British Museum Coins: The Hoxne hoard

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01 February 2018
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Among the many treasures in the British Museum is a find of silver and gold coins and objects which is the largest of its kind found anywhere in Europe, as this month’s exclusive article reveals 

The Hoxne hoard, of more than 15,000 coins and an assortment of artefacts including bracelets, bowls, spoons, pepper pots and toilet utensils, was found buried in a field in Suffolk in 1992. The find was carefully excavated and the following year was declared Treasure Trove and acquired by the British Museum for £1.8m. 

The excavation of the find in the lab allowed archaeologists to reconstruct the circumstances of burial and show what the treasure looked like when it went into the ground 1600 years ago.

A wooden chest measuring 60cm by 45cm by 30 cm had been filled with 29 pieces of jewellery, 124 table utensils, and a smaller chest in which the coins were stashed. The jewellery is regarded as being among the finest available to citizens of the late Roman Empire.

The hoard from Hoxne is one of a group of remarkably rich finds from late 4th to early 5th century East Anglia including the Mildenhall Treasure (found in 1942) comprising 28 pieces of tableware decorated with pagan motifs which was probably more for show than dining, the Water Newton Treasure which is the earliest known Christian silver form the whole of the Roman world, and the Thetford hoard of silver tableware and gold jewellery. 

Hoards of gold coins from late Roman Britain are very rare finds and so each has an important role to play in our understanding of the money economy of the period.

The Hoxne find, which is the largest British coin find from this period, included 15,234 coins: 580 gold solidi, 60 silver miliarenses, 14,565 silver siliquae, five rare silver half-siliquae and 24 bronze coins.

The gold solidus was introduced in the fourth century to replace the old aureus and became the standard unit issued in the late empire. The emperors represented on the gold coins range issues of Valentinian I dating to 364-7 to issues of Honorius from 402-8. The silver coins go back slightly earlier to the 330s.

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A wide range of seven mints are represented on the gold coins; from Lyon to Constantinople and Trier to Sirmium and thirteen responsible for the silver production.

Among the latest coins are those minted at Rome, Ravenna and Aquileia by Honorius. This piece is fairly typical of the imperial style in the late fourth and early fifth century. The emperor is shown draped and cuirassed and is wearing a diadem. The standard inscription D(ominus) N(oster) HONORIVS P(ius)F(elix) AVG(ustus) means ‘Our Lord Honorius, Pious to the Gods; and blessed by the Gods, Augustus’.

The reverse has a large standing figure of the emperor with his foot resting on a captive. In his hands he holds a labarum (military standard) and a Victory standing on a globe. The R V to either side of the figure stands for the mint of Ravenna and the COMOB below for the fact that the coins were minted by the court (comitatus) using pure gold (obryzum aurum). 

The last coins in the Hoxne hoard align with 410, the year when the province of Britannia ceased to be a functioning part of the Roman Empire. There are few dates in history that can truly claim to mark the end of one era and the start of another, and so it is with AD410.

The widely-accepted narrative goes that when the Roman administration of Britannia abruptly ended, so did coin supply and use. While it is certainly true that fresh batches of coin stopped being shipped into the province to pay for the army and bureaucracy, recent finds are helping to shape a more nuanced understanding of the fiscal reality in Britain after 410.

The hoard record suggests that the bulk of coins supplied from the empire were silver siliqua minted 395–402 and that by the early fifth century this supply had already been disrupted. The final parcels of coins officially dispatched from Lyon (Roman Lugdunum) to Britain were those of the usurper Constantine III (407–11), but these were small in number.