The Man Who Saved London’s Treasures

 

For over forty years, George “Stoney Jack” Lawrence used cunning, generosity, and a network of lower class workers to find some of the greatest archeological treasures in London.

 

George-Fabian-Lawrence--300x272The early half of the 20th century saw some of the most excavations done in the city, to make way for new buildings that needed deeper foundations. However, since large-scale earth-moving equipment was still decades in the future, the digs were done by shovel, allowing for the discovery and preservation of historic objects as the workers dug through layers of past civilizations that had not been seen in centuries. Lawrence made a habit of befriending the “navvies,” the lower-class laborers who did the hard manual labor of excavation and building. While buying them drinks, Lawrence would let it be known that he would be happy to purchase any oddities they might come across during excavation. In some cases, he even offered “rudimentary archaeological training” so that his friends would know which sorts of objects were most valuable. He kept half-crowns (about $18.50 each in today’s money) in his pockets in order to instantly reward contacts, and word soon spread that Stoney Jack was the one to go to when anything unusual was unearthed. Many of the navvies found their way to his shop on Sundays, since it was the only day they could smuggle larger items away from the excavations.

 

cheap1.jpgThough the provenances for Stoney Jack’s historic wares were often dubious at best, few museums could resist the chance to own some of his more spectacular finds. Lawerence himself worked for several museums at various points during his career. While Lawrence’s methods were unethical (and the removal of historical objects from their archaeological context resulted in a loss of possible knowledge), he was also known for being exceptionally fair to the laborers who brought him their finds. If a museum bought a piece for more than he had expected, he would track down the navvy who had brought it to him, and give him his increased share of the profit. He also never sent a contact away empty-handed; if an item brought to him had no value, he gave the finder enough money for a beer at a nearby pub.

 

Despite his eagerness to buy and sell these finds, Lawrence never seemed to be motivated by profit. Journalist H.V Morton wrote about him, “He would hold a Roman sandal—for leather is marvelously preserved in the London clay—and, half closing his eyes, with his head on one side, his cheroot obstructing his diction, would speak about the cobbler who had made it ages ago, the shop in which it had been sold, the kind of Roman who had probably brought it and the streets of the long-vanished London it had known. The whole picture took life and colour as he spoke. I have never met anyone with a more affectionate attitude to the past.” His store in London was frequented by schoolboys, who marvelled over the strange assortment of historical odds and ends. Morton writes, “He loved nothing better than a schoolboy who was interested in the past. Many a time I have seen a lad in his shop longingly fingering some trifle that he could not afford to buy. ‘Put it in your pocket,’ Lawrence would cry. ‘I want you to have it, my boy, and–give me threepence!‘”
cheap3.jpgThe greatest find to ever come into Stoney Jack Lawrence’s possession was the Cheapside Hoard: approximately 500 pieces of gemstones, rings, and other jewelry. It was excavated from a cellar just prior to WWI, and is the greatest set of Elizabethan and Stuart era relics ever found. It’s uncertain exactly where and when the hoard was uncovered; Stoney Jack frequently changed details to keep the owners of property where finds were discovered from making a claim on the find. Like many hoards, most of the jewelry and gems were massed inside a large lump of clay, with many of the individual pieces bent and twisted. The navvies who uncovered it thought it was a set of children’s toys. Accounts differ as to how much Lawrence was offered for his find; some say it was as little as £90, while Morton claims it was £1000 which he split with his navvy contacts.

 

Lawrence’s methods are certainly debateable. There’s no doubt that he intentionally kept landowners from making claims on the finds he profited from, and his methods of collecting via the navvy network ensured that finds made their way to him in bits and pieces, destroying the archaeological context in which they were found. At the same time, had he not had his network in place, most of these items would simply have been dumped on junk barges and sent down the Thames to the Erith marshes and lost to history forever. Some of history’s greatest treasures were saved by an untrained history enthusiast and a network of manual laborers.

 

(Cheapside Hoard photos courtesy of the Museum of London.)

International Coin Urban Legends

 

It’s not just the United States that has urban legends about its coins. Other countries have some pretty strange stories, too!

 

Singapore_1_dollar_coin_tail.jpgIn Singapore, a new dollar coin minted in 1987 featured an intriguing design: a bagua, or octagonal shape. This would normally make very little impact, but the coin was released only two months before the new Mass Rapid Transit system began to operate. The story spread that the new mass transit tunnels had ruined the feng shui of Singapore, and only drastic measures could avert disaster. To offset the feng shui effects, each Singaporean should carry an octagon at all times. What better way to ensure this than by incorporating the design into a coin?

