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Hoxne Hoard

"The islanders in confusion, thinking discretion the better part of valour, sought safety in flight and made their way to the hill country, or buried their valuables, of which many are being dug up in our day..."

William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum

Discovered in 1992, the Hoxne treasure was dutifully reported to the Suffolk County Council, owners of the land, and professionally removed the next day by the Suffolk Archaeological Unit. The day after that, it was taken to the British Museum, where the large sections that had been excavated could be separated and the items conserved and cataloged. Because archaeologists had been involved in the discovery almost from the beginning, it was possible to preserve items, such as fragments of woven textile and tiny fragments of silver sheet, that otherwise might have been lost.

On September 3, 1993, the find at Hoxne was declared treasure trove, that is, objects of gold or silver that had been hidden with the intention of recovery but for which the original owner could not be found. Such discovery is to be reported to the police and subject to a coroner's inquest. If the find is declared treasure trove, it reverts to the Crown and can be acquired by a museum on payment of a sum equal to its full market value. This amount then is passed on to the finder as a reward.

The Hoxne treasure consisted of coins, and gold and silver objects. They had been buried in a wooden chest, only the iron fittings of which survive. Inside were silver locks from smaller caskets and traces of the textile and hay in which some of the objects had been wrapped.

There are some 14,780 coins: 565 gold, 14,191 silver, and 24 bronze. The gold coins all are solidi and are ninety-nine percent pure. Most were struck between AD 394 and 405, when Honorius ruled the western empire and his brother Arcadius, the eastern. They come from thirteen different mints and represent eight different emperors. None of the gold coins were more than fifty years old before they were buried and so are in excellent condition.

The great bulk of the coins are silver siliquae and were minted between AD 358 and 408. They represent fifteen different emperors and come from thirteen different mints throughout the empire (curiously, hoards of siliquae from this time have been found only in Britannia and Dacia). Some of the denominations (miliarenses) are quite uncommon, and five have not been represented before. Two siliquae of the usurper Constantine III (AD 407-411) can be dated to when he first came to power. Their burial had to occur sometime afterward, when Rome effectively was abandoning control of Britain. Although no new coins entered the province after Constantine, it is not certain how long existing ones continued to be used. But it is unlikely to have been for more than thirty years, and a probable date of burial is conjectured to be no later than AD 450.

At least eighty percent of the siliquae had been clipped around the edges, a phenomenon apparently unique to Britain and likely only because of the breakdown of Roman authority there. Sometime, as much as half the coin was removed, although the portrait of the emperor never was defaced. It may have been that the coins were clipped to allow those already in the province to remain in circulation longer and still provide the precious metal necessary for forgeries.

Aside from the coins, there were two hundred pieces of gold jewelry and silver tableware. The twenty-nine pieces of jewelry all are of very pure gold (more than 22 carat). They include rings, the stones of which had been removed before burial, and necklaces, which would have been worn with pendants that also had been removed. One of the rarest pieces of jewelry is a gold chain that was worn over the shoulders and under the arms, joined at the front and back by decorative brooches.

Nineteen bracelets also were found, all designed to be slipped over the hand. They include two sets of four matching pieces, a matching pair, as well as a large armlet that would have been worn on the upper arm. Some have figures of animals and huntsmen in low relief, others are delicately pierced in geometric patterns or ribbed like basket weave. The most important is a bracelet dedicated to its wearer.

The silver pieces include seventy-eight spoons, twenty ladles (two sets of ten, one incorporating the Christian Chi-Rho monogram), and a number of smaller objects, including a tigress. The spoons are of two known types: cochlearia, which have a bowl larger than a teaspoon and a long, pointed handle; and ligulae, which are the size of a tablespoon but with a very short coiled handle, as well as a completely new type. Some are inscribed with the name of their owner, Aurelius Ursicinus. There also are four piperatoria (pepper pots), one in the form a bust with a disk inside which could be rotated to sprinkle the pepper.

A remarkable treasure, happily recovered by professional archaeologists, and now in the British Museum.

References: The Hoxne Treasure: An Illustrated Introduction (1993) by Roger Bland and Catherine Johns; The Hoxne Late Roman Treasure (1994) by Catherine Johns and Roger Bland, Britannia, 25, 165-173.

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