Analysis of Coin Hoards from Roman BritainBy Historia
Since the enactment of the Treasure Act 1996, the U.K. Department for Culture, Media and Sport, has published the "Treasure Annual Report" once a year, a listing of all the larger finds of coins and artefacts of all periods, that have been discovered during each year. There have been four reports to date. Together they list over a hundred finds of Roman coins, the vast majority being hoards, rather than casual losses.
From these publications, the quantity of coins for each hoard has been collated in three tables in an attempt understand the underlying pattern of hoarding in Roman Britain in relation to the political and economic changes that took place. A good starting point is the small book "Romano-British Coin Hoards" by Richard Abdy, one of the contributors to the Treasure Annual Report, and this has been referred to extensively for this article.
ContentsThe Roman economy and hoarding
Analysis of the Treasure Report Hoards
The following appear in a new window for ease of reference:
Table 1 showing Roman coin finds up to 180 A.D.
Table 2 showing Roman coin finds 180 A.D. to 305 A.D.
Table 3 showing Roman coin finds from 305 A.D. on.
Maps and Geographical Distribution.
The generally accepted theory of the 'invention' of coins is that they were effectively slugs of silver or gold bullion with 'official' markings on them to guarantee their weight and fineness. This meant that coins had an intrinsic value; that is to say they were worth the value of the metal they were made of (which was meant to be the same as the 'face' value). That had the advantage that the coins were very negotiable. Even if coins had been officially de-monetised, they were worth their weight in silver or gold and could be used for payment, at least until such time as they found their way to the mint.
The first priority of Roman emperors and their officials was to find the money to pay their 'expenses', with the well-being of the general economy a poor second. Although we talk about coins being "issued", what we mean is that wealth, in the form of precious metal, was turned into coins with the sole purpose of being spent -on the army, new palaces, bribes and scribes, etc. Thus the expansion of new territories meant more captured silver and gold which could finance the building of new temples to the glory of Rome, and fortuitously a shot in the arm for the economy of the Empire. This happy state of affairs lasted lasted in the Roman Empire until around the end of the second century A.D.
However, the Empire could not expand forever and nor could the supply of precious metal. The conquered peoples sought to get their territory back; 'barbarians' started to move in. The emperors needed money to fight them and there was only so much that could be extorted from tax-payers. The Roman silver denarius was based on a weight of 1/96th of a Roman Pound. To make each Pound of silver go further the silver was diluted with a base metal, such as copper, a process known as 'de-basement'. Thus they could get more denarii from the same amount of silver. The problem was that an old denarius then had a higher intrinsic value than a new denarius, even though they both had the same face value. This period of de-basement caused it's own problems and affected the pattern of hoarding.
Gold coins in the Roman period were never, or rarely ever, de-based but their size and hence their weight were changed. This was partly to retain a fixed relationship between gold and silver, but this was hardly ever achieved for long as the bullion values of the two metals would eventually diverge, and gold coins remained effectively bullion.
The act of hoarding in ancient times is popularly thought to be the hiding away of particularly valuable items, and especially older gold and silver coins that may have increased in value due to the de-basement of newer coins. However, a little thought should cause us to modify that theory. Firstly, from Republican times to the end of of the second century, the weight and fineness of the denarius was fairly constant. Newly minted coins were 'charged'; that is to say, if a Roman Pound of silver was hypothetically sold to the mint, the mint would manufacture 96 denarii but pay the seller, say, 90 denarii. This created a profit for the mint but also prevented denarii in circulation being melted down for profit. Clearly, then, there was no particular incentive to melt down or hoard old or new coins as a means of making a profit. It also follows that old denarii would have been just as acceptable as new ones for circulation. As we shall see below, denarii from a wide range of dates were hoarded and must therefore have also been circulating. Some issues may have been officially de-monetised, but records of official recalls have not survived the passing of time, although it is known that Republican denarii were officially de-monetised during the reign of Trajan. However, de-monetisation of coins is not a hundred percent achievable when the coins are worth their own weight in silver, unless they can be brought to a mint, which Britain did not have, and clearly some survived.
From the end of the second century, de-basement set it, so clearly hoards after that date could have been used to keep back better silver, but even here mixtures of old and new coins are still found together together. Even when the coinage was de-based to virtually zero intrinsic value, coins were still being hoarded.
The obvious conclusion from the above is that coin hoards should be be considered as the equivalent of today's bank accounts, with an outflow of coins as well as an inflow. Although banks, of sorts, did exist in Roman towns, outside of them people had to carry their money around with them or hide it somewhere safe, such as a locked, immobile chest. The other place to hide money was in the ground, perhaps in a purse or other container. These are, of course, the hoards that are found today.
