Hoards in Context

Richard Henry, Portable Antiquities Scheme Finds Liaion Officer for Worcestershire and Warwickshire, here puts the Bredon Hill Roman Coin Hoard into a wider context of Roman hoards found.

In the 260s the Empire was rocked by invasions, rebellions and civil war, Barbarian armies marched though the Balkans and almost reached Rome itself. Sporadic civil wars lasting nearly half a century meant that the frontier was over stretched, Romans were pitted against one another for a generals personal gain not for the good of the Empire itself.

The situation on the Danube and Rhine frontiers was similarly fraught. There was severe unrest and Rome lost the Agri Decumates a region of Gaul and Germany that was a vital source of food for the garrisons on the Rhine. Consequently there was a need for foodstuffs and wine from elsewhere. In 277 AD Probus lifted legal restrictions on wine production in Britain. It cannot be mere coincidence that at this point in time in Britain villas – rich farm estates – grew in size and the province became a vital bread basket (see Sam Moorhead, ‘Three Roman coin hoards from Wiltshire terminating in coins of Probus (AD 276-82), Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine 102, pp. 150-9).

The Bredon Hill hoard provides a valuable insight into the nature of the currency circulating in Britain around 280 AD including:

·         A small number of larger radiates with a slightly higher silver content from the 250s.

·         Debased radiates from 260 – 275  providing the core of the currency, that can be seen as loose change.

·         Barbarous radiates, contemporary copies used locally to ease shortages of low value coinage.

·         A few reformed radiates, larger in size with a higher silver content introduced by Aurelian, only a relatively small number make it to the province.

The post-reform radiates had a higher intrinsic value and tariff in comparison to the pre-reform radiates. Consequently the post-reform radiates are far rarer than earlier radiates as British finds, either singularly or within hoards. This could be because post-reform radiates and earlier radiates seem to be treated as different denominations, or a lower number were circulated in Britain. The earlier radiates appear to have been revalued in this period. The Emperor Diocletian’s edict of 301 confirmed that the value of the post-reform radiate had been doubled to 4 denarii, and it has been suggested that the earlier radiates were valued at a single denarius. This would explain why the earlier radiates are so prolific as stray losses and why they were prone to poor quality copying, known as Barbarous radiates.

Under Aurelian’s reforms the radiate was increased in size, the silver content was increased from as little as 1% to 5% and the coins were silvered with a fine silver wash. The alloy of the coin was also changed, the earlier radiates had a low silver content and contained a higher level of tin. The tin and silver had a higher intrinsic value than the other metals within the alloy (which included high levels of lead) and are seen as the “economic” components of the coin. The reformed radiates’ intrinsic value was increased due to the silver content; consequently the tin content became unimportant.

So what does the alloy of the coin tell us? We can say that due to the lead and tin, the pre reform coin blanks would be more brittle, they would be prone to edge splitting and the coins would be weakly struck and misshapen. This could also explain why the earlier radiates, especially of the Gallic Empire, are often mis-struck and of a poorer quality. This is often also the case with the barbarous radiates.

Richard works closely with Museums Worcestershire in his role for the Portable Antiquities Scheme, a goverment-funded scheme co-ordinated by the British Museum.

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