One summer day in 2007, several companions set about the grand improvement of the back garden of their residence in Hackney, Greater London. As their shovels dug into the turf, they were probably thinking about the hard work that lay ahead of them when a chance discovery stopped them; as a large group of gold coins emerged from its previously safe hiding place.
The landscapers discovered a treasure trove of 80 U.S. $20 gold coins known as the Double Eagle. They were arranged by date from 1854 to 1913, and even at the time of minting they represented considerable wealth. Realizing the importance of what they had discovered, the group contacted a local representative of the Portable Antiquities Program (PAS), Kate Sumnall. In her job as a Finds Liaison Officer (FLO), Kate is used to seeing all sorts of archaeological finds reported to her, but this was a special case. Finds from the 20th century can certainly provide important information about their past owners or where they were found, but they rarely qualify as "treasure" in the legal sense under the Treasure Act of 1996.
Under the old Treasure Act, seekers of objects made mostly of gold or silver were required to report their discovery to the local coroner. Such objects, if they had no traceable owner and if they appeared to have been buried with the intention of future restoration, would be classified as treasures and become the property of the crown. They could then be purchased by the museum at a price determined (until the 1990s) by a British Museum expert, with the full amount payable to the discoverer. In the case of the Hackney Double Eagles, it seems likely that such a collection, found hidden in the ground, could only be the hoard its keeper hoped to return for.
It is not uncommon to find hoards of nineteenth- and twentieth-century coins in Great Britain. Back in 1996, a hoard of silver three pence coins from 1943 was found in Hertfordshire and registered as a treasure trove. It is no surprise that such finds are made in urban areas. In 1927, another hoard of gold coins was found in the backyard of a London estate, but this time it was gold sovereigns from Essex Road in Islington. What is unusual about the Hackney hoard is the combination of its recent date, the historical value of the coins, and the fact that they all came from a particular foreign country.
It seems quite possible that the hoard was buried in the memory of the living. As with any case of "buried treasure," the fact that it was not retrieved by its depositor suggests some misfortune that may have befallen him or her, even if it was something as innocuous as a failure to change the exact location of the coins. in the garden. Rarer are the stories of the successful recovery of hoards, although we know that at least some were recovered by their owners, a famous example being that of Samuel Pepys, who, in fear of the Dutch invading London in 1667, sent his father and wife to hide their gold in the Pepys' country house. After much worry over his family's chosen method of storage - burying the fortune in the garden in broad daylight - Pepys managed to recover most of the coins a few months later. In the case of the double eagles of Hackney, the exact location of the find has been summarized to protect the site (as is common in all treasure cases); in addition, it is expected that the legitimate applicant for the coins will be able to provide more information about the coins' ownership and burial history.
What that history is, at this point, remains only speculation. As elsewhere in the capital, the early twentieth century was a time of dramatic social change in Hackney. Then, as now, London was a popular place for migrants, many of whom crammed into the terraced houses so replete with maps and photographs of the period. The London Museum, the British Museum, and the Coroner's Office did research to gather as much information as possible about the Hackney property and any individuals who may have been responsible for burying the coins. This produced a wealth of data; we learned, for example, that the house and surrounding property had changed hands in the decades following World War I.
The treasure could have been a manifestation of years of patient collecting at the same time as coinage, mass purchase in exchange for other goods, or a combination of both. It is tempting to look for evidence that an American emigrant or perhaps a visiting American soldier from World War I or World War II may have brought his considerable savings with him, but the depositor was not necessarily a citizen of this country. The ending date of 1913 on the last Double Eagle is important because of its proximity to the beginning of the Great War, an event that was to signify that Britain had moved away from the gold standard.