Counting the Value of the Past: A Week in the Numismatist Vaults of the British Museum

Nervously I made my way onto the London Tube and was carried at speed through darkened tunnels until I emerged, some time later, in the bright Georgian streets of Bloomsbury.

A short walk along a busy London street and I was there. The British Museum loomed above me in neo-classical grandeur. Before I could enter, I had to pass through security and I was already late for my first day.

Stepping In

Finally, I was speeding through galleries of china and chess pieces until I reached a small metallic room hidden at the side of a larger gallery. A metal door stood before me and I rang the bell beside it. The door opened and I stepped into the vaults of the museum.

That was how my week began but there was far more excitement to come. Each day, British Museum staff and invited speakers would flood us with knowledge in highly informative lectures.

We were handed coins ranging from Barbarian Gaul to King Alfred of Wessex and from London mints to modern-day Iran. As each coin was passed through eager hands, its story was told.

Tales of Coins

We heard of the fall of Byzantium in 1453 as a wheezing and gasping empire struggled to continue to produce its glinting, gold coins.

Other coins told us of Norse raiders succumbing to the Saxons of Wessex at the Battle of Edington in 878. After being defeated by Alfred, King of the West Saxons, Guthrum ‘the Old’ had converted to Christianity and was baptised Athelstan. Alfred then granted him East Anglia where Athelstan minted coins in the name of Alfred.

One particular coin from the reign of Offa of Mercia, Anglo-Saxon king who ruled an area comprising central England from 757 to 796, caused our hands to tremble. It was valued at a considerable price.

Conversations in Conservation

More enthusiastic curators and speakers came to deliver their knowledge to us in the vault. However, we were also granted the chance to see other areas of the museum.

On one day, a conservationist came to give us a tour of the surprisingly modern and scientific conservationist department where historic artefacts were lovingly and carefully restored and repaired.

Tower of London

One of the highlights of this thrilling experience was a trip to the Tower of London. We were granted the opportunity to see the location of the former mint, Britain’s premier coin production site.

The Last Day

The last day was as eventful as the entire week combined. We were excavated from the museum twice, once due to a fire alarm and another time due to a bomb scare (my journey home later was also problematic with all trains I could possibly catch cancelled).

At the end of the last day, as we left the museum, I felt I had greatly benefitted from an exciting and informative week. The vault doors were closed behind us and we stepped away back into the crowded streets of London.

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