It is not often you get to hear from one of the world’s leading authorities on Roman Coins. In the new episode of the Archaeology Hour, Vincent Drost, Roman coin expert at England’s British Museum, speaks to us about 22,000 coins found at Seaton Down in the recent past. The coins gives us insight into the Roman monetary system and its empire-wide mints. We also discuss why so many such coin hoards were buried and never recovered.
One of the Seaton Down coins was the millionth object cataloged by the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Image: Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum
More images of the Seaton Down coins can be found at:
Next Christine Madigan (voted best Brit accent) gives us an overview of the current exhibit at the British Museum on The Celts. Working with the national Museum of Scotland and sources on the Continent, they have brought together some of the most remarkable finds over the years – magnificent pieces of jewelry and armor decorative in the distinctive Celtish style.
Finally NOAA archaeologist Bruce Terrell discusses a mysterious wreck found in six thousand fathoms off the coast of North Carolina. Far out on the Blake Plateau the little craft may be a coasting schooner blown far off course – or perhaps a rare Bermuda Sloop. Coasting schooners are represented by the vessel found at Brown’s Ferry in the Black River near Georgetown SC.
Excavated by Alan Albright and later worked on by the author, the wreck tells us much about how these craft were built and operated. Bermuda sloops, however, are poorly documented. The National Maritime Museum in UK has drawings made by the Admiralty (they were that impressed by the speed and handling of the sloops) but wreckage has never been found and verified.
There MAY be a wreck of one off Turks & Caicos and Nick Hutchings of Bermuda has been planning an expedition to it for some years now. The Bermuda Sloop Foundation has built a replica from modern materials based on a painting. The North Carolina ‘mystery’ wreck has yet to be examined by an archaeologist. Terrell tells us about the discovery and attempts to identify it.
This weekend scientists, divers and support staff will begin to converge off the Greek Island of Antikythera to mount a technologically advanced excavation of an ancient wreck that in 1901 yielded an astonishing array of marble and bronze artworks along with coins and a navigational computer that continues to astound experts.
Sponge divers discovered the Antikythera wreck in 1900. In the following year they raised bronze and marble sculptures and parts of sculptures that amazed the art world and scientists then, and ever since.
Last year Greek and American archaeologists returned to the site to inspect and map it. They had the advantage of the latest available technology from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and other sources. What they found astonished them. In an exclusive interview with the Archaeology Hour, the project’s American leader, archaeologist Brendan Foley, spoke about what lay deep beneath them. “We were able to fully map the site and produced a three dimensional image of the sea bottom. We were shocked to discover the wreck was much larger than earlier work had indicated – 30 to 50 meters (90-100 ft) long! The hull timbers were 11 cm (approx. 41/2”) thick. This would make the wreck bigger than the pleasure barges Caligula built for his artificial lake and they were the largest Roman era ships known.”
“This raises the question of what else may be on the ship. At this point of course we simply do not know – but the speculation has been exciting indeed!”
In 1900 the Greek sponge divers were working in hardhat rigs that allowed them only minutes of bottom time in which to rig marble horses and bronze statues for recovery. One died of the bends (nitrogen gas bubbles in the blood) and two were paralyzed.
The next few weeks over the wreck safety for the archaeologists will be a major factor. The dive teams will consist of a ‘technical diver’ well versed in the new diving technologies to be used, and an archaeologist. Both will be diving on closed circuit mixed gas systems that will allow them to spend as long as 90 minutes on the bottom.
“There will still be a need for an hour or so of decompression to prevent bends, “said Foley, “so each dive will take almost three hours. With this amount of time we expect to complete a great deal of excavation.”
In 1953 explorer Jacques Cousteau located the wreck with the help of MIT technology
Wizard’ Doc Edgerton. Cousteau returned in 1976 to excavate with an airlift and recovered some small bronzes.
“The depth would make an air lift difficult to handle – and we want to handle the excavation and possible finds as delicately as possible,” said Foley. “So, instead, we will used a water dredge – similar to an air lift except that we will hold it above the excavation layer and fan sand into it with our hands. This will allow for delicate retrieval of finds and help a great deal with visibility.”
Delicacy and caution will be essential considering the nature of what the sands of Antikythera may reveal. One object from the 1900 dive that has garnered more attention than any other is the ‘Antikythera mechanism,” a fused clump of finely crafted gears that is thought to be a highly sophisticated navigational computer.
According to Foley, “In its original state the metal components of the mechanism were thin sections of copper alloy. After thousands of years on the sea bottom they would now have the consistency of Fimo craft clay – very fragile indeed.”
It is not surprising that the wreck would have such a sophisticated device aboard. The massive craft appears to have been loaded with amazing art treasures from Greece. Coins found on the ship by Cousteau date it to 70-67 B.C. They were produced by the Roman mint at Pergamum.
This was in the same general timeframe that Roman General Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix mounted an expedition into Greece and Asia Minor in 87 BC. This was close to a decade before the sinking of the Antikythera wreck, according to the coin dating. It was long thought that the ship might have been bringing treasures back to Rome for Sulla.
Foley’s working hypothesis is that the ship may have been a large grain carrier. “The marble and bronze artworks would have been difficult to stabilize inside the hull and would have made it difficult to trim the vessel. It makes sense that a grain carrier might have been used and that grain sacks could have been used to pack around the statuary.”
Last year divers found a seven foot long bronze spear not associated with any of the recovered bronzes. This leads Foley to believe that other major bronzes may still be found. Earlier recoveries also included separated heads, arms and feet that may also be from buried bronzes.
