The Nunney Hoard is mostly forgotten, but an important part of our local heritage. Coins from Nunney have made their way to leading museums across Europe.
The area around Frome has long been of interest to archaeologists. From time to time the region keeps coming up with pots full of coins and other treasures.
The Frome Hoard was discovered as recently as April 2010 – not actually in Frome, but in an undisclosed nearby village location. It consisted of a ceramic pot 45 cm (18 in) in diameter filled with 52,503 Roman coins. The hoard is one of the largest ever found in Britain, and was acquired by the Museum of Somerset in Taunton.
But the Nunney Hoard was certainly no less interesting, albeit less valuable in a material sense.
On 15 October 1860 two men were ploughing in a field known as the Eleven Acres, part of West Down Farm (now within the boundaries of an aggregate quarry) at the far western end of Horn Street in Nunney, when they broke open a small urn filled with coins.
The Eleven Acres field is rather higher than the surrounding countryside. The urn was buried in the highest part of the field, at what could be described as a summit. The depth of soil above the solid rock is not more than six inches to a foot here. It is therefore all the more remarkable that an urn should have lain undiscovered for so long.
The urn was discovered less than five yards from where an ancient yew-tree had recently been cut down. The tree may well have been responsible for preserving the hoard for so long. It is, of course, also quite possible that the ancient yew-tree – or its predecessor on the spot – may have been the landmark by which whoever buried the treasure intended to recognise the site at a later date to recover the urn.
Recovering the coins
The urn seems to have revealed its contents only gradually. The first finders discovered only one or two gold coins. The next man who searched the site found a large number of silver coins, all lying close together and without any gold coins at all.
After that, someone decided to dig a bit deeper and found several more gold coins plus five or six Roman coins in silver and copper.
The men offered some of the coins for sale to three potential buyers:
- Mr Ballard, a silversmith, clock and instrument maker at 21 Bath Street in Frome
- Mr John Webb Singer of the Messrs J.W. Singer & Sons foundry in Frome, and
- Mr Walker, who had a shop in Harley Street in Bath.
At this point the story is told by an article in the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette of Thursday 8 November 1860:
“A few days ago, a person offered at the shop of Mr R. Walker in Bath two small silver coins, requesting to know their value, mentioning at the same time that he had a considerable quantity at Frome, where he resided.”
“Mr Walker at once pronounced them to be ancient British coins, and lost no time in proceeding to Frome to inspect the whole quantity, which he found amounted to 102 silver and two gold pieces, in a fine state of preservation. He made an offer of £16 for the lot, which sum was ultimately accepted.”
“On making enquiries at the silversmiths in the town, Mr Walker likewise found at Mr Ballard’s 70 other silver coins of similar character. It appears that as some labourers were ploughing in a field at Holwell, near Nunney, the ploughshare struck upon an earthen pan and scattered its contents; the men, not knowing the value of such curious articles, sold them again in the village, for a trifle.”
“On questioning them Mr Ballard and Mr Walker arrived at a correct knowledge of the number of coins found – 10 gold and 202 silver; of these eight gold and 30 silver are missing, and are now being traced. The rest of the find Mr Walker has secured.”
The owner of the farm not only allowed the coins he had kept for himself to be examined, but gave permission for a detailed search on the site. Six more silver coins were subsequently found.
“The silver coins are chiefly alike, each having a horse impressed on the reverse, and a rude head on the obverse. There are, however, names on some of these new to numismatics, and Mr Walker has very properly placed the whole in the hands of the authorities at the British Museum.”
Mr Walker may well have handed the coins over to people at the British Museum, but they didn’t end up there – at least not until much later. Which is all the more interesting since it was in 1860 that the British Museum trustees decided to divide up the Department of Antiquities and create a new Department of Coins and Medals.
Most of the coins were actually sold, to Captain (later Sir) Roderick Murchison and Sir John Evans, both members of the Royal Numismatic Society and seriously passionate collectors of ancient British coins. ‘Numismatic’ means the study and collection of coins.
As collectors, Evans and Murchison had relatively few serious competitors during the 1850s and early 1860s. Although there were other members of the Numismatic Society, most of them did not have the obsessive drive to collect that they did.
Evans’s friend Jonathan Rashleigh, sent him this account of a sale, held at Sotheby’s on 1 June 1858:
“Captain Murchison was determined to buy at all hazards and at any price – and until he has sown his wild oats among the coin dealers and at Sothebys, no sane person has a chance. Those who compete with him and only bid one less, but don’t get, are of course quite sane!”
