Builder with a metal detector makes record-breaking discovery of 22,000 Roman coins, known as the Seaton Down Hoard
A treasure hunter who uncovered the biggest hoard of 4th century Roman coins recorded in Britain spent three nights sleeping in his car to guard his find.
Laurence Egerton, a builder, took up metal detecting seven years ago and his usual hauls consisted of old ring pulls and shotgun cartridges.
But on this occasion fortune was with him. Scanning an area of ground in Seaton, East Devon, he uncovered 22,000 Roman coins dating from AD260 to AD348.
“Between finding the hoard and the archaeologists excavating the site, I slept in my car alongside it for three nights to guard it,” said Mr Egerton, 51.
“Every night the archaeologists packed up and left, and I couldn’t go home and sleep thinking there was something of such significance sitting there in a hole in the ground in a field in the middle of nowhere.
“It was November and it was very cold. I had three or four fleeces on and a quilt. And I’m 6’3” so I’m not really built for sleeping in cars.”
The hoard went on temporary display yesterday at the British Museum, where experts hailed it as an extraordinary find. A number of the coins were struck to mark the foundation of Constantinople in AD332 and bear the image of Emperor Constantine the Great.
Mr Egerton’s lucky day began when he searched a field close to the previously excavated site of a Roman villa.
“Initially, I found two small coins the size of a thumbnail sitting on top of the ground,” he recalled.
His metal detector indicated there was iron in the ground. Mr Egerton said most detectors are set up to ignore iron because it is relatively worthless, but he followed his instinct.
Beneath two iron ingots, he found his treasure. “The next shovel was full of coins – they just spilled out over the field.”
Part of the trove of 22,000 Roman coins found by Laurence Egerton (Apex)
Mr Egerton, a member of the East Devon Metal Detector Club, contacted the authorities to report his find. He also called his wife, Amanda, and she came down to film the moment.
“It’s by far the biggest find I’ve ever had. It really doesn’t get any better than this,” he said.
“I’m fascinated by history although I was never really interested at school. Over the years I have found lots of interesting items but never anything of this magnitude.
“It’s not all treasure, though. For every interesting or historic item found I will have dug a few dozen ring pulls, shotgun cartridges or other miscellaneous items of rubbish.”
Metal detecting is regarded by some as an eccentric pastime – BBC Four is developing a sitcom about it, starring The Office’s Mackenzie Crook. Mr Egerton acknowledged that it had a “geeky” reputation but said: “It’s no different from any other hobby. You aspire to find something special, no different from a golfer aspiring to get a hole in one.”
The coins, now known as the Seaton Down Hoard, have been officially declared as treasure and are eligible for acquisition by a museum. Mr Egerton, who had obtained a licence to operate on the land, will be eligible to split the proceeds 50/50 with the landowner.
The local Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter is launching a public fundraising campaign to buy them.
The Seaton Down hoard of treasure during excavation (Apex)
Although they would not have been very valuable in their day – representing a few months’ wages for a Roman soldier – the historical element means they will now be worth tens of thousands of pounds.
It is believed the coins were originally buried for safekeeping. Bill Horner, county archaeologist for Devon, said: “There were no High Street banks, so a good, deep hole in the ground was as secure a place as any to hide your savings in times of trouble, or if you were going away on a long journey.
“Whoever made this particular deposit never came back to retrieve it.”
Each coin has been catalogued under the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which is administered by the British Museum and records archaeological objects found by members of the public. The hoard helped the scheme to pass its one millionth item.
Mr Egerton would like to have just one of the coins as a memento of his find. “I may ask if there is a possibility of having one,” he said.
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