Crisis or continuity? Hoarding and Deposition in Iron Age and Roman Britain, and Beyond

Report on the 'Hoarding and Deposition in Iron Age and Roman Britain, and Beyond' international conference, British Museum, 11th-12th March 2016

This conference was held in the BP Lecture Theatre in the British Museum in London on Friday 11th March and Saturday 12th March 2016, and was one of the final outputs of our Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded ‘Hoarding in Iron Age and Roman Britain’ project. It proved a very popular event, with at least 192 people in attendance on the Friday, and 148 on Saturday. Those attending the event included numismatists and academics from across Britain and Europe, professional and amateur archaeologists, and interested members of the public. The conference was split into two halves, with Friday’s session entitled Hoarding and Deposition in Britain and Europe, and Saturday focusing on the Third Century AD in Britain and Europe. 


Hoarding and deposition in Roman Britain

Roger Bland giving the opening addressThe first session on Friday morning was introduced with a short opening address by Roger Bland (University of Leicester/British Museum), and chaired by Jeremy Taylor from the University of Leicester. First up was Eleanor Ghey, a key researcher on the Hoarding in Iron Age and Britain project at the British Museum. Eleanor outlined the data concerning coin hoards recorded in Britain and the rationale behind the project, and presented some of the preliminary numismatic and statistical analyses of the c. 3400 recorded hoards. The role of metal detecting on the dramatically increased numbers of hoards being found since the 1970s was clear, as was the impact of the Treasure Act and the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Eleanor also outlined the variety of associated materials and artefacts found with some hoards, and noted the interesting phenomenon of the ‘stacking’ or ‘nesting’ of different vessels in some hoards, which often implied a certain formality to their deposition.

Eleanor was followed by her colleague Richard Hobbs from the British Museum, whose work on the Mildenhall hoard gave insights into the role of silver plate in the late Roman economy. He discussed the part silver plate and precious metals played in the social and cultural lives of their owners, and how the geographical and chronological distribution of gold and silver provides insights into wealth imbalances across the late Roman Empire. There were images of wonderful objects which left people hungry for more.      

After a short tea break, Tom Brindle from the Roman Rural Settlement Project followed. That project, based at the University of Reading, has been examining all the recorded evidence for excavated Romano-British settlements in England and Wales. Just 5% of their recorded sites had produced both coin and non-coin hoards, with by far the largest number coming from small farmsteads, in addition to villas, roadside settlements, Romano-British ‘villages’, and vici. Nearly all of the Iron Age coins from excavated sites recorded by the Reading project were from shrines, and 10% of all coin hoards appeared to coincide broadly with major changes in the form or layout of settlement. It was exciting to see how another ‘big data’ project is adding incredible detail to knowledge of Roman Britain.

Philippa Walton from the University of Oxford spoke next, and she is part of the Coin Hoards of the Roman Empire Project. On this occasion, however, Philippa was speaking more specifically about the finds from Piercebridge, Co. Durham, where over 1300 coins, brooches, keys, mirror handles and other late Iron Age and Roman objects were recovered from an area of the riverbed of the River Tees. Human and animal bone and pottery was also associated with this series of deposits, which seem to have resulted from ritualised practices near the Roman crossing over the river. Once more, the numbers and variety of objects Philippa showed were astonishing.    


Wider perspectives on hoarding and deposition

After lunch in the afternoon session chaired by Colin Haselgrove from the University of Leicester, Duncan Garrow from the University of Reading then presented a wonderful potted history of hoarding in Britain from the Mesolithic through to the Iron Age, in order to place our hoarding project and other similar research in a longer-term context. He stressed the dynamics of the objects and practices associated with hoarding, in addition to the ‘accretion of memory’ and the variety of processes that brought such objects together. Duncan also considered the different ways in which hoard deposits have been analysed and interpreted by archaeologists over the years, and he gave much food for thought about how well different approaches have worked in the past, and how they could be developed in the future

Adrian Chadwick and Rachel Wilkinson from the University of Leicester presented their research as part of the Hoarding in Iron Age and Roman Britain project. Adrian Chadwick showed some of the analyses of the landscape settings and contextual associations of the recorded Iron Age and Roman coin hoards, which have revealed interesting national and regional trends. He also outlined the results of new survey work carried out at hoard find spots by the project. Rachel Wilkinson presented some preliminary results of her PhD research into Iron Age metalwork hoards, including artefacts such as socketed axes, spears, cauldrons, and currency bars. Once again, the significance of particular places and materials to people in the past seems to be crucial to understanding why some hoards were deposited in certain areas.   