Evans often mentioned Murchison in his correspondence, for example in the letters of J.W. Singer, who was trying to secure coins from the Nunney hoard for Evans:
“Captain Murchison asks a pretty good price for his; I will only say that Capt. M. lately charged 10/- for two of them to a dealer.”
Sir John Evans
John Evans (1823-1908) was for many years manager of the extensive paper manufactory of his uncle, and later father-in-law, John Dickinson (1782–1869) at Nash Mills, Hemel Hempstead.
But Evans was particularly distinguished as an antiquary, archaeologist and numismatist, that is, a collector of ancient objects and coins. He was the first person to devise a systematic classification of British Iron Age coinage and served as president of the Royal Numismatic Society for over 25 years.
He was one of the small group of British scholars involved with the development of the field and profession of archaeology in Britain in the nineteenth century. Through the meticulous observation and recording of information gained from his comprehensive collection, he published the first comprehensive and systematic volumes on British prehistoric artefacts.
Sir John’s love of ancient coins started in his childhood. His father Arthur Benoni Evans had begun to take an interest in numismatics and started collecting coins about 1832. By 1834 Arthur Benoni was purchasing coins and cabinets to house them in, specialising in classical coins. He then “gave John all his copper tokens, three books on the subject and ten shillings towards a cabinet for them”.
In 1843, when John Evans was just 20, he visited the British Museum and met William Vaux (later to become the first Keeper of Coins and Medals). By 1847 John had to order a cabinet which would hold 1,900 coins. John’s source of coins came from many directions – personal contact, pawnbrokers, jewellers and auction sales. When he got too busy to attend the auctions he asked dealers to go for him.
He spent particularly heavily at the sale of the Sevington Hoard, discovered in North Wiltshire in 1834 and owned by Mr Loscombe of Corsham. At the sale, held at Sotheby’s on 22 February 1855, Evans purchased thirty-five ancient British coins for almost £57, equivalent to around £4,000 at today’s prices.
When Evans had the opportunity to buy some of Murchison’s coins in 1866, he described in a letter to his wife how he had been forced to rely on a trusted dealer to do his bidding for him at a price he could afford:
I have just received Webster’s report on the Murchison sale. I have not purchased any of the big fish which went all above my prices – some most ridiculously so. There are however some ‘pleasant’ coins that have fallen to my lot. There are 14 coins in all but I do not know the prices and have only to hope that they are well within my limits…”
Evans kept no catalogue of his collection, so we don’t know for certain whether he bought Murchison’s coins from the Nunney hoard. The collectors were forever buying, selling and exchanging items, so it is hard to say who owned what at any given time.
In 1864 Sir John Evans published his book Coins of the Ancient Britons, however, for which he was awarded the Prix Allier de Hauteroche of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris. It mentions the Nunney coins so often that even Evans refers to the “the hoard found at Nunney, so frequently cited”.
The book was the first serious standard work on ancient British coins, illustrated with engravings of 355 coins. Evans had written the book during stolen mornings at the British Museum and late night research after a hard day’s work at the paper mill. The book became an instant classic for the classification of British Iron Age coins, with the system Evans used to describe the evolution of coins heavily influenced by Darwin’s 1859 book On the origins of species.
He said that many of the ancient British coins were based originally on Greek coins issued by Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, introduced to Britain by traders [now thought to have been mercenaries] from Marseilles around 150 BC. Greek coinage occurred in three Greek cities of Massalia, Emporiae and Rhoda, and was copied throughout southern Gaul.
Gaul was a region of Western Europe during the Iron Age that was inhabited by Celtic tribes, encompassing present day France, Luxembourg, Belgium, most of Switzerland, parts of Northern Italy, as well as the parts of the Netherlands and Germany on the west bank of the Rhine.
Northern Gaulish coins were especially influenced by the coinage of Philip II of Macedon and Alexander the Great. Celtic coins often retained Greek subjects, such as the head of Apollo on the obverse and two-horse chariot on the reverse of the gold stater of Philip II, but developed their own style from that basis, allowing for the development of a mixture of Celtic and Greek influences.
Although Sir John Evans’ book was found subsequently found to be wrong on minor points – mainly caused by later finds of coins he didn’t have access to at the time -, the vast majority of his material is still held valid today after almost 150 years of new data and research.
One of the most interesting discoveries ever
Evans was president from 1885 to 1892 of the Society of Antiquaries and he was president of the Numismatic Society from 1874 to the time of his death in 1908.
He was also president of the Geological Society of London (1874–1876), the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (1877–1879), the Society of Chemical Industry (1891–1893) and the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1897–1898).
