All the gold in Oxfordshire

PHOTO // motoyen
PHOTO // motoyen

Gold.  Oh, what captivating images such a word conjures.  Great hoards of it lying at the feet of the dragon as a knight comes charging in on his white horse.  Traders from Ancient Greece setting sail with ships of gold to sell in Persia, Babylon and Egypt where it would be made into jewelry and sold back again.  Magnificent temples gleaming with the stuff, their ornate baroque facades shimmering in the faint cathedral light and Jesus on his cross in the middle of it all, illuminated in the metal’s shiny aura. Gold taken to Europe to sponsor centuries of conquest, discovery, and war.  Gold in California and Alaska and men gone wild digging, digging ever deeper for the shiny yellow metal, a fever spread faster than influenza or malaria.  Gold on wedding bands and bracelets, necklaces and earrings. Oh, the images that gold conjures – those wonderful mirages.

But in all those musings, I don’t suppose quiet little Oxfordshire crops up too often.  And certainly not a dusty little clay pot, cracked with time and caked in mud.  But, perhaps, that little pot will illuminate gold’s little-known presence in Oxfordshire.

The year is 1995 and the town is Didcot, in South-East Oxfordshire, just a few minutes away from the Old Roman Road.  It may be raining, because it usually is, but perhaps not. A team of archeologists walks alongside the road with metal detectors after years of archival research and excavation at the remains of a Roman village.  They’re looking for jewelry, really, not much else.  Just a glimpse of what people would have worn and lost on their way to a party, not too different from what students today lose upon returning home from a night out.  And the detector goes off.  “Here!  Here”, it screams in that annoying beep of a voice, “You found it!”  And the archeologists start carefully digging and find: A pot.

A little unassuming clay pot.  It’s grey; perhaps to match the day, but perhaps not, and caked in brown mud.  And they turn it around in their hands, surprised by the weight, and a little disappointed that it’s not actually metal, but perhaps, there is metal worked into the clay.  Then one of the archeologists asks: “So, are you going to open it?”  What?  Open the pot?  It’s a pot.  What is there to see?  Best take it to the lab for chemical analysis of whatever is inside.  Maybe learn about the composition of the clay.  “Come on.  Open it,” the archaeologist urges, “open it,” impatient and demanding.

The hands carefully ease the lid off, though it was almost glued shut by mud and time, and for all the care, the lid jerks off at the end.  Coins spill out.  126.  One hundred and twenty six coins, all gold, all about the size of a five pence piece.  It’s a hoard. A hoard of gold kept in the equivalent of a shoe box and buried in the back yard.  This is way better than a piece of jewelry; it’s a hoard of gold.  The archeologists eagerly tear through the hoard, examining the coins, so little, so tiny.  They were all minted sometime between 56 and 160AD, when the Romans ruled Britain and were probably buried around 169AD.  If a Roman legionary collected all his pay for ten years and never spent any of it, then it might be almost this much money.  As it is, this hoard represents the collection of a lifetime.  What was it doing buried in a pot?  What happened?  Why was it never collected?

As far as hoards go, this one is rather unimpressive: the baby dragon’s collection of toys, not exactly Smaugian.  But the mystery of it sure is exciting – the one thing that makes this small collection stand out from more than 2000 found in England alone.

But in 2003, another hoard was discovered in Oxfordshire.  Amateur archeologist and coin collector from Chalgrove, Brian Malin went for his weekly long walk with the metal detector searching for lost coins.  And that day he was lucky.  He stumbled across not one, but two giant hoards, spaced only 100 feet apart.  The first was rather unexciting, but the second… 5000 coins. A huge amount of money and all in a humble clay pot. Not only that, but these coins were particularly interesting.

Five thousand coins minted with the profile of Roman Emperor Domniatus.  “Emperor Dominatus, who’s that?” you might ask and I wouldn’t blame you: he’s the Lady Jane Grey of the Roman Empire.  Emperor for nine days before he was beheaded and then quietly erased from history books.  When Malin found that second hoard, you see, he changed our understanding of Roman history.  The only other coin to bear proof of Emperor Dominatus was a simple piece found a century previous in France and everybody though it was a French hoax on the archeological world.  But Malin’s discovery proved that the French archeologist who found the coin was neither a conman nor a fool and that Dominatus did indeed exist and mint many coins before his beheading.  Again, this hoard was a collection of a lifetime buried in the back yard and never spent. Who?  What?  How?  But mainly, why?  Why did whoever it was bury these coins?  Did they ever plan to return?  Why did they not?  So many questions, and yet so few answers. But that’s the way it is with gold.  So many stories, so many lies, so many twists and turns and so few answers. So many images we see that blind as much as illuminate. And so much to discover still – especially about all the gold in Oxfordshire.

These stories and more can be found in the “Money” exhibit in the basement of the Ashmolean Museum.


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