There’s gold in them thar hills

As part of my ongoing research into local place names I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time looking through the Bayton Parish Registers. For various reasons – population mobility, marriage patterns, formal ecclesiastical union and shifting parochial boundaries – this has meant delving into the registers of most of Bayton’s surrounding parishes as well, and during this work I came across a peculiar entry in the Mamble registers, dated 10 June 1681:

“It ye ghold yt was found was buryed”

As a numismatist – and in particular someone who’s spending an awful lot of time right now looking at buried gold – this is all rather exciting. After a few deep breaths I decided to see if I could find out anything else about the discovery, when I came across…

…absolutely nothing.

This is of course not one bit surprising, and presumably has been the fate of many discoveries of historic precious metal objects in the past and sadly, in a few cases, continues right up to the present. As far as I can tell outside of the register there are no documents recording the find or its findspot; this is especially unfortunate, as the parish of Mamble in this period included much of what is now Bayton, and unlike a few other places there are no helpful field names to point us in the right direction.[i]

This makes any real interpretation of the find and its significance almost impossible. We might suggest that the date of the record indicates something of its circumstances of discovery – possibly drawn up by the plough during the ‘second stirring’ of the fallow ground – but cannot prove it; it is equally possible that it was come across by coal miners, or maybe even thrown up by rabbits like those immortalised in 19th century field names.[ii] More firmly the date of discovery gives us a terminus ante quem for the find – whatever was found at Mamble must predate the late-17th century. But that still leaves a lot of space for speculation, and a few salient possibilities spring to mind.

1) A prehistoric deposit?

The chance that the Mamble find might represent a prehistoric deposit ought to be considered, but should be placed alongside the more concrete evidence for prehistoric precious metal finds from the Worcestershire-Shropshire-Herefordshire region. Although chance finds of worked flints from Bayton demonstrate activity in the area of late neolithic to early Bronze Age date, the area lies outside the classic distribution of elaborately furnished Bronze Age burials, and, although not unknown, Bronze Age gold objects are scarce in the region more broadly. This is also true of other classes of prehistoric gold finds like Iron Age torcs which, while represented by a growing number of local finds, are largely made of copper alloy, not gold, in the Worcestershire area, and are in turn generally found in the south of the county rather than the north.[iii] We might therefore doubt that the Mamble find was from a prehistoric deposit – whether a hoard, a burial or something else – but recognise that this is an unabashedly circular argument. The possibility remains, small though it may be.

Possibly, but not probably?  Bronze Age gold from Shrawley (PASID WAW-052196) Used on a CC-BY SA licence from © The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum

Possibly, but not probably?
Bronze Age gold from Shrawley (PASID WAW-052196)
Used on a CC BY-SA licence from © The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum

2) An ancient coin hoard?

Another possibility is that the Mamble find was more specifically of gold coins. If so, analogy with modern finds might suggest that it was most likely formed of Iron Age – or maybe Roman – gold coins.[iv] Certainly we have ample evidence for the discovery of precious metal ancient coins in the late medieval and early modern periods – denarii of Trajan seem to have been included in the 1607 Higham on the Hill hoard (deposited c. 1195-1247) and woodcuts of British and Gaulish Iron Age coins were inserted into the 1600 edition of Camden’s Britannia, reminding us that incidental discoveries might occur even before the advent of modern deep ploughing.[v] Compared to the earlier prehistoric material there is a much more promising regional context in which to situate a possible late Iron Age or Roman gold coin hoard; Iron Age gold coins in particular are reasonably well represented in the Worcestershire-Shropshire-Herefordshire region, and the limited quantity of archaeological, metal detector and chance finds from Mamble and Bayton include Iron Age harness fittings, Roman coins and a possible Roman brick kiln – all of which points to more substantial settlement activity than for the earlier period – although allowances must be made for the much greater visibility of this material vis-a-vis earlier prehistoric archaeology.[vi]

A little more likely? Iron Age gold stater from Pershore (PASID WAW-C74642) Used on a CC-BY SA licence from © The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum

A little more likely?
Iron Age AV quarter-stater from Pershore (PASID WAW-C74642)
Used on a CC BY-SA licence from © The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum

3) An (?early) medieval hoard?

