News: How do you date a hoard? The case of Bredon Hill

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A selection of coins from Bredon Hill. (Photo: Worcester Museums)

The chance discovery of a cache of over 3800 Roman coins outside Evesham has raised interesting questions about how accurately we can date finds of this kind.  Hoards are typically found in isolated spots, without other archaeological remains, so their date of burial is usually established by when the latest coin was minted. The discovery from Bredon Hill, however, suggests this may not in fact be a reliable method.

The coins, silver radiates (so called because of the ‘radial crown’ emperors are shown wearing) were discovered and reported to the PAS in June by two metal detectorists, Jethro Carpenter and Mark Gilmore. A two-week excavation by Worcestershire County Council Historic Environment and Archaeology Service then opened a small trench over the find spot which revealed that, unusually, the hoard had been buried in the ruins of a late 2nd-3rd century Roman villa. Furthermore, while the coins ranged in date from AD 244-282, they lay in a pit cutting through a layer of soil containing 4th-century pottery and a coin dating to c.AD 355-361. This suggests the hoard may have been buried as much as a century after the minting of the latest coin.

Speaking to CA, Worcestershire and Warwickshire Finds Liaison Officer Richard Henry said: ‘It does raise the question of whether our assumptions on the dating of hoards are always correct, though it has to be remembered that without other archaeological evidence the coins themselves and the vessel holding them are the only way we can date hoards.
‘That said, I cannot think of another example of coins being deposited over 70 years later. At this time it is difficult to draw conclusions as we only excavated a small area, but within the area investigated we did find at least two structures and a huge amount of pottery so it is unusual by itself and an exciting site. The next step is geophysics.’

The coins being sorted. (Photo: Worcester Museums)

Although the Bredon Hill coins only span 38 years, they represent the issues of 16 different emperors. Richard Henry said this rapid turnaround highlighted how politically unstable the Roman Empire had become by the third century, a time when the empire was rocked by ‘revolts, rebellions, plague and invasions’.

The 817 coins of Victorinus (r.269-271) in the hoard emphasise this. Rather than depicting that emperor’s face, they continue to use the bust of his predecessor Marius, with Victorinus’ name inscribed on the obverse. Richard Henry suggests this was because the mints did not have time to find out what their new emperor looked like — a stark indication of how short imperial reigns could be. Adding to this chaotic picture, the collection also includes coins by seven emperors of the ‘Gallic Empire’, a breakaway power comprising Britain and Gaul which emerged in AD 260 and survived 14 years before being forcibly reunited with the main empire.

Chronic financial instability also marked the third century, caused in part by this political turmoil, and this too is reflected in the hoard. Radiates are supposed to be 90% silver but as resources were stretched tighter coins became ever more debased, with a greater part of their material made up of copper alloy. Many of the Bredon Hill coins are 20 parts copper to 1 part silver (5%), while some barely manage 1%.

Post-excavation analysis of the hoard is now underway, and the majority of the coins are currently at the British Museum undergoing conservation. A selection can still be seen at the Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum, however, where they will be on display until November 26.


Article by Carly Hilts

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