He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1864 and for twenty years (1878–1898) he was treasurer of the Royal Society. As President of the Society of Antiquaries he was a trustee of the British Museum.
Although Sir John Evans was a passionate collector of ancient British coins, he was clearly excited to have obtained the Nunney Hoard coins.
As early as 13 December 1860 – not even two months after the hoard was discovered – he addressed a meeting of the Numismatic Society in London:
“By the kind co-operation of Captain Murchison, I am enabled to communicate to the Numismatic Society an account of one of the most interesting discoveries of ancient British coins that ever has been placed upon record.”
“Although not in intrinsic value coming near some of the various hoards which have formerly been discovered yet, so far as concerns the information to be derived from the coins themselves, and those of Roman mintage, with which they were found associated, the present find is entitled to take at least equal rank with the celebrated finds of High Wycombe, Farley Heath, Almondbury, Whaddon Chase, or Weston – if it is not even of more importance.”
His article on the Nunney hoard opened the very next issue of the Numismatic Chronicle at the start of 1861.
Let’s look now in more detail at what we know of what was actually found in Nunney in 1860.
The plough had shattered the urn in which the Nunney Hoard coins were found so badly that only a few small pieces of it could be recovered.
As a result, we know very little about its original form, except that it was round with sides that sloped outwards. It had an exterior diameter of about 4.5 inches at its base and was made of very imperfectly burnt clay.
One clue that it was made locally was a fossil shell – a Rhynconella concinna – commonly found in local limestone that was embedded at the bottom of the urn.
A small bow-shaped brooch – a fibula – was also found on the site, but it is not certain whether this was linked to the urn.
Nunney hoard coins © 2007 Oxford University & The Portable Antiquities Scheme
A total of 249 coins were recovered of the Nunney Hoard: 10 British gold coins, 232 British coins in silver, 3 silver Roman coins and 4 brass ones. About 23 were coined by Antedrigus, 27 by a chief whose name seems to begin with Eisu, two bear the name or part of a name Catti, the remainder are without inscription.
Until the Roman invasion British coins did not have an inscription, such as a name of the king.
The Roman coins are of the reign of the Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD), whose General Plautius first seriously undertook the conquest of Britain.
Roman Republican coins circulated for a long period in Britain due to their high silver content. It is certainly not unusual for them to occur in a hoard with Iron Age or Roman silver coins.
Dating the hoard
It is difficult to establish exactly when the Nunney hoard was put in the ground, however, based on dating the coins alone. Although the Roman coins can be dated to Claudius and other emperors, they had obviously been in circulation for a some time after they were struck.
Sir John Evans described the Roman coins of Claudius as exhibiting wear consistent with eight to ten years of constant circulation.
Among the Nunney coins was a silver denarius, thought to have been minted under Julius Caesar around 48BC, showing an elephant trampling a serpent.
According to Mr Singer a coin of Caligula was also discovered, a denarius in reasonable state from around 37 AD – six or seven years before the invasion of Britain by Claudius – showing the head of Caligula on one side and that of Augustus on the other.
The Nunney hoard also included perhaps the earliest coins minted in Somerset, the ones bearing the name Antedragus. We know little about Antedregus, except that he was able to coin his own money and that he did so with shockingly bad metal.
He was probably a chief of the Dubonni tribes, as the inhabitants of Somerset were then most likely called. The Dobunni occupied Gloucestershire and Avon, parts of Hereford and Worcestershire, Somerset, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire. They lived in hill forts, such as the ones found at Cley Hill near Warminster, Roddenbury on the Longleat estate, Tedbury Camp near Great Elm, Wadbury near Mells and Whitesheet Hill near Stourhead.
Antedragus is thought to have been leader of both north and south Dobunnic territories during the first decades of the first century, the first to reunite both territories. He appears to have been succeeded by Eisu, who was possibly his son.
Catti, another Dubonni leader mentioned on coins found in Nunney, possibly inherited the northern Dubonnic territories around the turn of the millennium.
The coins seemed to show pieces of a horse on their way to the ground after being blown up by a shell planted just beneath the animal’s stomach. On the other side is what looks like either a piece of bracken or a sole backbone.
Based on this information, it is thought that the owner buried his coins when the Romans came to conquer Somerset, left to fight them and then never returned. Over 1,800 years elapsed before his money was recovered.
The most likely period in which the Nunney hoard was deposited was during the wars with the Romans from 50 to 55 AD. Osterius Scapula was Propraetor (governor) of Britain at the time.
