The End of Roman Britain: Instability and the Hoxne Hoard

Whatever shortages Britain’s facing due to Brexit and Covid, it hasn’t run short of archeology. The country entered this strange time of ours rich in buried history and since the stuff in question hasn’t gotten up and walked out of the ground, it’s still rich.

The tale I’m about to tell you comes from before Brexit, though, and before Covid. Never mind the logic of that. I needed an opening paragraph. 

 

The tale

Let’s begin in 1992 with a tenant farmer, Peter Whatling, losing his hammer. And since–well, you know how attached you can get to a hammer, he got hold of a friend, Eric Lawes, who’d taken up metal detecting when he retired, and out they went to the field where Whatling had been when his hammer wandered off.

Before either of them had time to get cold and go home for a nice cup of tea, Lawes picked up a strong signal and started to dig, but instead of the hammer he brought up shovelfuls of silver and gold coins. Lawes was an experienced enough detectorist by then to knew when stop digging. He contacted the police and the local archeological society. 

The next day, archeologists came and dug out the treasure with the earth still around it so they could move it, intact, to a lab and work out both its age and how it had been stored before it was buried. What Lawes had turned up was 60 pounds of silver and gold in the form of 15,234 (or 14,780; take your pick) Roman coins and what’s technically known as a shitload of fancy thingies of one sort and another.

Lawes got £1.75 million for the find, which he split with Whatling, although legally speaking he didn’t have to. 

Whatling also got his hammer back, and it’s now on display along with the older and more expensive stuff, which is called the Hoxne Hoard, after the village where it was found. And because the English language is insane, that’s pronounced Hoxon. 

Try not to think about it. It won’t help.

The hoard is particularly valuable not just for what it contains but because it was excavated whole instead of being scattered by a plow or an over-eager detectorist. 

Irrelevant photo: Once again, I’m not sure what these are. Let’s just call them some of the many red berries that cheer us through the fall and winter.

 

Why people bury treasure

Every time someone digs up a pile of treasure, someone else asks what it was doing in the ground to start with, and it’s a good question. Who buries these things, and when and why? 

In the case of the Hoxne Hoard, the who is easy to answer (sort of), because some spoons included in that shitload of fancy thingies had a name engraved on them: Aurelius Ursincinus. That can give us the illusion that we’ve answered one of the questions, although we haven’t, really. We know he was male and that he had a Latin name. After that, the record’s blank. We don’t even know for sure that he was alive when the hoard was buried.

As for when, the coins give us something more solid to work with: The newest ones were minted between 407 and 408 C.E. So logically speaking, they’d have been buried sometime after that. 

Why someone buried them, though, draws us into the land of speculation, which is a nice place to visit but it’s always foggy, so it’s hard to be sure of what we’re seeing. What we do know is that some clever devil thought to make a graph of all the dates of the treasure hoards in British Isles and found spikes in three time periods: when the Roman legions left Britain, when the Normans invaded, and when England divided up into two teams and fought a civil war. 

In other words, people bury treasure in troubled times, hoping they’ll be around to dig it back up when the danger’s passed. The ones we know about? Those people didn’t come back. The ones we don’t find and that no one will? Someone came back for those.

 

Roman Britain

I’ve read about the Roman legions leaving Britain and always kind of assumed they got a telegram from Rome: “Troops withdrawn Stop. Expect you home soonest Stop.”

Well of course they used telegrams. They didn’t have email yet. The problem is that you paid for telegrams by the word. Or maybe it was by the letter. Either way, no legionnaire would expect an explanation–it would’ve been too expensive. So off the legions toddled, leaving Britain to fend for itself.

Which goes to show what I know. It turns out that they didn’t all pack up and leave at once. But as we usually do around here, let’s take a step back before we go forward: 

In the mid-fourth century Britain was being raided by an assortment of barbarians–a word I use under protest and only because I don’t have a better one. We attach all sorts of judgments to it, thinking it describes people who are hairy and unwashed and brutal. Also uncivilized, as if civilization was a guarantee of good behavior. But all it means here is that they weren’t Roman. 

