BMCR 2021.03.25

Iron age and Roman coin hoards in Britain

, , , , Iron age and Roman coin hoards in Britain. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2020. Pp. 384. ISBN 9781785708558 $99.00.


The discovery of a Roman coin hoard near Frome in Somerset in 2010 was significant for many reasons. First, aside from its enormity (52,503 debased silver and bronze coins) it provided rare opportunity for study of a hoard from the late third century AD in situ. This study revealed many unexpected characteristics that challenged previous assumptions regarding the frequency of third century coin burials as well as the motives and nature of coin hoarding more broadly. Second, having been discovered by an amateur metal detectorist, it demonstrated quite clearly the new role that the army of untrained and unqualified now play in archaeology, for better or worse, in the U.K. under the Portable Antiquities Scheme [PAS]. Lastly, the Frome hoard, itself the most recent of a string of large coin hoards dating to the late third century AD, led to the creation of a research project seeking to understand why so many hoards were deposited in Britain at that time as well as to provide a means to catalog the explosion of new coin hoard discoveries (averaging 50 per year) dated to Iron Age and Roman Britain. This project, Crisis or continuity: Hoarding in Iron Age and Roman Britain with special reference to the third century AD [IARCH], has its dataset housed with PAS and much of its analyses, conclusions, and research is presented in the volume under review.

Iron age and Roman Coin Hoards in Britain not only provides a welcome contribution to the growing body of classical scholarship whose research is built upon broader digital humanities initiatives but also fills a substantial lacuna within the field of numismatics. Despite the high number of Iron Age and Roman hoards discovered annually in Britain, most works focus on numismatic contents and seldom engage with discussion of wider historical context or rationale of initial deposition. This is regrettable since much remains unclear regarding the practice of coin hoarding and that which has long been considered evident (e.g. the correlation between coin hoarding and moments of crises) finds itself increasingly untenable in light of more recent research.[1]

Following an outline of the origins of the IARCH project in the introductory first chapter, the authors then survey the state of related numismatic scholarship. They provide a very clear overview of hoard studies and how the archaeologist, economist, historian, and numismatist engage with and interpret the role of hoard data. Of particular interest is the history of the scholarship on the motive(s) for coin deposition.  While the authors acknowledge the orthodoxy that Roman hoards are reflective of an advanced monetized economy, they argue that historical events and developments are less significant for those of the Iron Age where economic and historical considerations are non-events that are, at best, secondary to religious motives. To counter the argument that ritual explanations are not tenable for hoards, the authors stress that one cannot look narrowly at the artifacts themselves for ritualistic correspondence (i.e., direct iconographic or typological linkage with some religious element) nor expect the archaeological context alone to dictate whether a find was secular or sacred. In addition, they argue that there might have been a “landscape grammar” (p. 5) in antiquity that dictated what objects were deposited where that superseded contemporary notions.

The presentation of data, both through large color charts and full-page plotted maps, is not as daunting as it at first may seem. The data are presented in a clear and orderly fashion with the full-page maps in straight sequence with no breaks from the earliest Iron Age finds to 445 AD at increments of roughly 10-15 years. Britain is broken into ten regions with Ireland’s scant representation (10 hoards) also featured. The graphs for each region with hoard representation across the metals[2] are presented along with various invaluable tables and graphs that reveal, at times, unexpected results. For instance, a considerable and disproportionate amount of gold was found in East and South East England, quite likely reflecting retention of the Iron Age practice of precious metal deposition.[3] Other anomalies in their data require further investigation, such as the dearth of hoards attributed to the mid-fourth century AD. More often than not, however, the analyses of the authors reaffirm preexisting interpretations, such as the correlation between the presence of the Roman army and coin finds.

The authors then present the scholarship on coin hoarding and deposition in great detail.  Terminology, approaches to the evidence, and an overview of archaeological and numismatic scholarship are cleanly laid out. Though specialists will find little new information here, the chapter is a concise, well-written, and informative sixteen pages that can act as excellent introductory reading on numismatics for advanced undergraduates or graduate students.

The assemblages themselves and the hoards are considered from an archaeological perspective—their containers and arrangement, and the accompanying materials often buried with coins hoards. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the IARCH database (3,414 hoards in all) confirms that the most coin hoard vessels were found in ceramic pots (896 of 1,194). Interestingly, the variety of large counterfeit hoards, one even found inside a Roman fort, raises further questions.

Focus then turns to the landscape within which the hoards have been discovered and seeks to assess the role that environment played and how it can help to reveal meaning, intent, and purpose for Iron Age and Roman hoards in Britain.  Non-specialists may be surprised how few examples before this considered geographic context beyond the confines of the hoard itself. This is, by far, the most ambitious of the chapters and that which sees the greatest amount of analysis. The results are impressive.