Osterius Scapula was appointed the second governor of Roman Britain by the emperor Claudius in the winter of 47, taking over from Aulus Plautius. The economically valuable south and east of the island was securely occupied and alliances had been made with tribes outside the Roman-controlled area.
During the early period of Roman occupation therefore, Somerset became a militarised zone. The great Fosse Way was built across the region as early as AD 49, and military contingents marched along it between forts possibly established at Bath, Camerton and Shepton Mallet, and certainly at Ilchester, Ham Hill, South Cadbury, Wiveliscombe and Charterhouse.
The latter was built to protect the lead and silver mining industries which were very quickly established in the Mendip Hills. The stamp of the 2nd Legion has been found on lead pigs from this area. Other local industries included salt extraction, coal and iron mining, iron smelting and the production of pewter and glass.
When Osterius took over in the winter of 47 AD, tribes from Norfolk, Wales and northern Britain believed that the new governor would be reluctant to campaign so late in the year. They staged attacks and uprisings. Ostorius showed them wrong and responded vigorously, attacking relentlessly and allowing the native resistance no time to regroup.
He put down a rebellion by the Iceni tribe, who were based in Norfolk and had previously voluntarily allied themselves with the Romans. The Iceni were defeated by Ostorius in a fierce battle at a hill fort, but were allowed to retain their nominal independence.
They would rise up against the Romans again, however, in 61 AD. This is the famous and bloody rebellion led by Queen Boudicca. It started when Boudicca’s husband, king Prasutagus, died in 60 AD and the Iceni were placed under direct rule from Rome. According to Tacitus:
“Prasutagus, king of the Iceni, after a life of long and renowned prosperity, had made the emperor [Suetonius] co heir with his own two daughters. Prasutagus hoped by this submissiveness to preserve his kingdom and household from attack. But it turned out otherwise. Kingdom and household alike were plundered like prizes of war, the one by Roman officers, the other by Roman slaves. As a beginning, his widow Boudicca was flogged and their daughters raped. The Icenian chiefs were deprived of their hereditary estates as if the Romans had been given the whole country. The king’s own relatives were treated like slaves.”
Prasutagus may have been one of the eleven kings who surrendered to Claudius following the Roman conquest in 43, or he may have been installed as king following the defeat of the earlier rebellion of the Iceni in 47.
In 51 AD Osterius defeated Caratacus, leader of the Silures of south east Wales and Gloucestershire, in battle.
Caratacus fled to the territory of another tribe, the Brigantes (who lived in modern-day Yorkshire), but their queen was loyal to Rome and handed him over in chains. He was sentenced to death as a military prisoner, but made a speech to the Senate before his execution in Rome that persuaded the Emperor Claudius to spare him.
The Silures continued to harass Roman troops, however, supposedly after Ostorius had publicly said that they posed such a danger that they should be either exterminated or transplanted.
A large legionary force occupied in building forts in Siluran territory was surrounded and attacked and only rescued with difficulty and considerable loss.
The Silures began taking Roman prisoners as hostages and distributing them among their neighbouring tribes. This had the effect of binding them all together and creating a new resistance movement.
Osterius died unexpectedly in 52 AD, “worn out with care” according to the Roman historian Tacitus. His successor Didius Gallus bigged up the problems for his own political gain (although the Silures may indeed have defeated a Roman legion shortly before his arrival), carried out a few ineffective raids and was replaced in 57 AD by Claudius’ successor, Nero, by Quintus Veranius.
Veranius died within a year of becoming governor of Britannia. The Silures continued their raids before they were finally pacified 25 years later.
Where is the Nunney hoard now?
After Sir John’s death, his very large personal archaeological collection passed to his son Sir Arthur John Evans (1851-1941), archaeologist and keeper of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford from 1884-1908.
Sir Arthur conducted excavations on the Greek island of Crete, principally at Knossos, from 1900 to 1935.
The John Evans collection included more than 12,000 objects ranging from Palaeolithic handaxes through Merovingian ornaments, and included material from most parts of the world. A large proportion of this material was from Britain.
Arthur gave most of the collection to the Ashmolean Museum, including the Anglo-Saxon jewelled Ixworth Cross and Tostock Buckle.
Sir John’s library was left to the Bodleian Library. In 1919 Sir Arthur donated his father’s collection of ancient coins to the British Museum.
As a result, much of the Nunney hoard is now in the archives of the British Museum. Some coins are in the University Museum in Leeds, one silver coin of Antedragus is in the Museum of Somerset in Taunton (plus a coin of Catti according to Evans, but this has been called into question).
