The Copper Scroll

The Copper Scroll is part of a collection of 1st Century religious documents collectively known as Dead Sea Scrolls. These religious manuscripts, recovered in excavations between 1947 to 1956, are among the oldest Old Testament manuscripts discovered to date. Archeologists believe the scrolls were really a library belonging to a Jewish sect. The library was concealed during The First Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-70).

Unlike the other Dead Sea scrolls that are religious in nature, the Copper Scroll is a treasure map. The only scroll made of metal, this scroll lists sixty-four underground caches. The contents of all but one contain gold, silver, and precious stones. These treasure deposits, believed to be worth in excess of 2 billion dollars, may date from the Second Temple. Some archaeologists believe the treasures were deposited prior to the Romans sacking the temple.

Despite several searches, no treasure listed on the Copper Scroll has yet been recovered. The problem is that the scroll gives only a vague set of instructions lacking tangible starting points. The instructions start with a general geographic location or a building as the starting point. From there the instructions lead to the cache.

“In the stubble field of the Shaveh, facing southwest, in an underground passage looking north, buried at twenty-four cubits: 67 talents.

In the salt pit that is under the steps: forty-one talents of silver. In the cave of the old washer’s chamber, on the third terrace: sixty-five ingots of gold.

In the Great Cistern which is in the Court of Peristyle, in the spout in its floor, concealed in a hole in front of the upper opening: nine hundred talents.

Which stubble field? What salt pit? Are the steps still there? And even if the location is known, is the Peristyle (a continuous porch formed by a row of columns surrounding the perimeter of building or a courtyard) still standing?

There isn’t a solid starting point to launch a search. In addition, how do you locate a 2000 year old salt pit? Are the stairs still there? And more importantly, did the Romans (or anyone else) already recover the treasures? These obstacles haven’t deterred would-be treasure hunters.

In 1962, John Allegro, a member of the scroll editing team, led an extensive search for some of the scroll’s treasures. Using information from the scroll combined with a best guess approach, Allegro located and searched several possible treasure sites. Despite his efforts, Mr. Allegro failed to recover any treasure.

Were the treasures listed on the Copper Scroll recovered by the Romans? Perhaps historians like Robert H. Eisenman are correct, and the treasure caches were recovered by Knights Templar during the First Crusade. It could be that over the last two millennia the caches have been discovered piecemeal.

Or maybe the caches still rest under the shifting sands of the Holy Land waiting to be recovered.

Who really knows.

The Antikythera Mechanism

Discovered by sponge divers in 1901, the Antikythera mechanism is the world’s oldest analog computer. The mechanism was found aboard the Antikythera wreck, a Roman Period shipwreck resting at a depth of 180 feet. Archeologist have dated the wreck to the 1st century BC. In addition to the Antikythera mechanism, wrecked ship has yielded a trove of glassware, coins, and marble statues.

It is believed ancient mariners used the Antikythera mechanism as a navigational instrument to predict astronomical positions. The mechanism shows signs it was fixed in Antiquity, which indicates it was used often. Archeologists believe the mechanism is Greek in origin, and have dated it from anywhere between 205 BC to 100 BC.

The mechanism, which consists of 30 bronze gears, was housed in a 13 by 7 inch wooden box. Archeologist think the mechanism was operated by a hand-turned shaft, which turned the gears. Each complete revolution of the main gear is believed to equal a year. The Antikythera mechanism remains the most complex geared piece of machinery dating from the ancient world.

The Antikythera mechanism, along with other artifacts recovered from the wrecked ship, are located in the National Archaeological Museum located in Athens.

The Spatha

The spatha, a three foot (30 and 39 in) long sword, was used throughout the Roman Empire between the First and Sixth Centuries AD. The spatha was introduced by Celtic cavalry auxiliaries serving the Empire. By the Third Century, it had replaced the gladius as Rome’s standard infantry weapon.

The spatha later evolved into the Viking sword, which was used in Western Europe from 793 AD to 1066 AD. This design then influenced the European long sword, which was used by European knights during the 12th Century. It is also the weapon of choice in most Hollywood fantasy films.

The Shapwick Hoard

Discovered by metal detecting enthusiasts in September of 1998, the Shapwick Hoard consists of 9,262 Roman coins. The cache of 260 coins, found in Shapwick, England date from the reign of 30 BC to 224 AD. The Shapwick Hoard isn’t only the largest collection of silver denarii discovered in Great Britain, but also contains two ultra rare coins previously not found in Britain.

The hoard, valued at £265,000 was found, was discovered by Kevin and Martin Elliott. The cousins were searching for artifacts using a metal detector. After their initial discovery, archeologists soon began the painstaking work of excavating the hoard. These excavations showed the hoard had been stored in either small bundles or rolls. They were then stored in a large sack. The sack was then concealed in the corner of what was once a room in a Roman villa.

