After 1066, England was a rather unsettled place to live.
The Normans under William the Conqueror had just invaded and killed Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king, at the Battle of Hastings. Harold, who had only taken the throne nine months earlier in a move whose legality is still heavily debated today by historians – as indeed is William’s claim to the throne – barely had time to mint coins bearing his name and visage before he met his end. While many welcomed their new overlords, as it were, armed resistance led to years of war all over the island, as the Normans tried to consolidate their grip on power.
At some point during all of the tumult, a very wealthy individual decided to stash their wealth, in the form of thousands of late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman coins, in what is today farmland in the county of Shropshire, close to the Welsh border. For whatever reason, they never returned to retrieve their hoard, and over the next thousand years or so it remained hidden, tantalizingly close to the surface, just waiting for the right moment to be rediscovered. That moment finally came earlier this year.
Back in January, a group of experienced and newbie treasure hunters using metal detectors were prospecting in the field in question, when they came across the coins. The find was so large, that it took the group between four and five hours to dig all of it up. Fortunately, they did the right thing and contacted the authorities, and the coins were taken to the British Museum in London for further study.
For the most part, the coins are evenly split between designs featuring Harold, and designs featuring William. However, as the Guardian explained following the Museum’s press conference yesterday to announce their findings, it appears that whoever owned the coins was probably cheating on his or her taxes, given the presence of three very rare coins in the stash:
Three of the coins have been identified as “mules”, a combination of two types of coin – essentially an early form of tax-dodging by the moneyer, the person who made them. These coins have designs and language that relate to both Harold and William, and would have been easy to pass off as legal tender as the average Anglo-Saxon was illiterate and the stylised images of the kings looked similar.
As to what happens next, there are still legal issues to sort out regarding ownership and ultimate disposition of the hoard, one of the largest ever found in the UK. Under the Treasure Act, a coroner must first determine whether or not the hoard is to be considered “treasure” for the purposes of the Act. Assuming that it is – which seems a reasonable assumption here – the coins will have to be offered for sale to a UK museum, with the price set by the British Museum’s team of valuation experts. If no museum can afford to purchase the hoard, then it can be sold at public auction. In either case, the proceeds will be split between the owner of the field where the coins were found, and the people who found it.
While the official valuation has not been made yet, one London auction house specializing in antique coins estimated the hoard as being worth at least $6 million. From an aesthetic standpoint, these are truly beautiful objects, as you can see below in a shot that only shows part of the hoard. Hopefully, at least a few of the coins will end up in a public collection, where they can be viewed and admired as remarkable bits of design, from a dangerous period in which design was the last thing on most people’s minds.
And now, let’s move on to some other discoveries from the art news world over the past week.
Turning to something else dating from around 1066, there’s been a remarkable find at the Reales Alcázares de Sevilla, which is the main Royal Palace in the city of Seville. Today’s palace is a mostly later Medieval structure built in a fusion of Arabic and European styles by Muslim craftsmen and architects, who chose to remain in the city even after it was reconquered by the Christians. Little was thought to remain of the Moorish fortress cum palace which used to stand on the site, but researchers recently discovered that parts of it were built over by later occupants, who incorporated the standing bits of the old palace into their residences. This includes a pair of decorated horseshoe arches dating from the 11th century, shown below, first rediscovered in 2014 but only recently dated using radio carbon testing methods. At the moment, the city is hoping to acquire the houses from the Spanish Treasury Department, which currently owns the structures, renovated them, and turn them into a visitors’ center for the complex.
Meanwhile, just about half an hour or so up the road from Seville in the Andalusian town of Carmona, workers doing home renovations in the town center stumbled across a deep shaft in the cellar, which led to a completely intact subterranean Roman mausoleum with a barrel-vaulted ceiling frescoed in geometric patterns. The tomb is believed to date to sometime between the 1st centuries B.C. and A.D., and has a total of eight niches, six of which hold funerary urns made of different materials, including both stone and glass. The glass urns were placed inside protective lead caskets, and several bear the names of those buried within them. In addition, funeral offerings in the form of ceramic and glass platters, vases, bowls, etc., were found in the tomb. Carmona, once the Roman colony of Carmo, is already well-known to archaeologists for its extensive Roman ruins, including hundreds of intact, frescoed tombs in catacombs dating from the later Imperial period of the 2nd-4th centuries, but these appear to be the earliest intact tombs found thus far.
After a nearly thirty-year search, a missing “Madonna and Child” believed to be by the Italian High Renaissance painter Pinturicchio (1454-1513) has been recovered by Italian police. The picture was stolen in 1990 from a private residence in the region of Umbria, and somehow ended up at an auction house in London. Out of thanks for the work’s recovery, the owners have agreed to lend the painting for a special exhibition in Perugia, where it’s now on display alongside two works by artists who taught the young Pinturicchio; debate still rages over whether he himself painted this recovered piece, or whether one of his teachers did. Apart from the recovery itself, the interesting backstory here is that the Italian police have a unit which does nothing but monitor art auctions around the world, looking for stolen works of art. That’s got to be a task which leaves you bleary-eyed at the end of every work day.
“Madonna col Bambino attribuita a Pinturicchio” is at the National Gallery of Umbria through January 6th.