About half a dozen coins from the Nunney hoard are reportedly in the Holburne Museum in Bath, which houses the collection of Sir Thomas William Holburne (1793-1874).
Others were in the hands of collector and Liverpudlian shipowner Richard Cyril Lockett; they were auctioned off in April 1960, when the British Museum bought 51 Anglo-Saxon and Norman coins.
A selection of Anglo-Saxon, English and Scottish coins bought at this sale by his son Gerald Derek Lockett came up for auction again in 1974.
All 34 Nunney hoard coins in the British Museum’s online catalogue, however, came from the collection of Sir John Evans.
That number is only a fraction of the total number of coins in the Nunney hoard (249), and – despite our research – it remains unclear what happened with the rest of the hoard.
Visit Nunney contacted the British Museum to ask where the rest of the coins are now. We received a detailed response from Dr. Eleanor Ghey of the museum’s Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure.
She currently works on a joint research project between the British Museum and the University of Leicester, which seeks to understand why so many hoards – including the Nunney Hoard – were buried in Britain during the Iron Age and Roman periods.
Dr. Ghey told us:
“I think the short answer is that we will never fully know the whereabouts of all the coins, or how many were in the hoard when found. Ones that have passed into museum collections have often lost their provenance by that stage. We often find that not all the coins were reported to the authorities in this period.”
“However, there are various other sources of information. Robertson’s Inventory of Romano-British Coin Hoards (2000, 9) states: ‘Many coins of the Dobunni, and the den. of Julius Caesar in Dept. of Coins and Medals, BM (BM Register of Coin Accessions, 1919-2-13-1448) [from Evans, as you say]. Many more coins of the Dobunni in Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and in Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.”
“More recently, Philip de Jersey (a British expert on Celtic coins of the Iron Age whose work is quoted in this article) has researched the hoard for his corpus of Iron Age coin hoards (about to be published any day now). He makes the total number of coins he can associate with the hoard to be 254.”
“He has used the Evans archive at the Ashmolean to trace correspondence about the hoard and concludes that ‘finds evidently continued for some years afterwards, and it is difficult to estimate what the original total might have been’. He does list some coins from the Fitzwilliam, Ashmolean, Leeds University collections and some in Paris at the Bibliotheque Nationale but was unable to trace the coins in Bath.”
Catrin Jones, Curator of Decorative Arts at the Holburne Museum in Bath, subsequently told us, however:
I can confirm that what I think are 6 coins from the Nunney Hoard are still part of the Holburne Museum’s collection. They were part of Sir William Holburne’s bequest to the museum. They are described as ‘one of six Romano British Coins (found at Frome 1860) Tribe Dobuni. Obverse; Crude head with ornaments right. Reverse; Triple tailed horse (modelled on Belgic coinage).’ Unfortunately we don’t have any further information about the coins, but I would be very interested to hear what you have found out as this could really improve our records on the coins. Their museum numbers are J43 to J48.”
Die another day
The story doesn’t end there. On Friday 2 December 1955 a coin was found in Westbury-on-Trym, Bristol (now in the Bristol Museum), that experts believe was created using the same dies as some of the coins found in the Nunney hoard. A coin die is one of the two metallic pieces that are used to strike one side of a coin.
Prior to the modern era, coin dies were manufactured individually by hand by artisans known as engravers. In demanding times, such as the crisis of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century, dies were still used even when they became very worn or even when they cracked.
The coin found at Westbury-on-Trym had the same disjointed horse and wheel on one side, with the letter ANTEDRIG, and the usual piece of bracken (or pine-tree, fish bone or ear of corn – we still don’t know 150 years later) on the back.
The increased use of metal detectors in recent decades has greatly expanded the number of coin hoard finds – there are around 340 Iron Age coin hoards and some 2700 Roman coin hoards currently recorded across Britain, increasing in number at around the rate of 80 a year.
Over 600 coin hoards are known from the second half of the 3rd century – the largest number from any period of British history, and also more hoards from the period than from anywhere else in the Roman Empire.
Ancient coins are also still being found by local enthusiasts with metal detectors around Nunney and Holwell. Every find is carefully reported and catalogued by the Portal Antiquities Scheme, whose online database finds.org.uk included Roman and Byzantine coins discovered in Nunney as recent as 2010.
Finally, we’d like to show you a rarity. In the 17th century there was often a huge shortage of small change, and in many parts of the country tradesmen isued tokens.
Here is one of them, a farthing struck in 1652 by George Ashe of The Mercers Arms in Nunney – one of the few true Nunney coins.