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Roman Coin Cache Discovered Volume 53 Number 2, March/April 2000
by Chris Hellier

[image] Some of the hoard's silver denarii, equivalent to pennies in Roman Britain, show a portrait of Antoninus Pius of Caracalla (A.D. 198-217) on one side and the emperor as a charioteer on the other. (Courtesy the Trustees of The British Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]

Archaeologists from Somerset County Council, southwest England, are trying to raise several hundred thousand dollars to purchase the largest haul of Roman silver coins ever discovered on British soil. The Shapwick hoard was recently uncovered by two amateur treasure hunters, Kevin and Martin Elliott, in a farmer's field near Glastonbury, best known as the legendary burial place of King Arthur.

The haul comprises 9,212 coins, most of which are silver denarii, common coins equivalent to pennies in Roman times. Until British currency was decimalized in 1971, "pence" was represented by "d," an abbreviation for denarius.

The coins span the period from Mark Antony (31-30 B.C.) to Severus Alexander (A.D. 222-235) with the latest coin dating to ca. A.D. 224. The earliest coins, which had been in circulation for more than 250 years, are inevitably worn, but more than three-quarters of the hoard, dating from the late second century A.D., is in remarkable condition.

There are two exceptionally rare coins which have never been found in Britain before. These depict Manlia Scantilla, the wife of one of the most obscure Roman emperors, Didius Severus Julianus, who in A.D. 193 bought the throne from the Praetorian Guard after the assassination of the previous emperor, Publius Helvius Pertinax. Julianus had just enough time to issue the coins before he was murdered four weeks later.

According to Steve Minnitt, Somerset's Assistant County Museums Officer, the coin find is particularly important because it has led archaeologists to uncover evidence of a major Roman complex, probably a courtyard villa, in an area where there were only records of small farmsteads. Initial excavations have revealed traces of extensive remains 12 miles from the town of Ilchester. After the Romans conquered the region in A.D. 43, Ilchester, then known as Lindinis, became an important military camp on the Fosse Way, a Roman highway that ran from Lincoln in eastern England to Exeter in south Devon.

The hoard is also unusual since many of the coins date from the early part of the third century, a relatively calm and prosperous period and the height of Roman power in Britain. Most Roman hoards found in Britain date from the end of the Roman period, the late fourth and early fifth centuries, when money was hastily hidden to avoid being plundered. Under Britain's 1997 Treasure Act the Shapwick hoard has been declared treasure trove, and as such the finders are eligible for compensation. The British Museum has the right to obtain the treasure, but on this occasion it has given Somerset County the opportunity to raise the funds so the coins may be displayed locally. If money is forthcoming, Minnitt expects the hoard to go on exhibit in Somerset later this year.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America