What can coin hoards tell us about Iron Age and Roman Britain?

What can coin hoards tell us about Iron Age and Roman Britain?

What can coin hoards tell us about Iron Age and Roman Britain?

Hollow flint with hoard of Iron Age coins found near Henley, Oxfordshire, 2003 T37. © Trustees of the British Museum. Hoards of valued materials, particularly coins, are a common discovery across Iron Age Britain and Europe, and the former Roman Empire. In the past, coin hoards have been mainly studied by numismatists as artefacts largely divorced from their archaeological context, under the guise of monetary, economic and political history.

The increased use of metal detectors in recent decades has greatly expanded the number of finds – there are c. 340 Iron Age coin hoards and c. 2700 Roman coin hoards currently recorded across Britain, increasing in number at around the rate of 80 a year. The contents of hoards are catalogued by British Museum staff as part of the process of recording Treasure finds, and also as part of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Many Iron Age coin hoards were traditionally explained in terms of safekeeping, and more recently as ritual deposits. Most Roman coin hoards have been interpreted as having been buried at times of economic or political upheaval, with the intention of later recovery. It has also been suggested that in some instances their owners did not try to recover Roman hoards, as the coins had become difficult to exchange following monetary reform. Several authors, however, have proposed that ritualised votive practices may explain some Romano-British hoards. To date, there has been relatively little systematic archaeological investigation of why Roman coin hoards were buried and why some hoards were not recovered, and what information they might provide when studied as a group. These arguments therefore need to be explored in relation to the rapidly-growing body of recorded hoard finds.

Hoard of Roman coins from Howe, Norfolk, 2003 T64. © Trustees of the British Museum.There appear to have been large ‘peaks’ in coin loss and hoard deposition during the later 3rd and 4th centuries AD, although the reasons for this are unclear. This was a period of political upheaval across the Empire, with a rapid succession of rulers and usurpers, and during two periods in the late 3rd century, Britain and neighbouring provinces broke away from the central rule of Rome. This period is not very well documented in historical sources, and coinage thus provides valuable knowledge concerning the many different rulers who reigned during this time.

Over 600 coin hoards are known from the second half of the 3rd century – the largest number from any period of British history, and also more hoards from the period than from anywhere else in the Roman Empire. Whilst in some parts of Britain Roman-style settlements and villas expanded during the 3rd and earlier 4th centuries, in other areas there seems to have been a decline in such occupation. These complex but intriguing issues all require more detailed archaeological investigation.

Hoard of Roman coins and jewellery found near Cadeby, South Yorkshire. © A.M. Chadwick, courtesy of Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery.


Other projects

The Hoarding in Iron Age and Roman Britain Project has links with other current research projects. These include the Coin Hoards of the Roman Empire Project based at the University of Oxford, which is examining all known Roman coin hoards outside of Britain. This project also has an excellent Facebook page. In addition, we will be sharing data with the Rural Settlement of Roman Britain project, based at the University of Reading.   


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