Archeology is the study of human activity through history and pre-history through the recovery and study of “material culture,” meaning objects that have been left behind. It’s how we’ve come to know nearly everything that we do about our past, considering 99 percent of human history occurred before the advent of written language.
But even in the time since we’ve been able to write things down, there are so many things about the people and cultures of the past they have been lost or were never written down in the first place. To learn more about those people and times, archeologists rely on finding clues that are often buried beneath our feet…
In the history of mankind, there have been many civilizations that have taken control of some corner of the earth. They inevitably grow in power and size until some combination of factors causes them to shrink and die out.
But for those few civilizations that grow large and powerful enough, they leave behind a legacy that still influences the world long after the civilization falls. There are very few civilizations that even begin to approach ancient Rome in terms of its legacy.
Latin, the language of the Romans, is the foundation for all of the Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, etc.). Christianity spread to the world largely after the Christian conversion of Emperor Constantine I, and modern democratic republics, like the United States, are heavily influenced by Roman law and republican politics.
Needless to say, artifacts from ancient Rome are highly valued by archeologists. Every now and then, such artifacts will pop up in the most unlikely of places. One such place was the basement of the historic Cressoni Theater.
The Cressoni Theater was opened in 1807, long after the fall of the Roman Empire. It was built in Como, Italy, in an area that once was the Roman-era town Novum Comum, established there around the 1st century BC. For nearly two centuries the theater was a part of Italy’s rich theatrical history before becoming a cinema then closing in 1997.
During the time that the theater was in operation, many other Roman artifacts were found in the nearby area. So when the Cressoni Theater was to be turned into luxury housing in September of 2018, archeologists began digging through its basement to make sure there were no artifacts beneath the old theater that might be damaged.
During that digging, they made a remarkable discovery. Buried in the dirt beneath the theater, archeologists found an amphora, which is a two-handled soapstone jar usually used to carry liquids that had been used in Greece and Rome since the bronze age. While that was a fine discovery, it was what was inside the amphora that blew the archeologists away.
The amphora contained hundreds of gold coins that must have been ancient in origin, considering the container they were found in. What’s more, it seemed like the buried coins had been stashed away there on purpose.
Like a Bank
According to Maria Grazia Facchinetti, an expert on rare coins, the amphora was “buried in such a way that in case of danger, they could go and retrieve it. They were stacked in rolls similar to those seen in the bank today.”
Speaking at a press conference about the find, Facchinetti said the coins had engravings of the emperors Honorius, Valentinian III, Leon I, Antonio and Libio Severo. The minting of the coins, she said, did “not go beyond 474 AD.”
Rise and Fall
That means that the coins were minted during the long decline of the Roman Empire. After the republic was founded in the sixth century BC, it didn’t expand beyond the Italian peninsula until around the third century BC.
It reached its height in 117 AD when it covered essentially all of the lands around the Mediterranean and a significant amount of other lands beyond, covering nearly two million square miles and ruling over an estimated 70 million people, which was about 21 percent of the world’s population at the time.
Within and Without
Over the next few hundred years, the territory and might of the Roman Empire gradually declined as it was plagued by internal religious strife, power struggles and external threats from “barbarians” such as the Visigoths, Vandals, and Huns.
Divide and Fall
The Empire eventually split into the Western and Eastern Roman Empires with the last Roman Emperor in the West being deposed in 476 AD while the Eastern Empire became the Byzantine Empire, with its capital at modern day Istanbul.
“All of this makes us think that the owner is not a private subject, rather it could be a public bank or deposit,” Facchinetti said. Luca Rinaldi, the local archeology superintendent said that the coins had an “inestimable value,” adding “We are talking about an exceptional discovery.”
A Real Treasure
“We do not yet know in detail the historical and cultural significance of the find, but that area is proving to be a real treasure for our archeology,” said Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli in a statement. He described the find as “a discovery that fills me with pride.”
In addition to being an unusual find due to the exceptionally large number of coins found, it was also unusual because the coins had been remarkably well preserved. “It’s practically an entire collection, unlike anything else ever found in northern Italy,” said Bonisoli.
Like a Wallet
“Sometimes coins that are found are stuck together but these were all separate,” he continued. “It was like opening a wallet.” And it was a valuable wallet to open at that. Some local media sources suggested that the roughly three hundred gold coins could be worth millions.
But no one will be bringing the coins to a bank for a deposit any time soon. Instead, the coins were transferred to Milan’s Mibac restoration laboratory. There, archeologists and restorers will examine them further.
The study of these coins can give us a more detailed understanding of what life was like in the Roman empire during the time of their minting and use. And the more we know about one of the most influential civilizations in history, the more we know about ourselves.