Ellen Munson

On 5 July 1902, workmen at 25 High Street, Colchester, uncovered a lead canister buried in the back yard. On opening it, they discovered between eleven and twelve thousand silver short cross pennies minted in England, Scotland and Ireland, as well as 23 minted overseas. The most recent coin had been minted in 1237, so the hoard probably dates from shortly after then. A second hoard, also in a lead canister, turned up in the same garden, only 20 m away, in 1969. This one contained 14,065 coins, dating from up to 1278. A third lead container, with only one coin inside, dated 1247/8, was found only 200 m away in 2000.

The coin pictured is a short cross penny from the 1902 hoard, minted in London on behalf of Henry II between 1180 and 1189. Henry II was the son of the Empress Matilda, who had fought a bitter civil war against Stephen. She was the daughter and heir of Henry I, who under English law ought to have succeeded to the throne when he died in 1135. Stephen was Henry I’s nephew and had sworn allegiance to Matilda in 1127, recognising her as the future queen. However, when Henry died, Stephen rushed to England to be chosen by the barons as king. Although the pope agreed to this arrangement in 1136, Matilda invaded in 1139 to claim what was – according to her supporters – rightfully hers.

The civil war rumbled on for years, with neither side gaining a distinct advantage. Stephen tried to prevent Matilda or her son Henry from succeeding him by having his own son, Eustace, crowned joint king of England in 1152. The church refused to co-operate and, when Eustace died prematurely in 1153, Stephen grudgingly negotiated the Treaty of Wallingford, which proclaimed Henry as his heir. Stephen died in the following year and Henry became king.

Henry II ruled an empire that stretched from the Scottish border in the north to the Pyrenees in the south. He inherited his continental territories from his father, Geoffroy Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. During his reign of thirty-five years, he spent only thirteen of them in England. He is remembered for two main things: his quarrel with Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, which led to Thomas’s murder, and his interest in reforming English law.

Henry introduced a penny with a short, equal-armed cross on the reverse in 1180. They stayed the standard design until 1247, even keeping the name of the king as hENRICVS during the reigns of Richard I and John. Richard did mint coins in his own name in Aquitaine, while John did as Lord of Ireland. This caused early numismatists no end of problems, as they thought that either these kings did not issue coins or that none have survived. Henry III reformed the coinage in 1147, bringing in a design with a cross that extended to the edge of the coin. This design remained in use until 1509, during the reign of Henry VII.

How did a coin found in Colchester come into the possession of North Hertfordshire Museum? In the years after the hoard’s first discovery, Colchester Corporation began sending examples to national and provincial museums, as well as to private collectors. Letchworth Museum received nine coins from the hoard: two of Henry II, two of Richard I, three of John and two of Henry III. They were entered into the Accessions Register in February 1927 but were already in the museum collections. It is possible that they were part of the ’19 English Silver Coins’ that form the first entry in the register, 1916.1, on 20 March 1916.

Why were the coins buried in such huge numbers? Hoards are found throughout history, often put into the ground during times of economic or political crisis. The date of the second hoard, about 1278, has been linked with Edward I’s Statutum de Judaismo (‘Statute of the Jewry’), issued in 1275. Among the provisions of the statute, lending at high interest rates (usury) was outlawed, some debts to Jewish money-lenders were written off, and Jewish people could live only in certain designated towns, where they had to wear a yellow felt badge on their clothing. The statue effectively put an end to Jewish banking businesses, and wealthy bankers may have hidden their capital for safe keeping. The canisters found in Colchester were perhaps under-floor ‘safes’ used by bankers, as 25 High Street was probably in the city’s ghetto.

Like so many museum objects, the back-story of this coin holds more interest than the artefact itself. This is one of the reasons why archaeologists bristle when the media focus on reporting discoveries as ‘treasure’ worth so many thousands of pounds. However, this financial value pales into insignificance when put beside the priceless historical information such discoveries can yield.

When is a Chinese god not a Chinese god? When he’s Hercules, of course!

This may sound like a cryptic riddle with an answer so obscure that it’s meaningless, but it isn’t. It’s a tale of misidentification from 1926. On 29 July in that year, Walter Whiting, the manager of Barclays Bank in Hitchin High Street, loaned a collection of 67 antiquities to Letchworth Museum (accession numbers 1926.3656 to 1926.3708) on behalf of a client. Walter and his wife Marion lived above the bank, with their children and household servants.

Most of the objects loaned to Letchworth Museum came from a Roman burial ground discovered at Foxholes, on the Pirton Road in Hitchin, about 1880. The items consisted of pottery vessels, copper alloy brooches and other metal items. There were also a Saxon pin from St Andrews Hill, a pilgrim flask, a key found in the wall of a house in Bucklersbury during demolition (‘many years ago’), a belt slide, a lead cloth seal, 15 jetons (all from Hitchin) and two bone spoons from Arlesey as well as ‘1 Chinese Bronze God, Royston Heath’. In January 1940, Mr Whiting removed them from Letchworth and deposited them in the newly-established (and still unopened) Hitchin Museum. When the objects were accessioned to Hitchin Museum (accession number 220 to 232), the ’figurine of a god’ had become ‘?Chinese or Indian’.

In 1976, the object was transferred back to Letchworth Museum, along with most of the archaeological material accessioned to Hitchin. Some time between 1940 and 1976, the loan had become a donation from the heirs of the Lucas family. The ‘?Chinese or Indian’ god had also been downgraded to Hercules, who was a demigod; it had also acquired a label that had fallen off one of the pots from Foxholes giving the original Letchworth Accession number. Perhaps all the objects from the Lucas collection were kept in the same box, allowing the labels to become muddled.

