Lost Mines

In the world of treasure hunting, lost mines hold a special place in my heart. Most usually start out the same. A grizzled prospector leading his overly burdened mule into the desert looking for riches. Months later, when the prospector returns sick or injured from his adventures, he makes a deathbed confession to finding a rich deposit of gold or silver. For proof, he offers a tattered map to the mine. In some cases, rich ore specimens are found in his possession.

Pushing aside literary and Hollywood imagery, there are several reasons why these mines, which are basically rich mineral deposits, are lost. The majority of lost mines were really just diggings. These are basically excavation sites worked with hand held equipment such as shovels and picks. These mines were not tunnels dug in the side of a mountain with little railroad tracks and ore cars. In some cases, such as the Lost Gunsight Mine of the Mojave Desert, the “mine” was loose rocks broken off an outcropping. Even with a map, finding a hole in a very large desert is almost impossible.

Also, these mines were deliberately concealed. If you had a secret gold mine, would you want everyone knowing about it? Prospectors working secret claims were careful about being followed when traveling to and from their diggings. Jacob Waltz of the Lost Dutchman fame is said to have changed his route when visiting his mine. Not only did miners not want others working their claims, they had to be alert to not getting waylaid for their valuable ore. These mines were intentionally concealed and, after even a relatively short period of inactivity, would soon completely blend with the landscape.

And finally, several lost mines are located in what was then inhospitable or dangerous areas. Indigenous peoples, bandits, and Indian Wars were constant threats to prospectors and miners. Three brothers evading hostile Indians found a limestone ledge covered with gold nuggets. The brothers took ore samples then headed across the desert. Only one survived, and he was unable to locate the limestone ledge, so the Whitman “Cement” Mine remains lost. Hundreds of lost mine stories played out like that across the American West.

The Miner’s Guide; A Ready Handbook for the Prospector and Miner, by Horace J. West (Los Angeles: Second Edition – 1925





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