Tales of Hidden Treasure

Hoards, The Hidden History of Ancient Britain is a little treasure to be found at The British Museum until late May.

Owermoigne Dorset 2010 © The Trustees of The British Museum

Hoard of Iron Age and Roman coins found in Owermoigne, Dorset, 2010 © The Trustees of the British Museum

This is the perfect bite-sized show for half-term, Easter or a stray weekend in between, with just the right scope to engage the imagination and perhaps spark a lifelong interest in archaeology and history.

The exhibition, curated by Eleanor Ghey, opened late last year and was introduced by Tom Holland who spoke of his enthusiasm and awe, visiting The British Museum as a child. He brought a bounty of his own to the private view – a recently acquired ancient and rare coin – which he showed off with the eagerness of a schoolboy in the playground. A childhood dream had been fulfilled as he held up a treasure just like those on display. Fuelling this kind of passion is precisely what museums and other public spaces should be about and The British Museum never fails to deliver, even in its smaller display rooms.

Muswell Hill 1928 © The Trustees of The British Museum

Roman ceramic money box, silver coins and spoon found in Muswell Hill in 1928 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Hoards introduces us to  some of the most interesting and abundant finds from diverse eras. It traces the story of hoarding from Bronze weapons discovered in the river Thames and the first Iron Age coin hoards, through to the Hoxne and Oxborough hoards, buried after the collapse of Roman rule in Britain.

Researchers and archaeologists can only take the story so far, the rest is up for conjecture, the stuff of myth, legend and tales yet to be told. There lies the fascination – what experiences did these people live through and what were they thinking when they concealed their bounty?

Miniature Iron Age shields Salisbury © The Trustees of the British Museum

Miniature Iron Age shields from the Salisbury hoard © The Trustees of the British Museum

It is of course more than likely that some items were accidentally dropped and subsequently became buried – purses have always been mislaid. With larger hoards, people might have been fleeing war or natural disasters, others may have had to bury their treasures because of economic upheaval. We also know that there were social and ritual customs which might have come into play. Altogether more mundane reasons for discarding coins must also apply – often these had been devalued or rendered worthless through changes in leadership and government. The same is true nowadays with our own hoards. There is a pot of almost certainly worthless, out of circulation coins in my kitchen – the advent of the Euro put paid to many national currencies which I had collected over the years. Perhaps I should bury them in my garden for a future resident to find…

A backyard hoard in this vein is on display in the exhibition: a Roman purpose-made ceramic money container, silver coins and a long-handled spoon which were found by a boy digging in his Muswell Hill garden in 1928. Imagine his excitement, real buried treasure, 654 silver denarii dated to AD 209-11, complete with a Roman piggy bank!

Just as fascinating as the coins, the exhibition includes items from the Salisbury hoard, one of the largest hoards of prehistoric metal objects ever found in Britain, containing a mixture of Bronze Age metalwork and Iron Age model weapons, buried in the late Iron Age, after about 200 BC. It is suggested that these formed part of a ritual deposit in which the specially created miniature copies, along with many other items, were buried instead of the real thing. The late Iron Age miniature copper-alloy shields from the Salisbury hoard are wonderfully detailed, with a raised central boss and riveted handle on the back in imitation of life-sized shields. They measure around 70 mm and are captivating both in size and finish.

1033715001 Gold coin Stylised head of Apollo

Gold coin (obverse) Stylised laureate head of Apollo, (reverse) Stylised horse © The Trustees of The British Museum

Detail and design is what I found most inspiring in this show. Some of my favourite coins were the tiny golden works of art found at Westerham. Among the first people known to have settled in the area were Celts from the Cantii tribe around 200BC. The Westerham Hoard was discovered in 1927 and includes one of the earliest coins to have been struck in Iron Age Britain. These coins were probably made in Kent around 100BC and feature stylised horses, abstract heads of Apollo and other motifs derived from ancient Greek coinage.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the enormous Frome hoard pot, which held a discovery of 52,503 Roman coins, the largest to be found in a single container. This was unearthed as recently as 2010. The hoard is still being studied at The British Museum, its location raising questions about the motives behind its burial. It didn’t appear to be near a settlement but there was a spring in the vicinity and there is plenty of evidence relating to the veneration of springs in the Roman period. Two other hoards have also been found in the same area.

Westerham Hoard © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Westerham hoard, a hoard of gold Iron Age coins found inside a hollow flint in 1927 © The Trustees of the British Museum

The diverse and largely unverifiable reasons that these treasures were buried seem to raise more questions than answers and it this aura of mystery that makes the exhibition all the more fascinating. That together with the knowledge that many more hoards still lie buried, waiting to be found. Take your pick on a cold winter’s day – go out digging for that pot of gold in your back garden or drop into The British Museum and be inspired by what’s already been found.

Hoards, The Hidden History of Ancient Britain

The British Museum, Room 69a, free, from 10.00-17.30 Saturday to Thursday and 10.00-20.30 Fridays, runs until 22 May 2016

Words © Emma Boden, Images © The Trustees of the British Museum