Unearthing the Hoxne Hoard: A Startling Discovery
In November 1992, a metal detectorist named Eric Lawes stumbled upon an extraordinary find in the Suffolk countryside – the Hoxne Hoard. Initially searching for a friend’s lost hammer, Lawes unwittingly unearthed the largest hoard of late Roman gold and silver coins discovered in Britain. The significance of this discovery was enormous, offering a unique window into the wealth and craftsmanship of the late Roman Empire.
The Hoxne Hoard is a breathtaking collection of coins, jewellery, and tableware, all of Roman origin. It contains about 15,000 gold, silver, and bronze coins, including solidi, miliarenses, and siliquae – all denominations typical of the late Roman Empire.
Alongside these coins, the hoard contained around 200 items of silver tableware and gold jewellery. The array of jewellery, which includes bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and rings, demonstrates the astonishing skills of Roman goldsmiths, while the ornate silver spoons and pepper pots offer insights into Roman dining customs.
Historical Significance and Insights
The Hoxne Hoard provides an invaluable historical record of the late 4th and early 5th centuries AD. The coins discovered in the hoard date from the reigns of different emperors, from Valens to Honorius, allowing historians to date the deposition of the hoard to around 407-408 AD.
This date is significant as it coincides with the period when the Roman Empire was starting to withdraw from Britain, suggesting the hoard was buried in a time of crisis. The hoard thus provides a snapshot of a transformative period in British history, capturing the economic and political turmoil of the era.
The Hoxne Hoard: A Numismatic Treasure
From a numismatic perspective, the Hoxne Hoard is a treasure trove. The coins in the hoard offer an overview of Roman mints and coinage in the late 4th and early 5th centuries AD. The rich variety of denominations and mints, including those from Rome, Trier, and Milan, provides an exceptional view of the late Roman monetary system.
The excellent condition of many of the coins also offers numismatists a unique opportunity to study the art and iconography of late Roman coinage. The coins feature a range of designs, including emperors, empresses, and Roman deities, each revealing something about the ideology and propaganda of the time.
The Hoard Today: Preservation and Exhibition
Today, the Hoxne Hoard is held by the British Museum, ensuring its preservation for future generations. The museum acquired the hoard through the Treasure Act, a law that allows national museums to acquire treasures found in Britain. Eric Lawes and the landowner received a reward equivalent to the market value of the hoard, setting a precedent for rewarding finders of treasure.
The Hoxne Hoard remains one of the British Museum’s most popular exhibits, attracting thousands of visitors each year. Its display showcases the richness and diversity of late Roman artistry, the intricacies of Roman coinage, and offers a captivating glimpse into a tumultuous period of British history.
As fascinating as the coins themselves, the jewellery and tableware in the Hoxne Hoard shed more light on the Roman aesthetics and lifestyle. Among the items, the gold body chain stands out. This delicate piece is made up of gold wire loops, and each loop bears a small pendant in the form of a disc or a crescent moon. It’s a stunning testament to the sophistication and skill of Roman jewellers.
There are also a number of pepper pots, known as piperatoria, a reflection of the Roman predilection for this spice. One particularly striking pot is crafted in the shape of a female head, thought to be an African woman, offering an intriguing insight into the diversity of the Roman Empire.
A Snapshot of Late Roman Britain
The hoard serves as a unique time capsule that reflects the socio-economic conditions of late Roman Britain. The sheer size of the hoard suggests considerable wealth and prosperity, at least among the elite. Meanwhile, the need to bury such a treasure indicates a time of insecurity and upheaval.
The timing of the hoard’s burial around 407-408 AD also hints at the political climate of the time. With Roman forces beginning to withdraw from Britain, it’s plausible that the hoard’s owner sought to protect their wealth from the instability that followed.
The Lost Hammer and the Law
Ironically, the initial aim of Eric Lawes’s metal detecting venture was not treasure hunting, but to find a friend’s lost hammer. Although he found an unimaginable treasure instead, Lawes also eventually found the hammer, which is now displayed in the British Museum next to the Hoxne Hoard.
The discovery of the Hoxne Hoard led to significant changes in English law regarding archaeological finds. The Treasure Act 1996, influenced in part by this discovery, now ensures that such findings are properly reported, enabling them to be studied and preserved for public benefit.
The Hoxne Hoard offers a remarkable look into the past. It showcases the wealth, craftsmanship, and cultural influences of the late Roman Empire while also providing an intimate connection to individuals who lived nearly 16 centuries ago. As one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 20th century, it continues to fascinate historians, numismatists, and the wider public.