People were, perhaps unconsciously, selective about what they hoarded. That is to say, when they paid for something they tended to use the smallest, worst looking, coins and retained the best ones, in much the same way as today, we might try to get rid of our crumpled and torn banknotes first. Necessity may have meant that the 'better' coins may have had to have been spent anyway, but if a person needed put some money aside, then the 'better' money would have tended to have found it's way into a hoard. That doesn't mean that it that it stayed there forever (unless the hoard was 'lost'); but it did mean that the 'better' money circulated slowly and the 'worst' money fast. The signs of a long and fast circulation can be seen in the wear and knocks on Mark Antony's 'legionary' denarii, minted in Athens in 31 B.C. These were made of poor quality silver and were in circulation for well over 100 years throughout the Roman Empire, including Britain. In fact, they were present in one British hoard, the Shapwick hoard (discussed below), 255 years after they were minted.
The Treasure Reports give a 'Deposited' date for each hoard, which is usually the date of the most recent coin. This gives a false impression that the date a hoard was deposited is accurately known to the nearest year. Obviously a hoard cannot have been buried before the date of the last coin, but it could have been buried or lost considerably later. This is a particularly important consideration when the flow of new coinage ceases, as happened in Britain at the beginning of the 5th century, as there is then no way of knowing how much later a hoard was actually buried. The words 'Closing date' is more correctly used instead of 'Deposited'.
If we accept that the deposition date of a hoard may have been much later than the closing date assigned to it, then it is much more difficult to connect its loss or abandonment to some event, such as a war or political change. Clearly if we do not know when a hoard was buried, it is even more difficult to know why it was lost or abandoned. If hoards were habitually kept buried when they weren't being 'accessed', then it is a statistical certainty that a proportion of them would be lost. There could be hundreds of reasons why they were lost, from sheer bad luck to barbarian attacks, but the reason must usually remain guesswork.
The first silver periodThe first 44 hoards, chronologically speaking, are listed in Table 1 and the first half of Table 2, and are hoards of coins of the first and second centuries, when the economy was stable and good quality gold and silver coins were available (even though the silver was gradually being de-based).
The first thing that strikes us is the wide range of emperors and dates represented by the coins in each hoard, a range of up to 200 years in some cases. Many date back to the Roman Republic. This doesn't mean that each hoard was being amassed over a long period of time. What it does mean is that all of the coins represented in each hoard were still circulating in Britain at the closing date of that hoard. Closing dates of hoards are spread out evenly over the entire period, indicating perhaps that they were not buried as a response to a particular danger, but as a matter of every-day security.
If the idea of denarii circulating 200 years after they were made is difficult to swallow, consider this: Could one family have accumulated them year in year out for 200 years and if so, why, since the oldest and the newest coins would have had equal value. Perhaps the hoard was started 10, 20, 30 years before it was eventually lost. In that case where would the older coins come from to start that hoard? Only from circulation.
Claudius conquered Britain in 43 A.D. and Roman coinage was introduced. No Roman mints were set up in Britain, and money to pay the army and administration was sent from mints in Rome or elsewhere. Those lucky enough to be in receipt of a salary or payment in these coins were expected to pay their taxes in the form of silver denarii. To the rest of the population, a denarius was a high value coin, so apart from the nouveau riche, they mainly remained outside this economic cycle and stuck to barter. Consequently, Britain remained only partially monetised during the first century and the first half of the second. The new province was also expected to be self sufficient, so fresh cash was required only to top up shortfalls in the tax receipts. Shipping coins back to Rome simply for melting and re-issue would not have been very cost effective. Very few coins seem to have gone in and out of Britain in trading activity. The coins that arrived in the province therefore tended to stay there and the result was a 'closed' circulation.
According to calculations by R. A. Abdy, over the period represented by any given hoard, the distribution of coins tends to peak somewhere in the middle of the period, tailing off at the beginning and the end of the period. This is because older coins have had longer to be removed from circulation, while newer coins have not yet reached full circulation. This can more or less be seen in Table 1 and the first half of Table 2, bearing in mind that the listings are by emperor, each of which might have had a long or short reign with the resulting differences in the number of coins issued. One consequence of this is that for smaller hoards the ends of the 'graph' can go below zero, so that the oldest and newest coins that would have been in circulation may not be present in the hoard, so the deposition date may be much later than the date of the most recent coin in the hoard. Conversely, for large hoards, the deposition date is most likely to be straight after the date of the last coin(s).