Mind you, they might also have been unwashed and hairy and brutal, but except for the unwashed part, so were a lot of Romans. And I’m not convinced that modern well-washed brutality is an improvement, but that’s a whole different issue. 

Let’s go back to late Roman Britain: In the barbarian corner and raiding Britain, we’ve got Picts and Scots (with the Scots coming from Ireland, just to mess with our heads) and Attacots, who I’ve never heard of either. It doesn’t look like anyone knows who they were. Also the Saxons, who we recognize from other storybooks. 

Since the small print of Britain’s contract with Rome specified that Britons couldn’t be armed, the country relied on Roman power to protect it. Or at least the part of Britain that Rome had conquered did.They never did hold the whole thing.

In the midst of this, the more central parts of the Roman Empire had troubles of their own by then. Barbarian invasions. Uprisings. Emperors. The deaths of emperors. Battles over who was going to be emperor. 

In 383, in response to an uproar in the empire that we won’t go into, the Roman army in Britain revolted and named its leader, Magnus Maximus, emperor. He could only be the emperor of the west by then, since the east now had its own emperor, but hey, an emperor’s still an emperor, and the title was worth fighting for. So he–and presumably some sizable chunk of his army–invaded Gaul and killed enough people for him to actually be the emperor. Until he was killed, that is, which disqualified him forever after.

What happened to the soldiers who left Britain with him we don’t know. It seems to be a fair assumption that they didn’t go back, so color the Roman army in Britain depleted.

 

Emperors and clipped coins

After 402, the bulk importation of Roman coins into Britain ended, and from that point on the British started clipping coins–shearing bits off of them and using at least some of the metal to make new coins, which were local imitations of the imperial ones. Since the metal itself was what made coins valuable, this meant the coins were worth less and less.

A good 98% of the Hoxne coins had been clipped, with some of them having lost a third of their weight. If you’re trying to get back into your pre-Christmas wardrobe, you should know that this strategy doesn’t work for humans.

In the midst of all this, we can pretty safely assume that the army wasn’t happy, because soldiers don’t like it  when they’re paid in coins that aren’t worth what they used to be. Or when they’re not paid at all. In 406, a rebellion of Roman soldiers in Britain declared someone named Marcus as their emperor. Then he was deposed by someone named Gratian, who was replaced by someone named Constantine, at which point he and his followers toddled off to Gaul–that was in Europe and a far more central piece of the Roman Empire’s jigsaw puzzle–to see if they couldn’t really make him emperor. 

He was beheaded and once again there’s no record of what happened to his followers, but it couldn’t have been nice.

And that telegram still hadn’t arrived. That was the problem with telegrams back then. They had to be carried by guys in sandals. On foot. If you paid extra, they’d jump on a horse or they’d set sail, but it was still slow. And precarious.

 

Not-so-Roman Britain

Soon after Constantine and Co. left, in 408 or thereabouts, Saxons invaded, and sometime after that what was left of Britain’s Roman government faced a rebellion. The Britons armed themselves, ran off the barbarians, and then, for good measure, ran off the Roman magistrates and set up their own government. Or so said the historian Zosimus.

It sounds good, but according to the far more contemporary historian Marc Norris, it was a disaster. Britain’s links with the empire were cut and the archeological record shows a country rapidly moving backward. The economy and social structure collapsed, along with trade and distribution networks. Cities, towns, and villas were abandoned. Norris assumes widespread looting, along with a couple of synonyms–pillaging, robbing, that kind of thing. 

Archeologists can’t find much stuff left in the ground from this period. Good-quality pottery disappears, along with things like iron nails. Entire industries, they conclude, failed.

