In the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in the University of Birmingham there is a black box, about as big as the ones A4 printer paper come in, which contains 275 coins. Almost all of them are copper-alloy of some description and they are collectively known as either the Balkans Hoard or the Heathrow Hoard. I was faced with this even before I began work there as Interim Curator of Coins, because they used it as an interview test, and they will never know how I only had the faintest idea what any of it was because of frantic reading of Philip Grierson the week before.1 (Never.) One of my assigned responsibilities while in that job was to produce a report on this box, which I duly did in February 2016, by which stage I also had a master’s student working on it for her dissertation and plans actually to publish it with her. Somehow, by the end of my tenure in post those plans had not much advanced, and so in October 2015 as I gathered my various responsibilities up in the new job I decided that this project was still among them, and stubbed this post to tell you about it. As it happens, a few days ago I signed off the first part of the project, a skeleton formal catalogue, and so it’s all very timely how these things (slowly) come around.
I noticed even at the interview that this supposed hoard was not one, at least as the word is usually understood. The most obviously identifiable components were big early folles of Emperors Anastasius I (491-518), Justin I (518-527), Justinian I (527-565) and Justin II (565-574), but on the other hand a goodly part of what was in the box was concave billon, and so late-eleventh-century or later. The implied 500-year span pretty much precludes this being a single assemblage; while certainly folles circulated for a very long time, it’s not half a millennium by anyone’s reckoning and the concave coins and the old flat ones probably couldn’t have been part of the same system. (Probably. Assuming there was actually a system. Anyway…)
Further investigation only deepened this paradox. Firstly this was because we were able to identify more of the components. The later end included not just this twelfth-century concave stuff, mainly of Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) but some later still, but bits and pieces of the Latin Empire of Constantinople and its Thessalonican rival and really quite a lot of medieval Bulgarian material, most of all of Tsar Ivan Alexander (1331-1371) though again, a bit later. The absolute outlier was a grano of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1519-1558)! Meanwhile, we had checked into the provenance, because the ‘hoard’ had originally come to us from the British Museum, and we had only received the Byzantine portion. It turned out that what they had kept was another 400-odd coins, mostly from the period of the Roman Empire but going back as far as Alexander the Great (336 BC-323 BC). So that date range was now up to nearly 1900 years and the issues of some very different states. It’s not a hoard!
Except, it kind of is. A hoard is by definition an assemblage of valuable items (whether personally or monetarily valuable) deposited with the intent of recovery, right?2 Well, the other documentation we got from the British Museum clarified a lot of things. This particular assemblage was deposited in a set of carrier bags, behind a loose panel in a bathroom on board an aeroplane staging through London Heathrow airport on its way between Sofia and Washington DC. If that’s a ritual deposit, I’m pretty sure it’s only because shipping stuff out of Bulgaria to sell on the US market has now become almost a regular practice.3 Someone was meant to pick this up. As it happened instead, it was discovered by a cleaner and taken over by Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise, who decided in due course that there was no prospect of returning it to its owner and that therefore it fell under a legal doctrine called ‘last resort’, which meant that rather than lose it to world heritage by dumping it on the open market it could be deposited with a UK museum. So the British Museum got it and gave some of it to the Barber. (This was in 2004; I believe the law about this changed in 2008.) It’s a fascinating group, has some actual numismatic novelties in it we think, and the combination of what’s in there allows one to make some educated guesses about where it was coming from (which my student bravely did, on the back of considerable research4), but it’s most fascinating as a collection, I think, because of the story by which it has become a hoard. It’s one of the things I’m working on, anyway, and, while it is temporarily out of my court, you can expect some day to hear more about it here.
1. Reading, of course, P. Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982) which, if it doesn’t have all the answers, at least has most of the questions and some good guesses with illustrations to help. If you ever have to gen up on Byzantine coinage in a week, I recommend it!
2. For example, P. Grierson, Numismatics (Oxford 1975), p. 125: “A hoard is by definition a group of coins or other valuables which was concealed as a unit….”
3. This is the bit that needs the most substantiation, really, isn’t it? But you could start with Tihomir Bezlov & Emil Tzenkov, Organized Crime in Bulgaria: markets and trends (Sofia 2007), pp. 177-198, or Nathan T. Elkins, “A Survey of the Material and Intellectual Consequences of Trading in Undocumented Ancient Coins: A Case Study on the North American Trade” in Frankfurter elektronische Rundschau zur Altertumskunde Vol. 7 (2008), pp. 1–13, online at http://s145739614.online.de/fera/ausgabe7/Elkins.pdf, last modified October 2, 2008, as of October 12, 2009. I found these cites while researching what became Jonathan Jarrett, Reinhold Hüber-Mork, Sebastian Zambanini & Achille Felicetti, “Coinage, Digitization and the World-Wide Web: Numismatics and the COINS Project” in Brent H. Nelson & Melissa Terras (edd.), Digitizing Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture, New Technologies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies 3 (Tempe: University of Arizona Press 2012), pp. 459-489, but look, they have become useful again because the problem did not end with what these people knew about…
4. I can’t replicate her bibliography here, not least as I don’t have a copy, but the place to start for the Anglophone is D. Michael Metcalf, Coinage in South-Eastern Europe 820-1396, Royal Numismatic Society Special Publication 11 (London 1979), even now.