The excavations at Rockbourne (1940s to 1970s) unearthed more than 700 coins scattered across the site, but ‘jackpot day’ came on Saturday, August 26th, 1967 when a hoard, of 7,714 bronze and silver-bronze antoninianii and three silver denarii, was found buried in a two-handled storage jar. The coins mostly belonged to the period 250 to 290, but issues of Diocletian and Maximianus suggested a deposition date of around 305.
The hoard caused great excitement at the time and the news even made some national papers, presumably resulting in a late-season rush of visitors to the villa. After the coins had been counted they were carried off to the village shop to be weighed (collectively!). As the scales were not up to the job, someone produced a set of bathroom scales and they provided a reading of 56lbs (25.4 kg).
A T Morley Hewitt, discoverer of the villa and owner of the site at the time, then set about having the coins cleaned and identified. When it was clear there were numerous duplicates – 2,439 issues of Tetricus I, for example, and 1,474 of Victorinus – he rewarded each of his regular diggers with a small packet of coins at the annual dinner later in the year.
This dispersal of the hoard continued in other ways, as the decision was made to sell some of the duplicates in order to raise funds for the continuing excavation. There was also some dispute about whether the ‘finder’ should have a significant share of the hoard. At the end of the day (or more precisely in 1979, when Hampshire County Council acquired the site and finds) only 986 coins were present, and only half of these ended up in the site archive. These 493 coins, along with the New Forest jar in which they were concealed, are part of the museum displays.
Debate continues about whether such hoards represent the hiding away of wealth, particularly in troubled times, or a religious offering to the gods. The discovery of the huge ‘Frome hoard’ in 2010 (52,503 coins in a very large pot) supports the votive offering theory. The excavator of the Frome find reported distinctive ‘organic matter’ around the pot, suggesting that this was packing to protect it. Morley Hewitt also mentions an organic component to the Rockbourne find, but it’s not clear in what quantity.
In 1894, a hoard of 4,020 coins, of similar date, was found on the site of Roman farm buildings at Whipps Hill, less than a mile from Rockbourne.
Rockbourne Roman Villa; A Guide £5 plus p&p, available from Hampshire Cultural Trust.
A1979.6 Archive held by Hampshire Cultural Trust.
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone.