Review – Hoards: a hidden history of ancient Britain

5 mins read
Miniature shields were found at Netherhampton, near Salisbury, as part of an impressive, probably ritual, hoard of objects spanning the Early Bronze Age to the Late Iron Age in date. (ALL IMAGES: The Trustees of the British Museum, unless otherwise stated)
Hoards of different periods have been uncovered in many parts of Britain. A touring exhibition brings together some of these intriguing caches of objects hidden long ago, and explores the possible reasons behind their burial. Lucia Marchini travelled to Salisbury to find out more.

This summer, metal-detectorists uncovered a Roman coin hoard stowed away in a pot in the Bourne Valley near Salisbury. The find was promptly reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which sent archaeologists to excavate the cracked vessel. They wrapped the pot in bandages and took it to the British Museum for study, where the 1,820 Roman coins it contained were removed and cleaned. These are late 3rd-century AD ‘radiates’, which depict the emperor wearing a crown in imitation of the sun god Sol. Large coin hoards from this period are relatively common. High inflation followed by monetary reform may have meant that, having been hidden, the coins were perhaps considered not worth coming back to.

Even as the coroner evaluates the Treasure status of the Bourne Valley Hoard, this recent discovery – still with a bandage around the pot’s middle – is on display at Salisbury Museum, which hopes to purchase it. Accompanied by X-ray images and photographs of the excavation, the display gives an insight into the processes behind the Treasure Act.

Other local finds – and those from further afield, including across the Irish Sea – join the Bourne Valley Hoard in the touring exhibition Hoards: a hidden history of ancient Britain. The displays were organised in partnership with the British Museum, from whose collections come some of these remarkable goods that were concealed for millennia. The 3rd-century Cunetio Hoard is an interesting example of this collaborative approach, as the 54,951 coins that make this the largest Roman coin hoard found in Britain are held by the British Museum, but the large ceramic jar that contained some of them is in the collections of the Wiltshire Museum. The exhibition reunites these artefacts, uncovered by metal-detectorists in 1978 near Mildenhall, Wiltshire, for the first time.

These axes from the Salisbury Hoard were too brittle to be used for any practical purpose, so they were probably made specifically for the cache.

Hailing from the same county is the spectacular, and earlier, Salisbury Hoard, excavated illegally at Netherhampton in 1985. Unusually, artefacts from the hoard cover nearly every century of the 2,200-year period between the Early Bronze Age and the Late Iron Age. Normally, if a hoard does contain earlier objects, it is just one or two. At Netherhampton, it seems the goods were buried together as a single group in the 1st or 2nd century BC. The older objects, though, including Bronze Age razors, were perhaps part of an earlier hoard that was uncovered during the Iron Age and then reburied with the more modern objects. Late Bronze Age copper-alloy socketed axes were also found in the Salisbury Hoard. They were perhaps intended to imitate iron, the new high-end material, and were too brittle for practical use, which suggests they were created specifically for deposition.

Among the newer items from the hoard are around 50 miniature cauldrons dating from 200-100 BC. Although much smaller than their full-sized counterparts (which would have been used for feasting), they do vary in both size and design, which could be an indication that more than one person contributed to the hoard. Three of the Salisbury Hoard’s fine miniature shields are also on show. Complete with handles at the back, and some decorated with engravings, these shields are the same date as the cauldrons. Model weapons like these have been found along with human remains and animal bones at Late Iron Age shrine sites. Unlike the 3rd-century Roman coin hoards, some of which may be a response to economic uncertainty, the Salisbury Hoard was probably buried as part of a ritual.

In 1928, a boy digging in his garden in Muswell Hill, London, uncovered 654 silver coins, a silver spoon, and a bronze ring (which no longer survives). There were also fragments of pottery from a . money box with a slit for coins (shown here reconstructed) that was perhaps made by the original owner of the hoard.

The different possible motivations for hoarding are a central theme explored throughout the exhibition. As well as the Bourne Valley and Cunetio hoards, there are a number of other Roman coin hoards on show (including a remarkable ceramic money box found by a boy digging in his north London garden), yet hoarders in Roman Britain weren’t merely misers cautiously concealing coins. Near Kingston Deverill, Wiltshire, a hoard with three trullei (a type of saucepan) and two strainer bowls from the late 1st century AD was uncovered. Trullei were part of Roman soldiers’ equipment (one of them carries the stamp of Publius Cipius Polybius, who worked near Pompeii in the 1st century AD), but wine strainers appear in Iron Age hoards and burials. Why this mix of native and Roman items was buried is unknown, but its location near a temple on Cold Kitchen Hill, close to a Roman road, presents two main possibilities: that the hoard was offered to the gods or was hidden for safekeeping by a traveller who never retrieved it.

A shallow pit in Ashwell, Hertfordshire, concealed a Roman votive deposit made up of a wide range of items and materials, including this head from a clay fi gurine. (IMAGE: L Marchini)

Certain sites retained a special status after the Roman conquest. In Ashwell, Hertfordshire, a Late Iron Age ritual site was reused for the burial of votive objects from a Roman temple. A shallow pit dating to the 2nd century AD contained Iron Age and Roman coins, a Roman brooch, the head of a clay figurine, pottery, animal bones, and other objects – a diverse range characteristic of Roman ritual deposits. And back in Wiltshire, in Tisbury, miniature iron hammers and a model sword from the 4th century AD have been found on the site of a shrine dedicated to a local deity, who was still honoured in the Roman period. The god was perhaps associated with ironworking and these iron finds, too small to be functional, were possibly made either deliberately as offerings or as a way for smiths to practise their craft.

While the main focus of the exhibition is on hoards hidden in ancient Britain, there are also examples from the medieval and modern eras. In some cases, and in more recent times, there are clearer clues as to why these items were concealed. In Boyton, Wiltshire, 4,147 coins (making up £17 5s 6d, nine times the recorded taxable wealth of the community) were buried in peacetime after 1324. The land where the coins were found belonged to a widow whose son was executed by Edward II, and so it is possible that they were buried as the family underwent drastic changes of fortune. The display of this hoard offers a more personal context to an otherwise enigmatic and long-lived practice that the exhibition traces back as far as groups of Neolithic flint axes.


Hoards: a hidden history of ancient Britain runs at the Salisbury Museum until 5 January 2019. Tickets are £8 (£4 for children). See for more information. Across 2019, the exhibition will travel to Ulster Museum, Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, Brading Roman Villa, and Peterborough Museum.

This review appeared in CA 346.

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