Massive Roman Empire coin hoard found by archaeologist who slept in car for three nights

By Ben Miller | 26 September 2014

22,000 copper-alloy coins were found by an archaeologist who slept by the hoard site for three nights in Devon

A photo of an enormous number of green and grey coins
The coins range from the late AD 260s to the AD 340s© The Trustees of the British Museum
The Royal Albert Memorial Museum has launched a public appeal to buy the largest hoard of 4th century coins ever found in Britain.

Laurence Egerton discovered 22,000 copper-alloy coins near a known Roman villa at Honeyditches, in East Devon, last November. Experts from the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which announced one of the coins as its millionth find in its annual report today, praised Egerton’s “prompt and responsible” decision to report the hoard, which ensured the artefacts were properly excavated and recorded.

A photo of a vast number of green coins in a skip
The coin pronounced as the Scheme's millionth object was struck by Constantine I to celebrate his new city of Constantinople (Istanbul)© The Trustees of the British Museum
“Initially I found two small coins the size of a thumbnail sitting on top of the ground," said the 51-year-old.

“Then, as I began working in a grid formation in the surrounding area, I had a 50-50 signal on the metal detector, which means that there is probably iron involved.

“Most detectors are set up to ignore iron but I decided to dig the earth at that spot and immediately reached some iron ingots which were laid directly on top of the coins.

“The next shovel was full of coins - they just spilled out over the field. I had no idea how far down the coins went, so I stopped immediately and phoned my wife to come to the site with a camera.

“Between finding the hoard and the archaeologists excavating the site I slept alongside it in my car for three nights.

“It’s by far the biggest find I’ve ever had. It really doesn’t get any better than this.

“It is so important to record all of these finds properly because it is so easy to lose important insights into our history.”

Bill Horner, the County Archaeologist for Devon County Council, spoke glowingly of the Emperor-emblazoned coins.

A photo of a large number of green coins within the dirt of a stone archaeological site
The coins have already undergone some conservation work© The Trustees of the British Museum
“We realised the significance of the find and mobilised a team as fast as we could,” he said.

“So much more information was retrieved as a result. The coins were in remarkably good condition.

“Coming out of the ground you could see the portrait faces – a family tree of the House of Constantine.

“It is to the finder’s great credit that so many coins were left in the ground to be archaeologically excavated. “

The asking price for the hoard will be decided by the British Museum’s Treasure Valuation Committee later this year.

“This extraordinary hoard will add greatly to our picture of life in Roman Devon,” said Rosie Durham, Exeter’s Lead Councillor for Economy and Culture, praising the “exemplary co-operation” between Egerton, the landowner and the authorities.

“It would be a wonderful addition to the museum’s collection of local Romano-British objects, which includes finds from Honeyditches.

“We hope that public support will enable us to acquire the hoard. It has so many exciting stories to tell.

“We look forward to developing and sharing these stories and invite all to help buy and conserve this important discovery.”

Dr Roger Bland, the Keeper of Britain, Europe and Prehistory at the British Museum, said the coins were worth relatively little at the height of the Roman Empire.

"Despite the number of coins found, the financial value would not have been great, amounting to approximately four gold coins," he explained.

"This sum of money would possibly have provided the ration of four soldiers for one year or a worker’s pay for two years.”

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The Seaton Down Hoard – and the millionth find

The hoard of approximately 22,000 copper-alloy coins was found near the previously excavated site of a Roman villa at Honeyditches in East Devon in November 2013.

Realising the significance of the discovery, and that much of it was in situ, Egerton immediately contacted the landowner (Clinton Devon Estates), as well as Danielle Wootton (Devon Finds Liaison Officer who is based at the University of Exeter) and Bill Horner (County Archaeologist).

Seaton Down is the largest hoard of coins of the 4th century AD from Britain to have been properly recorded through the Portable Antiquities Scheme. It was declared Treasure earlier this month.

It appears that the coins were buried together as a single group in a small isolated pit. The lozenge shaped form of the coin deposit suggests the coins were buried in a flexible container - perhaps a fabric or soft leather bag - although this has not survived.

The combined weight of the coins is 68kg. They have been lightly cleaned at the British Museum prior to valuation under the Treasure Act 1996.

The coins range from the late AD 260s to the AD 340s – a period of much turmoil in Roman Britain.

99% of the hoard consists of nummi – common coins struck between AD 330 and AD 341.

The group terminates in AD 347-8 during the joint reign of Constantius II and his younger brother Constans, sons of Constantine I. Constans was the last legitimate Emperor to visit Britain.

The scale of the hoard is said to be "remarkable". It is one of the largest hoards ever found within the whole Roman Empire.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More from Culture24's coverage of Portable Antiquities Scheme finds:

An Iron Age comb, medieval matrix and Bronze Age vessel

Katie Marsden on medieval finds and a World War I medal

The story of an early Bronze Age lunula found in Dorset

Archaeologist reveals Lincolnshire's best finds
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