Case 7, the British Museum and Bath’s Beau Street Hoard.

You cannot get a current ticket for the British Museum‘s blockbuster exhibition on Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum for love or money but that did not stop me threading my way through the crowds – and all those amazing grand galleries – in search of the more modest Room 68 and what l had come to see in Case 7.

Room 68 at the British Museum.
Room 68 at the British Museum.

It is where this museum of museums has laid out a small conservation-themed display illustrating the detailed and lengthy work that has been done within this world-class institution on Bath’s Beau Street Hoard.

Just in case you are not up to speed on this amazing archaeological find. What turned out to be eight leather bags full of Roman coins was discovered in a massive and weighty fused-lump during excavations in Beau Street in Bath in advance of the conversion of  the old Royal United Hospital building into a new five-star spa hotel.

It is one of the largest hidden hoards ever found in Britain by a professional archaeologist – Helen O’Neill  – a member of  the Cotswold Archaeological Trust who carried out the work.

A closure view of Case 7 - featuring aspects of the Beau Street Hoard.
A closure view of Case 7 – featuring aspects of the Beau Street Hoard.

Once the ‘hoard’ was removed and transported to London, the excavation of the soil block took seven weeks during which time British Museum conservator Julia Tubman wore a magnifying visor to observe detail not visible to the naked eye and removed excess soil using a scalpel and dental tools – examples of which are currently on display.

The shape of the hoard was revealed and eight separate money bags were removed – one at a time. The coins required cleaning so they could be identified and valued according with the Treasure Act of 1996. Large batches of coins were chemically cleaned using diluted formic acid and finer details were revealed using an engraving pen.

A close up of the silver denarii and conservator's cleaning tools!
A close up of the silver denarii and conservator’s cleaning tools!

The coins with higher silver content were physically stronger, and the corrosion was easier to remove than on the fragile, debased coins which contained much less silver.

Conservation work showed the hoard had been carefully organised and bagged by denomination. There was one bag of denarius coins and seven bags of radiate coins. This is represented in the British Museum display by three piles.

The first is from the bag of denarii, the second from a bag of higher silver content radiates, and the third from a bag of later debased radiates. Although Helen O’Neill has waived an interest in reward there is still a need to pay a reward to the landowner. So the next step is the valuation of the hoard.

A time-lapse video of the seven week excavation!
A time lapse video of the seven week excavation!

It is hoped the Roman Baths Museum will be able to raise the money to ensure the hoard comes back to the city and is displayed properly. Manager Stephen Clews tells me the matter will be going in front of the Treasure Valuation Committee – an independent national body – at the end of May. At that point the Bath’s Museum will know exactly how much money it has to raise. If everything goes to plan the coins will go on display next year.

Do not let me put you off going up to the British Museum to see their major exhibition either. The Beau Street hoard is featured in Room 68 – the coins gallery –  and the exhibition of Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum runs until September 29th! So plenty of time to book a ticket or two.

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