Along similar lines we might question whether the find was of later medieval gold coinage – or even recently deposited 16th/17th century gold coin. One traditional objection  – that gold coin rarely circulated in rural contexts, and therefore is unlikely to be found hoarded in the bleak hill country of the Worcestershire/Shropshire border –  appears quite untenable in light of reassessed finds and documentary evidence.[vii] Against this, however, we must plead the question of reception and familiarity; although the reforms of Henry VIII changed the shape of the English gold coinage considerably, the basic iconography of ships and angels so common to later medieval gold coins persisted in one form or another into the early 17th century; it’s hard to imagine that even the most stereotypical country bumpkin might not have recognised the find for what it once represented.

Top: AV angel of Richard III, 1483-5 (PASID LEIC-E209C1) Bottom: AV angel of James I, 1615-6 (PASID LEIC-C684F6).  Used on a CC-BY SA licence from © The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum

Familiarity’s a funny thing…
Top: AV angel of Richard III, 1483-5 (PASID LEIC-E209C1)
Bottom: AV angel of James I, 1615-6 (PASID LEIC-C684F6).
Adapted on a CC BY-SA licence from © The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum

Could we then raise the possibility of an earlier gold coin or object, whose iconography might be less familiar? We are, of course, in Staffordshire hoard country after all. Certainly possible, although again without any tantalising reference to gemstones or enamel work we’d do well to restrain ourselves. And again the testimony of existing artefact and coin distributions is less than encouraging; even accepting modern recovery biases the sparse evidence of gold coins of the 5th to 10th centuries tends much more towards southeast England, as indeed does the evidence for early medieval gold – or for that matter any – objects more generally.

These proposals clearly aren’t exhaustive, but to me seem a fairly reasonable précis of what the discovery made in the summer of 1681 might have been. So what results, if any, can be drawn from the speculation? The balance of probabilities leads me to think that what was found was likely an ancient – probably Iron Age, or maybe Roman – coin hoard (or single find?), but this has to contend with the fact that our sole reference makes zero reference to coins whatsoever. In any case, without any further documentary testimony – or, even better, a fortuitous survival lurking away from plain view – we’ll never really know for sure. But where’s the fun in that?

 

[i] John Field, A history of English field-names (Harlow: Longman, 1993), 218.

[ii] Coal mining in Mamble has been extensively considered in David Poyner & Robert Evans, “Mamble Colliery” Shropshire Caving and Mining Club Journal 4 (1997), 34. The 1838 Mamble tithe map records several fields names after coneys; WAAS S760-459.

[iii] With the notable exception of a possible fragment from Pershore: Derek Hurst and Ian Leins, “The Pershore hoards and votive deposition in the Iron Age” Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 79 (2013), 304.

[iv] Roger Bland and Xavier Loriot, Roman and Early Byzantine gold coins found in Britain and Ireland (London: Royal Numismatic Society, 2010), 29.

[v] D.M. Metcalf, “Find-records of medieval coins from Gough’s Camden’s Britannia” Numismatic Chronicle 17 (1957), 193; Colin Haselgrove, Iron Age coinage in south-east England: the archaeological context (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 1987), 1.

[vi] Ian Leins, “Numismatic data reconsidered: coin distributions and interpretation in studies of late Iron Age Britain” (PhD diss., Newcastle University, 2012), 283.

[vii] (*cough*selfpromotion*cough*) Murray Andrews, “‘Noble, fair and fine’: Single finds of English gold coins from later medieval England and Wales” (forthcoming); see also the discussion in Christopher Dyer, A Country Merchant, 1495-1520: Trading and Farming at the End of the Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 122.

 

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One thought on “There’s gold in them thar hills

  1. Pingback: Coins, hoards, and special deposits workshop (plus a note on Goldhord field-names) | Surrey Medieval

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