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British Bird-Watcher Discovers Trove of 2,000-Year-Old Celtic Coins

The cache dates to the time of warrior queen Boudica’s revolt against the Romans

The coins are worth an estimated £845,000, or roughly $1,150,000 USD. (Treasure Hunting magazine via Facebook)
smithsonianmag.com

This September, a British birder who’d stopped on the edge of a farmer’s field to watch a buzzard and a pair of magpies stumbled onto a trove of 2,000-year-old Celtic coins worth an estimated £845,000 (around $1,150,000 USD).

As first reported by Julian Evan-Hart of Treasure Hunting magazine, the unnamed bird-watcher—who is also an amateur metal detectorist—unearthed the stash of some 1,300 gold coins in a field in the eastern English countryside. Dated to between roughly 40 and 50 A.D., the cache is the largest hoard of Iron Age Celtic coins found in the United Kingdom since 2008, when a car mechanic excavated a stash of 850 ancient staters, or handmade money, in Suffolk.

“I saw the glint of gold and realized it was a beautiful Celtic gold stater, which made me sit down in sheer shock,” the birder tells Treasure Hunting, as quoted by the Daily Mails Luke May. “I then spotted the second coin two feet away and rushed home to get my [metal detector].”

Upon his return, the man found that his detector produced a “really strong” signal—a sure sign that more treasures lingered below the surface. Digging down about 18 inches, he extracted a copper vessel brimming with gold coins dated back to the era when Celtic queen Boudica led a massive uprising against the Romans.

“I had to sit down to get my breath back,” the treasure hunter says. “I had only come out for a walk and found a Celtic hoard.”

Once the man overcame his initial shock, he filled two large shopping bags with the cache of coins and returned home. Then, he promptly contacted local authorities to report the find. If experts deem the discovery treasure, they will offer it to a museum and potentially offer a share of the reward to the finder. (Current guidelines define treasure very narrowly, but as Caroline Davies reports for the Guardian, the U.K. government is working to expand these parameters in order to better protect the country’s national heritage items.)

“The coins form a substantial if not enormous contribution to our academic numismatic knowledge and will undoubtedly be subject to much assessment over the coming year,” says Jules Evan-Hart, editor of Treasure Hunting, in a statement quoted by the New York Post’s Hannah Sparks. “It is possible that [the coins] may form a deposit as a ‘war chest’ for Boudica’s eastern campaigns.”

A Warrior Queen
A 19th-century engraving of Boudica (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

A towering figure in British history, Boudica was an ancient warrior queen who revolted against the Romans following her husband’s death in 60 A.D. Prasutagus—king of the Iceni, a tribe based in what is now Norfolk—had no male heir, so he bequeathed half of his assets to his daughters and the other half to Nero in the hope that the Roman emperor would protect his family. Unfortunately, Prasutagus’ efforts were in vain: The Romans seized and plundered his land, in addition to raping his daughters and publicly beating his widow. Enraged, Boudica raised a bloody rebellion throughout East Anglia; the Roman historian Tacitus later wrote that her forces killed around 70,000 Romans and pro-Roman Britons during attacks on three separate settlements. Despite these early victories, Boudica’s army eventually faltered. A smaller Roman force defeated the rebels in a final battle at an unknown location, slaughtering around 80,000 Britons while incurring casualties of just 400 men, as Richard Hingley noted for National Geographic in 2019.

The two historians who mention Boudica in their accounts—Tacitus and Dio Cassius—offer differing versions of her fate. According to Tacitus, the queen poisoned herself after suffering defeat. Dio Cassius, however, suggests that she fell ill, died and received an elaborate burial.

Boudica’s people, the Iceni, may have used gold staters as votive offerings in times of political duress, drought or natural disaster, wrote David Keys for the Independent in 2009.

Speaking with BBC News in 2019, archaeologist Anna Booth said that Boudica’s uprising marked a tumultuous time in the region, and as a result, many people may have hoarded coins. At one major religious center, the tribe buried more than 60 pounds of gold and silver jewelry, according to the Independent.

“There does seem to be a slight increase in hoarding in this period,” Booth told BBC News. “It is a stretch of the imagination, we are not 100 percent sure, but in this region, it is tempting to say this is because of what was happening in this period.”

The Iron Age coins are among more than 47,000 archaeological discoveries made in England and Wales this year, according to a statement released by the British Museum. Officials reported that Covid-19 restrictions led to an increase in finds, with many pandemic-worn Brits seeking respite outdoors. Finds included gold coins inscribed with the initials of Henry VIII’s first three wives, rare Saxon pennies and a copper Roman furniture fitting.

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