THE WEST NORFOLK HOARD
Dr. Adrian Marsden is the Numismatist for the county of Norfolk, identifying and recording finds made there. Here he tells the story of the internationally significant West Norfolk hoard, a large cache of Dark Age gold coins and objects discovered over the last few years
Late last year the so-called West Norfolk hoard was declared Treasure by Mrs. Jacqueline Lake, the county’s Coroner. It had been found by a metal detectorist over several years, scattered in the ploughsoil of an arable field and brought in for recording in batches after each period of detecting. The size of the hoard – over a hundred gold coins accompanied by a gold bracteate, a gold ingot and fragments of gold jewellery – ensured it quickly found its way into the headlines. In fact, ten coins from the hoard that were found by a second metal detectorist and not declared to the authorities or the landowner had earlier hit the press in 2017 when the individual was sentenced to sixteen months in gaol and all but one of the coins seized, some from a coin dealer and others from the collectors who had unknowingly bought them (figure 1).
Apart from two coins found earlier, one in 1991 and another in 2013, there was little to initially suggest that such an important hoard lay beneath the soil. Then, in 2014, a total of 38 more coins were found (figure 2), together with a gold bracteate, dispersed over a considerable area by agricultural activity. Metal detecting continued to uncover more coins so that, at the time of writing, the total stands at 132. More will no doubt surface over the coming years. All of the coins so far recovered have been identified by Professor Arent Pol of Leiden without the expertise of whom this article would have been very much the poorer. All were Byzantine solidi or tremisses of the emperors Justinian (527-65), Justin II (565-78), Maurice II Constantine (578-82) and Maurice Tiberius (582-602, figure 3) or tremisses struck in what was then the kingdom of Merovingian France although at this time Merovingia also comprised parts of other later countries such as Germany and Switzerland. It was clear that we were dealing with a significant hoard. Now it is time to look at the composition of the hoard and what it can tell us.
The Byzantine and so-called quasi-imperial issues, struck in the names of Byzantine emperors but in Merovingia (figures 4-5), together with some issues in the name of Merovingian kings, enable the hoard to be dated. Many of the coins do not carry a ruler’s name, only that of the moneyer and where it was struck, but the dated coins suggest that the assemblage was concealed in about AD610. This places it about fifteen years before the famous Sutton Hoo deposit which is dated to about AD625. Sutton
Hoo contained a purse and 37 Merovingian tremisses and three gold blanks; we will look at the links between these two deposits presently.
All of the West Norfolk coins are foreign to Britain, whether they are those of the Byzantine empire with its capital at what was then Constantinople, or those of Merovingian France. Britain did not have a gold coinage of its own at this period, issues of native gold thrymsas such as the East Anglian Trophy type (figure 6) not commencing until several decades later in the mid-seventh century. Thus, any stock of gold in the form of currency would be made up of solidi, tremisses or perhaps ancient Roman gold aurei. The hoard could have been assembled locally although the presence of small groups of coins struck from the same dies might suggest a trader or merchant travelling through Merovingia and putting together, a few coins at a time, a supply of gold struck at the many places they passed through. Whatever the hoard’s origins, it
would have represented a significant store of bullion, gold that was generally of a very high level of purity. The vast majority of the West Norfolk coins are over 80% pure and some are over 90%.
The hoard’s nature as what was essentially a collection of bullion, albeit much of it in coined form, is underlined not only by the presence of the bracteate, ingot and jewellery fragments, but also by the presence of several coins that have suspension loops attached (figure 7). Thus, these coins have plainly gone from being used as coins to a function as items of jewellery; they have then gone back into a commercial orbit as part of a cache of gold bullion.
The coins are struck at a bewildering number of mints. In this period minting was not confined to one central mint or to a small number of important settlements but was carried on across Merovingia at a very large number of places. The attribution of some of these is still uncertain since the coins name places in a garbled, Latin form that cannot always be reconciled with place names today. The first 85 coins to be reported were placed on a distribution map by Jo Porter, an intern working with us in 2019; the widespread nature of the many minting sites can be easily seen, with coins produced from Cologne to Marseilles and from Bayeux to Zurich (figure 8). They come from all of the constituent parts of the kingdom, from Aquitania, Austrasia, Burgundia, Frisia, Neustria and Provincia.
As mentioned above, some of the Merovingian coins form small die-linked groups such as, for example, four coins from Maastricht (two shown in figure 9), two from Mainz, two from Paris, two from Rouen and two from Javols. These are not the only die-linked groups. All of these small clusters of coins must surely have travelled together
to a west Norfolk field before going into the ground for fourteen centuries. As well as internal die-linkage within the hoard, some of the coins die-link to coins from the other important deposit mentioned earlier, the purse group from the royal burial at Sutton Hoo.
As we have seen, Sutton Hoo contained 37 Merovingian tremisses and several share dies with West Norfolk coins such as one struck at Sion by the moneyer Mundericus (figure 10). This was one of the coins that was sold to the coin dealer by the second, dishonest metal detectorist and subsequently found its way into a Continental collection; fortunately, the buyer surrendered it and it has now joined the rest of the hoard. Unlike the die-linked groups from the hoard, this piece and the Sutton Hoo coin, issued at the same place, had different journeys destined for them. Both were to cross the Channel either together or separately; one was then to go into a field in west Norfolk whilst the other was to be buried in the purse of a king a generation later.
One of the coins has been useful in confirming the existence of a long-lost tremissis. In 1666, the year of the Great
Fire of London, the French numismatist Bouteroue published a book on the coins of France (figure 11); he illustrated an unusual tremissis in the name of Theodebert whose whereabouts have long been unknown. The recovery of another example in the hoard confirms Bouteroue’s reading of this long-lost coin (figure 12).
One of the most striking features of this hoard is the massive range of iconography exhibited by the coins themselves. The
Byzantine issues have the normal, rather static forms common to that coinage and some of the pseudo-imperial issues are almost parodies of these. But it the Merovingian coins where there is a real profusion of images. It is true that many show a portrait on one side and a cross on the other (figures 13-16) but the multiplicity of different ways in which these features are treated show a rich variety. Some of these portrait-cross types look almost imperial in style such as a coin from Orleans (figure 17) whilst others have fantastical, monster-headed portraits that stand miles apart from the neat Byzantine coins they accompany (figure 18).
Other tremisses expand the repertoire of types. An issue from Javols shows, instead of the reverse cross, two standing figures within a stylised wreath, surely an adaptation of Roman imagery (figure 19). Another, from Neaufles, depicts, in place of a head on the obverse, a rather odd-looking quadruped (figure 20) whilst on another example from Javols what looks to be an ewer with arms and legs topped by a small cross has been substituted for the usual reverse cross (figure 21). This is a small sample but illustrates the variety to be encountered on these crude-looking but precious discs of metal.
All but one of the West Norfolk coins are of good gold but one contemporary forgery slipped past the person who put it together. This is a plated copy which, although it was no doubt good enough to deceive at the time of deposition, has had its base nature made apparent after years of being knocked about in the plough soil. It is similar to such copies the world over, a skin of gold covering a base core; the core has now been exposed, showing the coin for what it is (figure 22). However, it is the only copy in the hoard; when set against the relatively high proportion of plated tremisses that turn up as stray finds such as an example recorded several years ago (figure 23), it becomes clear that whoever assembled the hoard was no fool when it came to spotting counterfeits.
The West Norfolk hoard is currently awaiting valuation by the Treasure Valuation Committee. Norwich Castle Museum hopes to acquire it so that this wonderful hoard can be kept together and enjoyed by the nation.