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Why do we treasure Treasure?

12 April 2016 by Liz

Roman coins

The Roman Treasures of Cheshire, on display at the Museum of Liverpool until 19 June, are two examples of deliberately buried hoards of precious objects – hidden for safekeeping and never collected.

The Malpas Hoard consists of 7 gold alloy iron age starters and 28 silver alloy Roman denarii.

The Knutsford Hoard consists of 101 silver alloy Roman denarii, two copper alloy Roman sestertii, two finger rings, three gilded silver brooches, and pottery.

Both these groups of objects qualified as ‘Treasure’ under the Treasure Act (1996), being objects or more than 2 coins which are over 10 per cent precious metals. Under the Act, Treasure objects are vested (owned) by the crown (the Queen), and are usually disclaimed on her behalf and refer to the ownership of the landowner and their associates such as metal detectorists – through the Treasure process they’re usually offered to a local museum.

So why have certain metals gained the status of ‘precious’ in our society? Gold and silver are not the rarest metals – though the other precious metal, platinum, is very rare. Gold would have been difficult to extract, especially in ancient times. The main quality of gold and platinum is their resistance to corrosion. Such stable substances make very reliable investments as they are not going to devalue. Gold is also easy to work, and attractive as jewellery. Silver has useful properties: it is the most conductive and reflective metal.

As a result of its long-lasting qualities, gold has become the material which underpins the whole world financial system. Each country holds gold ‘reserves’, the largest in the world being America’s 8,000 tonnes. The international monetary fund has over 3,000 tonnes, and Britain has a little over 300 tonnes. If you look carefully at a British bank note you’ll see the words, “I promise to pay the bearer on demand” – the gold reserves were established for people to exchange their note for gold. They continue today as a legacy of that to theoretically be able to fulfil all these promises made in monetary exchanges.

So, countries store their hoards of gold, but do individuals or groups of people still hoard precious metals? Well, we might not bury them in the ground like the Romans, but yes, we store and save precious metals – especially jewellery and coins. In the recession following 2008 ‘shops’ specialising in trading-in gold jewellery for cash became a common feature on our highstreets.

Keeping precious metals is sometimes a sentimental act, or sometimes an investment for a rainy day. There can be a political motive too. When Romano-British people buried their hoards it was most likely at a time of turmoil or political unrest, they probably felt threatened. Similarly now, war can lead to hoarding. There are reports, for example, that the terrorist organisation known as ‘IS’ has been hoarding precious metals with the intention of initiating its own currency – seeking to validate itself independently, but feeling the need to use the worldwide recognised inate value of gold.

Throughout history, accumulating wealth has been able provide a comfortable lifestyle, and has also been a route to certain types of social and political power. The desire to gather wealth, in a modern bank or historically in an underground hoard, has been a driver for some individuals through the millennia.

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