Featured Where Frome?

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by EWC3, Aug 21, 2018.

  1. EWC3

    EWC3 (mood: stubborn)

    Around 6 years back I attended two talks bearing on the Frome hoard by Moorhead et al, one in Yorkshire targeting numismatists, another in London targeting archaeologists, and over time I wrote critically twice about what I heard and read. There were two issues in my mind. One was: How are archaeologists getting it wrong? The second was: Why are archaeologists getting it wrong? For starters I will consider the how part.

    I have a rather cursory knowledge of Roman matters, and of course welcome criticism of what I wrote.

    Rob T


    Frome Hoard (2013)

    Earlier I made some critical comments concerning the suggestion that the celebrated Frome hoard of later third century Roman coins, discovered in 2010, had been buried as a sacrifice to a nature god, with no intention of recovery.

    The press release I read at the time cited an archaeological source for the suggestion. But the suggestion has since appeared in an eponymous BM booklet, authored by BM staffers Sam Moorhead and Roger Bland, so I thought to enquire more deeply into the matter.

    First then, a reprise of the Moorhead ‘sacrifice to a nature god’ argument. The key suggestion seems to be that there was not a plan ever to retrieve the loot, because it would have been “awkward” to scoop the coins out of one big jar if one did.

    Well, yes. But what are the alternatives? It would be both awkward and risky to carry the coins to the burial site in clay jars, as they are heavy, unwieldy, and liable to smash, scattering the dosh. It would also be awkward to bury a whole bunch of small jars, since you would need to dig a much bigger hole. And you would risk not finding them all when you went back for them (as happened to Samuel Pepys with his stash). So, all in all, my conclusion is that burying one big empty jar, and then carrying the coins both to the site and later back from the site using cloth bags would be the best plan. Despite any minor awkwardness when scooping the coin back into the bags

    So, if we reject the ‘nature god’ theory as unsubstantiated by the facts, where does that lead us? As the authors point out, this hoard consisted almost entirely of very debased coins, of less that 5% silver. It was buried towards the end of a period when a huge number of hoards were buried in England (600+ are recorded in the literature). And it was buried around a time when perhaps near a million coins a day were being minted in the Roman empire. One idea that might spring immediately to mind is that the coins were so debased that it was just not worth the owners while to go and dig them up. So they just got forgotten about. Exactly this suggestion was put up by Anne Robertson in her “Inventory of Romano-British Coin Hoards” 2000. She wrote that they “represent savings hoards concealed by their owners over decades until they were at long last admitted to be worthless, and so were abandoned”

    But this suggestion too does not really work for the Frome hoard. If we figure it as 98% copper, 160KG makes the copper alone worth more than a thousand pounds at today’s scrap prices. And the silver would be worth double that. As the value of metal against labour seems to have been higher in the ancient world that it is today, it would never be accurate to call this hoard worthless.

    Further, most people reading the monetary edicts of Diocletian seem to have come to the conclusion that these radiate antoniniani were never demonetised, but rather were integrated into his new monetary system as fractions of his follis. And I think it is this matter that gives us a really big clue as to what is really going on at Frome, and at so many of the other burial sites. In 293 Diocletian seems to have rated his new follis or nummus at 2:5 against the old radiate antoninianus. But in 300 the old radiates were apparently devalued by a factor of two, making the follis worth 5 radiates.

    Any comparison between the intrinsic value of the radiates intrinsic and the value of the follis would be very difficult to make, since the make up of the radiates varied substantially, and there continues to be disagreements concerning the real rather than declared silver content of all the coins. However, the key to understanding hoarding is not the actual value of the coins in question, but rather, the imagined value of the coins, the value in the owner's head.

    It is my observation that owners of old coins very often imagine them to be more valuable than they are. Holders too might chose to believe self serving exaggerated claims which may have been made by government agents at the time coin had been issued. And if such a propensity existed in this case, then the halving of the value of the coin by official fiat in 300 would have reinforced such beliefs. Thus we should consider the possibility that the hoards were in fact Gresham hoards. Coin held out of circulation because they were considered undervalued, and more valuable to hold back. They may not have been originally buried with this idea in mind, but savings hoards still in the ground after 300 would perhaps become Gresham type hoards in the owner’s mind after that edict.