Certainly the ship was important, but there is still doubt as to who ordered it to be packed with such fabulous treasures. “We know some of Sulla’s ship’s sank north of Antikythera – but we do not think this is one of his ships at this time, “ said Foley.
Foley will be very much hands on during the project. He will be one of the divers. His dive buddy is Gemma Smith, one of the technical divers. For Smith the dive will be especially satisfying, she is in the midst of a long career as a technical or scientific diver – despite being told early in her career that she would never qualify in this demanding field.
Hear the Brendan Foley interview on the next edition of The Archaeology Hour at :
The Archaeology Hour podcast is now live on Podomatic and you can follow it by opening the link and downloading the broadcast. The pilot edition features interview with Marc Bernier of Parks Canada on the HMS Erebus expedition lead-up (a results interview will follow) and a second feature with Irene Morfini, one of the two young archeologists who have made a major new tomb discovery in Egypt. The broadcast also features pieces by Rob Steele on archaeological travel to Belize, a piece by Elle Shepard on the exhibition of the 1600s ship Vasa in Sweden, and some off-beat archaeological news from Brannon Lamar.
New Archaeology Hour broadcasts are to follow shortly. They will feature British Museum coin expert Vincent Drost on the Seaton Down Roman coin hoard found in England, Archaeologist Bruce Terrellon a mystery ship found in six thousand fathoms of the coast of North Carolina and more contributions from Steele, Shepard and Lamar.
Major new story to be featured in the near future will be an exclusive interview with Brendan Foley, American partner with the Greek Government in the upcoming (next week!) excavation of the long fabled Antikythera wreck. Found in 1900 by Greek sponge divers, the wreck produced a fabulous hoard of marble and bronze statuary. Cousteau returned to the site in the 1950s and 1970s – but it took Foley’s team to discover that the wreck was far larger than originally thought. If the weather holds breathtaking finds may soon be revealed by the sands of Antikythera after more than two thousand years.
A new blog posting this coming weekend will feature an interview with Foley and the podcast will follow that shortly.
Below: The one millionth object reported to Britain’s Portable Antiquities Scheme.
The British Museum has released further details to the Archaeology Hour on the massive Roman Coin hoard found in the UK near Seaton Down with a metal detector in 2013. Vincent Drost, the Museum’s Project Curator for Romano-British coin finds said in a lengthy interview that the coins shed light on the Roman monetary system and the various mints that provided coins to the forces that occupied Britain for five hundred years.
The find was one of the largest hoards of such coins ever found in England—it also contained the one millionth object reported to the country’s “Portable Antiquities Scheme,” a government program at the British Museum to encourage the voluntary recording of archaeological objects found by members of the public in England and Wales.
Laurence Egerton made the find in November of 2013 at Seaton Down in Devon, UK. More than 22,000 coins were unearthed near the site of a Roman fortification and a Roman villa. Since that time the coins have been cleaned and turned over to Dr. Drost for study.
“With more than 22,000 coins, Seaton Down is definitely one of the largest hoards of the 4th Century AD found in Britain. It is also one of the largest hoards of 330s-340s recorded within the Empire, together with another British find, Nether Compton, Dorset, 22,703 coins” said Drost.
“The largest Roman coin hoards from Britain are from the second half of the 3rd century:
Cunetio, Wiltshire: 54,951 coins in two vessels.
Frome, Somerset: 52,503 coins in a single jar.”
According to Drost the coins in the hoard represent the work of many Roman mints throughout the Empire. Just a few of the coins were minted in the UK, the majority were minted in France (Gaul) and Germany (Trier) and even places as far away as Antioch, Turkey and Alexandria, Egypt.
Work on the coin hoard continues at the British Museum, “In the space of a year, the 22,000+ coins were cleaned by Pippa Pearce (Department of Conservation) and fully catalogued by Richard Abdy (Department of Coins & Medals) and myself (Department of Britain, Europe & Prehistory) in the British Museum. A preliminary report is available on the PAS database (finds.org.uk: ref. PAS-D7EA4C). The detailed study is a work in progress. The first results of this study will be presented at the International Numismatic Congress that will be held in Taormina, Italy in September 2015,” said Drost.
The most intriguing question about the hoard still remains unanswered: why were the coins buried?
“The barbarian invasions, among other political troubles, were traditionally blamed to explain hoarding. Ancient texts tell us that Constans (AD 333-350), risking a dangerous winter voyage, paid an unexpected visit to Britain in AD 343. This visit might possibly be related to troubles caused by the Picts on the Northern frontier. But the situation of Seaton, on the South West coast of Britannia, makes this explanation unlikely.
Hoards were also buried during times of monetary reform. The hoarding in Seaton ends with the first issues of the new reverse type VICTORIAE DD AVGGQ NN. Nevertheless, the weight and metal composition of the new coins were similar to that of the previous nummi (reverse type GLORIA EXERCITVS) and there was no reason that we know of to save the older coins.
“A three square meter area around the find spot was exposed but no archaeological remains were discovered. The only significant non-coin objects were three Roman iron ingots arranged on top of the coins. The coins were laid in an isolated pit and were contained in a flexible bag made of textile or leather. The excavation revealed two small bags of concreted coins within the main deposit.
Presently, it is difficult to provide a specific explanation for the burial. The hoard could possibly represent the savings of a private individual, the wages of a soldier or a commercial payment. The possibility of a community ritual deposit could also be considered. We could add that the deposit was planned on the long term as it wouldn’t have been an easy task to unearth those 68 kg of coins stored in a flexible bag,” added Drost.
While the Roman monetary system appears quite sophisticated, the concept of banks did not arise until many centuries later. It seems the actual reason for the deposit, and the reason why it was abandoned, may never be known.