 

Of course, the two events were unrelated, but it’s no wonder that the timing led to an urban legend!

 

Another Singaporean legend involves a banner with the words “Majulah Singapura” inscribed on it. When this design appeared in 1990, the downwards-curving banner made the design on the coin look like a frowning face to some Singaporeans. The coin was supposedly redesigned in 1997 due to the Asian currency crisis, and featured an upwards-curving banner. A story began circulating that this was done after consulting feng shui experts. The truth? According to the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the older design was due to limitations in the technology. The newer design is made with different technology that can properly display the upward-curving banner. And this design was actually introduced in 1992, not 1997.

 

This story, from South Korea, is probably the strangest yet. According to this urban legend, Kim Min-Ji, the daughter of the president of the Korean Mint, was kidnapped and murdered, and her body torn apart. The murderer was never found, and her father worried that his daughter’s spirit would never rest easy. In order to put her ghost to rest, the Mint began to place images of Kim Min-ji’s body in coins and currency. According to the legend, you can see her head with flowing hair in the beard of Admiral Yi on one coin, her arm in the crane’s legs on the 500 Won coin, her legs in the design of King Sejong the Great’s robe on the 10,000 Won banknote, and more. The Mint insists that the story is baseless, and that they do not have that kind of control over the intricate details on the coins and currency that the legend requires. It’s another case of pareidolia, the phenomenon when a person sees a face or other recognizable object in a pattern where none exists. For more of the details on this story, check out the extended post on this CoinTalk thread.

 

Coins also power a match-making site in Japan, according to the local legend. If you visit Yaegaki Shrine in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, Japan, you’ll hear the tale of the rescue of Princess Kushinada from an eight-headed dragon by her true love, the god Susanoo. Modern legend says that a visitor to the shrine can put a coin on top of a piece of paper, and set it adrift on the Mirror Pond. If the paper sinks rapidly, you will soon find the love you’ve been seeking. If it takes longer than half an hour, your dreams will be deferred.

 

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Another Japanese urban legend has a less traditional spin. Most payphones in the country are green, sometimes gray, but for years there have been rumors of a gold payphone in the Yotsuya neighborhood of Tokyo. According to the story, the phone was painted gold in honor of a royal marriage parade; if you call your crush from the gold phone with a coin with a reeded edge, your feelings will be returned.
None of the legends here have any provable base in fact, but it’s incredible to see how such stories spread!

The Greatest Forgery in the World

 

 

Even experts sometimes have a hard time telling genuine 1940’s Bank of England notes from the counterfeits produced during Germany’s legendary “Operation Bernhard.” The goal? Destabilize British currency by flooding the market with high-quality bank notes.

 

The original plan was even more audacious: the German masterminds were going to send the notes up in a plane and have them dropped over English cities and towns, assuming no one on wartime rations would want to turn down free cash. This proved impractical, and so the notes would be sent into the market via cash transactions.

 

One of the counterfeiters was Adolph Burger, a half-Jewish Slovakian printer; as the deportations of Jews in Slovakia increased, he forged baptismal certificates that allowed many Jews to escape deportation. When his work was uncovered by the Nazis, he and his wife were sent to Auschwitz, where she died a few months later. Burger was eventually moved from Auschwitz to the secret Operation Bernhard printing facility in the Sachsenhausen camp where one hundred and forty-two prisoners counterfeited four denominations of banknotes, as well as passports, IDs, and stamps. Nearly nine million notes were created, with a face value of over a hundred million pounds.

 

Towards the end of the war, just before Sachsenhausen was liberated, the forgers were moved to the Redl-Zipf camp in Austria, then to the Ebsensee camp. The Nazis intended to kill all the counterfeiters at Ebsensee, but they only had one truck to use for transferring the prisoners between camps. The truck suffered a mechanical failure on the third trip, delaying the last batch of prisoners. When the prisoners already at the camp were ordered into tunnels (presumably to be killed and buried by explosives), they revolted and the guards panicked and ran. The forgers then mixed freely among the other prisoners at Ebensee, and were rescued a few days later, when Allied forces arrived.

 

The Operation Bernhard banknotes are exquisite in their attention to detail. According to Coin World, “The Operation Bernhard notes are still considered among the most perfect counterfeits ever made, with properly engraved plates, rag paper, correct watermarks, and even valid serial numbers. Today, says Colorado specialist William M. Rosenblum, the fakes can be identified with 99 percent certainty based first on serial number ranges, and then by carefully looking for a minuscule anomaly: ‘ “Bank of England” is found in the watermark at the bottom of the note. There is a triangle at the base of the first “N” in England. On the counterfeits there is line that originates from the center of the base of the triangle while on the originals the line is off-center.’”

