Amateur Divers Discover Trove of 53 Roman Gold Coins in Spain

A wealthy landowner probably hid the hoard to protect it from “barbarian” invaders

coins lying amidst small stones underwater
Two men found the coins while diving in Portitxol Bay along the Mediterranean coast. University of Alicante

Last month, two men snorkeling off Spain’s Mediterranean coast during a family vacation found a stash of Roman coins that turned out to be one of the largest of its kind ever discovered in Europe. 

The gold coins date to between the fourth and fifth centuries C.E., reports Rafa Burgos for El País. Brothers-in-law Luis Lens and César Gimeno spent two hours using the corkscrew from a Swiss Army knife to free eight of the coins from a rock crevice about 20 feet underwater in Portitxol Bay.

Later, they contacted local authorities and returned with underwater archaeologists from the city of Xàbia, the University of Alicante (UA) and the Spanish Civil Guard. The team ultimately retrieved 53 coins, 3 nails and some lead fragments that were probably once part of a chest that held the hoard.

“It’s incredible,” Lens tells El País. “It’s every child’s dream to find a treasure.”

The coins are in such good condition that researchers were able to read the inscriptions on all but one of them, reports Jack Guy for CNN. Roman rulers represented included Valentinian I (3 coins), Valentinian II (7 coins), Theodosius I (15 coins), Arcadius (17 coins) and Honorius (10 coins). These emperors’ reigns spanned the years 364 to 423 C.E.

Coins showing clear inscriptions
The coins' inscriptions date them to the fourth through fifth centuries C.E. University of Alicante

“It’s very significant,” UA historian Jaime Molina Vidal, who led the underwater investigation, tells CNN. “It’s enormously valuable.”

Molina says the coins were probably intentionally hidden rather than lost in a shipwreck. A wealthy local landowner may have stashed them away to protect them from invaders. During the fifth century C.E., “barbarian” groups, including the Alans, Suevi and Vandals, advanced on Hispania (now Spain and Portugal), capitalizing on the power vacuum left by the failing Western Roman Empire.

“[T]he cities were in decline and power had shifted to the large Roman villas, to the countryside,” Molina tells El País. “Trade [had] been stamped out and the sources of wealth [became] agriculture and livestock.” 

According to Molina, the coins’ owner was probably unable to use them as currency under the chaotic circumstances but wanted to preserve them for the future. The individual apparently took the coins out on a boat and sunk them in the bay but died before they were able to retrieve their hidden treasure.

Researchers will restore the coins and exhibit them at the Soler Blasco Archaeological and Ethnographic Museum in Xàbia, notes UA in a statement. The Valencian government is providing around $21,000 for further underwater excavations in the area.

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