A Cheshire treasure: Exploring the contents of the Knutsford Hoard

More than a decade ago, a metal-detectorist discovered a plough-scattered hoard of over 100 Roman coins, together with items of jewellery. Vanessa Oakden explores what has been learned about the finds since then, and what they tell us about life in Cheshire c.2,000 years ago.


Back in 2012, metal-detectorist Alan Bates was exploring a field outside the Cheshire town of Knutsford, about 14 miles south-west of Manchester, when he uncovered a group of seven Roman coins and a silver object that later proved to be part of a brooch. Realising the significance of his discovery, Alan immediately stopped detecting and phoned his local Finds Liaison Officer at the Museum of Liverpool. This action allowed a small team from the Museum of Liverpool and Cheshire Archaeology Planning Advisory Service to come and excavate the findspot – and, crucially, preserved as much information as possible about each object’s location. What initially appeared to be only a small group of finds soon transpired to be a hoard of 103 coins, together with brooches, rings, and fragments of the orange ware vessel that is thought to have once housed them.

Found in 2012, the Knutsford Hoard comprises 103 Roman coins, three trumpet brooches, and two finger-rings.

The hoard had not survived intact – its pottery container appears to have been struck by a plough, which had then spread coins and objects across the field – but we were able to pin down its original position by systematically metal-detecting the surrounding area and targeting clusters of activity for test-pitting. Success came when Test Pit II revealed a particularly dense concentration of coins and fragments of pottery – 21 in all, forming the lower wall of a jar or flagon made from locally produced Wilderspool Oxidised ware.

As for the Knutsford Hoard’s contents, out of the 103 coins that were excavated from the plough soil, 101 were silver denarii (a not-inconsiderable sum, representing around a third of a Roman soldier’s annual pay); there were also two larger, lower-value copper-alloy sestertii. It is possible that these latter coins had been used as some kind of stopper to secure the pot holding the denarii, though – as the vessel is too incomplete to be sure that it had a narrow-enough neck for this to have worked – this can only be speculation. However they had been stored, the coins are illuminating. Between the advent of imperial rule under Augustus (r. 27 BC-AD 14) to the last Roman emperors, there were more than 230 rulers throughout the Roman Empire. The Knutsford Hoard gives just a small snapshot of their coinage, with 24 individuals represented by its contents, but when we focus more locally, this group of finds adds a significant amount to our archaeological knowledge of the area.

Finder Alan Bates with Vanessa Oakden (then PAS Finds Liaison Officer) during the hoard’s excavation in 2012.

Imperial echoes

The coins in the Knutsford Hoard range in date from 32 BC to the end of the 2nd century, when the pot containing them was possibly buried. The earliest coin actually pre-dates the empire: it is a late republican denarius of Mark Antony, dating from 32-31 BC and depicting a galley on the obverse and a legionary eagle between two standards on the reverse. The latest, meanwhile, depicts the empress Crispina, showing her profile on the obverse, and the goddess Ceres on the reverse. It was issued by her husband Commodus (r. AD 180-192), but their marriage was not a happy one; it failed to produce an heir, prompting a succession crisis, and Crispina herself was ultimately accused of adultery, banished to Capri, and later executed.

Fragments of locally made Wilderspool Oxidised ware, found with the plough-scattered hoard, are thought to have come from the pot that once contained it.

Thirteen coins in all depict women – as well as Crispina, these include Sabina, wife of Hadrian; Faustina I, wife of Antoninus Pius; her daughter and the wife of Marcus Aurelius, Faustina II; and Faustina II’s daughter Lucilla, who married Lucius Verus. The most frequent coins in the hoard, though, are those of Hadrian, who has 14 denarii, and Antoninus Pius, who has 13; each of these men is also represented by one of the sestertii.

Some 13 coins within the hoard depict women – among them this silver denarius depicting Sabina, wife of Hadrian. On the obverse we see her profile, diademed and draped, surrounded by her name and title, ‘SABINA AVGVSTA’. The reverse depicts the goddess Venus holding an apple, together with the words ‘VENERA GENETRICI’ (Venus the founder).

Insights into identity

Together with the coins, there were five items of jewellery, including two silver finger-rings inlaid with red semi-precious stones that are probably carnelian. One of these intaglios is incised with a winged figure, probably depicting Victory; the second is plain, but its shape suggests that it had been filed down in antiquity to remove its design. Intaglios were used for sealing letters and other documents, actions that were more usually associated with men in the Roman period, though they were also performed by women. Both rings are small, suggesting that they may have been worn on a female hand, though they could have been worn by a man on his little finger, or on a lower knuckle.

Together with the coins, the hoard contained three trumpet-style brooches and two silver finger-rings inlaid with semi-precious intaglios.