The coins in the first eight hoards in Table 1 mostly come from before Claudius's invasion. It shouldn't be assumed that the pre-Claudian coins necessarily arrived with the invaders, as Roman coins were present in Britain before then, as a result of trading, gifts to tribal leaders and the wages earned by British mercenaries. In fact, two of the hoards, Llanhamlach, Wales (Table 1, D182), and Selby, North Yorkshire (Table 1, A117), were in areas still outside direct Roman control. The Woodbridge, Suffolk, find (Table 1, C238) also contained a gold stater of the pre-Roman Celtic leader, Cunobelin. Although this may be unconnected to the rest of the hoard, other mixed Celtic/Roman hoards are known and Celtic coins may have circulated up to the Boudican revolt, c. 61 A.D.
Out of the 44 hoards under discussion, 2 consist of all gold coins, 8 are gold and silver, 28 are all silver, 4 are all bronze and 2 are bronze and silver. Presumably the hoards containing gold were more of a 'savings account' than a 'current account'.
One of the few hoards found from a contemporary urban site, is hoard (Table 1, C249), found at Plantation Place in the City of London (closing c. 180). This consisted of 43 gold aurei that were originally in a purse hidden in a substantial house. The fact that after the owner of the hoard 'lost contact' with his riches, the subsequent occupiers of the house lived there for at least a century without finding it, indicates that it was very well hidden and must have been intended as long term savings, though perhaps 1800 years wasn't the intended term!
Hadrian visited Britain in 121-122 and ordered his famous wall to be built to keep out the northern barbarians. Antoninius Pius (138-161) built his own Antonine wall to the north. In spite of these events and outbreaks of plague, there doesn't seem to be much change in the hoard records, at least for the ones under review.
At the end of the 'first silver period', the hoard records show that most coins of the period were still circulating. The crunch came during the reign of Septimius Severus (193-211) and his son Caracalla (198-217). Severus had to fight off several claimants to the imperial throne as well as making an accommodation with Clodius Albinus (195-197), who at the time was Governor of Britain (in spite of that he doesn't seem to be well represented in the British hoards under review). This left him short of cash, so he massively de-based the silver coinage. Caracalla followed in his father's footsteps by introducing the Antoninianus (also referred to as a Radiate) in 214. This may have been tariffed at 2 denarii but only contained 1 ½ times the weight of silver as the denarii. Naturally, the army saw this (rightly) as a de-valuation and wanted a pay rise! The rest of the population must have felt the same and a damaging inflationary cycle started (although we should be careful not to associate this too closely with our modern concept of inflation). A handful of hoards with old good silver coins survive this hiatus which had perhaps become too valuable to spend at face value. Most of the good silver, though, must have found it's way to the mint to be made into more and more de-based Antoniniani.
After Severus, who died in 211, down to Gallienus, who came to power in 253, there are very few hoards (at least the ones under review) containing coins of the intermediate emperors. This is hardly surprising, as emperors were changing almost monthly, usurpers were popping up all over the place and the coinage was in free-fall. Gresham's Law came into play, with 'bad money driving out good money'.
A couple of hoards include older silver coins, from back to the time of Septimius Severus, but most are bunched around the Gallic Empire period. Nearly all include coins of Gallienus (253-268), as well as all the Gallic emperors. Why were they hoarded? Well, they may not have been worth very much but they were the only coins in circulation, with no pure silver coins and only scarce gold ones for the seriously rich. Inflation must have increased the number of coins required even for daily transactions, so carrying the family fortune around was probably out of the question.
Under Claudius II (268-270), the legitimate Roman coinage reached the same low point as the Gallic coinage, although, interestingly, his coins feature strongly in British hoards, even though, in theory, the empires were separate. However, after his victory over the Tetricii, Aurelian (270-275) reformed the coinage, issuing better made silver-washed coins. At this stage another break-point is reached in the British hoard record.
Just as things got back to normal after the finish of the Gallic Empire, another usurper appeared. This was Carausius, who was emperor in Britain and northern Gaul from 287 to 293, followed by his scheming finance minister, Allectus, who was defeated in 296 by Constantius I. For the first time Roman mints were opened in Britain. In 295 or 296, Diocletian reformed the coinage, once again, with a large silver-washed bronze coin, the Follis and a new silver coin, called the Argenteus.
