When is a hoard not a hoard?

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.

A copper-alloy follis of Emperor Anastasius I, struck at Antioch in 498-518, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0151

A copper-alloy follis of Emperor Anastasius I, struck at Antioch in 498-518, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0151. This isn’t one of the coins in the box; I don’t seem to have a picture of any of the folles therein, but it’s not unlike them except by being from Antioch; there’re only a couple of Antioch coins in there, and they’re both of Justinian I.

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…)

Billon aspron trachy of Emperor John III Ducas, otherwise known as John Vatatzes, struck at Thessalonica in 1249-1254, Barber Institute of Fine Arts BH0173

This is a lot more like what the state of the ‘hoard’ is generally like, and is, we think, a billon aspron trachy of Emperor John III Ducas, otherwise known as John Vatatzes, struck at Thessalonica in 1249-1254. You can imagine how much fun the identification was… The Barber has not formally accessioned the ‘hoard’, but this coin’s provisional access number is Barber Institute of Fine Arts BH0173. Not to scale with previous coin.

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!

Copper-alloy asarion of Tsar Ivan Alexander and his son Michael, struck at an unknown location in 1331-55, provisionally numbered Barber Institute of Fine Arts BH0088.

Copper-alloy asarion of Tsar Ivan Alexander and his son Michael, struck at an unknown location in 1331-55, provisionally numbered Barber Institute of Fine Arts BH0088. Not to scale with previous coin, though it is actually smaller.

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.

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6 responses to “When is a hoard not a hoard?

  1. Thaddeus Gutierrez

    Your putative Thessalonican trachy is not an issue of John III Vatatzes, nor John Komnenos-Doukas, but of the Latin Empire of Thessalonica, type A, DOC.IV.24, S.2055. Its style, fabric, patina, symbology, and iconography are not consistent with similar emulations of John II produced by Nicaea and the Empire of Thessalonica. John K-D is beardless, and John III Vatatzes is always portrayed wearing a prominent beard by the 1240s following the absorption of Thessaloniki into Nicaea and the initiation of coinage at Thessaloniki in the name of John III. The majority of coinage of John K-D was struck during his vassalage to John III, after all, as was the coinage of Manuel K-D under Ivan II Asen. …so many Johns!

    • I see why you say this: the imperial figure does look like a better match to DOC IV Latin Imitative 24 stylistically. We had it down as DOC IV John III 13, however, whose emperor is likewise bearded, and the reverse of that fits better for me: the sweep of Christ’s robes low down that occurs on coins using the Chalkê image is here and there but not on DOC IV Latin Imitative 24, where there is however a star in obverse right field of which I see no trace here. I’m not yet persuaded that we need to change our identification, although this is not by any means to say that I necessarily hold to Hendy’s attribution of that coin (or his unwieldy way of arranging his catalogue…).

  2. Thaddeus Gutierrez

    Hello,
    The star is visible to the right of the double -struck and rotated shoulder region of enthroned Christ, below XC, with abbreviation mark above. The emperor is holding a cross-tipped sceptre in his right hand, and has a triangular pendilla clustering – diagnostic for this Latin issue of Thessalonica, itself an emulation of the pendilla on hyperpyra of Alexios I. The garments of John III are much more schematically rigid on similar issues (struck possibly upon the 100th year of the 1143 death of John II, in 1243, coincidentally the year that John III Vatatzes forcefully divested John Komnenos-Doukas of imperial regalia in Thessaloniki). The fabric and letter forms (simple incision vs. punches) are not consistent with Nicaea.

    It is not known when Latin Thessalonica first began to mint coinage, but the year 1118, the 100th year since John II took power as sole emperor of the Eastern Empire, also coincided with possible suspension of the so-called “Bulgarian imitative series” of billon trachy, as the Venetians and Theodore I Lascaris of Nicaea compromised on monetary clauses in a treaty, prohibiting direct imitation of imperial issues. It is possible that the Thessalonican large module coinage commenced at that time, with small module versions continuing alongside large module for Macedonian and Bulgarian circulation, which also was the rule with most Latin issues of Constantinople. There are three accepted Thessalonican trachy issues from the Latin period – each with a small module equivalent – and two half tetartera. As annual design changes for large module Latin issues and Nicaean coins of at least some denominations began by 1204-1208, three issues with very little variation between modules (with one large or two large die modules and two small die module versions for each types) may have spanned from 1218 to 1224, the 1000th year from the accession of Constantine I as sole ruler of the reunited Empire, which was the year Thessaloniki fell to the Greek Theodore Komnenos-Doukas.

    • You think you can see lettering on it? Then you can see more than I can even in that photo, let alone on the coin itself. What I cannot see definitely includes the star, though I can see something that might be throne-back where it ought to be. And if you know so much then you also know that those Thessalonican trachy issues are far from being universally accepted. But, you are probably right about the sceptre, and since that is a feature that is visible to me, I shall change the attribution when I can next get to a copy of DOC IV in a few days’ time; thankyou. If we do ever publish this, I will acknowledge your help.

      • Thaddeus Gutierrez

        I am a steward of over 5000 13th and 14th c. Byzantine and Bulgarian coins, of which at least 50 of this type are present. There are approx. 400 Latin Constantinople type A in this collection, to provide some measure of the commonality of Thessalonica A, especially as its small module version. There is a coin that is very similar, but seems to be an issue entirely of small module that nearly directly imitates this coin, but it is of John Komnenos-Doukas and as such has a beardless emperor.

        Wildwinds and CNG commonly make errors on trachy identification, and several issues of the Palaiologan dynasty issued between 1259 and 1341 have been systematically assigned to the wrong rulers, apparent through overstrike sequencing, metrological analysis, hoard analysis, stylistic considerations, and inscriptions. Many coins of this same period bear reignal dates and indictional dates, often found on obverse dies that rarely are found even partially struck. Many issues are now appearing to have been struck at secondary mints assumed to have been closed in 1261 or only producing coins during local conflicts for emergency use.

        I am currently active using mathematical and archaeological methods to resolve ambiguities in the highly informative semiotic and economic proxy use of these coins as annual and subannual system response functionals, upon completing the multivariate statistical sequencing of Thessalonican trachy from 1295 to 1325, and 1328-1341, and the Constantinopolitan assarion, also establishing the annualized sequence of hyperpyron debasement, linearly floating with the billon and bronze modal decline, at discrete intervals conformal to the ancient keration or siliqua, exactly 0.189 g, derived from analysis of the coinage and its metrological alloy ratios. Solar and rainfall proxies from 10Be and dendrochronology model the response functionals controlling exponential decay of the reconstructed time series mean annual counts/type and their metal content.

        • You are fortunate in your collection! There can’t be many of that size. I and my student did our identifications from DOC, Metcalf (with great caution) and a couple of books by Dochev. I wouldn’t rely on CNG or Wildwinds for anything I intended to publish. You are probably in a position to replace all such work, however!

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