Monday, 7 July 2014

Derbyshire's Corieltavian cave coin cache

There has been a lot of media buzz recently over the discovery of a small hoard of 26 coins at Reynard's Cave at Dovedale in Derbyshire. The excitement has even spread to Lincolnshire (part of the Corieltavian heartlands) and I spent a while on the phone with the Lincolnshire Echo this afternoon discussing the finer points of our understanding of the Iron Age and why this find is significant to us.

Leaving aside the rather unusual find spot for the moment, the first thing that makes the hoard significant is the fact that of the 26 coins, 23 are examples of the later Iron Age inscribed coins of the Corieltavi, but 3 are Roman Republican silver denarii.  One of the holy grails of late Iron Age archaeology is concrete evidence of material and cultural relationships between Britain and the Roman Empire prior to the invasion of AD43.  The presence of pre-invasion coinage included with material of Iron Age date (as was discovered at the incredible shrine site at Hallaton in Leicestershire) always offers this exciting possibility.  The problem lies in the fact that Republican denarii, due to their silver content, circulated for a long time and can still be found in 2nd Century AD contexts.  It will therefore be interesting to see when these coins were minted (denarii began to be produced in 211BC) and how worn they are.  Iron Age coins fell out of production very soon after the Roman invasion, however, so there does seem to be a good chance that the hoard dates at the very least to the time of the invasion.

The second thing of interest is that the coins are Corieltavian, when Derbyshire was part of the tribal area of the neighbouring Brigantes.  This in itself shouldn't surprise us too much, as Corieltavian coins are often found in Yorkshire - indeed, it used to be thought that they were made by the Brigantes, with only 20th Century scholarship proving their East Midlands manufacture.  Nevertheless, the hoard is indicative of the fact that this group of Corieltavian coins had been obtained by a Brigantian, perhaps as part of a trade agreement, as payment for a service or as part of a gift exchange to seal an alliance.

Finally, we turn to the cave itself.  The finder apparently was sheltering from the rain in the cave and happened to have a small metal detector with him, which he used on the floor and found the first few coins.  This then led to an excavation which uncovered the rest.  The excavation is worth noting, as it was carried out using personnel from Operation Nightingale - a wonderful scheme to get wounded servicemen and women into archaeological fieldwork.  Its a great scheme and it seems like the thrill of archaeological discovery will long remain with those involved.  But why were the coins buried in a cave in the first place?  It may simply have been seen as a safe location, but there remains the possibility that the cave was a sanctuary of some sort, and the protection of more spiritual inhabitants of that dark and secluded place may have been sought.  Of course, 'ritual' is a dirty word in archaeology and such theories of sacred caves remain completely baseless without more evidence to support them.

The hoard is currently going through the treasure process, and will hopefully be acquired by Buxton Museum.  I for one can't wait to head across for a look at them in due course, and to see the results of the identification work on them which is only just beginning, and will hopefully begin to answer some of the questions we still have about how and when the hoard was constructed and deposited.

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