Treasure update: flint nodule coin hoard

The British Museum has released the latest annual report of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) which marks that 2022 had the highest number of Treasure cases (1,378) ever reported in a single year. The report highlights some of the most stand-out Treasure finds in 2022, including an intriguing Iron Age hoard of gold coins found inside a hollow flint globule.

The hoard was discovered on New Year’s Day 2023 in East Garston, West Berkshire. It consists of 26 Iron Age gold staters found inside a naturally-occurring hollow flint ball. The staters are of the “Savernake Wreaths” type, produced in East Wiltshire in the late Iron Age (50-20 B.C.). They feature a stylized design of crossed wreaths on one side and a horse at gallop facing right with a spiral above it and a wheel below.

Hollow nodules of flint are commonly found in the upper strata of the Chalk, a limestone geological layer in southern and eastern England formed between 90 million and 66 million years ago. Before it hardened, the Chalk was mud on the sea floor. Dissolved silica filled gaps in the compacting mud, forming nodules sometimes around sea creatures like urchins and cockles that left hollows inside the nodules once they decayed.

This is not the first coin hoard found in a flint nodule. Iron Age coins cached inside nodules have been found in Kent, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire. Using hollow flint balls as containers for gold coins appears to have been an established practice in Iron Age England. The nodules often have natural holes and openings making them handy piggy banks even unmodified. Sometimes a hole would be enlarged to fit the coins more easily. The East Garston flint nodule had no natural hole; a piece deliberately broken to create the opening.

The staters and flint ball were declared Treasure, as all coins hoards have been since the Treasure Act was passed in 1996. Under the terms of that legislation, the definition of Treasure in the UK has been two or more prehistoric objects made of metal, any metallic object composed of at least 10% silver or gold by weight that is at least 300 years old and coins in hoard 300 years or older. Once an object is determined by a coroner’s court to be Treasure, it becomes property of the crown and is offered to a local museum for the amount of its assessed value. The money is then split between the finder and landowner.

This definition has allowed exceptionally unique and important archaeological artifacts like the Ryedale Hoard, the Crosby Garret helmet, the Roman licking dog and the Allectus aureus to fall through the cracks. Despite being undisputed and irreplaceable archaeological treasures, they were not Treasure according to the short-sighted legal definition and were therefore returned to the finders who then sold them to the highest bidder.

In 2019, the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced a plan to revise the Treasure Act to plug the loophole. The updated language would define Treasure as any object that is at least partially metal, at least 200 years old and is deemed to provide “exceptional insight” into British or regional history because of its rarity, location or connection to a historical personage or event. After five long years, the revision is finally about to take effect. The new criteria will apply to all objects found after July 30th, 2023.

Harpole burial: micro-excavation bears fruit

A year of painstaking micro-excavations of soil blocks recovered from the 7th century bed burial unearthed near the village of Harpole, Northamptonshire, in April 2022, has revealed new details about the burial and its exceptional furnishings. The gold, glass and gemstone necklace with its 30 pendants has been cleaned, uncovering the intricacy of the goldsmithing and the brilliant colors of the glass and gems. The central pendant is a large square inlaid garnet and gold spirals, reminiscent of many of the pieces in the Staffordshire Hoard.

Here are photographs of the necklace before and after cleaning:

Comparing the after photograph to the digital reconstruction made in 2022, I’d say they were pretty much dead-on.

The unique silver pectoral cross is still in the process of being liberated from its soil enclosure. Archaeologists are excavating it extremely slowly because of its complexity and fragility.

A central cross is decorated with a smaller gold cross, which has a large garnet and four smaller garnets. At the end of each arm are smaller circular crosses made of silver, with garnet and gold centres. These are very similar to the pectoral crosses found in other high status female burials from this time, including the Trumpington burial. The use of these crosses within one larger cross, however, is unique and suggests the individual may have held a very special position within the Christian community.