    Now consider the fact that after 300 the coinage as a whole moves towards a bimetalism in gold and copper thus the demand for silver from the mints would not be strong. What silver was issued was reasonably pure, and low grade billon would likely tariff at a discount, due to heavy refining costs. Thus it may have been that the day never came when it seemed financially a good idea to dig up the old coins and cash them in. If so, a time might come when they were forgotten altogether, not because they were valueless, but because eventually people do forget things, given long enough.
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  3. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

    I agree that the case for a ritual burial is fairly weak. It is possible, however, especially given the evidence that the hoard was buried near a spring, and evidence for earlier British practices of ritual burial of metals. Your Gresham hypothesis is also a possibility. But given the burial around 293 at a time of great upheaval, when Constantius had just reconquered the Gallic territory and was poised to invade Britain, plus the assassination of Carausius, surely the best bet is an emergency burial by someone who died sometime in the next three years?
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  4. EWC3

    EWC3 (mood: stubborn)

    The meet aimed at archaeologists I attended in London was fascinating. Moorhead introduced his guru Prof Richard Bradley who talked at length about (supposed) earlier British practices of ritual burial of metals. I had a logical problem with his argument. If you are burying a hoard with a plan to retrieve it, you just cannot put it in the middle of a flat field. Even you would not be able to find it again. So you have to put it near some sort of permanent feature of the landscape. Bradley's list of potential ritual sites seemed to cobble together virtually every permanent feature one can imagine. Thus with the exception of obvious things, along the lines of wishing wells, I see no strength in that ritual argument.

    Secondly, you say "near a spring" - but does this spring exist outside Moorhead's head? I never saw evidence of that, indeed to me the photos seem to contradict the suggestion that the site was in any real sense boggy.

    Thirdly, a retired member of BM staff turned out to speak at the meet I mentioned above, to criticise the Moorhead/Bradley platform. He gave a talk about beautiful Roman silver objects fished out of a German river. (Forgive me if just now I forget the exact details, the name of the speaker and the river - but I think it was the Rhine). The room was filled with archaeologists, and he skilfully led most of them in the direction they wanted to go. Ritual sacrifices to Rhine maidens or whatever. Then he gave very good evidence for his alternative theory. A German raiding party was retreating with its loot, when the Roman army caught them trying to get back across the river. Some of the boats were attacked and capsized.......

    Firstly, with this you seem agree with me on the main point - citing economic not ritual motives. And your suggestion is entirely plausible, and of course along the lines of all those studies of English civil war hoards. I suppose what sways me is the sheer number of these late 3rd century Roman hoards. My hunch is there was more going on. But I agree it is perhaps just a hunch?

    Rob T
  5. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    I fault this theory according to the definition of the word permanent. If burying a hoard with intent to retrieve, 'ten paces north of the large oak tree' would do quite well. When we find something in the middle of a field in my neighborhood we have to allow for 200 to 300 years of changes. A farmer's field of 1720 abandoned in 1820 was clear cut for a paper mill in 1920 and has 70-80 foot trees growing around our houses today. Move this to England and we are dealing with changes over a period of 2000 to 3000 years. 'Ten paces north of the huge cliff face' might be safer but no one burying with a plan to retrieve could conceive what time can do to the courses of streams, growth and clearing of trees or construction/destruction of wooden structures. We can not assume the person burying something was using your definition of 'permanent'.
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  6. EWC3

    EWC3 (mood: stubborn)

    I agree - but I think my point still stands. The list of things Bradley gave as identifiable possible ancient ritually significant sites seemed to me to be much the same as the set of permanent landscape markers one might use merely to mark a burial spot. A special tree might once have been ritually significant or alternatively merely a good marker in the landscape too. But the tree would most likely be gone after 2000 or 3000 years, so did not figure Bradley's list or my own.

    Actually, from the limited photos of the Frome site I have seen, my guess is that a now missing tree might well have been the original marker....

    Rob T
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  7. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

    @EWC3: Good points about a persisting (if not permanent) marker feature and weak evidence for a spring. I don't have the knowledge to be able to evaluate whether ritual burials of metal were an established practice, I was assuming it was the received view... it certainly weakens Moorhead's case further if not. And I love your story of the retired guy and his delightful rhetorical strategy. :hilarious:

    Yes, I agree on the main point for sure... it seems to me an economic motive is more probable than not. The number of hoards seems consistent with both your Gresham theory and the emergency burial theory, given that many residents of the island would have been complicit in Carausius's revolt and very concerned for their future under Constantius, or Allectus for that matter. A strike against the Gresham theory is of course the very low silver content of most of the coins (esp. the late Gallic empire which were particularly numerous), but you have of course tried to address that issue.

    So yeah, I guess we are pretty much dealing in hunches here. :D In any case, thanks for the very interesting post!
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  8. Marsyas Mike

    Marsyas Mike Well-Known Member

    A very interesting post. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but don't know enough to contribute much. But I will say that when I was first collecting, when I'd see some cruddy little "reduced follis" I'd think to my self "Ha! This contemptible bit isn't real money!" But it was real money, and people did use it, if only because there wasn't anything else.

