By Richard Giedroyc
Why would a Roman gold coin be found at the site of a former Roman army encampment at Vindolanda along Hadrian’s Wall in Great Britain?
While archaeologists are expressing delight regarding the find, the press has been making statements that appear to be more conjecture than fact.
The coin is an About Good issue of Nero struck in AD 64 to 65. According to the June 20 issue of Discovery News, “A volunteer, Marcel Albert from France, unearthed the ancient coin in a layer of sediments that dated to the fourth century and that various archaeological teams had thoroughly scoured over several decades. Though the site has yielded thousands of coins over the years, none have been gold.”
The June 19 issue of Culture 24 quoted Vindolanda Trust Deputy Director of Excavations Justin Blake as saying, “My first find at Vindolanda nearly 20 years ago was a coin, but because of their scarcity I didn’t think for a moment that I would ever see a gold coin unearthed at the site. It was an absolutely magical moment for the whole team.”
Vindolanda Trust spokesman Sonya Galloway added, “It had been a great year on site to date with a whole host of finds. Just yesterday they found an iron spoon also from the fourth century level – perhaps it was used by an angry wife to hit the person over the head with when it was realized they lost the gold coin. They are excavating three areas of the site this year – the fort, where this discovery was made, the vicus, where they are digging deep into the pre-Hadrianic levels, and further to the north of the main site, where we have a Canadian Field School from the University of Western Ontario.”
Director of Excavations Dr. Andrew Birley was quoted as saying, “You actually have more chance of winning the lottery than finding a gold coin on a Roman military site, so this is a special and very likely one-off find.”
The local press has been embellishing stories of the find with tales of the excesses and scandals of Nero, while claiming the aureus would have been half a year’s wages for a contemporaryRoman soldier.
In fact, no archaeologist at the site has said it appears the coin belonged to an ordinary soldier. According to Albert’s statement, it appears the coin was found at the fourth century level, not the first century level from when Nero was alive.
Regarding the contemporary value of the coin, a legionnaire was paid 225 silver denarii (25 denarii equal one aureus) annually until the reign of the Emperor Domitian (AD 81-96), who raised the pay to 300 denarii. The Emperor Septimius Severus (AD 193-211) increased the wages again, this time to 500 denarii. Some of this money was deducted for food and clothing expenses.
If the errant coin can be attributed to a common soldier rather than to an officer, merchant, or bureaucrat the coin would represent the value of several week’s wages. This would be the equivalent of someone today carrying two to three weeks’ wages in a single coin in his pocket. The scenario of a soldier losing the coin is unlikely.
Vindolanda was a Roman auxiliary fort or castrum in northern England just south of Hadrian’s Wall. The function of Vindolanda was to guard a Roman road between the River Tyne to the Solway Firth. The Vindolanda Tablets excavated at the same site are wooden tablets on which military and private correspondence are written. The tablets are considered to be among the most important such finds known.
The stone fort at Vindolanda was likely built to accommodate the Second Cohort of Nervians after many of the soldiers initially stationed at Hadrian’s Wall were moved north to the Antonine Wall.
The original Vindolanda stone fort was demolished and replaced with circular stone huts likely for army or farming family use about the time of the rebellion against Britain in AD 208 to 211. These structures were later replaced with a stone fort for the use of the Fourth Cohorts of Gauls.
Other recently excavated finds at Vindolanda include arrowheads, beads, brooches, gaming tokens, leather shoes, pottery, and rings. Coins have been found before, but never such a high denomination as an aureus.
The true question is in what context was such a valuable coin lost?