After more tea, Nico Roymans from Universiteit Amsterdam examined the large late Roman gold hoards found along the northern frontier of the Roman Empire, at least some of which may have been intended as gifts and payments to Germanic leaders and communities. He was interested in the flows of gold into this area from the wider Empire, and what this meant economically and politically for peoples on both sides of the frontier.   

Helle Horsnæs from the National Museum of Denmark presented some amazing examples of how detailed recording of metal detectorist finds in Denmark has transformed archaeological knowledge of particular areas, where before only place-name elements hinted at sites of interest. She also struck a note of caution in interpreting spatial data, however, with an example of where coins had been re-deposited in layers of soil that had been used to level up lower-lying, boggy areas of ground around a series of timber halls. Once again, there was much food for thought, some of which was then explored during a discussion session involving all of the day’s speakers.    

Philip de JerseyAfter a short break at the end of the afternoon, just long enough to sample the hospitality of some of the local hostelries around the British Museum, Philip de Jersey (University of Oxford/Guernsey Museums) took to the podium for his enthralling lecture on the Le Câtillon II or Grouville Hoard, the world’s largest hoard of c. 70, 000 – 80, 000 Iron Age coins, in addition to gold torcs and other objects, found on Jersey in 2012. This simply astounding find alternately stunned and excited the audience. Interestingly, de Jersey revealed that it had been found close to another hoard discovered in 1957, which had consisted of over 3000 coins, silver chains and brooches. The coins from the Le Câtillon II Hoard contain many rare or previously unknown types, and it was unlikely to have been buried before 40 BC, though there may have been a gap of 15-20 years between the minting of the coins, and their final deposition. The coins and other objects may have represented part of the tribal wealth of the Coriosolitae in the Britanny area, though it also contained coins from other parts of Gaul and Britain; yet the exact reasons for the deposition of this material remain unclear.


The Third Century

Day 2 of the conference was entitled The Third Century AD in Britain and Europe – Crisis or Continuity? The first session on Saturday morning was chaired by David Mattingly of the University of Leicester, and the first speaker as Adam Rogers, another researcher on the Hoarding in Iron Age and Roman Britain project. Adam explored explore whether or not the third century in Britain could indeed be described as a period of crisis, and how coin hoards might fit into analysis and interpretation. He has critically re-examined the archaeological evidence for burning and destruction supposedly revealed in third-century deposits from some Roman forts, and has found this evidence to be overstated or even misinterpreted in many instances. Burning may have often been acts of deliberate destruction by Roman troops prior to temporary abandonment, to cleanse areas of parasites and pests, or even as rites of regeneration. The ‘Saxon shore forts’ are always regarded as a planned system of coastal defences in response to incursions by pirates and barbarian raiders, yet their construction dates are significantly varied from one another. The hoards buried around fort and settlement boundaries might have reflected concerns with liminality and unease at the presence of metalwork, rather than evidence for periods of threat. Adam also questioned how much the politics and conflict associated with the British usurpers actually impacted upon the lives of the majority of people in Roman Britain, and suggested that we cannot simplistically use the presence of hoards of coins struck on behalf of certain individuals as direct proxies of their movements around Britain.   

Alex Smith from the University of Reading is another researcher on the Roman Rural Settlement Project, and he presented some of the results of their investigations of broad patterns of settlement form and distribution across Roman Britain over time. There was possible re-organisation in the Midlands in the later first and early second centuries AD. Some areas saw a decline in settlement numbers by the later second century AD. The mid-second century may thus have been the so-called ‘Golden Period’ of Roman Britain, not the third or fourth centuries as claimed by some other researchers. Only in northern Kent and the Cotswolds were there large concentrations of villas in the late third and early fourth century, by which time some areas such as southern Kent seem to have lost villa settlements altogether. Alex proposed that the ‘core’ of Roman Britain appears to have been the central zone extending from the Wash to the north-east to the Severn in the south-west, particularly during the later centuries of Roman rule. This settlement evidence accords well with the data on coin and metalwork distribution undertaken by Philippa Walton as part of her doctoral research.  