    Nowadays, if I am feeling superior to ancient times and money, I take out a 20 dollar Federal Reserve note and say, "Ha! This contemptible hank of paper isn't real money!" A Federal Reserve note is money, of course, so I carefully tuck it away back in my wallet, feeling slightly humbled.
  9. Valentinian

    Valentinian Supporter! Supporter

    I think @EWC3 (Rob) and @Severus Alexander are right and the Frome hoard-publication suggestion is unlikely.

    I have "The Frome Hoard" pamphlet with this suggestion:
    "We therefore suggest that it was most likely that the person or persons who buried this hoard put it in the ground without intending to come back and recover it. The hoard was found in an important agricultural area and it is possible that a sacrifice was made to bring a good harvest, a successful breeding season, or even good weather."

    That does not come close to convincing me.

    If the money was still legal tender (and, even if not, in terms of metal value alone), the "sacrifice" would have been worth many times the potential benefit. I am far from an expert on rituals. Why would a "ritual" cause one to bury money? We hear of sacrificing bulls (and getting to eat most of the meat). As for rituals, you could toss a coin into the waters at Bath and make a wish, but 52,000 coins?

    I can imagine burying legally demonetized money on the hopes the government would change and it could be used again. If I go to England and come back with some left-over English money that I can't use here in the US, I don't destroy it, I set it aside in hopes it can be used later.

    Coins of Carausius are the latest in the hoard. All historical literature says that was a time of upheaval in Britain. I agree with Rob that the evidence that the hoard is not simply a regular unrecovered hoard is unconvincing. So it was in one big pot. As Rob said, if you have 52,000 coins to hide, that seems a possible way to do it.

    Are we seeing in "The Frome Hoard" a pet theory stretched too far beyond the evidence?
  10. EWC3

    EWC3 (mood: stubborn)

    Delighted to find we are so much in agreement here Valentinian. Moving on a little

    Here are some thoughts on ritual burial - but of of wealth rather than money. I think we do find plausible examples of this - for instance in the UK Iron age, the Snettisham torques, or in the Dark Ages, the Sutton Hoo treasure. (A word of caution. These things were probably buried by kings (or queens). And their descendants likely knew where the goods were, so we should bear in mind that they could still retrieve them in dire emergency. Thus the wealth might have been "banked" rather than lost).

    However, even if there was never a plan to retrieve, I think we can make out a kind of rational economic motivation of sorts. During the periods in question gold or silver was greatly used in making badges of rank. The more gold or silver there was about, the more people could own badges of rank, against the interests of an existing aristocracy, guarding exclusive privileges. A situation might have evolved where gold and silver etc were buried to slow up devaluation of aristocratic privilege. A kind of "deflation".

    Maybe that all sounds a bit too theoretical? But it is worth remembering the world-wide imposition of sumptuary laws in the historical period, that we know existed, and seem to serve similar purposes.

    However, since there was no way the radiates at Frome were bling, I still think that ritual argument cannot be stretched to cover that event, as we agreed.

    Rob T
  11. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    Don't mean to resurrect a zombie thread, but I came across this paper, which details how it was found and analyzed.
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  12. hotwheelsearl

    hotwheelsearl Well-Known Member

    Thanks for the resurrection. I enjoyed reading the tread and I’m looking forward to reading that paper you linked
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  13. EWC3

    EWC3 (mood: stubborn)

    Even worse than that I fear.

    The traditional reasons given for Roman coin hoarding tend to fall into two broad categories: emergency hoards buried in times of unrest; savings hoards buried for safe-keeping. In both cases, the implication is that the contents of hoards were viewed in monetary terms and could be of economic use in the future. From very early on, it became clear to Sam Moorhead that neither explanation was satisfactory”

    But not clear to most anyone else. Near a century back Mattingly pointed to matters to do with inflation and revaluation. That seems the obvious idea to me too. Moorhead’s failure to even mention that makes this look even more like propaganda to me. At a time when our own money is becoming mega-fiat, the facts about previous fiat money episodes seem to me to be being written out of history.

    The author’s suggestion that the hoard was in fact a votive deposit opened a lively discussion amongst colleagues, other scholars and members of the public across the globe.”

    That is not my recollection at all. I published and circulated a criticism and got no reply from Moorhead or Bland. I raised the criticism from the floor at presentations, and indeed raised them again in the pub face to face with Moorhead and Bland. I got no "lively debate" – I got no substantive reply at all.

    What is perhaps more interesting is that from the stage - at one presentation - Mayhew mentioned that Howgego at Oxford had raised private capital from a wealthy collector to run an alternative study of the same nest of events. I remain curious to see if Howgego will be as up front with his criticism of Moorhead and Bland as he once was of Crawford.

