A massive ceramic jar containing over 52,000 Roman coins has been discovered by a metal detectorist in a Somerset field — the largest coin hoard ever found in Britain in a single pot. What can it tell us about wealth, ritual and political upheaval in Roman Britain?

In April 2010, metal detectorist Dave Crisp discovered some scattered pottery and 21 Roman coins in the middle of a field in Somerset. Soon after that, he heard a ‘funny noise’ through his headphones; digging down, he found the massive ceramic container which had originally held the coins, and which was packed to the top with more. According to Dave, ‘The pot started to emerge from the soil, and it went down from a small neck and got bigger and bigger. It never seemed to end.’ A detectorist never knows on any given day what might turn up, but what is certain is that Dave Crisp had no idea that he had just uncovered the largest single pot of Roman coins ever found in Britain.

Realising that he had something very, very big on his hands and that professional archaeological help would be needed in order to properly excavate the find, Dave downed his trowel and called Katie Hinds, the Finds Liaison Officer for Wiltshire, who in turn called Anna Booth, the FLO for Somerset. This turned out to be one of the most important decisions ever made by a detectorist in the field, as it allowed for careful excavation of the pot and its contents, ensuring important evidence about the circumstances of its burial was preserved. It is just these circumstances that are adding curious evidence to what is already a fascinating story.

The Frome Hoard, comprised of 52,503 coins from the 3rd century AD, sheds light on the economic crisis and coalition government of the 3rd century — and it is set to rewrite history books. One of the most important finds within the hoard is a group of over 760 coins of Carausius (AD 286-293), Britain’s break-away Emperor. This is the largest group of his coins ever found, and include five rare silver denarii, the only coins of this type being struck anywhere in the Roman Empire at the time of their making.

Excavation and recovery

The find site was just over the border in Somerset, and therefore Katie Hinds, who had previously worked with Dave on other finds and had been his first point of contact, rang Anna Booth, the FLO for Somerset. In conjunction with the Somerset  County Council and Bob Croft, Somerset County Archaeologist, local archaeologist Alan Graham was engaged to lead the excavation of the hoard; recovery took three days, with the assistance of the FLOs, Dave, his grandson Aaron, the landowner’s family and others.

The first day of excavation started with the realisation that what everyone thought was the top of the pot was in fact the remains of a small dish, which had been used as a lid. After the upper part of the pot had been uncovered, it soon became clear that the vessel was a very large storage jar, 45cm (18 inches) in diameter, of a type normally used for storing food. As Alan uncovered more of the pot, pieces of organic material were found on its outer surface, possibly straw or withies used as packing when the hoard was buried.

The first major challenge faced by the team was whether the hoard should be removed in a block, or excavated in parts. Due to the sheer size and weight of the hoard, it was decided that it would be impossible to remove the pot in one piece with the available resources; furthermore, it was already broken into several pieces, so it would not have been possible to maintain the hoard in its original shape. The decision was then taken to excavate the pot on site. Starting from the top, the pot was dismantled and the coins removed by numbered layers, each of which was labelled as a separate context. Sam Moorhead (National Finds Adviser for Iron Age and Roman Coins, Portable Antiquities Scheme) had been in telephone contact with the team and was keen to see whether there was any differentiation between the date of the coins at the top and those at the bottom. In other words, were there clues in the timing of the deposition of each layer of coins that might indicate whether this pot represented a sort of bank over the years?

What happens next?

The Frome Hoard was declared ‘treasure’ on 22 July 2010 by the Coroner at Frome. The first task facing the Portable Antiquities Scheme now is to secure funds for the hoard’s full conservation. In the meantime, the coins will be valued so that the hoard can be acquired by Somerset County Museum Service for eventual display in the newly refurbished Museum of Somerset at Taunton. The reward will be shared equally by Dave Crisp and the landowner, according to the stipulations of the Treasure Act. Roger Bland and Sam Moorhead will produce a catalogue of the coins and a full interpretation of the hoard — it certainly promises to be a very busy, but exciting, time ahead.

What was it worth in Roman times?

This was the period of the most intense inflation in the 3rd century. Money was constantly losing its value; most of the coins in the hoard have a small amount of silver in them — just over 3kg of silver is represented in the hoard. The silver and bronze content of the entire hoard might equate to the pay of a legionary soldier for about four years, which was a substantial amount of money and suggests that each of these radiate coins had a buying power in today’s money of around 50 pence.