Museums at Night 2013: The Beau Street Hoard

This week saw museums around the country inviting visitors in after hours, putting on extra shows and displays, and generally having a bit of fun - all for Museums at Night.

http://museumsatnight.wordpress.com/about-museums-at-night/ 

As part of my contribution to the Museums at Night effort, I did a display on the Beau Street Hoard. This collection of 17,577 Roman coins was found in a stone-lined box beneath the floor of an Roman building during a routine pre-construction archaeological excavation in 2007. A hotel now stands on the site of the discovery.

As soon as archaeologists realised they had a hoard on their hands, they removed the fused-together block of soil and coins and shipped it straight to the British Museum. There, it underwent lots of conservation work, which is now nearing completion.

There are so many things that could be said about the Beau Street Hoard, so I'll try to limit myself! While at the BM, it was x-radiographed so that conservators and archaeologists could take see how the layers of coins inside the excavated block were arranged. Everyone was surprised (and pleased!) with the images that came out. In the image below (taken from my table), you can see the x-radiograph of the hoard block on the left. If you look closely, you'll see that the coins aren't all jumbled together, but separated into eight clumps. With much excitement, it became plain that this was a hoard composed of several bags of coins... which were still there!


The hoard was then picked apart and deconstructed, bag by bag. As each bag was lifted from the block it was photographed and examined. It was presumed that the leather bags themselves would have long decomposed, and that all we were seeing was the coins within them fused together into lumps. To a great extent that was true, but...

...here's one of the bags. The dirty brown stuff still covering the coins of this bag isn't soil. It's the original leather! 


The bags were then picked apart, and the coins cleaned up so numismatists could provide identifications. Most of the coins are called antoniniani, but amongst them were a fair number of earlier, purer coins with a higher silver content. These coins (called denarii) were the main silver currency before the antoninianus was introduced, and by the time of the hoard's deposition they were much sought after because of the higher amount of silver they contained. Bag 6 was really fascinating, because whoever put the hoard together had the sense to wholly fill this bag with denarii. This would've been a convenient bag to grab if the owner(s) of the hoard found they had to leave Bath in a hurry and didn't have time to load the rest of the coins onto a cart! Sadly, they didn't even get to do that. Their loss is our gain, I suppose...

The British Museum ran an interesting blog on the care and conservation of the hoard, which is well worth a look: http://blog.britishmuseum.org/category/conservation-2/beau-street-hoard/ 

My table was all about delivering information and news about the hoard to visitors. Although it has spent most of its life in a vault somewhere underneath London, I was surprised at how many people had heard quite a bit about it.

Among the items on display were some uncleaned coins, so that people could handle them and get a sense of what the coins typically looked like when they came out of the ground. In the background was also a slideshow with pictures of the excavation of the hoard in action - Bathonian visitors in particular understandably loved the idea that such a large body of coins had been found on their collective doorstep.
 
Sample of some uncleaned coins for visitors to handle
Examples of some shinier cleaned coins were also on the table for visitors to gaze at. No matter how many times I repeated the fact, people found it hard to accept that they could clean up so well after years in Bath's claggy soil. These are what people are admiring in the photo below!

A favourite of many visitors to the table was that the hoard contained two silver denarii minted by the famous Marc Antony, all the way back in 31-32 B.C. When they considered the hoard was deposited around the 270s-80s A.D., this meant these denarii were still around 300 years after being minted! To put it into context for people I said that the denarius hadn't been a valid coin for years by the time of the hoard, so that'd be like finding the odd George III penny in your change today. Their relatively high silver content meant these coins had probably been pulled from circulation by the owner for savings, rather than being used to buy things at the shops.
The hoard was declared treasure and, as such, the Baths needs to raise a considerable sum of money to buy it back from the government. This will hopefully be done with the aid of the Heritage Lottery Fund. At present, the first stage of Heritage Lottery money has been awarded the Baths; when the second stage of funding comes, it will be used to fund the display and use of the hoard within the museum and in events around the Bath and North East Somerset area.
We hoped that in displaying coins from the hoard before its arrival in Bath, we would be able to ask visitors to the Museums at Night event what they thought about the hoard itself, what they would like to see done with it, and what more they'd like to know about. That way, we can gauge what sorts of shows and events to put on when the museum acquires the hoard. In that vein, I was joined by Catherine, a PhD student from Bath Spa University, who asked visitors to fill in our survey. We incentive-ised them with the reward of a chocolate gold coin!

Catherine surveying visitors

All in all, a really worthwhile display. I'm really looking forward to the hoard's arrival!

Matt

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And Finally...

...the Roman Baths made for an excellent night time venue, and visitors got to experience some excellently recreated historical music. Michael Levy, an expert in ancient music, played his recreated  ancient lyre and filled the area around the Temple Pediment display with music (http://www.ancientlyre.com/).

Aside from the jazz band situated at the east end of the Great Bath, my absolute favourite act was Waytes and Measures, who treated us to a good three hours of authentic Medieval music on their wonderfully recreated instruments (http://waytesandmeasures.org.uk/). My favourite instrument was the fabulously named 'Hurdy Gurdy', which is a sort of Medieval one-man band (imagine Bert from Mary Poppins, but in hose) - a mix of keyboard and violin/fiddle with a turn handle.

 Jazz musicians by the Great Bath
 Waytes and Measures mid-perfomance

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