Through micro-excavating the feature, our conservators have revealed it is mostly made of extremely thin sheets of silver attached to wood, its corroded surface barely distinguishable from the surrounding soil. We hope to identify the type of wood used, and better understand how the cross was constructed.

The laboratory excavation has also found more skeletal remains of the high-status woman buried in the grave. In the initial in situ excavation, only a few partial teeth were discovered, but one of the soil blocks recovered from the dig turned out to contain more parts of the skeleton: an upper femur, a piece of the pelvic bone, vertebrae, part of a hand and wrist. The bones were pinned under a crushed copper dish that had been buried with the deceased. The copper prevented the usual decomposition process of the organic remains.

Our specialists are continuing to analyse and piece together the story of the Harpole Burial. As well as getting a better understanding of the items recovered and individual buried, it is hoped that scientific techniques may reveal more about funerary rituals at the time. This potentially includes studying tiny fragments of organic matter, which may hold clues as to what the person was wearing and the types of materials they were lying on.

Small medieval coin hoard assigned to Ostróda Museum

A small but significant hoard of medieval coins found near the town of Iława in northern Poland has been transferred to the Ostróda Museum by the provincial conservator of monuments. There are 13 coins and partial coins, most of them cross denari: silver coins minted in Saxony specifically for trade with the Western Slavs. One of the fragmentary coins (used for its weight value) is a 13th century bracteate minted by Sambor II, Duke of Pomerania.

The coins are named for the cavalier’s cross that is always found on the reverse of these denari. Both the obverse and reverse have what looks like lettering bordering the central images and symbols, but they are imitations, a pseudo-legend rather than an inscription. Without any real inscriptions or any other references to the minting year, they are impossible to date precisely, but they were only in production between 965 A.D. and the beginning of the 12th century. They have unusually high edges on both sides.

Cross denari were the primary currency in what is now Poland in the second half of the 11th century. Several hoards of cross denari hve been found in Poland, the largest of which, discovered in 1935 in Słuszków, central Poland, contained more than 12,500 coins.

According to Łukasz Szczepański from the Ostróda Museum, the location of this treasure fits in an interesting way with the identified settlement structure of the southern Jeziorak microregion.

“We have there, among others, a Prussian stronghold from the 11th-12th centuries, a network of open settlements, various types of earth fortifications that are attributed to Prussia. This treasure complements our knowledge about the settlement activity of this zone” – said the archaeologist.

Metal detectorists from the Iława Search Group discovered the coin hoard on a hillside outside the town on a weekend rally earlier this year. As required by Polish law, the metal detectorists had permission from the landowner and the conservator of monuments to search the site. The group hopes that this find and others they’ve made will go on display in a future local museum in Iława, but until then, the Ostróda Museum will be the beneficiary of their work.

Thousands of 4th c. coins found off Sardinia coast

An enormous deposit of tens of thousands of coins from the first half of the 4th century has been discovered on the seabed off the northeastern coast of Sardinia. They are in exceptional condition, with only four suffering conspicuous damage and even they are still legible enough to read their inscriptions and determine their age.

The first coins were discovered by a recreational diver who spotted the glint of metal in the shallow waters near the coast. He reported the find to the authorities, and the next day underwater archaeologists from the Superintendency of Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape of Sassari and Nuoro and the Cultural Heritage Protection unit of the Carabinieri explored the seabed at the find site.

The divers recorded two main areas of coin dispersal in a large sandy area between the beach and the seagrass offshore. Archaeologists believe the topography of the seabed in that area suggests the remains of a shipwreck may be under the seagrass and sand. Fragments of amphorae manufactured in Africa and the Near East that likely came from a wrecked ship were also found among the coins.

