Selling off the Family Silver: Theory, Politics and Value in Hoard Studies

Posted by ac527 at Dec 23, 2014 10:45 AM |
Selling off the Family Silver: Theory, Politics and Value in Hoard Studies

The meaning of Roman coin hoards has long been the subject of debate and speculation and everyone is able to offer their own suggestion as to why coin hoards were left and never recovered. Such arguments often include issues connected with insecurity, lost or neglected savings, other misfortunes, tax avoidance and ritual offerings and other activities. As part of the Coin Hoards Project, I have been reviewing the way in which Roman coin hoards and hoarding have been studied and interpreted in archaeology and whether there are any other directions that we can take in order to provide additional or different interpretative frameworks.

One interpretative source that has often been drawn on for interpreting Roman coin hoards is that of Samuel Pepys’ seventeenth century diary in which he referred to the concealment of coin hoards at times of threat and insecurity. Whilst similar motives could indeed have formed the reasoning behind at least some hoards made in the Roman period it has also been recognised that it can prove problematic to be burdened by later social and political contexts when attempting to interpret material from earlier periods. The Coin Hoards Project, then, is going back to the original context of the hoards and exploring meaning through the landscape, settlements, people, politics and economy of the period. Drawing on current debates in archaeological theory, there is considerable scope for developing new arguments connected with landscape, identity, experience and people’s relationship with Rome. Archaeology is unavoidably theoretical and political since interpretation takes place within the contemporary social, economic and political climate but through archaeological theory we can debate these influences and develop different frameworks for interpreting the archaeology. Such investigations can serve to remind us that in attempting to interpret hoards and hoarding in the Roman period we need to avoid our own perspectives and agenda and instead place the hoards within the spatial, social and temporal context of the period.

One significant issue in connection with Roman period coin hoards, and other types of hoards, is that of ‘value’ – how were the perspectives on value in Roman Britain and how did they differ from those of today? It seems likely that there may well have been different traditions of value across Roman Britain. In his 1994 paper on Roman hoards and hoarding, ‘Treasure: Interpreting Roman Hoards’, Martin Millett (1994: 101) argued that in the interpretation of hoards, archaeologists have often assumed that the values of the past are similar to those of today, and this also led to “a constant rationality makes it obvious that hoards were buried because of a desire to protect wealth from threats”. He suggested that there is a mentality of knowing “the price of everything and the value of nothing”. This is an oft-quoted phrase and it made me think more about where it came from and how it has been used not only in archaeology but elsewhere. I am sure that many of you will be aware that it in actual fact comes from the play Lady Windermere’s Fan (1893) by Oscar Wilde, the nineteenth century poet, playwright and satirist. In full he wrote: “What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn't know the market place of any single thing.”

Wilde was clearly commenting on the social and political conditions of the day, and of human nature, but his phrase the “price of everything and the value of nothing” has taken on a life of its own and has been much used since then – perhaps most prominently in commentaries on the economic ideology in Britain from the 1980s onwards. Often linked with this phrase is also the now famous speech made in 1985 by the then former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan which is often now quoted as the ‘selling off the family silver speech’. The 2013 Theoretical Archaeology Group conference in Bournemouth devoted an entire session on the theme ‘Archaeologies of Margaret Thatcher’ in order to explore the legacy of Thatcher’s ideology on archaeology and archaeological interpretation. Pepys himself was living in period of considerable economic and social change and there has been much work exploring the archaeology of capitalism in the post-medieval world (e.g. Johnson 1996). Issues connected with value and society are always highly contentious and politicised and emphasise the need for detailed contextual information.

Excavated remains of the Roman villa at Lullingstone in Kent (photograph by Adam Rogers).
Excavated remains of the Roman villa at Lullingstone in Kent (photograph by Adam Rogers).
It is clearly important to think about how we develop interpretative frameworks for analysing the coin hoard data for Roman Britain. This is why we have been emphasising contextualised information on settlement, landscape, identity and history and this will be developed further as we come to analysing the data in full. In interpreting concepts of value we can also consider why there were different traditions of settlement including what seems to have been different values placed on stone-built villa building in some areas than other parts of Roman Britain. Combining attitudes to landscape, environment, settlement, possessions and identity can help us to consider perceptions of value in the past and how we might interpret treatments of metalwork hoards.


Johnson, M. 1996. An Archaeology of Capitalism. Oxford: Blackwell.

Millett, M. 1994. Treasure: interpreting Roman hoards. In S. Cottam, D. Dungworth, S. Scott and J. Taylor (eds.) TRAC94 Proceedings of the Forth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference: 99-106. Oxford: Oxbow.

Wilde, O. 1893 (2008 edition). Lady Windermere’s Fan. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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