Special Collections

Sold on 17 May 2022

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The Vale of Pewsey Hoard of Late Roman Silver Coins

The Vale of Pewsey Hoard of Late Roman Silver Coins


Presented here for sale is a hoard of fourth and early fifth century Roman silver coins, recovered in September 2020 from farmland in the Vale of Pewsey, Wiltshire, by a team of three avid metal detectorists. Over the course of two days Rob Abbott, Dave Allen and Mick Rae discovered a total of 160 silver coins and coin fragments, which were subsequently submitted to the relevant authorities for processing according to the Treasure Act 1997 (PAS BM–7D34D9, BM 2020 T702).

No container has been recovered from the site and the coins’ dispersal over an area of around 30 metres across the field suggests that the original parcel was disrupted in recent times by agricultural activity. A few of the recovered coins were badly chipped, broken or fragmentary. Most of these breaks look fresh and it would seem that this unfortunate damage has resulted from regular ploughing of the field for agricultural purposes. We should be enormously grateful, therefore, that the hoard was recovered when it was before more coins succumbed to a similar fate. Numismatists and historians alike should appreciate the diligent efforts of these three finders in rescuing the Vale of Pewsey Hoard and ensuring that this important group was properly recorded for future study.

Following assessment and appraisal the British Museum decided to acquire two Miliarensia from the group for the Nation’s collection. The remaining coins were disclaimed and returned to the original finders, who have now chosen to sell the hoard so that private scholars and numismatists may have the opportunity to acquire examples for their own collections. Only those pieces in fragmentary state have been retained by the finders, and all 142 complete, or near complete, coins are listed in this catalogue; eighteen Miliarensia and 124 Siliquae. Amongst them are numerous rare and beautifully preserved specimens which will appeal to specialist Roman collectors and general numismatists alike.

In the late Roman period Wiltshire was a place of significant commercial activity, with grain exports to the continent and the nearby Mendip mines, both sources of considerable wealth. The concentration of villa sites and a coin-loss rate far above the national average during this period attest to this prosperity. While it has been requested that the exact find-spot remain undisclosed, it is possible to discuss the general features of the area. The Vale of Pewsey Hoard was discovered on greensand agricultural land, with private permission for metal-detecting provided to the finders directly by the land owner. The majority of finds recovered from the fields are Roman in date, with very little Saxon or later medieval material having been found. As Rob Abbott explains, ‘Towards the top end, nearer to the land owner’s house, we tend to find earlier Roman coins and brooches of the second and third centuries. Around half way down, near where the hoard was situated, the odd siliqua and numerous fourth century bronzes have been found. We rarely get any artefacts or pottery from this area, but occasionally a lead steelyard weight does come up.’

The commercial context suggested by the find of these steelyard weights is reinforced by the presence of two pottery kilns located nearby, and an exceptional hoard of fourth century copper-alloy vessels discovered in the same field and by the same finders as the present coin hoard. Excavated in 2014 and since the subject of a thorough scientific report, that hoard contained two sets of balance pans, a most unusual find from Roman Britain.

The eighteen Miliarensis from the Vale of Pewsey hoard offered here for sale are all fantastic examples of fourth century numismatic art. The broad, almost medallic, flans used to strike these impressive pieces afforded die sinkers the scope to produce a series of lively and distinctive imperial portraits, which were combined with a range of equally striking reverse designs. Initiated under Constantine I, the minting of Miliarensia continued throughout the fourth century as part of the reformed tri-metallic coinage system. Yet, despite the longevity of its issuance, Miliarensia never formed a major part of the circulating currency. Within Britain, which has produced far more fourth century hoards than any other Roman province, only a fifth of the recovered silver hoards belonging to this period contain Miliarensia. When they do occur, these large silver pieces often make up a minute fraction of the hoards’ overall contents. The Hoxne treasure contained just 60 examples in amongst the c.15,000 late Roman gold and silver coins, the Stanchester Hoard contained thirty-three Miliarensis alongside some 1168 Siliquae and the Gussage-all-Saints contained just nine in the company of over 600 Siliquae. It is unusual, therefore, that the relatively small Vale of Pewsey group contains so many specimens of this important denomination.

The Miliarensia catalogued below are distinguished by their remarkable state of preservation; the majority are extraordinarily fresh, with sharp devices and clean surfaces. Unfortunately, three coins have been chipped. As discussed above, this damage appears recent and is likely to have occurred as a result of modern plough activity. Besides this, very little can be said to detract from the aesthetic appeal of these impressive coins. It is curious that all the Miliarensia are fresh and unclipped, unlike, for example, specimens of this denomination discovered in the Gussage-All-Saints and Hoxne hoards. Clearly, the Miliarensia represent an earlier parcel, withdrawn from circulation during the middle years of the fourth century and later added to the Vale of Pewsey treasure. Support for this conclusion can be seen in the extensive die duplication found within the hoard, with the five specimens of Valens within the hoard struck from a single obverse and two reverse dies. It is unlikely that such an assemblage was withdrawn from general circulation, and we might reasonably imagine that these coins travelled together from the mint. The presence of two die-duplicate Miliarensia of Valentinian II within the hoard indicates this formed part of wider phenomenon.

The question of how and why such parcels of coin travelled from Trier to Pewsey is an intriguing one. Involvement of the imperial state would appear unavoidable, and the use of these coins as payment in return for military service seems as likely as any other possibility. The large size and precise metrology of fourth century Miliarensia suggests that they were intended to fulfil a different economic function to the more common siliquae. Guest suggests that these coins ‘were produced in such small quantities that they may well have been used as prestige presentation pieces.’ Inflation throughout the early fourth century rendered the army’s regular stipend payments financially meaningless and large periodical donative payments, offered at extravagant ceremonies, provided the bulk of a soldier’s income.

A further link between the Vale of Pewsey Hoard and imperial largesse is provided by the presence of a Heavy Miliarensis of Theodosius I within the group. Struck in 393 or 394 to coincide with accession of Magnus Maximus and the quinquennalia of Theodosius I, the coin features a declaration of the celebrations on its reverse, with the legend VOTIS V MVLTIS X spread across four lines within a wreath. Coins of this denomination are excessively rare, and coins of this particular type are completely unlisted in the standard references.

Due to the dispersed nature of the Vale of Pewsey Hoard, the recovered coins displayed a range of different patinas. Several coins were encrusted with heavy deposits and after consultation with the hoard’s finders it was decided to execute careful conservation work on a number of specimens. All conservation work was performed by our in house expert, Nigel Mills. As Nigel reports ‘after an initial soak in detergent to loosen the deposits, electrolysis was used with citric acid as the cleaning agent. Under a microscope the surfaces were then examined and any remaining deposits were carefully removed. The results can be seen in the before and after pictures.’

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