In the absence of a working government and army, the rich would have privatized security for as long as they could–and buried their wealth, because they couldn’t know when their privatized security squad will notice that it doesn’t actually need them, all it needed was their hoard of coins and expensive goodies. The person who hired them didn’t actually contribute anything.

Norris assumes that barbarian raids increased, although as he points out raiders don’t leave much in the way of hard archeological evidence, so we can’t know for certain. 

According to Bede, writing much later, the Britons of this period were “ignorant of the practice of warfare” after so long under Roman rule. Which is why, fatefully, their leaders seem to have made a deal with the Saxons to defend them from the Picts. Emphasis on seem to. History goes a little hazy during this stretch of time. But the going theory is that they swallowed the spider to catch the fly, and that’s how Anglo-Saxon England came to be: The spider did indeed eat the fly by inviting the Anglo-Saxons in, and that left Romano-Celtic Britain with a Saxon spider that wriggled and jiggled and jiggled insider ‘er.

*

In addition to the two links I’ve tucked in above, I’ve relied heavily on Marc Norris’s The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England. It’s a highly readable and very useful book. I’ve lost track by now of who recommended Norris to me. Sorry, I have a note somewhere but I put it someplace safe and I’ll never see it again. So I apologize for not thanking you by name. But I really do appreciate the recommendation. Let me know who you are and I’ll include a link in my next post.

Archeological finds and treasure from a country knee deep in history

The last few years have been good ones for British detectorists.

For British whats?

Detectorists. Those people who wander around with glazed eyes, waving metal detectors above the ground and listening to them beep. They’re looking for buried treasure. Or the tops that people break off aluminum cans. The metal detectors, as opposed to the detectorists who wave them, aren’t discriminating. They’re like gun dogs that point not just at game birds but also at feathered hats, feather dusters, and feathers tattooed on people’s arms. Metal is metal. Let the humans sort it out.

Irrelevant photo: camellia buds.

More people have turned to metal detecting in recent years and they’re uncovering some serious archeological finds, which are making their way into museums. The increasing interest is due in part to–of course–a sitcom. Reality limps along behind the representation of reality. And that, my friends, is what passes for real life. 

In 2018, 96% of the treasure dug out of the British earth was found by people with glazed eyes and metal detectors.

Okay, they don’t necessarily have glazed eyes. It just sounds better that way. And treasure has a narrow official definition–coins; precious metals; that sort of stuff–so archeologists have found plenty of other stuff, but it appears in a different column on the sreadsheet.

A 1996 law that required finders to report treasure also allowed them to split any profits with the landowner, and that’s meant that they’re likely to actually report their finds instead of squirreling them away somewhere or selling them through shady antiquities dealers in back alleys.

Sorry. I don’t know any antiquities dealers, shady or otherwise, so I’m falling back on cheesy stereotypes there.

So when we count up the reasons new people are being drawn to metal detecting, the sitcom isn’t the only one. We can add potential profit. 

A very small and random selection of what’s been found lately: 

  • More than a thousand silver coins in a field behind a pub in Suffolk. The best guess is that they were buried there during the Civil War. 
  • And 69,347 Iron Age coins in a field in Jersey. They date back to 50 B.C., give or take a few months. 

But enough about treasure. It’s the smaller part of the historical riches waiting to be discovered. Let’s talk about archeology.

 

The neolithic era

In Yorkshire, archeologists have uncovered a saltern–an industrial-scale salt-making site–that dates back 6,000 years. Or to put that another way, it predates Stonehenge. It’s the earliest one that’s been found in Britain.

The pottery that’s been found there shows traces of milk, indicating that the people who built it were settled, growing crops and raising animals. And the scale of the saltern says that they were selling salt, not just making it for themselves. 

“It changes how these people are seen,” said Steve Sherlock, the archeologist who led the dig. They were “people who are undertaking a level of industrial processing and distributing.” 

Because of salt’s use in preserving food, the people who produced and distributed it would have been among the wealthier groups of their time. 

