Viking hoard highlights the value of responsible metal detectoring

Viking, Silverdale horde
When I used to work as an archaeologist, I heard a lot of bad-mouthing about metal detectorists. These guys scan the ground for coins and other metal objects. Most of the time they only find a few old pennies. It’s when they discover something of historic value that some archaeologists get grumpy. Many archaeologists don’t trust metal detectorists, saying they disturb ancient sites and pocket their findings.

This week’s discovery of a Viking hoard of silver in England shows how responsible metal detectorists, far from being nosy snoopers into the sacred soil of archaeology, can actually help us learn more about the past.

The hoard, found near the appropriately named village of Silverdale, Lancashire, includes silver brooches, coins, arm-rings, and ingots. There are 201 pieces in all, weighing more than two pounds, and they were buried around 900 AD. While artistic value of the jewelry is priceless, it’s one of the coins that tells us something really significant. It’s of a type never before seen and bears the inscription AIRDECONUT which may represent the Scandinavian name Harthacnut. There’s a famous Viking king by that name, but he lived a century later and his coins look different, so this appears to be a previously unknown Viking king.

Interestingly, the other side reads DNS (Dominus) REX, with the letters arranged in the form of a cross. This was a period when Vikings were beginning to abandoned the old gods like Thor and Odin and turn to Christianity. Also in the horde was a fake silver coin made from copper with a thin silver wash, and Islamic coins from the Middle East.

This isn’t the first time a metal detectorist has found evidence for an unknown ruler. Back in 2004, a man using a metal detector uncovered a Roman silver coin in Oxfordshire dating to 271 AD and bearing the face of Emperor Domitianus II. This military officer had been garrisoned in Britain and took advantage of the chaotic political situation to proclaim himself emperor. He minted some coins to celebrate the occasion but his rule only lasted at most for a few weeks. The coin was part of a hoard of about 5,000 coins. This coin is now on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

In both cases, the lucky guys did the right (and legal) thing–they reported their finds to the proper authorities. Laws governing such finds differ from country to country, but it’s always important to report anything you find that may be of historical significance. You never know, you might have discovered a new king.

Photo courtesy Portable Antiquities Scheme.

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London’s Temple of Mithras is moving back to its original location

Mithras, London
London got its start as the Roman city of Londinium in the first century AD. Back then the so-called “mystery religions” were very popular in the Roman Empire. These cults, with their personal connections to the divine and secret rites, gave believers a more personal experience than the giant temples to Jupiter, Mars, and the rest of the standard pantheon. One of the most popular mystery religions was that of Mithras, an eastern deity whose worship appears to have been open only to men, mainly soldiers.

Since Mithraic rites were secret, not much is known about their beliefs, but there are many similarities between Mithraism and Christianity, such as Mithras being born on December 25 to a virgin, and having died and been resurrected for the salvation of mankind. Both faiths practiced baptism and communal meals. The similarities were so numerous that early Christian writers claimed the older religion was invented by the Devil as a cheap imitation of Christianity before Jesus was even born!

Temples to Mithras, called mithraea, have been found all over the Roman Empire, including one in the heart of London. The mithraeum in Roman London was discovered in 1952 and moved 90 meters away and set up on Queen Victoria St. The restoration wasn’t a completely accurate one. One major problem was that it was put on a podium when mithraea were generally underground.

Now the site has been bought by Bloomberg LP, which plans to build its European headquarters there. Bloomberg LP is going to dismantle the temple and put it back in its original location, according to a press release from the Museum of London Archaeology. The temple will be dismantled starting on November 21 and the corporation says the new reconstruction will be much more accurate. There’s no word yet on when this whole project will be completed. Such a large and delicate process will probably take several years.

Roman child’s footprints discovered in northern England

Roman, roman
Every now and then an archaeological discovery makes me realize just how much we have in common with our ancestors.

Just this morning I was telling my son to keep out of the mud. I didn’t want his shoes to get dirty, you see, and didn’t give much thought to the footprints he left behind.

Two thousand years ago in Roman Britain a child was hopping or skipping beside the road. Archaeologists working in Yorkshire found the kid’s footprints–a right one followed by two left prints–during an excavation in 2009. They’ve only now been made public. Sadly, the archaeologists weren’t able to preserve the prints, but were at least able to photograph these ghostly traces of the past.

The spot was the location of an old stream near Healam Bridge Roman fort, which some researchers believe may have been the home of the mysterious “lost” Ninth Legion, which vanished without a trace from Roman records after 117 AD. In addition to the footprints, archaeologists found an industrial estate that supported the fort, where they uncovered the foundations of buildings, a millstone, pottery, glass, coins, and even the skeleton of a sacrificed horse placed under the foundations of a building for good luck. They also found evidence that the Romans wore socks with their sandals.

The dig was sponsored by the Highways Agency, which has posted photos of some of the finds on their Flickr site.

[Images courtesy of Northern Archaeological Associates Ltd]

Roman, roman