Treasure hunter finds hoard of 52,000 Roman coins

Bija Knowles
Friday 09 July 2010 09:44

A metal-detector enthusiast has found one of the biggest ever hoards of Roman coins. It is the biggest hoard ever found in a single vessel in Britain, numbering 52,500 Roman coins of varying denominations.

Dave Crisp was in a field near Frome, Somerset, when he found what turned out to be an earthenware pot full of coins from the third century AD. The coins, held in a metal jar weighing 160kg, is estimated to have been worth around four years' pay for a Roman legionary soldier.

The find was initially made at the end of May. Since then the site has been excavated and the British Museum has begun a conservation process. A total number for the coins was only reached last week.

Experts involved in the excavation have nothing but praise for Mr Crisp. “The discovery at Frome stands out as a story, mainly because Dave Crisp reported it immediately to his local coroner,” says Somerset Finds Liaison Officer Anna Booth.

“This meant we got to excavate the site in its original, undisturbed state. Mr Crisp took part in this process with us, even going to the extent of camping there one night with his grandson, to make sure that the site was safe over night.”

The 'coarse, average type of vessel' in which the coins were kept is made from black burnished ceramic ware, and measures around 50cm in diameter. Though the pot was intact in the ground, it had been cracked, making it easier to get the coins out.

“The pot was enormous, there is no way that anyone could have carried it, which we think makes it unlikely that the money was hidden by someone who intended to return to it,” adds Booth. “The pot has been carefully placed in the ground using packing material such as reeds and grass, so we think it could be a ritual offering.”

An inquest on 22 July will rule whether the find is classed as treasure or not. Under the 1996 Treasure Act (for England, Wales and Northern Ireland), objects that might be considered treasure, or are more than 300 years old, must be reported to the local coroner within 14 days of discovery.

In the case of coins, if there are more than 10 from the same hoard with a silver or gold content of at least 10 per cent, then it is classed as 'treasure' and must be offered for sale to a museum (the British Museum has first refusal) at a value determined by the Treasury Valuation Committee.

If the hoard is declared to be treasure, and it seems certain this will, then Somerset County Museum Service has declared its interest in buying it and a reward would be shared between the finder, Dave Crisp, and the owner of the field.

Last year's Staffordshire Hoard of Saxon jewellery earned finder Terry Herbert a cool £1.3m. Yet Booth insists that it is too early to tell how much Mr Crisp stands to make from his discovery. “I can't comment on the value of the coins, partly because I don't know and also because there are just too many variables. It will depend on how many rare coins there are and the condition they're in.”

The hoard will eventually go on display at Taunton Museum, which is undergoing refurbishment and will be reopened in spring 2011, when conservation work is complete.

Whatever the value of the haul, it is of great historical interest, including coins minted by 21 emperors and three emperors' wives. Famous rulers include Gallenius, Diocletian and Maximian, but perhaps more interesting is that 766 coins feature the notorious Carausius, a brutal usurper who ruled Britain and parts of northern Gaul independent of the empire from 286-293 AD. Coins of Carausius are rarely found in hoards.

Carausius also struck his own coins, and reinstated the silver denarius. There are up to ten of these in the hoard. The second half of the third century was a troubled time for Britain, with Carausius's play for power causing political instability. It was also the tail-end of the third century crisis, during which the empire was hit by disease, unrest and economic depression. It is possible this huge haul was actually deflated in value at the time. It could explain why such a large number of them were buried together.

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