 

Adolph Burger survived his experience with Operation Bernhard, and it is from his memoir that most of the surviving information has been pieced together. Mr. Burger passed away on December 6, 2016, leaving Hans Walter, now 95 and living in Ohio, as the only surviving member of one of the greatest teams of forgers ever assembled.

Friday Odds and Ends, October 7

 

 

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A rare Roman gold coin has been unearthed at a dig in Jerusalem.

 

 

 

Do you know a teacher? Tell them about the numismatic lesson plans the US Mint offers for free.

 

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The fourth Annual Oklahoma’s Unique Coin Show is coming up on October 14-15.

 

 

 

 

 

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Are we at the beginning of a new space race? Boeing thinks they can beat both SpaceX and NASA to Mars.

Friday Odds and Ends, September 30

It’s the end of September, and fall is officially here!

 

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CoinWeek has an excellent post about the coins and history of 1916.

 

 

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Are you planning on binge-watching the new Luke Cage show on Netflix this weekend? Read up about the history and backstory of the character at io9.

 

 

 

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The Rosetta mission is over, as the probe crashed into the comet earlier today. In its 2+ years at comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, we have learned a staggering amount about comets and our universe.

 

 

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Twitter user @ArtStamped creates spectacular works of art from common stamps.

Friday Odds and Ends, September 9

 

 

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If you’ve received a large bill lately, you may want to take a closer look at it: law enforcement officials are reporting that prop money, intended for use in movies, is being used as counterfeit cash.

 

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This Australian created a Slip N Slide that’s as long as a football field.

 

 

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It’s the 50th anniversary of Star Trek…but how would the world be different if it had never existed? 

 

 

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This Russian river has suddenly tuned blood red: is it a sign of the apocalypse, or just leakage from a nearby mine?

 

Digging Up the Past: A Detectorist’s View of Coins and History

Scott Bevan is a metal detectorist in Birmingham, England, and has uncovered quite a few interesting coins and other historical artifacts; follow him on Twitter to keep up with his detecting adventures. This interview has been edited for clarity; all photographs are courtesy of Scott Bevan.

 

Stamp and Coin Place (SC): What is the best or most interesting coin you’ve ever found?

 

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Scott Bevan (Scott): That’s a tough question to answer! I categorize my coins into 3 groups: milled coins, hammered coins, and ancient coins. I’ve only ever been lucky enough to find one ancient coin, which was a copper alloy Roman coin, minted in Trier (Germany) between the years of 310-313 AD, under the reign of the emperor Maximinus Daia II. I’ve always had a fascination with Ancient Rome and Roman Britain, so this was an extra special find for me.

 

 

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But saying that, I’ve only recently unearthed my second hammered coin: a King Edward VI sixpence, minted between 1551-1553, which is also a fantastic coin, even though somebody from the period decided to clip a lot of the silver from around the edge of the coin. A common practice in medieval Britain, although not normally to this extent. If I was pushed to make a decision, I’d probably opt for the Roman coin, purely because of the period it’s from and the fact that it’s my only one.

 

 

SC: Quite a find! What was the most valuable item you’ve uncovered? The most unusual?

 

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Scott: Again, that’s a bit of a toughie. I have absolutely no intention of selling any of my finds if I can help it, therefore I never really pay much attention to the monetary worth of my finds. However, I have two finds that particularly stand out when considering both the uniqueness and value of my collection. The first would be a medieval chest or casket key that I discovered recently in Staffordshire. Dating from the period 1150-1400, the key is one of my favorite and most unusual finds. I was reliably informed that it was worth in the region of £150 – £200.

 

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The second would be my Bronze Age flat axe head. I’ve still got to take it to the museum to be appraised, but it’s at least 3,000 years old. It could be as much as 4,500. I found it in a field in Nottinghamshire a few months ago. I have no idea of the value of the axe head but I suppose like pretty much everything that’s for sale, it’s only worth as much as someone is prepared to pay for it. Mine’s not for sale!

 

SC: I have to ask: what’s your best story from a time you went out detecting?

 

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Scott: You’re probably expecting a vivid account of the time I found my Roman coin, my key, or my axe head. But it’s another day that stands out head and shoulders above any of those, and the finds were sparse on that day. I’d only been detecting for a few months when a friend and I attended a club dig in Derbyshire. It was a busy dig with around 50 or 60 people present. As the finds were so few, my friend and myself decided to call it a day around mid-afternoon. There was only one exit from the fields and as we’d had a deluge of rain in the days prior to the dig, the land leading through the gate had turned into a swamp.

 

Like the caring person that he is, my friend urged me to lead the way, picking my way through the bog, looking for any sign of semi solid ground. I was about 4 or 5 feet from the safety of the car park when I spotted what I thought was a cement ledge. It looked wet but I assumed that was because of the recent rainfall. So, spade in one hand and detector in the other, I leapt for the ledge…and landed two-footed in what can only be described as a trough of manure. Seriously, it was about 2 feet deep and I was sinking at an alarming rate. It was above my knees and every time I attempted to pull a foot out, it was like a vacuum sucking it back in. It was at this point that I began to scream. Like a Royal Marine, I’d like to add, which only helped to gain me a bigger audience. Eventually, having used my spade and detector like crutches, I managed to free myself, minus a boot. At no point did anyone standing around laughing offer to help. The journey home was a quiet and rather smelly one.

 

SC: Well, that’s definitely an experience to remember! Can you tell me about your basic process? How do you go about finding things and what do you do once you’ve found them?

 

4588c19b-459e-4b17-8ca1-b8c41efb1eb1.pngScott: I’m still relatively new to metal detecting, but I’ve noticed that people have different approaches to the hobby. Some people do extensive research of an area before detecting. Others, like myself, are grateful of being granted permission to detect anywhere. Permission is vital, though. Wherever I detect, I first get permission from the landowner: it’s imperative. Then it’s all down to patience and, dare I say it, luck. If you don’t walk over it, you’ll never find it. Obviously there’s an element of skill involved, mostly in the setup of your machine, but I’m still learning and it’s very much down to trial and error at the moment. When I do discover something of note, I show it to my local Finds Liaison Officer, who’ll identify the item for me and record it in a database that is aimed at recording all finds in Britain for the purpose of research. I then add them to my collection, and often spend hours wondering who the last person to hold them was and how they were lost. I’ve spent many an idle hour lost in thought to those questions.
SC: So with the chances of not finding anything, along with bad weather and the danger of cow droppings, why keep detecting? Why is it important to you? Do you think it offers any benefits to society?

 

b2d6287e-b9d5-43f2-ae2f-4e83af3e8da3.pngScott: There are varied opinions on metal detectorists but I can only answer this question from my own personal experiences. I’ve always had an affinity for history and the past. Even as a boy, I’d marvel at discovering an old Victorian penny; I excelled at history in school. But as I got older, I discarded my love of history and pursued alcohol and less academic interests. 4 years ago I gave up drinking, which subsequently led to me becoming quite withdrawn. I lacked interest in doing anything and often found myself spending days on end at home. Then someone suggested that I go metal detecting. At first, I dismissed the idea. I thought it was a hobby for old people with no social life or scavengers illegally searching for items to sell on the black market. I think this is the perception that a lot of people have about detectorists: people detecting illegally in the hope of making money, without the slightest interest or regard for the history that they’re unearthing. I’m afraid that does happen; they’re the people who make it so difficult for the rest of us.

 

CpbuUuDWEAA4if5As far as my experience goes, metal detecting has given me a new lease on life. It’s helped me to overcome a difficult period in my life and given me something to aim for and achieve. I only mention this to make people aware, in the hope that the next time they see someone searching a field with a detector in hand, that they won’t jump to assumptions as to who that person is or why they do it. It’s all treasure to me, regardless of its monetary value. Yesterday, I dug up a shoe buckle from the 1700’s. It’s a little bent and has obviously seen better days, but at some point 3 centuries ago, that was somebody’s pride and joy. And I get that. I respect it. And I feel privileged to hold it and have it in my collection. To me, it’s a personal connection to individuals who lived hundreds of years before me. A story that was on pause until I discovered it and pressed ‘play’ again, and now it resumes.

 

Even if you don’t necessarily have the urge or passion for metal detecting, I hope that at least on some level you can understand that connection. So yes, there are bad detectorists who deserve no part in this wonderful hobby. But on the whole, if done for the right reasons and with passion, metal detecting is a connection to the past and a way of unearthing treasures otherwise long confined to history. Just make sure you keep an eye out for wet cement, it’s not always what it seems!

How the Olympic Medals Are Made

 

Countries around the world are winning gold, silver, and bronze medals at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. We know what the medals mean: accomplishment, hard work, love of country. But have you ever thought about the medals themselves?