Completing the set were three large silver gilt trumpet brooches, one of which was found encased in a compact block of soil. It was transported to the British Museum still in this condition, together with the rest of the hoard, and the block was X-rayed before it was carefully excavated by the conservation team. Trumpet brooches are particularly associated with Roman Britain, and often with the army; it has been suggested that they may have evolved from an insular design and reflect cultural contacts between local communities and the soldiers who settled nearby. For Knutsford, the nearest major military site would be Chester, which lies about 25 miles to the south-east – and there are further hints of Romano-British influences within the design of the brooches themselves. All three have decorative gilding resulting in a striking two-colour effect; it also forms swirling La Tène-style patterns, suggesting that these objects were being used to express a local identity.

Since its discovery, the hoard has been recorded as Treasure with the Portable Antiquities Scheme and declared Treasure under the 1996 Treasure Act (finders of potential Treasure are legally required to report their finds; see https://finds.org.uk/treasure for more information). It was then jointly acquired by the Museum of Liverpool and Congleton Museum thanks to support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and since then the hoard has been exhibited variously at both museums, Nantwich Museum, and the Grosvenor Museum in Chester. If you would like to see its contents for yourself, they are currently on display at Congleton Museum.

Heather Beeton, Portable Antiquities Scheme Finds Liaison Officer for Cheshire, Greater Manchester, and Merseyside redisplaying the hoard in its current home: Congleton Museum.

The Cheshire Hoards 

The Museum of Liverpool holds more than 100,000 archaeological objects within its Regional Archaeology collection. The Knutsford Hoard, along with the Malpas Hoard and the Poole Hoard, form the Cheshire Hoards collection, and they are collectively helping us to explore life in this region nearly 2,000 years ago.

Found during a metal-detecting rally in 2014, the Malpas Hoard is smaller and earlier in date than its Knutsford neighbour, comprising 35 coins spanning 134 BC to AD 50. Interestingly, its contents include both British and early Roman coins – there are seven Iron Age staters, which were struck between AD 20 and AD 50, and, unusually, they represent the issues of two peoples who lived a considerable distance apart. Some are marked with the letters ‘EISV’, indicating a link to the west of England and the Dobunni, while those marked ‘VEP CORF’ are associated with the Corieltauvi of Leicestershire and Lincolnshire. The Roman coins, meanwhile, all pre-date the Claudian invasion of AD 43, and were probably brought over by the Roman army. The latest among them is a denarius of Tiberius dating to AD 14-37; it is not very worn, suggesting that it had not circulated for long before it was buried, and it is thought that the Malpas Hoard may have been buried within a decade of conquest.

The Poole Hoard, by contrast, is much larger and rather later in date than the Knutsford finds. Its more than 1,500 coins were found in 2016, spread by ploughing, together with fragments of the grey ware pot that is thought to have originally served as a container. Spanning AD 270 to 335, the hoard is believed to have been buried around the time of Constantine the Great (r. 306-337); its contents are mainly low value nummi dating to the early 4th century, though there are also five radiates from the later 3rd century. Some of the more unusual elements within its contents are coins of Fausta, the second wife of Constantine, whom he had executed c.AD 326 on charges of adultery with her stepson. The 18 examples within the Poole Hoard represent almost 10% of all Fausta coins that have been recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme. There is also the only coin of Martinian that the PAS has documented; he came to power as co-ruler with Licinius during the civil war against Constantine, but reigned for only a few months between July-September 324 before he was deposed and subsequently executed.

You can explore the Knutsford Hoard online via the Museum of Liverpool’s online collections at http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/collections/archaeology/cheshire/knutsfordhoard, and can read more about the Cheshire Hoards at http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/collections/archaeology/cheshire.

Vanessa Oakden is Curator (Regional & Community Archaeology) at the Museum of Liverpool, which is part of National Museums Liverpool.

Further information:
You can hear more about the hoard from Vanessa in her upcoming talk: Beyond the Label: a Cheshire treasure, the Knutsford Hoard, which will take place at 2pm on Saturday 14 October at the Museum of Liverpool. Tickets cost £7 and booking is advised.
It is part of National Museums Liverpool’s series of talks called ‘Beyond the Label’, in which curators go beyond the museum labels and delve into a fascinating world of art, history, science, and community stories. See http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/whatson/beyond-label for further details.
In 2016, the Museum of Liverpool hosted a conference bringing together the latest research on Roman hoards in the North West, subsequently publishing the conference papers as Insights into Roman Hoards of North West England, which is available from the Museum of Liverpool online shop (https://shop.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk) along with a popular volume, Romano-British Treasures of Cheshire.

All images: Museum of Liverpool