A precious hoard of Roman and Late Iron Age coins has been discovered in a cave where they have lain undisturbed for more than 2,000 years.
The treasure trove was initially unearthed by a member of the public, who stumbled across four coins in the cavern in Dovedale in the Peak District, sparking a full-scale excavation of the site.
Experts say the find is highly unusual as it is the first time coins from these two separate civilisations have been buried together.
And the setting itself adds to the mystery surrounding the discovery, as while Roman coins have often been found in fields, this is understood to be the first time they have been unearthed in a cave.
Archaeologists discovered 26 coins, including three Roman coins which pre-date the invasion of Britain in AD43, and 20 other gold and silver pieces which are Late Iron Age and thought to belong to the Corieltavi tribe.
National Trust archaeologist Rachael Hall said whoever owned the cache, which has been declared as ‘treasure’ by the authorities, was probably a wealthy and influential figure.
She said: ‘The coins would suggest a serious amount of wealth and power of the individual who owned them.
‘Coins were used more as a symbol of power and status during the Late Iron Age, rather than for buying and selling staple foods and supplies. Was an individual simply hiding his ‘best stuff’ for safe keeping? Or, perhaps speculating, in the hope that the value would increase in the future, like a modern-day ISA?
‘The situation of the cave can’t be ignored either. Could it have been a sacred place to the Late Iron Age peoples that was taboo to enter in everyday life, making it a safe place that would ensure that person’s valuables were protected?’
The largest hoard of Iron Age gold and silver coins ever found in Britain was discovered by an amateur archaeologist in 2000 near Hallaton in south east Leicestershire.
More than 5,000 coins and, jewellery and a silver-gilt Roman parade helmet were among the treasures discovered during that excavation.
Ian Leins, the British Museum’s curator of Iron Age and Roman coins, said that while this latest find at Reynard’s Cave and Kitchen does not quite match the Hallaton discovery, it is ‘exciting’.
He said: ‘Although this is a much smaller hoard than the similar finds made at Hallaton in 2000, this has been declared treasure and is an exciting discovery given the puzzling location in a cave and the fact that it lies beyond the main circulation area of the coinage.’
The project was also unusual because, for the first time, the National Trust enlisted the help of wounded ex-soldiers returning from Afghanistan to assist with the excavation.
The Defence Archaeology Group’s Operation Nightingale project provides recuperation through field archaeology for service personnel injured in ton the frontline.
Joanne Richardson, who spent 10 years in the military and was part of the excavation team, said: ‘This was the first archaeological excavation I’ve ever taken part in and it was brilliant.
‘I was working at the back of the cave, in the dark, and I was the first person to find a coin – a silver coin.
‘It was so exciting and really helped to lift spirits, after several fruitless days of hard graft. My first dig and this is what I found. The experience working alongside archaeologists and other veterans was inspiring.’
Operation Nightingale’s Sergeant Diarmaid Walshe added: ‘With the inherent skills of the soldier – an appreciation of landscape, topography and deposits in the ground – archaeology is a discipline that is perfect for service personnel.
‘Through projects like the excavation at Dovedale, archaeology can help former service personnel to address their ailments and help in their recovery.’
The Corieltavi tribe was made up of a number of other small clans who would come together for the common good.
The coins have been cleaned by conservation specialists at the British Museum and University College London and will go on permanent display at Buxton Museum later this year.