – it was then that we realised that this hoard was comparable with the Cunetio hoard of 54,951 coins (found in Wiltshire in 1978).

The Frome hoard half way through excavation © Somerset County Council

The Frome hoard half way through excavation © Somerset County Council

There was a major debate over the phone on how to remove the hoard.  The pot was already broken and it would have been extremely expensive and time-consuming to extract the hoard intact.  Instead, Alan had the pot excavated in layers, enabling us to reconstruct the spatial composition of the hoard – 66 labelled bags of coins were collected.

On April 26th, Roger and I drove down to collect the coins.  There was certainly a tear in the eyes of the Somerset team as they watched my car leave.  We still had no idea how large the hoard was, but when we reached the British Museum I realised how down on the rear axle my car was.  Next morning we weighed the coins – there was about 160kg of metal, the weight of two average-sized people!

It was quickly decided that the coins should be washed and dried so as to stabilise them.  This work was carried out by the Dept of Conservation under the direction of Metals Conservator Pippa Pearce – she completed the task in six weeks, surely a record. However, the coins will still need full conservation, for which we are raising extra funds.  As the coins came from Pippa, Roger and I started to sort each bag, creating an overall listing by emperor.  This took us just over two months. The listing is as follows;

The coins range from c. AD 253 to c. 293 and except for five silver coins are all base-silver or bronze ‘radiate’ coins.  There were struck at a time of high inflation when the empire was being torn apart by barbarian invasions and civil wars.  Over 760 of the coins belong to the emperor Carausius, a general in the Roman army who usurped against the Central Empire – he set up his own empire in northern Gaul and Britain, striking coins at Rouen, London and an unidentified mint we call ‘C Mint’.  This group of coins represents the largest ever known group of Carausian coins found anywhere.  Amongst them are five of the finest silver denarii ever seen and other rare coins; I eagerly await seeing all of his coins after conservation.  What is certain is that the hoard will shed new light on Britain’s ‘forgotten emperor’.

A silver denarius of Carausius (AD 286-93), apparently showing the emperor riding into London, his capital.

A silver denarius of Carausius (AD 286-93), apparently showing the emperor riding into London, his capital.

Because the coins were excavated by layer, we know that most of the latest coins (those of Carausius) were positioned over half-way down the pot.  This tells us that the hoard was almost certainly buried in one event.  The pot could not have held 160kg of metal without breaking, so it had to be buried in the ground before the coins were tipped in from smaller containers.  The top of the pot was sealed with a small pottery dish before the whole hoard was buried.  To recover the coins would have been a lengthy and difficult process.  These factors lead us to suggest that the hoard represents a ritual deposit to the gods, possibly to help the local farming community.  The hoard was buried on the edge of a ridge and it is probable that the ground was waterlogged in antiquity – both factors consistent with religious sites in ancient Britain.

The hoard was declared ‘Treasure’ at a Coroner’s Inquest in From on July 22nd.  News of the hoard was published in the press and broadcast worldwide on radio and TV.  Dan Pett produced a micro-site for the hoard on the Portable Antiquities Scheme website (http://finds.org.uk/blogs/fromehoard/) and this has been the source for numerous other web articles.  An event in Frome Library on July 22nd attracted over 2,000 people and two schools; further events are planned for the autumn.

In July, Anna Booth, Roger and I started to write a book on the hoard which is being published on September 30th by the British Museum Press with wonderful support from Butler Tanner and Dennis in Frome.  Proceeds from the book will go towards funding conservation of the hoard – we need £30,000 – and acquisition by Somerset County Heritage Service for display their new museum in Taunton.  Roger and I are meanwhile preparing to use the Frome Hoard as a core element for a major British Museum research project on Roman coin hoarding, work which will continue for several years to come.

It is a real privilege to be involved in work with such a major discovery, a find which will undoubtedly provide much new information about Roman coins and Roman Britain.

Frome Cover - Front only (2)

Sam Moorhead, Anna Booth and Roger Bland, The Frome Hoard (British Museum Press, 2010, £4.99). 50p from each sale will go to the Frome Hoard Appeal. Available now at  www.britishmuseumshoponline.org/invt/cmc23349/

Sam Moorhead is National Finds Adviser for Iron Age and Roman coins in the Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure at the British Museum.

Category: Ancient History, Archaeology

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One Response

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