A Warrior's Cache
By: Raymond M. Kelly
A large hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins found in the Northeast of England has been declared treasure trove by the coroner.
A total of 253 base silver, copper, and bronze coins, believed to have been concealed in the third quarter of the 9th century, were discovered by members of the Ashington & Bedlington Metal Detector Club of farmland near Bamburgh, once the capital of the Kingdom of Northumbria.
Once a discovery is described as treasure trove, it becomes the property of the Crown (British government), but the finder or finders normally receive the full market value.
Half the value of the cache, supposed to be between £10,000 and £15,000 will be shared among the 37 amateur detectorists of the club, with the remainder going to Francis Armstrong, the landowner who granted permission for the group to detect on his land.
The coins bear the images of several Northumbrian kings, including Eanrad (810-840), Aethelred II (840-844), and Redwulf (c. 855).
"The first discovery of 223 Anglo-Saxon coins had been made in January, with a further 30 being uncovered on the same site in June," said Peter Harratt, the club's chairman. "We are still not sure about their value, but it will be nice to find out."
The precise location of the find is still not being disclosed, although Mr. Harratt has confirmed that it is the club's biggest find to date.
"No one knows for sure how the coins got there," said Mr. Armstrong, "but the area was a hotbed of conflict in the mid 9th century."
One theory is that they were concealed by a warrior as he prepared for battle. The once stable Northumbria had collapsed into a series of inter-fratricidal struggles for power, and war was endemic at this time. The hedge or whatever the coins were hidden under has long since been removed, and the hoard was discovered in the middle of a field.
It was a great piece of detecting work, and it is to be hoped that everyone receives a good payout when the coins are valued. However, the finding of the hoard at the end of the following millennium does suggest that the warrior did not survive the skirmish.
It is expected that the hoard will go to the Museum of Antiquities in Newcastle University, due to its archaeological importance.
"There have been no further finds," reported Mr. Armstrong, "but no doubt the search will go on."
The last major find of Anglo-Saxon coins in the region at Hexham was during the 1880s. This new discovery has given historians a new insight into the later days of Northumbria, which had been the strongest and most cultured of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that had made up 7th century England.
Three successive kings- Edwin (616-633), Oswald (634-642), and his brother Oswy (634-642)- had all become the Brtewalda, or Britain Ruler. Their armies had fought all over England, conquered the Isle of Man, defeated the Welsh, and invaded deep into Scotland.
The kingdom, centered in Bamburgh on the North Sea Coast and York, stretched between the rivers Humber and Forth. Edwin built a fortress, Edwin's Burg, which became Scotland's capital, Edinburgh.
Northumbrian monasteries had long been endowed with land, riches, and manuscripts. Many double monasteries and convents were ruled by Northumbrian princesses. Jarrow, where St. Bede translated the gospels into English and wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English Church and People, had possessed the largest library north of the Alps.
The King's Peach and the Rule of Law governed the realm.
King Oswy summoned the Synod of Whitby in 664. This enabled prelates, priests, monks, and scholars to discuss the differences (particularly that of setting the date of Easter) between the Celtic and Roman Catholic Churches. The Synod decided to follow the Roman way of worship. This spread to those parts of Europe where Celtic missionaries had converted the ethnic populations, and the effects are still felt in the Western World. Thus 7th Century Northumbria, which influenced the whole of Britain, still has an effect on us today.
By the 9th century, Northumbria's greatness had gone. The once heroic dynasty had weakened, and successful generals fought for the crown. Kings were killed in battle, murdered at court or in dungeons, deposed, exiled, or forced to enter monasteries. The former law-abiding and peaceful kingdom had fallen into lawlessness and no one, not even the most powerful, was safe from human predators.
This is the impression of Northumbria in the days before the Viking raids cited in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. However, the discovery of the Bamburgh Hoard has shone a new light on later Northumbria.
Elizabeth Pierre, who examined the coins, found that they covered the quarter century between 830 and 855. They were mostly sceats of low value, made of copper alloy bronze or base silver alloy, not high-quality silver.
The number of coins indicated that the realm still possessed a substantial and vibrant economy in spite of the more violent times. Even in their present worn state, many of the sceats showed signs of being part of a highly developed currency.
It was discovered that many of the coins had unusual combinations of obverse and reverse sides. At least, they were blends that had never been seen before on Northumbrian coins. The worn coins mostly consisted of authorized specimens issued by the rightful king, although there were a number of aberrant coins minted by some of the usurper monarchs.
An anomaly suggested by the names of the coins indicated that there was still a large Celtic or Roman-British population living in Northumbria, despite the long occupation by the Angles. Redwulf the Usurper king, for example, implies a name from the pre-Angle period.
The large number of low-denomination coins suggests that the depositor may have been a small trader or traveling merchant, or perhaps a successful crofter or smallholder. Of course, he might have been a junior rank soldier who had gained the coins by being lucky in games of chance with his colleagues, or by running a small-time protection racket among the local population.
The coins do bring us closer to the man, but we will never know him.
Elizabeth Pierre, who is still examining the hoard, considers it to be one of the most important Anglo-Saxon finds ever made in Northumberland.
There was a time in Northumberland when archaeologists looked on detectorists with suspicion, believing that they were plundering historical sites. Now both groups work together, and the majority of finds continue to be made by detectorists.