When several companions set about an ambitious piece of landscaping in the back garden of their residence in Hackney, Greater London, a chance discovery brought them to a halt: a large group of gold coins from America. Ian Richardson discusses this curious find.

On a summer’s day three years ago, a group of friends set about renovating their back garden. One of the lucky landscapers pierced the turf with their shovel, and uncovered a hoard of 80 gold United States $20 coins, of the type known as the ‘Double Eagle’. Ranging in date from 1854 to 1913, even at the time of minting the coins would have represented a considerable amount of wealth. Realising the significance of what they had found, the intrepid gardeners contacted the local representative of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), Kate Sumnall, who brought the coins to the Museum of London and catalogued them. As a Finds Liaison Officer, Kate is used to seeing all manner of archaeological objects, but this was a very special case. Finds from the 20th century have the potential to provide important information about their past owners or the place in which they were found, but rarely do they qualify as ‘Treasure’ in the legal sense set out by the 1996 Treasure Act. The Hackney Double Eagles have proved to be a unique case in this respect.

The Treasure Act overturned one important aspect of the old rule of Treasure Trove: the burden of proof concerning the original intent of deposition — it was no longer necessary to prove that something had been buried with the intention of retrieval at a later date. Even with the initiation of a date threshold (objects of Treasure are normally required to be 300 years old at the time of discovery), the removal of the necessity to determine the circumstances under which an object found its way into the ground saw an immediate increase in the number of cases of Treasure reported in 1998, the first full year that the Treasure Act was in force. Not only are they rich in value, the Hackney Double Eagles are also providing an interesting case study in the process of the Treasure Act. As the coins are of relatively modern date, it is entirely possible that records may exist of who, why, and when the coins were deposited. If so, what happens next?

Tracing the treasure

The coins on display at the British Museum.

The new Treasure Act allows for the occasion that a discovery might be made which failed to meet one of the new criterion for Treasure, but which would have qualified as Treasure Trove. The Act declares that these items should still be considered Treasure. It is this provision which applies in the case of the Hackney Double Eagles, for, though they are less than 300 years old, it seems likely that such a collection must have been cached by someone who fully intended to return. It is not uncommon for hoards of 19th- and 20th-century coins to be found in Britain. Nor is it unheard of for such finds to be made in urban areas. What is unusual about the Hackney hoard is the combination of its recent date, the historic value of the coins, and the fact that they all came from a single foreign country.

A Treasure inquest was opened for the case of the Hackney Double Eagles on the 14 October 2010, and is scheduled to be concluded on the 8 February 2011. Part of the reason for the length of time between these dates is to allow anyone with an interest in the coins to learn of their discovery, and to put forward a legitimate claim. The Crown may only assume ownership of Treasure if its original owner, or an appropriately entitled heir, is unable to assert their superior interest. Since almost all cases of Treasure are over 300 years old, this is a factor that rarely needs consideration. It is not unheard of, however, for serious claims to be ventured. In 2003, a 17th-century silver hawking vervel found in Hampshire with the inscription ‘Will. Earle of Bedford’ was presumed to have been owned by that prominent individual (William Russell, later 1st Duke of Bedford), whose relations were easily traced.

In order to demonstrate an interest in the vervel superior to that of the Crown, the current Duke had to produce documents showing that the vervel was legally transferred from its original owner, through subsequent heirs, to him. Unable to supply such paperwork, the vervel was resigned to Crown ownership.

The gold coins from Hackney are much more recent, and it seems just possible that their burial occurred within living memory. As with any case of ‘buried treasure’, the fact that they were not retrieved by their depositor speaks of some misfortune that may have befallen him or her, or perhaps even the inability to relocate the precise location of the coins within the garden. Rarer are stories of the successful recovery of hoards, though we know that at least some were retrieved by their owners — the famous example being that of Samuel Pepys, who successfully retrieved the gold he had cached on his country estate after succumbing to the fear of an invasion of London by the Dutch in 1667.

What is a Double eagle?

Like many countries, the United States of America based denominations of its currency on the worth of the metal of which they were composed. The $10 ‘Eagle’ was the base unit for gold coins. In 1837, the make-up of an Eagle was established as a mix of 90% pure gold and 10% copper-alloy (almost 22-karat) at a weight of 16.72g. The ‘Double-Eagle’ was the $20 version of this coin, and so contained twice as much gold.

Double Eagles were issued between 1850 to 1933, but from 1907 they incorporated Augustine St Gauden’s famous re-rendition of Liberty, lighting the way with a torch in one hand and an olive branch in the other. One of the coins in the Hackney hoard dates to that year. Paralleling a vision of Liberty similar to that in Eugene Delcroix’s painting ‘Liberty Leading the People‘ and in the colossal Statue of Liberty in New York, these coins were to gain much acclaim for their beauty.

Further Information

Ian Richardson will be presenting the latest information on the story of the Hackney Hoard at the Current Archaeology Live! 2011 conference, 25-27 February at the British Museum. For more information and to register, visit the conference’s  official page or call 0208 819 5000.

The coins will be on display at the British Museum until February 2011.

For the extended version of this article, see Issue 251 of Current Archaeology.