The coins, which date from Mark Antony’s reign to the reign of Severus Alexander, cover over 300 years. Of the 9,262 excavated coins, 5741 were minted during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus (193–211 AD). The two rare coins feature Manlia Scantilla, the wife of Roman Emperor Didius Julianus. She had been declared Augusta (Empress) during her husband’s reign, which lased for nine weeks in 193 AD.

The Shapwick Hoard is currently on display at the Museum of Somerset, located in Taunton Castle.

The Roman Gladius

Introduced by the Spaniards. the gladius short sword became the primary weapon used by Roman foot soldiers. Based on an early Celtic design, the gladius dates to BC 500. In BC 361, the Roman historian Livy writes of consul Titus Manlius Torquatus using a gladius in single combat. Despite being smaller than the Gallic soldier he faced, Titus Manlius took advantage of the sword’s short blade to strike multiple blows to the stomach and groin.

The gladius had a 27-inch blade with a v-shaped tip, making it ideal for stabbing. Stabbing wounds, especially when inflicted in the abdominal area, usually prove fatal. The sharpened blade also made it an excellent weapon for slashing and hacking. When combined with the scutum (large shield), the small sized gladius, created a lethal combination. The scutum provided defense (to block and parry attacks), freeing the gladius to stab and hack.

Roman infantry practiced in large phalanx type elements, but soldiers knew combat would soon degenerate into close quarter one-on-one combat. The gladius, an ideal stabbing and thrusting weapon, proved ideal for closed rank infantry fighting. The attacker usually led with a body-slam, using the shield to knock opponents off-balance. The attacker then followed up with quick thrusts to the abdominal area.

Despite minor changes, the gladius remained Rome’s primary weapon until the third century. Changes in tactics favored a more open quarters form of warfare, which rendered the gladius obsolete. By the 7th Century the longer spatha replaced the gladius as the primary European infantry weapon. The spatha evolved into the Viking long sword used until the 10th Century. The design again changed, eventually becoming the medieval sword associated with 10th and 11th Century knights.

Jan Petersen in De Norske Vikingsverd (“The Norwegian Viking Swords”, 1919)

The Hoxne Hoard

On November 16, 1992 Eric Lawes was searching for a lost hammer with his metal detector. Instead, he found the largest cache of fourth and fifth century gold and silver coins discovered anywhere within the boundaries of the former Roman Empire. The Hoxne Hoard (found in Hoxne, England) consists of 14,865 Roman coins. In addition the coins, archeologists recovered gold jewelry, silver spoons, and assorted silver table settings. The treasure, worth an estimated 4.3 million dollars, is currently on display in the British Museum in London.

The cache breaks down 569 gold coins,14,191 silver coins and 24 bronze coins. These coins date from AD 337 to AD 408, with the majority dating between AD 394 to AD 405. Historians believe the hoard was buried no later than AD 450. The coins originated from all over the Roman Empire. There are 14 mint marks in the cache, ranging from Gaul (France) to Athioch (Turkey).

In addition to the coins, the hoard yielded 29 pieces of gold jewelry. The jewelry pieces include a gold chain, six chain necklaces, three rings and 19 bracelets. The recovered tableware consisted of 78 silver spoons, 20 gilded ladles, five bowls, four pepper-pots, two vases, nine toiletry items such as toothpicks and ear-cleaners, and two small padlocks. Combined with the recovered coins, the Hoxne Hoard contains nearly eight pounds of gold and fifty-two pounds of silver.

The dates on the coins coincide with Rome’s declining influence in Britain. During this period, the western Roman Empire was crumbling under constant pressure from barbarian tribes. Barbarian invasions had already caused widespread devastation, and by AD 401 the majority of Roman legions in Britain were pulled back to Rome. This left only a few Roman troops and citizens to defend themselves.

Late Roman Empire hoards (AD 350–450) are fairly common. Like the Hoxne Hoard, most are recovered along the former Empire’s fringes. This is probably due to unstable political and security conditions. Although these caches do vary in content, many from this time include silver tableware (dishes, utensils, bowls and cups). What makes the Hoxne Hoard unusual is it consists mainly of coins.

Although we will never know who hid the treasure, the Hoxne Hoard illustrates the wealth that existed in Roman Britain. It also shows that no society is immune to radical change. Who knows how many hoards remain to be found and what stories they will tell.

Peter Guest, author of The Late Roman Gold and Silver Coins from the Hoxne Treasure

Catherine Johns, author of The Hoxne Late Roman Treasure: Gold Jewellery And Silver Plate