By John Naylor
National Finds Adviser for Early Medieval and Later Coinage
The Ashmolean Museum is a globally-connected museum of art and archaeology with galleries holding material from around the world. It is also a museum long involved in the archaeology and history of the local region; material excavated from Oxfordshire and its environment has formed parts of the collections since the 19th century. Spanning thousands of years from early prehistory into the early modern period, these locally excavated objects are displayed across a number of galleries, including the Money, European Prehistory, Rome, and England 400–1600 galleries. The Museum's connections to the local region continue to this day, an important part of which is the Ashmolean’s partnership with the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme.
From an Emperor’s head to Viking hoards
The vast majority of the finds recorded by the PAS are returned to their finders, but some do find their way into museum collections.
Acquisitions of PAS-recorded finds by the Ashmolean include small objects – coins and metalwork – but also include objects of archaeological and historical significance. Important additions to the museum’s collection in the last decade include a hoard of 210 gold coins from Asthall (Oxfordshire) dating from the reigns of Henry VI–Henry VIII (1470–1547) and a bronze head of the deified Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, discovered in southern Northamptonshire in the 1970s and reported to the PAS in 2009; it was probably mounted on a staff or pole for carried in religious processions.
A recently-acquired find of national importance was reported to the PAS via the Treasure Act 1996: the Watlington Hoard. This late 9th-century hoard of Anglo-Saxon silver pennies and Scandinavian precious metal ingots and jewellery is the first large Viking-Age hoard found in Oxfordshire; its coins are rare examples of shared designs between Alfred the Great, king of Wessex (r. 871–99) and his Mercian counterpart, Ceolwulf II (r. 874–9). These shed light onto a historically little-appreciated alliance between the two kingdoms at this time.
The Ashmolean’s involvement began soon after the Watlington Hoard's discovery in 2015, and it has played an important role in museum outreach from its acquisition in 2017. There has been a large HLF-funded ‘Watlington Hoard project’ which has included local community events around Oxfordshire, and an academic conference. It was also the focus of a highly successful ‘Big Weekend’ at the museum in 2018, attracting thousands of visitors into the galleries, and it featured on the BBC’s archaeology show ‘Digging for Britain’. This project is nearing completion with the final research monograph on the hoard coming later in the year.
The Watlington Hoard project isn’t the only example of locally-based archaeological research involving the Ashmolean and the PAS with a further major project based in the Heberden Coin Room exploring a local landscape.
Research in the Berkshire Downs
The ongoing project titled ‘An Iron-Age to Post-Roman Landscape on the Berkshire Downs’, which is funded by the Swire Charities, is focused on an area high up on the Berkshire Downs of southern Oxfordshire. Here, metal-detectorists discovered almost 2000 objects, including coins, brooches, rings, ceramics and metalwork. Co-directed by myself and Oxfordshire’s then-FLO Anni Byard, the finds were recorded onto the PAS database; a monograph on this regionally-important site, a Roman-period settlement and rural shrine, is in preparation. As a part of the project, a ‘special display’ was mounted in the Money Gallery in 2018 detailing the project, exhibiting some of the finds and detailing the work we were doing.
A Milestone reached: 1.5 millionth find recorded in 2020
The British public have discovered many hundreds of thousands of archaeological objects, and in July 2020 the British Museum revealed that the number recorded to its Portable Antiquities Scheme had hit a milestone of 1.5 million. The item that helped cross this historic milestone was a medieval lead papal bulla (a seal for authorising papal documents, such as edicts and indulgencies) of Pope Innocent IV (r.1243-54), that was found in Shropshire.
To celebrate this important milestone, the British Museum with BBC History Magazine revealed 10 discoveries by the public and recorded on the PAS which experts have judged to have most transformed our knowledge of the past. These include the Watlington Hoard, acquired by the Ashmolean in 2016. The full list can be seen in the July 2020 edition of BBC History magazine.
The PAS has been one of the great success stories of British heritage and archaeology over the last two decades and the Ashmolean has played an important role in this. In providing opportunities for outreach, acquisition and research it has been a fruitful relationship for all.