Apr 06 2016
Lucy Creighton, Curatorial Assistant – Archaeology at Museums Sheffield, on one of the latest additions to the city’s archaeology collection:
The archaeology team are busy preparing for the opening of the new Beneath Your Feet gallery in late spring. As well as this we’ve still been working on our day to day collections management tasks. Along with a small group of dedicated volunteers, we have been cataloguing one of the most significant recent acquisitions to the archaeology collection.
Back in 2014 we acquired a hoard of 750 Roman coins that were found by someone using a metal detector in the High Green area of Sheffield. All the coins in this hoard are radiates, a denomination of coin introduced by the emperor Caracalla in 215 AD. The coins are called ‘radiates’ because the emperors shown on them wear spiky crowns representing the rays of the sun. The coins date from between 251 - 274 AD. This was a troubled period in Roman history often referred to as the ‘Third Century Crisis’. The Roman Empire, which at that time stretched from Portugal in the west to the Near East, had split into three smaller empires: the Central, Gallic and Eastern Empires. Each was led by emperors competing for power and minting their own coins.
Although radiates were first introduced as high value silver coins, the amount of silver used to make them quickly dropped to as little as 3%. More coins had to be minted as the value of each coin was debased. Political instability also meant that more coins were needed to pay the soldiers defending the empire. For these reasons radiates were produced in huge quantities and more coin hoards are known from the late 200’s AD than any other period in British history. The High Green Hoard comes from an important period in our history and is a valuable addition to Sheffield’s collection of Roman archaeology.
So what happens to these coins now?
Now that the coins are in the museum’s collection they need to be identified and catalogued. Each coin needs to be closely scrutinised to work out which emperor it shows, what the legend around its edge says, and what the reverse type (design on the back of the coin) is. With this information it is also possible to work out in which ancient city the coin was minted. With 750 coins depicting 13 emperors and empresses with hundreds of different reverse types and legends this is no easy task!
More than 1700 years in the ground means that many coins are corroded and have lost much of the surface detail that helps identify them. Indeed some are corroded almost beyond recognition and are aptly known as ‘grots’. To help us with our mammoth task we enlisted the help of experts from York Museums Trust and the British Museum. Coin curators kindly travelled to Sheffield to give staff and volunteers a crash course on radiates and provided some top tips on identifying emperors – the bushiness of a beard and the shape of a nose might be all you need! The project is ongoing but meeting once a week we are slowly but surely working our way through the large pile of coins.
Once identified the coins will be measured, photographed and weighed. Each coin gets a unique number which links to this information and the data will be added to our collections management system to make it easily accessible for staff, the public and researchers. The High Green Hoard documentation project is just one example of the behind the scenes work that curatorial staff constantly carry out in order to care for Sheffield’s collections.
Discover more of Sheffield's archaeology collection in own brand new Beneath Your Feet gallery, opening May 2016 as part of our major redevelopment of Weston Park.
Top: Volunteers Laura and Robert identifying coins
Bottom: Radiate of the emperor Postumus (260 – 269 AD) (back and front images)