Museum acquires St. Albans gold coin hoard

The hoard of 159 Roman gold coins discovered near St. Albans, Hertfordshire, in the fall of 2012 has been acquired by St. Albans’ Verulamium Museum. The first 55 coins were unearthed on September 23rd by first-time metal detectorist Wesley Carrington who found the first coin seven inches under the surface just 15 minutes after beginning his search. After consulting with the owner of the shop where he had bought his metal detector, Carrington reported the discovery to his local Finds Liaison Officer. On October 1st, Carrington returned to the site with a team of archaeologists from St. Albans City and District Museums Service and they found another 104 coins.

The coins are all 22-carat gold solidi from the late 4th and early 5th century struck in Milan, Ravenna, Rome, Trier during the reigns of Emperors Gratian, Valentinian II, Theodosius I, Arcadius and Honorius. Although they were found all over the field, archaeologists believe that’s the result of a couple of centuries of farming scattering the cache, that the solidi were originally buried together in a now-lost container. Their rough treatment by one or more ploughs has left surprisingly few marks on the coins. They are in pristine condition.

This is the second largest group of Roman gold solidi found in Britain. The largest was the 565 solidi found in the massive Hoxne Hoard that also contained 14,272 silver coins as well as jewelry and silver dinnerware. The St. Albans Hoard is the largest in Britain composed entirely of gold solidi.

Gold solidi were enormously valuable coins. By law they could not be spent on retail market goods, but only for large purchases and deals like property sales and entire ship’s of goods. Whoever owned these coins was very wealthy, a merchant or a banker. The last coins to arrive in Roman Britain from the continent came in 408 A.D., two years before the army withdrew leaving the province to deal with the descending chaos on its own. One of the ways they coped was to bury their valuables to keep them safe from pillagers until they could reclaim them, which is likely what happened here. It could also have been buried as a sacrifice to the gods, but it’s on the generous side for a votive, to put it mildly.

After the discovery of the hoard, the coins were examined by an independent panel of experts at the British Museum. Based on the panel’s report, a coroner’s inquest in July of 2013 determined that the hoard was treasure according to the UK’s Treasure Act. The British Museum panel then assessed fair market value of the coins at £98,500 ($150,000) and the relevant museum closest to the discovery spot, in this case the Verulamium Museum, was given the opportunity to acquire it for that amount.

They raised it and then some. Thanks to a sizeable Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £105,000, £24,000 from an overseas benefactor who prefers to remain anonymous, £11,000 from the St. Albans Museums and Galleries Trust and £6,000 from the Council, the museum was able to secure the hoard and some funding to create a display worthy of their rarity and beauty. The coins will go on display at the museum in September.

14 thoughts on “Museum acquires St. Albans gold coin hoard

  1. I lived in St Albans quite a long time ago and loved the city. But the gold finds occurred after I went back home to Australia and I never saw them. When I come back to St Albans next time to catch up with old friends, Verulamium Museum will be a definite visit!

    But I must say the Hoxne hoard is particularly intriguing. Not just thousands of coins, but the smalls that I adore – jewellery and objects for the table.

  2. I admit up front that I know nothing about the UK Treasure Act or about finding treasure anywhere for that matter. But is there no compensation to the first-time metal detetorist? And isn’t he allowed to keep even one coin as a memento of such an amazing find to pass down in the family?

    1. He’s not allowed a keepsake, sadly for him. If I ever found buried historical treasure, I’d want to get to keep a memento more than I’d want the money. It’s not to be, though. Most source countries have laws stipulating that historical patrimony belongs to the nation so you don’t get to keep a jot of it. It’s understandable and proper and I support it as a matter of principle. I still couldn’t help but wistfully dream of keeping a little something to stare at and pet like My Precious.

  3. Shelley,

    As I understand it, any finds are considered property of the landowner. If a find is deemed as treasure, the proceeds from the sale go to the landowner. A smart detectorist will have an agreement in place with the landowner outlining the split for any finds — lacking that, it’s up the kind heart of the owner to split what ever they think is fair with the finder.

    1. All officially declared treasure is property of the Crown. The payment is more like a finder’s fee, a means to encourage reporting of finds instead of attempts to sell them on the black market.

      It’s very true that arrangements between landowner and finder are a very good idea. The finder and landowner involved in the Staffordshire Hoard fell out in a huge way over the money, and they had been friends for years.

  4. @Shelley: strictly there isn’t a UK Treasure Act; the Treasure Act applies to England and Wales, and, with trivial modification, to Northern Ireland. St Albans is in England.

    “is there no compensation to the first-time metal detectorist?” Our hero will be better off (probably) by $75,000. And the joy will be his for ever.

    Here’s the dope, from section 72 of

    72. Those eligible to receive rewards are the finder(s), landowner and/or occupier. Where the finder has a valid permission from the occupier or landowner to be on the land where he made his find in order to search for and remove artefacts he will receive his full share of the reward. The burden of proof as to whether he has permission will rest with the finder. It is normal practice to divide rewards equally between the finder and landowner on a 50:50 basis unless another form of agreement has been reached between them …

  5. SC and dearieme, thank you for the clarifications. $75,000 seems to me to be a great reward monetarily, and as you state, the joy of the find is his forever. What an astounding discovery!

    1. dearieme’s got it. Treasure is defined as all coins in a hoard that are 300 years old or older, two or more prehistoric objects made out of base metal, any non-coin object that is at least 300 years old and composed of at least 10% gold or silver, and gold and silver artifacts less than 300 years old with no known owners or heirs of owners. Once the hoard was declared treasure (a foregone conclusion in this case), it belonged to the Crown. The determination of market value for a museum to pay to the finder and landowner is not a purchase price, but rather a kind of reward or finder’s fee. This system encourages self-reporting of finds while ensuring that Britain’s historical patrimony doesn’t get sold off to oligarchs and collectors around the world.

  6. SC, you are outlining US regulations for antiquity finds made on private property, which is quite different than Britain’s.

    I don’t have feelings of wanting to keep or collect artifacts. There’s more than enough arrowheads in cigar boxes or glued on boards in the shape of a bison.

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