Hoards and hoarding

11 mins read
Treasures from the Staffordshire Hoard
Treasures from the Staffordshire Hoard

Over the last few years, several spectacular hoards have been discovered in Britain in quick succession, the most recent being the magnificent Staffordshire Hoard found in 2009 (CA 236) and this summer’s Frome Hoard (CA 246). The hoards have been disparate, representing different time periods and geographical areas, with contents ranging from the precious to the semi-precious; practical items to those that have been deliberately broken; jewellery and coins to bullion; martial items and objets d’art. Taken as a whole, however, these seemingly unrelated finds are provoking a re-examination of hoarding in general, in a cross-period context, and drawing conclusions that break barriers between time, place and contents.

Why did our ancestors bury so much metal in the past? The normal interpretation, especially for coin hoards (of which well over 2,000 are known from Roman Britain alone), is that they were buried for safe-keeping in a time of uncertainty, and would have been recovered later. The Frome Hoard has challenged this assumption, however; not only in its sheer size, and what this bulk says about the possibility of its retrieval in antiquity, but also because the scientific excavation, layer by layer, has allowed archaeologists to see exactly how the coins were placed inside. The facts suggest  it might have been a ritual offering, perhaps the wealth of a farming community deposited over centuries, as insurance for a good harvest or good weather.

Many reasons have been given for the burial of coin hoards. The most common is fear in times of invasion or unrest. In fact, one of England’s great diarists mentions a hoard buried in just such circumstances: Samuel Pepys’ diary entry for 13 June 1667, records a request to his wife to bury the family’s savings in their Northamptonshire garden, in advance of the Dutch attacks in south-eastern England. There can be little doubt that the Bredgar hoard (found in 1957) of gold coins, buried in north Kent around AD 43, was related in some way to the Claudian invasion, but it is notoriously difficult to link hoards with particular military events.  It is true that many hoards of silver denarii are known from the late 2nd century AD, which are interpreted as people burying their wealth due to barbarian activity on the northern frontier — the problem is that most of these hoards are in the Midlands and the South. It has also been suggested that these deposits might show soldiers hoarding their donatives (a one-off payment made to soldiers on special occasions, such as the anniversary of imperial accession), or secluding their good silver coins at a time of increasing inflation.
The biggest concentration of coin hoards from Britain is in the second half of the 3rd century AD. Some 600 hoards are known with their latest coins dated to between AD 253 and 296, traditionally associated with the threats of Saxon and Irish raids. The archaeological record does not corroborate this, however; although towns seem to be in decline at this period, the countryside appears to have experienced a time of prosperity, as shown by the evidence from villas.

It is well known that archaeologists often retreat to ‘ritual’ as their last line of defence. Before ridiculing the ritual explanation, however, it is necessary to look at pre-Roman Britain. Amongst the most famous precious metal finds in Britain are the hoards of late Iron Age torcs and other metal-work deposited at Snettisham (CA 126), which were placed in a discrete area over a period of time, which has been accepted as ritual activity.  Furthermore, in the Iron Age, certain metal objects were thrown in rivers, notably weapons such as swords, daggers and shields; other classes of objects are found in the landscape, notably hoards of horse-fittings. Ian Leins of the British Museum maintains that the recent discovery at Hallaton in Leicestershire (CA 236) of several hoards of Iron Age and Roman coins, along with one helmet, is overtly ritual. Here, 14 separate hoards of coins were found buried in the entrance way to a hilltop boundary ditch and accompanied by large numbers of animal bones, suggesting that the find-spot may have been a centre for feasting over many years.
But we can go back even further. Richard Bradley and David Yates have recently published two papers looking at the contexts of Bronze Age metalwork, and have found a close correlation between the distribution of both single finds and hoards with rivers and streams, especially the headwaters of streams. Throwing of weapons into rivers is a practice that began in the Bronze Age, as shown by the enormous number of rapiers found in the Thames. Furthermore, a major interpretation for large Bronze Age metal hoards found on land is that they represent ritual deposits.
What seemsclear is that in Britain there is a tradition of depositing metal objects for religious or ritual reasons. It starts in the Bronze Age, most conspicuously around 1500 BC, and then continues in the Iron Age, with material being deposited in rivers and on land in both periods. Indeed the Netherhampton (‘Salisbury’) Hoard, deposited around 200 BC or slightly later, includes material stretching back to the Early Bronze Age. In the Roman period, no one denies the ritual element in the deposition of objects — many of them coins — in watery places such as Bath, Coventina’s Well, the River Thames at London Bridge, and the River Tees at Piercebridge. The ritual element in the burial of coins at Romano-British temple sites, such as Nettleton and Uley, is undeniable. Towards the end of the Roman period, significant deposits of coins were made at prehistoric sites, such as Silbury Hill and nearby barrows. So, here we see the continued deposition of metal objects in the Roman period, which should not surprise us as the vast majority of people in Roman Britain were direct descendents of the populations living here in the Iron and Bronze Ages.
It has also been suggested that late Roman silver coin hoards represent people burying their money in advance of invasion by the Saxon hordes. Richard Hobbs of the British Museum believes that a large number of these hoards might actually be ritual deposits, rather than money banked for later retrieval. He notes that, in places like East Anglia, this is a tradition stretching back to the pre-Roman period — which brings us back to Snettisham. In light of this, is it not possible that a number of the coin hoards buried in Roman Britain might also be offerings, following earlier traditions? It is interesting that there are groups of hoards clustering around particular places: in Somerset, several hoards are known from Shapwick, and Dave Crisp (finder of the Frome hoard) also uncovered a dispersed late Roman silver hoard near to the find-site for the Frome hoard.
Another feature of hoards such as Frome, Hallaton, and Staffordshire is that they are buried in very prominent locations in the landscape; Hallaton and Staffordshire were both on hills, and Frome was on a ridge — hardly the sort of locations one would expect people to choose for secrecy. Furthermore, the Frome hoard’s location would probably have been very boggy at the time of its deposition: another favoured characteristic of many ancient ritual sites, so why not for a Romano-British ritual site as well?
But why would people have given their money to the gods, when they could have used it for other purposes? Firstly, their beliefs were very different from those of the materialistic 21st century. Gifts to the gods were made as part of a contract with very real meaning. Secondly, one can surmise how useful money would have been to people living in rural communities where taxes were increasingly paid in kind (the annona militaris).
Did this tradition of hoarding continue into the Early Medieval period? The Cuerdale hoard of Viking hack-silver and coins from the early 9th century is normally interpreted as a Viking army’s pay chest.  It is a compelling story. Go back a couple of centuries earlier, to the Staffordshire hoard. Was this a Kingdom’s wealth deposited for safekeeping, or an offering to the gods, made in the twilight of pagan Britain before Theodore of Tarsus laid the rigid grid-iron of the Roman church across Britain, stifling the last vestiges of British primeval cults? Was it Christianity that killed hoarding? That, as they say, is another story.
And — who amongst you, reading this article, still throws coins down wells?
Based extracts by  Sam Moorhead, Roger Bland and Dan Pett of the Portable Antiquities Scheme in CA 248