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Gold Coins, Silver Spoons: Britain’s Roman Legacy

Updated: May 4, 2022

By Jan Ashton, Author of Some Natural Importance

Besides his usual correspondence, there was one additional, to a university friend, asking about the Romans. If Darcy's theory about what might be buried in the land itself was correct and no one besides young Matthew Wadham had ever found Roman treasure, the Bennet family could be rich. Very rich indeed.

--Chapter 10, Some Natural Importance

While the cry "there’s gold in them thar hills" became common in America in the mid-1800s, gold finds were of a different sort in England. Rather than veins of gold in rocks, it is ancient treasure buried centuries ago in the ground, when the country was known as Britannia.

Large parts of Britain were under occupation by the Roman Empire from AD 43 to AD 410. As centuries passed, many traces of Britannia’s former rulers have been unearthed, often by unwitting farmers and laborers and amateur metal "detectorists." Their finds—hoards of coins and other valuables usually buried as a sacrifice to the gods or to keep wealth safe in the event of a potential threat to the owner's safety, such as war or unrest—are valued in hundreds of millions of dollars. More than 130 of these hoards have been found throughout the United Kingdom.

The existence of these buried treasures inspired part of the storyline in Some Natural Importance. While Copperdale and the coin found there by Matthew Wadham are fictional creations in the book, the idea originated when I learned that one of the largest amounts of Roman gold ever unearthed in the UK was in St Albans, a town in Hertfordshire. The St Albans Hoard is not the largest or most important of the Roman treasure finds, but it is the one closest to Longbourn!

The hoard was discovered in 2012 in what had been ‘Verulamium‘, one of Britannia’s most famous Roman towns, by a local man who had just bought a metal detector from a shop in the town. He discovered 40 gold coins and brought them back to the shop to ask what he should do with them. After reporting the find to the local historical finds liaison office, 119 more coins were discovered. The 159 gold coins, or solidi—valued at £98,500—were issued in the late Roman Empire from the imperial mints in Milan and Ravenna. Individually, each coin would sell for between £400 and £1,000.

The find of such a large hoard of solidi is unusual, as the coins were not in regular use due to their high value; only members of the economic and social elite such as wealthy merchants and landowners would have had them in their possession, and used them for high-value transactions such as buying land or bulk orders of goods.

I took creative license in the book by placing a gold coin in Pemberley’s study; in fact, the St Albans Hoard is covered by the Treasure Act 1996, which requires an independent panel of experts from the British Museum to examine the findings and make a report to a local coroner to determine whether they should be considered treasure trove. The 159 coins were bought by the local St Albans council for £98,500 in 2015 and the hoard is on display at the Verulamium Museum.

The St Albans Hoard is not the first discovery in the area. In 1932, a hoard of second-century silver denarii was found at Beech Bottom Dyke. Earlier finds have been across all of England. In 1781, the Eye Hoard, then the largest hoard of Roman gold coins ever found in the UK, was unearthed by laborers digging by the river at Clint Farm in Eye, Suffolk. They hit upon a lead box that contained around 600 gold coins that were subsequently dated from the reigns of Valens, Valentinian I, Gratian, Theodosius I, Arcadius, and Honorius.

The big news during Jane Austen’s lifetime was the discovery of the Backworth Hoard, a collection of gold and silver objects found in 1812 on the northeast coast and sold to a Newcastle silversmith before being (mostly) transferred in 1850 to the British Museum. The hoard, thought likely to have been buried around 140 AD, included a pair of silver-gilt trumpet brooches, five gold rings, two gold chains with wheel-shaped pendants and a crescent attached, three silver spoons, more than 280 Roman denarii, and two first brass coins of Antonius Pius. The larger of two silver skillets and one of the gold rings each have an inscription, a dedication to the mother-goddesses.

The single largest discovery came nearly two centuries later. The Hoxne Hoard, discovered in 1992 by a metal detectorist in Suffolk and excavated by a team of professional archaeologists, is the largest hoard of late Roman silver and gold discovered in Britain, and the largest collection of gold and silver coins of the fourth and fifth centuries found anywhere within the Roman Empire. Packed inside a small chest and sorted by type into smaller wooden boxes and bags were 569 gold solidi and nearly 15,000 other coins, and more than 200 items of silver tableware and gold jewelery. The hoard also contains several rare and important objects, such as a gold body-chain and silver-gilt pepper-pots, including the Empress pepper pot. The objects, valued at about £3.59 million in 2019, are in the British Museum in London.

Even though professional archaeologists have taken over much of the explorations of Roman sites in England, an amateur with a metal detector still has the chance to find buried treasure. The most recent collection discovered, the Wem Hoard, came about in 2018 in Shropshire, when three metal detectorists scouring plowed farmland uncovered 336 items of Roman hacksilver, including 37 Roman coins—most of which were deliberately broken up to be reused as bullion.

Darcy was too busy with his new family and his other estates to roll up his sleeves and personally supervise the digging at Copperdale. But if he had had time, we might have had a very different story in Some Natural Importance.

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