Following tea, Sam Moorhead from the British Museum, who is a Co-Investigator on the Hoarding Project, outlined what limited historical and archaeological evidence there is for the usurpers Carausius and Allectus, but also how their actions might have impacted upon the distribution of coins and coin hoards in Britain. He offered the intriguing suggestion that, in the case of hoards such as the Frome Hoard, these might have been stipes, or votive offerings made by entire communities.

Simon Esmonde-Cleary from the University of Birmingham examined to what extent the coin hoards of the third century in Britain, particularly the great radiate hoards of the AD 260s onwards, were part of a wider phenomenon in the western Roman provinces. Once simplistic and discredited explanations for barbarian incursions into Germany and Gaul are discarded, other possible causes have to be sought. Were bags of small-denomination coins used as collections with assigned values, and is this why they were stored or deposited in such groups? He raised the thorny issue of whether some hoards at least were multi-temporal assemblages, and whether some hoards, including the Frome Hoard, even if effectively demonetised, were nonetheless deposited under the protection of the gods. Thus, even some hoards deposited as a result of ‘ritualised’ practices might originally have been intended for recovery at a later date.  

After lunch, Sam Moorhead from the British Museum was chairing, and he introduced Fleur Kemmers from the University of Frankfurt. She outlined the evidence from the Lower Rhine region, where despite a strong Iron Age tradition of weapon and coin deposits in rivers and upland areas, this seems to have declined during the early Roman period, with a relative absence of third century hoards. Once explained rather simplistically in terms of the uprooting of populations and the abandonment of areas due to barbarian incursions and Roman attempts to create a sterile frontier zone, the archaeological evidence does not fit this former model. Instead, her research suggests many such areas were not abandoned at all, and that explanations for such marked changes in hoarding and deposition must be sought in social and cultural changes in practice at quite localised levels. 

Kevin Butcher from the University of Warwick then tackled the changes to the weight and fineness of precious metal coins, and to what extent these influenced hoarding patterns across the Roman Empire prior to and during the third century. For example, despite changes in the silver content of coins during Nero’s reign, this did not apparently lead to a marked difference in hoarding patterns, although the actual composition of coins in these hoards does seems to have altered. Kevin suggested that these were questions that also needed to be asked for third century hoards in different regions, including Britain.

The final speaker of the day was David Wigg-Wolf from the German Archaeological Institute, who wanted to consider what the implications would have been of a monetary system that consisted almost solely of small denomination coinage. What exactly were some of the large third century coin hoards worth, and in some instances did this reflect a need for quantity of coinage when quality had declined? Is it legitimate to compare such changes and their possible consequences in the Roman world to the inflation that took place in countries such as Germany during the years of the Weimar Republic, or Zimbabwe under the Mugabe dictatorship? Like other speakers at the conference, he too criticised past traditional explanations that saw barbarian incursions as causing hoarding in north-west Europe during AD 250-300 – the so-called ‘arrows on maps’ approach to hoarding – though such simplistic interpretations are apparently still current in parts of Europe. 

Panel discussion on Saturday. From left to right: Adam Rogers, Simon Esmonde-Cleary (behind Adam), David Wigg-Wolf, Fleur Kemmers, Kevin Butcher, Alex Smith, Sam Moorhead, and Roger Bland.

There then followed another short but productive question and answer and discussion session, chaired by Roger Bland, before he drew proceedings to a close. All in all, the conference stimulated much critical debate, and clearly show ideas concerning the deposition of coin and other hoards are changing after years of comparative stagnation, and reliance on simplistic monocausal explanations. It is hoped that the many ideas presented at the conference will be a part of wider transformations in understandings of and approaches to Iron Age and Roman coins and coin hoarding across Britain and Europe, and will go some way to bridging the historic gulf that once existed between numismatic and archaeological interpretations. 

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