Digging the dirt on the Romans

As we celebrate 1.5 million finds on our database, I reflect upon one of the more exciting finds and retrievals of an object that I have been involved in during my four and a half years as a FLO.

Near Barlaston in Staffordshire, Steve Smith, a metal detectorist living in the area discovered a small ceramic vessel containing a large quantity of Roman radiate coins. So called for the crown like headgear that the Emperors are depicted wearing. Unfortunately, as he removed the pot from its resting place for over 1,700 years the vessel crumbled and when it arrived at The British Museum conservation department it was fragmented. However, the sherds and coins were conserved at when researched and catalogued found to comprise 2,015 radiates, 1 denarius and some associated metal objects.

A Probus coin from Barlaston I
This is the last coin from the hoard, dating to Bastien series 2 (AD 276).

In May of the following year, Mr Smith was detecting back at the same site and received another large signal, surprisingly just over four metres from his original hoard find. This time he was determined not to disturb any further deposits and called the PAS office straight away. The finder was following best practice guidelines by leaving the hoard in situ. The site was covered over and he only shared the findspot information with the farmer in order to protect the location. Within a few days I was able to travel to the site and meet with the county archaeologist, armed with our trowels, and what we hoped would be a large enough container to be able to bring back the suspected second hoard.

Myself and the county archaeologist revealing the second coin hoard, named Barlaston II

We carefully removed the top soil to reveal a small collection of bronze coins. Further removal of soil revealed the curved edge of a greyware vessel. Unfortunately it looked like the plough had hit it and already caused some damage. As we peeled back the layers of soil to the excitement of the finder and his family, a second hoard was revealed.

The finders son was very excited to be involved – a young archaeologist in the making.

After a morning excavating, we were able to reveal the full extent of the hoard container. We wrapped the ceramic vessel and coins in cling film to keep it as together as it could be considering the plough damage. We placed a board underneath and then we were then able to lift the hoard together with the coins in situ and the surrounding soil. Unfortunately we didn’t have a fridge large enough back at the museum to keep the object cold. Instead we had to make do with the cool conditions of our safe and wrap the soil in damp towels as advised by the conservators at the British Museum. I was relieved when the head conservator emailed to say the box had arrived safely and work could begin on excavating through the layers of coins in the lab. Unfortunately on this occasion it didn’t appear that the coins had been deposited with any specific numismatic composition.

Discussing the micro-excavation at the British Museum. Duygu Camurcuoglu (left), Sarahi Naidorf (centre) Pingfang Wang (right)

micro-excavation of the soil block 1

Other examples of hoards that have been carefully conserved in laboratory situations such as The Shrewsbury Hoard revealed that the large vessel was being used as a kind of community bank. The owners were going back to the hoard to make further deposits some 10 years later owing to the date of the coins.

Dr Eleanor Ghey, curator of Iron Age and Roman coin hoards at the British Museum commented that it was most unusual to find two Roman coin hoards in such close proximity in this area of the Midlands as Radiate hoards are not commonly found in Staffordshire. The hoard also contained a relatively high proportion of coins with good silver content. This is significant as the silver content of radiates reduced significantly over the third century.

Radiate of Laelian, c.AD 269 from Barlaston II. Single coins of Laelian are quite rare on the PAS database.

This second hoard, named Barlaston II consisted of 1166 radiates dating to AD 276 or later. It contains a coin of Laelian which is a rare single coin find. The proportions of coins in the two hoards are similar, although Barlaston II has a higher percentage of coins of Postumus and Victorinus and lower percentage of coins of the Tetrici compared to Barlaston I. Coin hoards are common in this period when they may have been abandoned once the coins became worthless after the coinage reform of Aurelian. However, we will never know the true reason the coins were never recovered. Both hoards were subsequently declared treasure and acquired by The Potteries Museum in Hanley, Stoke on Trent. They were also included in my colleague Teresa Gilmore’s publication 50 finds from Staffordshire.