Most previously discovered hoards of this period, have been separate hoards of either 'legitimate' coins or local radiates, a typical example being the Prestwood 'B' hoard (Table 3, C256), which contains only coins of Diocletian and his fellow Tetrarchs and coins of the Constantinian period. However, the Rogiet hoard (Table 2, C306) and the Langtoft 'A' hoard (Table 2, C255), are fairly atypical, in that they contain not only 'reformed' coins of the Aurelianic and Diocletianic period, but also de-based radiates of the Gallic emperors and the British usurpers, Carausius and Allectus. As a result of these finds, opinion is shifting to the view that, rather than being de-monetised or simply dumped, the old radiates circulated alongside the legitimate coinage, perhaps as a different denomination.
The situation is further confused by the appearance of 'Barbarous Radiates', which start around the time of the Gallic Emperors. These were once thought to have been made by invading 'barbarians' but are now known to have been locally produced in Britain and Gaul. They are often of crude design and are sometimes much smaller than the already small official radiates. They may have been made for local use with the crude designs intended to avoid prosecution for forgery.
The Follis introduced by Diocletian lasted only until around 318, when it had been reduced to the size of the old de-based radiates. The hoards from now on (first half of Table 3) almost completely consist of bronze coins of the period of Constantine I and his extensive family (307-363). There is insufficient detail in the Treasure Reports to examine whether this phase started directly after 318. In 348 three new denominations of bronze coins were introduced and in 354 there was a general de-monetisation of older denominations. It would have been easier to de-monetise what was basically a token coinage because unlike intrinsically valuable silver coins, token coins become valueless once they are no longer 'official'. This shows in the almost complete cut-off of bronze coin hoards after the Constantinian era, with the new gold and silver hoards taking their place.
Table 3, these were the denominations that were circulating and being hoarded from the Constantinian period up to around 400. In fact 80 per cent of all late Roman silver hoards closing between 388 and 410 have been found in Britain. This is probably because once the Romans abandoned Britain, there was no possibility of people and money migrating to politically healthier climes and with an increasingly de-monetised society, nowhere to spend it.
A practise unique to Roman Britain was that of clipping of silver coins, with the clippings presumably being sold as bullion. Clipping was also rife during the English Civil War (1642-51), implying that during times of trouble, the authorities were unable or unwilling to prevent it. Clipped silver coins must have continued circulating at face value, rather than by weight, or else clipping would have been pointless. It has been suggested that silver coins were clipped to provide small change, but it would surely have been easier to cut them into halves or quarters, as was done in the medieval period. The Stanchester hoard (Table 3, C268) is one sizeable hoard where the silver coins are not clipped. Perhaps these were never circulated but were saved when new.
Given that hoarding was probably universal practise, then there is usually no way of knowing if these 5th century hoards were buried in extremis, or not. There is no way of knowing how soon after 406 they were buried, anyway. The later they were buried, the more likely it was as a response to unrest. Again, the evidence of the English Civil War is that in times of trouble, most hoards were buried in the home territory of those going away to fight, not where the action was. Undoubtedly, though, some hoarding was in anticipation of 'enemy action', a prime example being the magnificent Hoxne hoard (Table 3, C269), consisting of 565 gold coins, over 14,000 silver coins as well as fine jewellery and tableware. It could even have been the proceeds of a whip-round to pay for protection against the invaders.
One final point to cogitate on; a large number of hoards have been found over the years, indeed centuries, yet these must be miniscule compared with the hoards that were formed, existed and then were dispersed. The fact that hoards may have lain in the ground for over 1700 years gives them a feeling of permanence. However, it is just as likely that they were dynamic, coming into and going out of existence, and their contents frequently changing.
Some notes and maps of the Geographical Distribution of coin hoards.
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Romano-British Coin Hoards by Richard Anthony Abdy, Shire Publications Ltd, 2002.
A History of Roman Britain by Peter Selway, Oxford University Press, 1993.
Coinage in the Roman Economy, 300 B.C. to A.D. 700, Kenneth W. Harl, The John Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Treasure - Finding our past, by Richard Hobbs, The British Museum Press, to accompany the 'Buried Treasure' exhibition, British Museum 2003.
The full Treasure Reports are available at the government website:
Treasure Annual Report 97/98
Treasure Annual Report 98/99
Treasure Annual Report 2000
Treasure Annual Report 2001
Some information about specific hoards:
The Shapwick, Somerset hoard at the Somerset Museums site.
The Langtoft, East Yorkshire hoards at Beast Coins.
The Stanchester, Wiltshire and other hoards at the Wansdyke Project site.
The Hoxne, Suffolk hoard at the Encyclopaedia Romana site.
The Patching, West Sussex, hoard at the Treasure Realm site.