    This has enabled the British Museum to educate school children about the concept of Treasure, hoarding, the Romans and how professionals deal with major finds”

    I have doubt about whether this effort can be called “education” – but at least we know where the money is coming from.

    From the linked paper


    I think we can agree the initiative was a great success in raising gvt sponsored funds, and in offering opportunities to publish glossy pics of lots of archaeologists….

    Rob T
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  14. John Conduitt

    John Conduitt Well-Known Member

    I agree, I don't really understand the need for an alternative theory to hoarding for economic purposes. Surely, all the evidence you need is in the fact that the number of hoards increases at times of turmoil?

    If they buried coins for ritualistic purposes, hoarding would be regular across the period. In fact, surely it would have increased at times of stability (and therefore wealth), when people had a bit more to spend on such things.
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  15. EWC3

    EWC3 (mood: stubborn)

    Good point. There was a huge upswing in hoarding especially in England in the late 3rd century. Am not particularly knowledgeable on Roman matters – but my guess was it was to do with a reaction to heavy handed tinkering with the value of coins by government at around that time.

    Only after I wrote it up did I discover that Mattingly had said just the same much earlier (contrary to the chorus of stuff we now get from archaeologists). So there was something odd going on, but I do not think it was to do with rituals - or if it was – then they were in turn tied to underlying economic realities/swindles.

    I have a special link to this sort of matter. My dad’s first job after being demobbed (WWII) was at a limestone quarry at Kirk Smeaton, Yorkshire. One of the many hoards from this period was dug up in the quarry at that time – and he got to keep one of the coins. The only Roman coin I inherited. He left school at 13 but the coin is correctly attributed and beautifully typed up - in a home made mount.


    PS I never knew that Mattingly but his son was Prof at Leeds and I knew him a little. I recall as a youngster crossing paths with him at the entrance to Leeds Uni Library. He immediately invited me to a coffee in the staff canteen. That was back in a time when fact and criticism was still valued more than career, or so it seems to me. All a far cry from the snooty reception amateurs get these days - from young Profs of Archaeology - or so I tend to find.

  16. Dobbin

    Dobbin Active Member

    Just as a counterpoint, religious acts such as sacrifice and donation (whether into a box in a church or a river to a nature god) tend to increase in times of turmoil as folks are seeking the favor and aid of their deities.
  17. robp

    robp Well-Known Member

    For what it's worth I'll try and add a little to the discussion as I spent the first 18 years of my life living less than a mile from the find spot.

    First of all, the exact location of the hoard is here. https://latitude.to/articles-by-country/gb/united-kingdom/8430/frome-hoard

    If you use Google maps it is possible to get a better overview of the area. https://www.google.com/maps/place/F...0x9c21be78d797965!8m2!3d51.230751!4d-2.320096

    Using these maps and the satellite view it is clear that there are springs everywhere. Having walked across the fields many times in the 1970s and got wet feet, I can confirm the land is very boggy at times. If you use the two maps, it is possible to locate the find spot and you will see that there is evidence of a watercourse very close to it. The findspot is just north of the power lines crossing top left to bottom right in the second field directly below the farmhouse at the end of the road coming in from the top.

    The comment in the papers linked to earlier that evidence of old settlements was found is what one would expect if you look at the area. Rodden church stands next to Rodden Farm, but otherwise in splendid isolation far removed from any old dwellings. Why? A church would be sited close to a built up area to serve the congregation, so we have to consider whether the area was previously a settlement which was abandoned. There are several dozen isolated churches in the UK where the associated village was abandoned in medieval times after the plague leaving just the church standing, and this would fit the argument. The nearest church in the centre of Frome (St. Johns) is well over a mile away, and close to this are houses dating to the 14th century, but there is nothing of any age within half a mile or more of Rodden. There is evidence of a site of worship going back over 800 years.

    The area is good undulating arable land with abundant water supplies and in my view ripe for habitation. Springs crop up all over the place, to the east from the base of the chalk strata which form Salisbury plain and outliers, to the west from the limestone hills of the Mendips. The weather is fairly reliably both wet and sunny at various times and the climate is mild.

    Frome has been settled since at least Saxon times when it was a royal manor and the location of a mint. Given the tendency for settlements to evolve over time, it would therefore not be surprising if this was preceded by earlier occupants. The whole area is covered in settlements dating from the iron age and earlier. Hill forts, strip lynchets from early agriculture are frequently seen on the slopes. Basically, there is nothing to argue against Roman settlement as both wood and stone are abundant and the area was settled prior to and after the Romans.

    One thing I noticed from the satellite view is the varying colours seen in the field to the east of the find spot. Maybe that was the evidence of an old settlement referred to.
    Last edited: Sep 10, 2020
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