Festival of Archaeology 2014: Roman gold coins and daggers of war in the west

By Ben Miller | 17 July 2014

Finds Liaison Officer Kurt Adams on the coins, treasures and daggers discovered on Gloucestershire and Avon's archaeological lands and riverbanks

A photo of a gold coin with the face of a Roman emperor and lettering engraved on it
© Portable Antiquities Scheme
A gold solidus of Honorius (AD 393-423) (dated to AD 397-402)

"This gold coin was found just outside of Bristol. Roman gold coins are incredibly rare in general, but this one is very, very late – it’s right at the end of the 4th century.

That’s really interesting for the region because you get very, very few Roman coins from that time. The Roman economic system was slowly winding down and collapsing in this country during the period, so you were seeing coins being used less and less on the peripherals of the empire.

A photo of a dark silver and green Roman coin with the face of an emperor on it
Silver denarius of Diva Domitilla the Elder (AD 82-83), found in the Forest of Dean district in February 2014© Portable Antiquities Scheme
By 400 AD, for instance, you were finding very few coins in the west country, although you’d still get them in the east, so the fact that you’ve got this gold coin is very interesting.

You’ve got the Emperor Constantinopolis and his name. They might only have used it in a ten-year period, so you can date it quite accurately.

Stylistically on the reverse it’s very particular. Many of the coins say which consul it was shipped on and where they were minted.

Generally if you get two or more coins they are treasure. But if you get a single one it’s not classed as treasure.

A person came in to Bristol Museum, realised he’d made quite a find and just wanted to get it recorded. He was a metal detectorist: it was found on ploughed land.

About 80 percent of our finds come from detectorists, but not always – sometimes people have been digging their back garden or have gone field walking, looking for pottery or flint, things like that.

A photo of a dark silver Roman coin with an emperor figure engraved onto it
Fortuna stands left on the denarius, holding a rudder and cornucopia© Portable Antiquities Scheme
The legal perspective is that anything you find is the property of the landowner. As long as you’ve got permission from them to remove the finds then that’s fine.

We assume people have got permission: we can’t go checking everyone up. If it’s not treasure we simply give it back to them.

We borrow it for a little while so we can accurately record it.

In many cases I research them as well, going through the books to make sure we’ve got the right dates and information. We also photograph it.

We assume it’s the only time an archaeologist is going to see it, so you have to get as much information as possible.

If it’s treasure it falls under the 1996 Treasure Act. You’ve got very specific criteria about things that aren’t treasure.

With coins, if it’s gold or silver there’s got to be two or more of them, and they’ve got to be over 300 years old.

If it’s copper alloy there have got to be ten or more of them. If it’s prehistoric any part of it can be gold or silver to make it treasure.

A photo of two sections of a dagger depicting some sort of roman figure in gold
A medieval cast gilt copper alloy mount for a reliquary length© Portable Antiquities Scheme
A gilded brooch might only be 0.5 percent gold, but it’s still treasure because prehistoric gold is so rare. Anything found with the treasure, such as a ceramic pot, becomes treasure as well.

But you get finds which tell us so much about history and archaeology around the country. They’re the real treasures – they’re so much more important than the gold and silver that people find.

It’s really about trying to work out what the coins were used for. For instance, if you’re looking at gold coins from the Georgian period they were used as a form of currency. But if you then look at them from the Roman period, they’re not really being used as currency: they’re more being used for mass, high-status, really important, very big transactions.

No-one on the streets would ever see a gold coin, let alone handle one. In those periods, you could argue that a gold coin is something more than just a form of currency.

The great thing about the Treasure Act is that it’s trying to keep some of the best artefacts in the hands of the nation.

A great example of where the system failed the nation, if you like, was with the cavalry helmet in Cumbria.

That’s not treasure, but it’s an enormously important artefact nationally. But because we weren’t able to protect it, it just got sold into private hands.

The whole aim of the Act is to ensure that these really important items are kept in the national collections. Because they’re in a museum they stay in the public domain.”

A photo of a long thin dark brown dagger
© Portable Antiquities Scheme
A medieval dagger

“This is quite a rare find, again by a metal detectorist. I’ve recorded two of these so far.

One was about four years. It’s a bit different, from the Bath area.

It was found by a fisherman on the banks of a river – I forget exactly which one it was. He saw these round discs.

The fisherman lent over and started pulling it. In the end he got this dagger which is 40 or 50 centimetres long.

Somebody had buried it in clay, which preserved the metal really well with the original handle. He donated it to Bath Museum because he realised it was an important find.

It’s called a rondel dagger, because of the pommel, from the 15th century. The handle of the blade is also a large, round disc.

They’re weapons of warfare – a great, big, long metal rod, really thick. Sometimes they’ve got a blade on them, sometimes they don’t

The whole purpose of these daggers is to punch through armour. They get through the nooks and crannies.

The other one was found up towards Gloucester way by a lady metal detectorist in a field.

A lot of metal detectorists don’t discriminate iron because there’s so much of it in the fields, so we don’t see that much of it. That was quite a cool find, and very rare as well.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of a series of circular ancient artefacts
This compete copper alloy hinged mirror case was found in February 2013© Portable Antiquities Scheme
A photo of a dark brown ancient figurehead of an emperor showing its various sections
A copper alloy furniture fitting in the shape of a human head© Portable Antiquities Scheme
More on the Festival of Archaeology 2014:

Medieval rings, Bronze Age hoards and Iron Age discoveries in Kent

An Iron Age comb, medieval matrix and Bronze Age vessel in Worcestershire

Pickaxes, brooches, dogs and Roman cups in Bedfordshire
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