The Denton Roman coin hoard is something of a mystery. In 1969 a small hoard of Roman coins was discovered in a spot adjacent to Windmill Lane in Denton. The precise circumstances are not clear but the note with the hoard in the archive for the Tameside Museum at the Portland Basin states that it was handed into the museum sometime in the mid-1970s. Since its discovery the original collection appears to have been contaminated with a Byzantine coin (more of that in a later blog) and a metal object that is not a coin. When these have been separated, the remaining coins consist of 20 late imperial copper issues, of which three cannot be positively identified beyond assigning to them dates of issue in the late 4th century.
In 1991, as part of the Tameside Archaeological Survey, I asked North West England’s leading Roman coin expert, Professor David Shotter of Lancaster University, to examine the hoard professionally for the first time. He noted that the condition of the coins was uniform though generally poor: most exhibited a considerable degree of wear, and some appeared to be rather crude copies of Roman prototypes. Mint-marks could be identified only rarely, although in two of the three cases where this was possible the coins concerned were found to have been minted in the eastern Mediterranean. This is a factor which is shared with the two other hoards from North West England which offer the closest chronological parallels to the present collection – that found at Brindle in 1934 and the large hoard from Knott Mill, Manchester, which was found in 1852. Of these the Brindle hoard must have been ‘frozen’ at about the same time as that from Denton, whilst the Knott Mill hoard does not contain coins issued so late in the fourth century.
It is normal in late fourth-century hoards to find some coins issued earlier in the fourth century and even some radiate copies of the second half of the third century. The existence of such hoards and of individual late site-finds shows, particularly in view of the state of wear of many of the coins, that coinage continued to play some part in local commercial activities. However, the lack of new coinage from about AD 400 onwards clearly implies that barter must have played an increasing role in the local economy. This in its turn suggests that Romanized life in the Tameside area and wider Manchester city region was becoming increasingly fragmented in the early fifth century.
Hoards are not necessarily indicators of disaster, since people with cash have always concealed their savings in the absence of a banking system. However, we can assume that the failure to collect this small cache of savings indicates either the owner’s realization that the coins no longer served a useful purpose, or perhaps their death in circumstances in which the location of their savings were either unknown to their heirs or (more likely) of no interest to them. It is worth noting that some small doubt still remains as to the precise context of a hoard, since the location was poorly recorded, and also that it is possible that the hoard may have been contaminated by additional items after its discovery, beyond the Byzantine coin. Nevertheless, at face value this represents one of the very last acts we can attribute to the Romanised population of the region as Roman Britain began its long mutation into Saxon England and Celtic Wales.