 

1896_Olympic_medal.jpgThe original Games in ancient Greece were played solely for honor; the winners received wreaths of olive leaves from a sacred tree to mark their accomplishment. When the Games were revived in 1896, the winners in each event received a silver medal, with second place receiving bronze. During the 1900 games, cups were usually given out instead of medals. For the next few Games, smaller medals of solid gold were awarded. The use of gold was phased out when WWI broke out; the last solid gold medals were given during the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden.
While the host country for the Games is responsible for minting the medals, there are some international standards. Olympic gold medals must be at least 92.5% silver, and contain no less than 6 grams of gold (usually in the plating on the medal.) All medals must be a minimum of 3mm thick and 60mm in diameter.

 

1980_Summer_Olympics_bronze_medalA design by Italian artist Giuseppe Cassioli dominated the obverse of the medals for the Summer Olympics for four decades, from 1928 through 1968. Cassioli’s design showed the Greek goddess of victory, Nike, against the Roman Coliseum, with text indicating the host city of that year’s Games. The back of the medal featured a basic design of Nike saluting an Olympic winner. A revised design was commissioned in 2004 when it was noted that Cassioli’s design featured a Roman landmark for Greek-inspired games. From 1972 through 2000, Cassioli’s design remained on the obverse, while the host city created a unique design for the reverse. The Winter Games, of more recent origin, have had more variety in the medal designs.

 

But what goes into actually creating the medals that are awarded to the athletes? The London Olympic Games released a video to show the whole process.
Have fun watching the Olympics in Rio!

Friday Odds and Ends, August 12

 

 
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Have you ever thought about the difficulties of sending mail from a POW camp? Now imagine it during the Civil War.

 

 

Have archaeologists just uncovered the world’s oldest gold artifact?

 

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An 8-year-old boy in Newport News, Carmine McDaniel, was concerned that his faithful postman would be uncomfortable during a local heat wave, and left a cooler of drinks for him. But the story doesn’t stop there.

 

 

Being a librarian may not seem like a tough job, but lifting books, arranging journals, and helping patrons can be a real strain! These librarians decided to show off their skills in the first Library Olympics.

What Are Ancient Aliens Doing on This Silver Bar?

A fascinating numismatic item came into our offices the other day: a small bar of .999 fine silver from the Tennessee Silver Coin Exchange, dated 1974. That in itself is not so unusual, but the front of the bar is what holds real interest. The left side of the design shows an astronaut standing on the surface of the moon, holding an American flag. On the right is a drawing from a cave in Tassili N’Ajjer in the Algerian Sahara, depicting a bulbous-headed humanoid form wearing a shapeless suit. The inscription on the coin reads, “Moon, 1969 A.D. Sahara 4000 B.C. Astronauts of Two Ages.”

 

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©Sven Teschke via Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons License

As odd as this item may seem at first, it begins to make sense in historical context. In 1968, a Swiss hotelier named Erich von Däniken published a book titled, Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past. In his book (which later turned out to be plagiarized in many sections from other, less known works; Von Daniken also admitted to fabricating evidence), von Daniken muses on the possibility that aliens may have visited human beings in ancient times, and that ancient architecture and art held clues to these meetings. Although the idea was not new (blogger and researcher Jason Colavito traces the modern “ancient astronaut” concept back to the writings of H. P. Lovecraft), it became wildly popular. A filmed version of von Daniken’s book, renamed “In Search of Ancient Aliens” and narrated by The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling, gave way to its own TV series. Von Daniken went on to publish over two dozen books on the same theme, and continues to appear on shows like “Ancient Aliens,” though his popularity has waned several times over the decades.

 

 

The_Sirius_Mystery,_first_edition.jpgIn 1976, Robert K. G. Temple published The Sirius Mystery, which claimed that aliens from the system surrounding the star Sirius had visited earth and made contact with ancient peoples, significantly impacting their culture. The evidence in the book later turned out to be severely faulty, but it only added to the ancient alien craze when it was first released. Temple came to believe that the ancient site of Tiwanaku, an ancient structure in western Bolivia, could be dated to 15,000 B.C.E., while archaeological experts believe the site to be no older than 1500 B.C.E. Undeterred, Temple continues to promote ancient alien theories.

 

bar2.jpgThe 1970’s were the high point of the initial ancient aliens craze, so the existence of an “ancient astronaut” silver bar from 1973 should be no surprise. In fact, on researching this piece, several more silver bars with similar themes were discovered, all from the early 1970’s. This particular bar is one of 1500 minted by the World Wide Mint for the Tennessee Silver Coin Exchange, Inc.