Friday 25 November 2022

The farmer's friend

Like all farmers, Peter Whatling of Hoxne, Suffolk was possessed or a gurt big lump-hammer . . . until he wasn't. Lump-hammers are the Great Persuader of rural life: if the tines of your bale-lift get bent out of shape; or a bolt just won't fit in the hole then a tuthree mighty tonks with a lump-hammer will sort it out. In November 1992, Whatling had been using his hammer [R on show in the British Museum] down the field and when he got home his hammer was missing. After a while of fruitless searching, he called on his neighbour Eric Lawes to make a few passes with his metal-detector. They did eventually find the hammer, but on the way Eric turned up the largest treasure trove of Roman gold and silver ever discovered in Britain. You can listen to Eric Lawes trying to remember the sequence of events. And here's his famous for 15 days obit. The story has been recorded when Roger Bland of the BM came down to talk to the Hoxne Heritage Group.

They grassed themselves up to Suffolk County Council, who sent their archaeological swat team the following day to painstakingly excavate the hoard maintaining as much archaeological context as possible; including lifting large blocks of frozen soil [did I say it was mid-November?]. Peter kindly created a wall of straw-bales to protect the archaeologists and their police escort against the whipping wind. The 1993 coroner's inquest in Lowestoft determined that the hoard was treasure trove and therefore the property of the state. But, by long-standing convention, the value of the artifacts was paid over to Eric Lawes as the sole finder. The boodle was valued at £1.75million, and Eric shared it with the tenant farmer Peter Whatling. In this case the owner of the freehold Suffolk County Council didn't get nuffink; and was put to some expense saving and cataloguing all the pieces.

They thought they'd revealed all the Roman material in the immediate vicinity but subsequent passes in 1993 and 1994 turned up even more, if less spectacular, historical artefacts. Analysis of the 569 gold coins (solidi):14,272 silver coins (mostly siliquae) was able to date the horde as the very end of Roman Britain because it includes coins minted for Emperor Honorius (393-423). Other details and and cross-referencing suggests a terminus ad quem [earliest possible date] of 408 CE.

In 409, Constantine III stripped all the legions from  Britain to deal with barbarian hordes closer to the Roman heartlands and in 410, 411 Emperor Honorius sent his Rescript to the plain people of Britain inviting them to look to their own defenses. The first Saxon raids occurred at about the same time and it is probable that a wealthy family, probably including one Aurelius Ursicinus, packed their portable property into an oaken chest and buried it somewhere safe. Clearly they never returned - unless you prefer to imagine a bloke in a toga fruitlessly casting about in the area after the above-ground ID had been disturbed.

It's also interesting that the gold coins had identifiable mint-marks from all over the Roman Empire from Trier in Gaul to Antioch in Syria. 85% of the silver coins have been clipped to retain the value of the coin while also salvaging some silver bullion; this defacement has removed most of the mint-mark information. The value of coins to us moderns is definitely more in the provenance and archaeological context rather than the silver. Hoxne bling!

When we joined the Euro-zone in January 2002, each country was invited to strike its own coins to its own design. Ireland struck 135 million €1s in 2002, compared to 300m in France and 2,000 from Vatican City. I thought it would be interesting to get 200 €1 coins from the bank every quarter and tally up the provenance. Presumably on day 0 all the coins from Allied Irish Bank would have a harp on the obverse. But as German, Greek and French tourists piled in to buy pints of Guinness with their small change, the All-Irish flavour of the coinage would get diluted. Something could be learned from the circulation of Euro-people from taking snapshots of Euro-coins. I was super busy in 2002 pushing the frontiers of human genome analysis with Ken Wolfe - and creating the persona of BobTheScientist - so that project never flew.

Footnote. The Hoxne Hoard, and subsequent rogue metal-detecting in the area, precipitated a new law "An Act to abolish treasure trove and to make fresh provision in relation to treasure (1996)". Treasure trove was the term used in British Common Law (dating back to Edward the Confessor 1,000 years ago) to cover valuables which had been hidden, buried or secreted, with the intention of recovery, for which no owner or heirs could be identified. Famously Sutton Hoo was deemed by the coroner to be finders-keepers because nobody intended to come back for the Great Man's helmet [L]! The 1996 act defined what exactly constitutes treasure.

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