The authors have demonstrated, quite clearly, that an identifiable preference for hoarding location based on topography existed from Iron Age to late Roman Britain and that it generally varied by regional traditions. Overall, the data reveal that most hoards in Britain were deposited on a slope and away from contemporary settlements, indicating that recovery was less important than accidental discovery by others, either through agriculture or proximity of passersby during deposit. Various regions reveal particular preference as well. Rock outcrops and cliffs predominate for Welsh hoards; river valleys and wetlands for East England hoards; valley bottoms for southeast England hoards; and hillsides for northern England hoards.

Over time, distinct changes are revealed as well. By the later Roman period, for instance, abandoned hillforts and promontory forts are preferred. The authors argue that this change occurs because “these sites became socially, politically or even spiritually important in the later Roman period” (p. 135), thereby suggesting a brief phase of re-occupation. The data make quite clear that hoarding increased, spread, and declined throughout Britain equivalent to, and seemingly in concord with, Roman military presence. As Rome’s control of Britain ebbed, hoarding changed again and new ‘hotspots’ of deposition activity appear—hilltop burials and those along the coastal littoral. These hoards seem to reveal a general trend: coin hoards in Britain appear to be not for later recovery and but for some other reason, perhaps sacred.

The archaeological context is then dealt with in greater detail. The authors divide the contexts into four broad categories—military, urban, rural, and religious. They demonstrate that various groups engaged in the process of coin hoarding and that no single collectivity hoarded more than the others. Beyond doubt, the most profound element of this chapter, if not of the work as whole, is the convincing evidence that goes against one of the most deeply established assumptions in hoard studies, namely that an increase in hoarding is tied to crises as people sought to hide their wealth before calamity struck. The authors compellingly argue that, so far as Iron Age and Roman Britain are concerned, only a very small number of known hoards can be securely classified as emergency stores of wealth during moments of crisis.

They do not argue that this correlation is wholly absent: they think that hoards whose burial date corresponds to a broader crisis such as the Boudiccan revolt or the Claudian invasion were buried as standard savings not as emergency hoards. Rather times of crisis do not inspire coin hoard burials, even though they may have created conditions that made later recovery less possible.[4] With regard to the issue of increased hoarding for the later third century AD, the authors argue that non-recovery was driven by “the impact of inflation and regime change on the economic usability” of the ever-debased silver (207), suggesting that as the coinage’s intrinsic value plummeted its ‘sacred value’ rose, thereby increasing the frequency of the series of enormous votive burials, such as the Frome hoard, at the time.

This text of this handsomely produced volume appears in two columns of slightly-oversized high-gloss pages. The work contains an impressive 99 maps (many full-page), 24 tables, 179 graphs (many color), 51 photographs (most color). and only minimal typos or errors. This work offers considerable appeal to a variety of scholars in a range of disciplines. Though its technical nature may at first glance dissuade the non-specialist, its contribution to archaeology, numismatics, and historical studies is considerable.

Altogether the work is an exceptional illustration of the successes that digital approaches to the ancient world can produce. Bland, Chadwick, Ghey, and Haselgrove deserve the highest praise for their contributions to hoard studies and for advancing understanding of the complexities of Iron Age and Roman Britain.


[1] Analysis of the Frome hoard, for instance, has les scholars to contend that it was not a ‘pay-chest’ or savings hoard but that it was a votive deposit. Numerous factors contribute to this assessment. First, it appears that the Frome hoard saw later additions of coin after the initial deposition. Second, the radiates, which comprised much of the hoard, were of little value in the local rural marketplace. Lastly, the large size and frailty of the pot used indicate that recovery would not have been possible. See Moorhead, S. et al. 2010. The Frome Hoard. London: Thames and Hudson; Walton, P. 2016. “Coinage and the Economy” in M. Millett, et al. (edd.), The Oxford Handbook of Roman Britain, 843.

[2] Included here are broad categories based on chief metal not individual denominations. Gold, silver, base silver, and copper alloys.

[3] Haselgrove, C. and Wigg-Wolf, D. (edd.). 2005. Iron Age Coinage and Ritual Practices. Studien zu Funmünzen der Antike 20. Mainz am Rhein: Philipp von Zabern.

[4] This is far more significant than it may seem at first glance. If the correlation between crisis and emergency hoarding has been exaggerated then many routine savings and votive hoards have been miscategorized simply because their burial coincided with some predicament, thereby greatly skewing our understanding not only of Roman economic habit and vitality but also of the ritualistic role of coinage.