1,247 Roman coins found buried in Colchester

Archaeologists excavating the site of the former Hyderabad and Meeanee barracks (turn of the century barracks that housed the 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment until new quarters were built in 2008, now slated for redevelopment) have uncovered a hoard of 1,247 Roman coins from the 3rd century A.D. The coins were packed in a large pot. Another pot was found alongside of it, but it was empty; most likely the owner had cashed in its contents but kept the empty pot in place in case he needed it for future hoarding.

We can tell from the way the coins are layered — not in date order — that the pot was filled and buried at one time, not by adding coins over time piggy bank style. The coins are still in little stacks, suggesting that the owner counted them and carefully added the piles to the pot.

The coins are of a type known as antoniniani. The hoard is made up of issues of at least nine Roman emperors ranging from Gallus (251-3) to Victorinus (269-271). The latest coins in the hoard point to a date for its deposition in the early part of AD 271.

The antoninianus started life off as a silver coin issued in the early 3rd century but, by the time of the Hyderabad hoard, it had become very debased and ended up as a copper-alloy coin with a very thin silver coating. Severe inflation reduced its monetary value which is why later antoniniani are common finds on archaeological sites of the third quarter of the 3rd century. The Hyderabad hoard belongs to this period.

This was a turbulent time for the Roman Empire known as the Crisis of the Third Century. Twenty-five emperors reigned between 235 and 284, and in 260, under pressure from barbarian invasions, the empire split into three warring sections. The province of Britannia joined Gaul, Hispania and Germania to form the Gallic Empire under the control of the Batavian usurper Postumus. Postumus was himself usurped and was killed by his own troops in 268. The Gallic Empire fell apart and a chain of would-be emperors followed for a few years until the Emperor Aurelian reclaimed the provinces after his victory in the Battle of Châlons in 274.

The unrest would have been keenly felt in Colchester (aka Camulodunum), which was the first Roman city in Britain and was garrisoned with Roman troops since the Legio XX Valeria Victrix set up shop in 43 A.D. Garrison towns stop being protected and start being dangerous when the military is infighting and throwing up usurpers every other month. Postumus’ troops killed him because he wouldn’t let them sack the city of Mainz, after all, so burying pots full of coins in a field was probably a wise strategy not just to avoid thieves prospering under the chaos, but also to avoid the military run amok.

The field in question was part of the system of defensive earthwork walls (known as dykes despite no water being involved). The hoard was buried in the ditch behind the Berechurch Dyke, part of 15 miles of earthwork defenses originally built a hundred years before the Claudian invasion of Britain and reinforced by the Romans.

This isn’t the first hoard of Roman coins found in the Colchester area, and the others have all been from the mid-to-late third century as well. Two hoards were found a hundred years ago, and a huge group of 6,000 antoniniani was discovered in 1983.

The hoard has been reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme as potential treasure. When, as seems inevitable, it is declared treasure, the property owners, developing firm Taylor Wimpey, plan to donate the find to the Colchester Museum as they have done with everything else that has been found on the barracks site thus far.