How do we know that the statuette shows the classical demigod Hercules rather than an Indian or Chinese god? There are several pieces of evidence. Firstly, the figurine is naked. Hercules is always naked, as in so much classical art (except in the terrible Disney™ animated cartoon from 2008). Secondly, he is brandishing a club in his right hand. A knobbed wooden club was his favourite weapon, which became a common design for talismans from the second century onwards. Thirdly, he has a cloak draped over his left arm. This is actually a lion skin, taken from the Nemean lion, which Hercules killed as the first of twelve labours he had to perform for King Eurystheus. Its fur was its protection: no arrow or missile could pierce it. After stunning it with his club and then strangling it, Hercules used one of the lion’s claws to remove the pelt. The skin protected him not just from arrows but also from the elements (very useful if one has no other clothing!).

The Roman Emperor Commodus (AD 161-192, emperor from 176) liked to present himself as a second Hercules. He was left-handed and proud of the fact. He was also unusually handsome and strong, and even trained as a gladiator to perform in arenas, to the disgust of the Roman upper classes. Like Hercules, he was able to kill lions (the historian Cassius Dio, a younger contemporary, claimed that on one occasion, he killed a hundred in a single show) and he was a skilled archer. Although popular with ordinary people and the army, he was disliked by the Senate. His rule became increasingly dictatorial during his 20s, after his father Marcus Aurelius’s death. Cassius Dio thought that he was not naturally evil but was too easily led astray by friends. Eventually, his mistress Marcia arranged his murder. Although the Senate declared him a public enemy, the Emperor Septimius Severus (145-211, emperor from 193) reinstated his memory and had him deified in 195.

Might this statuette be a depiction of Commodus, then? Similar claims have been made for the notorious Cerne Abbas Giant, an unashamedly male chalk hill figure in Dorset. Our figurine seems to be wearing a radiate crown, an attribute of the god Helios. An intaglio in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg shows Commodus with one; Hercules never wears a crown. Perhaps this is not so much a statuette of Hercules than one of Commodus-as-Hercules-and-Helios. Merging humans, demigods and gods was something that Roman religion was more than capable of doing, especially if the statuette dates from after 195 and shows Divus Commodus (‘divine Commodus’).

Unfortunately, we know nothing about the circumstances of its discovery. The Letchworth Museum accessions register states that it was from ‘Royston Heath’, meaning Therfield Heath. Although the heath is a place with many important archaeological remains, almost nothings found there dates from the Roman period. A low mound excavated during improvements to the cricket pitch in 1855 covered a pit containing a Roman pot, but its precise location is unknown. Roman finds have been made by metal detectorists in Therfield (although not on the Heath, where detecting is not allowed). There are some in the northwest corner of the parish, at the end of what was formerly counted as part of the heath but is no longer. A barrow that once stood in this area, at The Thrift, was opened about 1830 and found to contain ‘pottery and other objects reputed to be Roman’. Might this statuette of Commodus-Hercules-Helios have been one of those objects? We will never know.

Storytelling On the Terrace

5th & 19th August, 11.00am

Grandma Mo will be reading fun stories for 3 – 7 year olds. There will also be colouring and quizzes.

Drop in session, no need to book.

Free admission.


6th August, 10.35 -11.35, 12.00 – 1.00, 1.30 – 2.45, 2.50 – 3.30

Pick from a choice of designs and have your face painted.

Drop in session, no need to book. £2.50

Accessible Exhibition Mornings

8th & 22nd August, 10.00 – 11.00am

This exhibition will be exclusively open to children who are autistic or with neurodivergent needs that will benefit from an accessible space.

Book your ticket online: Accessible Exhibition Mornings

Botanical Crafts

16th August, 10.45 – 11.45am

Make a botanical clay vase at the museum. £3.

23rd August, 10.45 – 11.45am

Make a botanical button badge at the museum. £3.

Book your tickets for both online: Botanical Crafts

23rd August, 10.45 – 11.45am

Make a botanical collage at the museum. £2.

Drop in session, no need to book.

Placenames, Language Change and the History of North Herts – Lunchtime Talk

9th August, 1.00pm

Discover how the history of North Herts has been in front of you the whole time!

Placenames often hold clues about the languages spoken in the past, telling us more about the people who first coined them; our local placenames hold some unexpected clues about local history.

Join us for a lunchtime talk at North Hertfordshire Museum by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews.

£5 per person including a complimentary tea or coffee.

Book your ticket online : Placenames Lunchtime Talk

Dr Dog – Toddler Music, Story & Face Painting Session

13 August, 10:45am, 11:40am 

It’s always handy to have a doctor for a pet! The Gumboyle family are sick but Dr Dog is back from Brazil to look after them.

Join us at North Herts Museum on the 13th August, where we will be having another one of our monthly toddler music, craft and story sessions. This time we will be reading ‘Dr Dog’ by Babette Cole and having a good old sing-song. There will even be dog face painting!

Aimed at ages 2 – 5 years old. £7 per child or £12 for two children.

Book your ticket online: Dr Dog Toddler Session

A Commute Through Time – Evening Talk

31 August, 7.30pm

Commuters who use Hitchin Station will be familiar with the colourful photo panels which brighten the underpass between platforms.

The photos in the panels are from our museum’s large collection of photographs and cover a range of themes. Join us for this talk which takes seven of the panels and runs through some of the amazing things they show!

Join us for an evening talk at North Hertfordshire Museum by Matthew Platt.

£5 per person including a complimentary tea or coffee.

Book you ticket online: A Commute Through Time Evening Talk