Neolithic salterns have been found in Europe–especially Poland and the Balkans–but this is the first found neolithic one found in Britain, possibly because rising sea levels and coastal erosion have swallowed the others. They have a habit of being coastal, since seawater has a habit of being salty.

The pottery found at the site matches a type introduced by people who migrated from what’s now northern France at around 4000 BC. The saltern technology may well have come with them.

 

The bronze age

With the old stuff out of the way, let’s move south to Stonehenge

A major road, the A303, runs alongside Stonehenge, and for years there’s been a fight over whether to dig a two-mile tunnel and run the road through it. Opponents argue that it will do lasting damage to a world heritage site and that millions of artifacts will be lost. On the other hand, once the tunnel’s built, you’ll be able to take a selfie at Stonehenge without a big red bread truck showing up in the background. Which makes it all worthwhile.

After an assortment of court challenges and the use of a lot of newsprint, the opponents lost and the work’s been started. The current stage involves 1,800 test pits, 400 trial trenches, 150 archeologists, 18 months, and some uncounted amount of mud. Construction on the tunnel itself won’t start until 2023. 

Is the tunnel a good idea? Probably not, but what do I know? As long as they’re digging, though, they’re finding some interesting stuff. Let’s not ignore it just because we’re sulking. They’ve found graves, pottery, burnt flint that suggests metal or leather working. (No, I don’t know what the connection is either.) It’s probably too early to know what this tells them about the site or the people. 

 

The iron age and the Roman era

In Oxfordshire, the excavation of a hillfort turned up an iron age settlement that dates from 400 to 100 BCE, not to mention a Roman villa built at the end of the third century CE or the beginning of the fourth. They were found when the Earth Trust, which cares for the hillfort, decided to redevelop its visitor center.

Because no place that welcomes visitors is complete without a visitor center. Where else will people spend their money?

The site was occupied from the bronze age through the Roman era, so the trust hadn’t just planned to just plow through with heavy equipment–they figured they’d find something interesting–but they also hadn’t expected anything quite so rich. What they found included well-preserved iron age pots, Roman bone combs, surgical instruments, and lots of pottery shards. It seems like pottery shards are always in there somewhere.

Chris Casswell, the dig’s head, said, “It’s a substantial iron age settlement. It’s probably no surprise because we’re right at the foot of Wittenham Clumps, an enormous hillfort. The settlement probably continues well into the landscape beyond where we’ve looked.

“Normally we go out and do geophysics, which gives an image of what might be under the ground. But on this site, it didn’t show up any of this. . . . So it’s completely unexpected.”

The Roman villa is still partially buried, and there are at least two Roman cemeteries and stone-built ovens for drying grain.

And in case you’re wondering, the bronze age came before the iron age because copper and tin, which make bronze, melt at lower temperatures than iron. It took humans a while to pull together the technology to melt iron. I had to look it up too.

 

The medieval period

King’s College in Cambridge tore down some 1930s-era student housing and found an early medieval graveyard

According to Bede’s Ecclessiastical History, which was written in the eighth century, Cambridge was abandoned in the fifth century, when the Romans left. A lot of Roman towns were. But take that with a grain of salt. Dr. Caroline Goodson, a professor of medieval history, said, “We already know that Cambridge wasn’t fully abandoned. But what we’re seeing now is a greater and clearer picture of life in the post-Roman settlements.” 

They’re finding lots of goodies in the graves: bead necklaces, swords, pottery, glass, bronze brooches, short blades, mostly from the early Anglo-Saxon period–say 400 to 650 C.E. And because the soil’s alkaline, the bodies are well preserved, so they may be able to extract information about people’s diets and DNA, which should give them information on migration patterns. 

Goodson’s best guess at the moment is that the people were the descendants of Roman Britons along with more recent migrants from Europe. 

“They are no longer living as the Romans did,” she said. “They’re eating differently, dressing differently, and finding different ways of exploiting the land.”