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Upchurch Hoard, 1950, Domitian to Faustina II | by Ahala
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Upchurch Hoard, 1950, Domitian to Faustina II

Well-reported and intact hoards are news worthy events. Sutton Hoo. Hoxne. Staffordshire. Most hoards are of course smaller, and even where properly reported they usually fade into obscurity with their contents dispersed and not as much as one colour photo on the internet. Although not Roman Republican this hoard is probably more typical of the scale of many private savings containing just 5 denarii equivalent, so I thought worth the illustration.


In the winter of 1950 near the village of Upchurch, Kent, a pot containing twenty Roman sestertii dating from the late 1st century to the second half of the second century AD was found in the area known as Slay Hill Marshes. All the coins were fairly worn, thus indicating a long period of use, with the most recent Divus Aurelius and Faustina II in Very Fine condition, and those of Domitian and Trajan in Fine, some with corrosion and others with good surfaces. Judging from this, and the pot, which is a small bellied Olla, a type typical for the area, the hoard was probably concealed sometime in the early third century AD (Source: Gavin Manton). The hoard contents are as follows (all sestertii): Domitian 1, Trajan 3, Hadrian 8, Antoninus Pius 2, Elder Faustina 1, Marcus Aurelius 3, Divus Aurelius 1, Younger Faustina 1.


Whilst it is perhaps unusual that it is all sestertii, the amount equals exactly 5 denarii, so it may have been a savings hoard. An alternative explanation suggested by Richard Abdy in Numismatic Chronicle 2003, from his analysis of a very similar hoard found in Longhorsely, Northumberland near Hadrian’s wall and with, again, the last coin of Faustina II, is that the cost of the brass in the 3rd century AD far exceeded the 5 denarii face value of the coins. This and other similar hoards may have been reserved due to their large size and weight for use as bullion. Abdy quotes four hoards, not including Upchurch which was not cited. He notes that supply of third century sestertii to Roman Britain appears to have been extremely rare, and even with new coins being minted under Severus Alexander, they did not make it to Britain, nor Gaul. Thus the Antonine period coins were effectively the last major brass coinage imports. Abdy suggests that from the mid third century AD, these coins were recycled into barbarous radiates. A key indicator of brass sestertii is the presence of zinc, a difficult metal to keep in a brass alloy because at high temperatures zinc vapourises. However most radiate copies contain higher levels of zinc than would be naturally expected. As the creation of orichalcum was beyond the technique of a blacksmith, reused sestertii must have been the metal source and this explains their hoarding in the 3rd century AD. Richard Reece has argued that the sestertii may have been hoarded in a vain hope that they might regain monetary value, but the fact that sestertius hoards are much less common than radiate hoards suggests that owners monetised the former by converting them into the latter. Whereas owners of radiates had no such conversion options. Abdy quotes an inscription as saying "Celatus the bronzesmith fashioned [this bronze statuette of Mars] and gave a pound of bronze made at the cost of 3 denarii". Since 3 denarii is worth 48 asses, and 48 asses probably weigh much more than a Roman pound of bronze, this suggests that base metal coin was worth significantly more than its face value in Britain even during the denarius era. The disparity can only have increased as denarii turned to inflated antoniniani, when the sestertius must have been worth much more as brass than as coin.


Upchurch is situated on a creek of the river Medway, five miles east of Chatham and has the remains of a Roman cemetery. There are also extensive traces of a pottery and large gravel pits abounding with fossils. The hoard was initially published in Archaeologica Cantiana, 1951, and republished in Seaby's coin and medal bulletin, 1989. In any event, this is a very unusual example of a fully intact hoard in its unbroken original container, properly recorded in an archaeological journal and pre-dating the invention of metal detecting.


Whilst writing the above, my attention was kindly drawn to a further reference to this hoard. In "Coins of Roman Britain, volume X", Cathy King reviews the Race Down Farm hoard of bronzes from Bridport, Dorset. She lists in detail 25 similar hoards including this Upchurch hoard. There are a couple of pages discussing the significance of these hoards. Her conclusions are basically that the supply of bronze coins (sestertii, dupondii and asses) to Britain dropped sharply in the late 2nd century but that older coins continued to circulate in many cases into the 3rd century.


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Taken on October 11, 2009