If you’ve read one of those old histories of the region you may have come across mention of the Roman Wall as Severus’ Wall, rather than that of Emperor Hadrian. The process of change of the origin of the famous structure from the former (c.200AD) to that of the latter (c.120AD) was a gradual, 19th century evolution; and one of the clinching pieces of evidence in favour of Hadrian was the discovery of the Thorngrafton Hoard, which originally saw the light of day in 1837.
The treasure in question was found by a group of workmen who were re-working an old Roman quarry on Barcombe Hill a mile south of the Wall near Bardon Mill (they were mining stone for the construction of the Newcastle-Carlisle railway). The hoard consisted of a bronze arm-purse packed full of coins lodged in a cleft in the rock – seemingly left there by an absent-minded labourer during the Wall’s construction. The majority of the 63 coins were silver, but three were gold. One of the men, Thomas Pattison, was entrusted by the gang with the profitable dispersal of the goods as best he could by hawking them around local markets and pubs.
The Thorngrafton arm-purse
(from The Monthly Chronicle of North-Country
Lore & Legend, Nov.1888)
Though he couldn’t quickly move them on, interest in the find did gradually grow – and with it Pattison’s own self-evaluation of the items. The collection was properly scrutinised by ever more expert eyes, until, inevitably, the agents of the Duke of Northumberland tried to enforce the law of treasure trove. To cut a long story short, Pattison then embarked on a prolonged period of cat-and-mouse with the authorities, who, despite obtaining a court order in favour of the Duke, were unable to secure either the coins or Pattison himself, who scarpered to Wales.
The coins had, in fact, been left with Pattison’s brother, William, before his escape south. But the law soon caught up with Thomas and he spent a year in jail in Denbighshire as a debtor (to the extent of the value of the coins, being £18). Returning home a broken man, he lodged with his brother until his early death – after which his sibling continued to guard the hoard against all interested parties. Eventually, though, William gave in, and the hoard was, in 1858, purchased from him by the famous antiquarian, John Clayton of Chesters – who, in turn, was able to obtain the permission of the Duke of Northumberland to retain the treasure.
But what of the coins’ link to the dating of the Wall? Well, it all boiled down to the dates of the coins themselves. Being found in so close a proximity to the Wall, and in a quarry known to have been used for the Wall’s construction, their original ‘loss’ could without doubt be dated to the era in which the great monument was raised. The 63 coins bore the heads of several Roman emperors from Claudius through to Hadrian, but nothing beyond the latter’s reign. Moreover, the Hadrianic coins were in mint condition, and few in number … thus placing their loss – and, therefore, the Wall’s construction – to c.120AD.
Despite the happy ending to the story, the coins were mysteriously lost after the sale of the Clayton estates in 1929, with only drawings made from sealing-wax impressions of them surviving. However, the bronze receptacle in which they were found can still be seen in the museum housing old John Clayton’s collection at Chesters Roman Fort.