Metal Detectorist Discovers Black Death-Period Coins

The treasure dates back to the reign of Edward III and probably belonged to a wealthy person in England

Black Death Coins
One highlight of the find included a rare a leopard coin. Officials considered this coinage 'failed' because the costs for producing them were too high. Courtesy of the British Museum

An English metal detectorist has discovered two rare gold coins dating back to the 14th century.

As Stuart Anderson reports for the Eastern Daily Press, the treasure hunter unearthed the coins in Reepham, a small town in southwest England, in 2019. Together, both coins are worth an estimated £12,000 ($16,650) and someone “at the top of society” probably owned them, writes BBC News.

“It seems likely that both coins went into the ground at the same time, either as part of a purse loss or as part of a concealed hoard,” the United Kingdom’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) notes in a statement.

One of the finds was a 23-karat gold leopard, which was minted in 1344, and the other coin was a type of noble, which was minted in 1351 or 1352. Both pieces portray Edward III, who tried to bring gold coinage to England in 1344.

The leopard coin, also known as a half florin, was only minted from January to July 1344. Though the 0.12-ounce medallion is considered valuable now, this type of currency was considered a “failure” when it was initially created because the costs of producing the coins were too high; the value given to them was also disproportionate to the cost of silver, per the statement.

According to Live Science’s Laura Geggel, Edward III introduced new coins from 1344 to 1351 to solve these issues, and craftsmen minted the 0.3-ounce noble during this period.

Both coins were relatively well preserved and only had slight scratches, likely a result of agricultural activity. If a local coroner (an independent legal authority) reviews the discoveries, then they may be classified as “treasures,” a term that “refers to bonafide, often metal artifacts that meet … specific archaeological criteria” outlined by the PAS, notes Laura Geggel for Live Science in a separate article.

In the U.K., amateur treasure hunters are required to hand their finds over to local authorities. Current guidelines define treasure relatively strictly, but as Caroline Davies reported for the Guardian last December, the U.K. government is working to expand these parameters to better protect the country’s national heritage items. Objects designated as treasure become the property of the state and may be displayed at national or local museums.

These finds were particularly notable because “hardly any have survived,” notes BBC News. The coins may help experts to understand historical changes to English currency after the Norman Conquest.

“The royal treasury might talk in terms of pounds, shillings and pence, but the physical reality was sacks of silver pennies,” archaeologist Helen Geake tells BBC News. “Then Edward III decided to reintroduce the first gold coins in England since the Anglo-Saxon era—and no-one knows why.”

Eventually, England’s government melted down most of the leopards and recast them. Once the leopard was taken out of circulation, officials replaced it with the noble, which was worth six shillings and eight pence, according to BBC News.

“Almost none [of the leopards] survived because they were all pulled back in and reminted, and this is the first time that we know of that one has been found with another coin,” Geake tells the Eastern Daily Press. “It implies that this leopard is either in circulation or being held onto by someone who thinks it is worth it, which is weird behavior.”

Scholars believe that one reason for the leopard’s uncharacteristically long circulation is that the Black Death came to England in the late 1340s and killed at least one third of the population, which would have distracted government authorities from less immediate issues like coin circulation.

“Usually, the authorities would be keen to remove a withdrawn coin as soon as possible,” but the Black Death probably prevented this from happening, Geake tells Live Science.