Roman Coin Hoard and Falkirk Tartan

The largest hoard of Roman coins ever discovered in Scotland  was found alongside a piece of cloth said by some to be the earliest example of tartan yet discovered.  It is known as the Falkirk Tartan.

The Coins    On 9 August 1933 workmen were levelling a small hill in the area of Bell’s Meadow, (NS 8922 7992) removing the sand, when one of them hit a Roman jar with his spade.  It broke on lifting and a hard metallic cluster covered in green mould fell out along with the remains of a piece of cloth.  Fragments from this metal lump were clearly silver coins and the find was claimed as Treasure Trove.  After cleaning, some 1,925 silver coins were identified; others having been taken from the scene by workmen suggest that the original hoard was of around 2,000 coins, making it the largest Roman coin hoard ever found in Scotland.

The earliest coin had been struck in 83BC, while Rome was still a Republic, and the latest had been minted for Alexander Severus in 230AD.  Many were worn and had clearly been in circulation for some time before being added to the stash.  

  • 38BC – 68AD       59  coins
  • 69AD – 98AD     540 coins
  • 98AD – 138AD   474  coins
  • 139AD – 193AD  628 coins
  • 193AD – 230AD  224 coins

The coins are predominantly those of high silver content, which is why there are so many early ones present.  The extended date range suggests that the hoard was collected over a considerable period of time, probably from around 160AD to 230AD; that is to say after the Roman abandonment of Scotland.  The location of the hoard, some 400 metres north of the Antonine Wall, its composition and date range all suggest that it was amassed not by a Roman but by a native.  The best explanation for how a leading family in Falkirk could have accumulated such a large sum over three or four generations is as a Roman ‘subsidy’ or bribe.  Payments of this kind formed part of the Roman foreign policy and were cheaper than military action.

The hoard was discovered some 7 feet below ground in a filled in pit or ditch and must have been buried at a time of emergency, one in which the owner died, and with him the knowledge of its location.

The Cloth   The piece of cloth is assumed to have closed off the mouth of the red pottery vessel.  Although small, it is of a type known as weft-woven (or dog-tooth) check in woollen fabric.  Northern Europe was famous in the Roman world for its check-patterned cloth (Latin scutulata) and this fragment exemplifies this technique.  It has two tones of yellow and brown colour and is generally acknowledged to be the earliest extant example of tartan, now known as the ‘Falkirk Tartan’.

The coins, jar and tartan are all in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Geoff Bailey (2006)