In late 2013 a small bronze coin was handed into the STAG display centre by one of our members, David Rome. It had come from the allotments off Winstanley Road close to the line of the MetroLink in Sale, Trafford (SJ 793 925). Such individual discoveries can be very frustrating. How did this single Roman coin get to an allotment in Sale? Was the coin imported with some topsoil or dropped from someone’s personal collection? It’s all too easy to dismiss such discoveries as random objects of little historical value beyond the item itself.
The coin in question is a common enough type: a small bronze issue of the mid-fourth century, in poor condition – quite worn and obviously clipped along the edges. The obverse has a bust of the emperor Constans surrounded by the legend D N CONSTANS AVG. The obverse legend reads GLORIA EXERCITVS with two soldiers standing either side of a standard. Although no mint mark is visible, probably removed by the clipping, this particular bronze issue, AE4 in classification, was minted during the years 337 to 346, the latter year marking a reform of the coinage and the ending of production of this denomination. The wear on the Sale example, though, indicates that it may have been in circulation for some years beyond this date.
Constans’ reign was short, lasting from 337 to 350. The youngest son of Constantine I, and born in 320, he was made Caesar (junior emperor) in 333 and on his father’s death and the partition of the empire amongst three of his sons, took control of the provinces in Italy, Africa and the Balkans as co-emperor. In 340 his brother Constantine II invaded Italy but was killed, Constans taking over control of the whole of the western half of the empire, including Britain, whilst his brother Constantius II continued to control the eastern half of the empire. Constans was the last reigning (official) emperor to visit Britain, in 343, according to Roman sources campaigning against the Picts and Scots in the northern part of the province. He was murdered in 350. (See the historian Michael Grant’s very accessible biography of Roman emperors for further details – The Roman Emperors. A Biographical Guide to the Rulers of Imperial Rome: 31BC – AD 476. London: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1996).
This single coin, however, has a wider importance beyond reflecting the dynastic quarrels of the fourth century great and powerful. When combined with the record of other find spots of similar items in the region, discovered over the decades, we can see a pattern of more localised landscape activity. Within the Manchester city region such Roman find spots often cluster along transport corridors, highlighting the course of Roman roads and reflecting areas of settlement activity. Such evidence is especially useful in urban areas when the opportunities for discoveries are traditionally more limited. Thus, in the heavily urbanised area to the south-west of Roman Manchester, modern Trafford, there is a string of Roman finds. These items, mostly though not exclusively single coins, run in a line north-east to south-west between the historic mossland areas of the middle reaches of the Mersey Valley. They follow the Roman road route from Manchester to Northwich, a road located via excavation around Altrincham during the 1960s and the 1990s (with the help of the South Trafford Archaeological Group).
The Winstanley Road allotment coin lies roughly 500m east of the Roman road alignment through this part of Sale. Such discoveries have been called the background noise of history. Thus, each piece of evidence enhances our understanding of a given period at a local level. In this case a single act of loss sometime in the mid-fourth century reflects the Roman activity within this part of the Manchester city region, whilst also plugging us into the transcontinental political history of Rome. This is why such singular discoveries are important and should be reported and recorded as fully as possible.