The coins are follis (also known as nummi), bronze coins with a thin top layer of silver introduced by Diocletian in 294 A.D. By the time the coins in the Sardinian sea were produced, currency had been debased several times and the silver content was all but nil. They were widely used throughout the empire. In 2013, a massive hoard of 22,888 follis was discovered by a metal detectorist in Seaton Down, Devon, England. It was fifth largest coin hoard ever found in England. This find beats the Seaton Down hoard by at least 10,000. An initial estimate of the coin numbers based on the weight of the find places it at between 30,000 and 50,000.

So far, the coins excavated date to between 324 and 340 A.D., minted in the last year of the reign of Licinus and the ascension of Constantine the Great as sole emperor through Constantine’s death in 337 A.D. and the contentious co-rule of his three sons, Constantine II, Constantius II, Constans I. Coins from almost every mint active in the empire at that time are represented.

Conservators are still sorting through the huge numbers of coins. Cleaning and conservation of the coins and associated archaeological materials will allow archaeologists to learn more about the context of the finds. There are no current plans to excavate the find site for the remains of the possible shipwreck.

Long-rumored looted hoard recovered, transferred to museum

A precious hoard of silver jewelry from the second half of the 10th century has been transferred to the Podlaskie Museum in Białystok decades after it was looted near Brańsk, eastern Poland. The treasure was confiscated last year in a coordinated operation by police, tax and cultural heritage authorities. It was in limbo until prosecutors determined there would be no trial as the statute of limitations had run out. Now the hoard has been allocated to the museum for study, conservation and display.

The treasure consists of 45 pieces, including richly decorated silver half-moon pendants (lunulae), silver earrings with highly decorated semi-circular bottom half and long chain pendants, silver beads decorated with nodules and granulation, a bracelet, a ring, fragments of a bronze chain and several glass beads. The craftsmanship is of extremely high quality, and experts believe it may have been the work of Byzantine jewelers that reached Poland through Russia or of local jewelers influenced by Eastern techniques. The earrings and beads are similar to ones found in other jewelry finds from the period, most notably the treasure of Góra Strękowa.

The lunulae are particularly impressive. They were made by casting a bar of silver, placing it between sheets of leather and tapping it repeatedly with oval hammers. The sheet was trimmed to shape with scissors or saws. A template was likely used to ensure the shape was symmetrical. It was reinforced by soldering strips to the underside of the lunula and then the edges were smoothed. The maker would then decorate the lunula with filigree, granulation and nodules. These were extremely expensive prestige objects, worn as the central element of a necklace that had other pendants, beads and gems added to it.

The 45 objects in the hoard had all been placed together in a small decorated ceramic vessel. The vessel survived and is also part of the collection.

There had been rumors that a medieval treasure had been illegally excavated in the Brańsk area in the 1990s, but only in 2022 did conservation authorities get a tip about the treasure’s whereabouts. They alerted law enforcement and the subsequent investigation revealed the collection of thousand-year-old jewelry was in the hands of a Brańsk resident who claimed he had received them from his wife’s grandfather. The grandfather-in-law told him he had personally found the hoard in the ruins of a castle dating to the 11th-14th centuries.

The grandfather died in 2001, so whenever he looted the hoard and gave it to his daughter’s family, it had to have been before 22 years ago. The statute of limitations for the theft (grandpa’s original looting) and appropriation of stolen goods (grandson-in-law’s receipt of the illegally obtained objects) is ten years, so the Bielsko prosecutor’s office could no longer take either case to court.

The hoard was officially delivered to the Podlaskie Museum by the Podlasie Provincial Conservator of Monuments on Wednesday, October 18th.

“This is a unique set of monuments,” Aleksander Piasecki, an archaeologist from the Podlasie Museum, told PAP. He emphasized that he had not seen such a well-preserved set of monuments and – as he added – “it is a nicely preserved complex from the second half of the 10th century associated with contacts with Russia.”

The archaeologist noted that now this unique complex will be subjected to specialist research and conservation in order to determine the origin and chronology of the monuments. He added that the archeology department would then like to display the jewelry; is to be included in the permanent exhibition.