Serdica’s mint found?

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by Björn Schöpe
translated by Christina Schlögl

May 17, 2018 – In 2015, Bulgarian archaeologists found a gigantic Roman hoard in the Bulgarian capital Sofia. The following excavations brought spectacular results. The excavators are convinced that they have discovered the site of a mint from late antiquity.

Archaeologists found almost 3,000 silver coins during a dig at the square in front of Sveta Nedelya Church and directly in front of the Hotel Balkan, a popular tourist hotel in Sofia. The 2,974 silver coins and 5 bronze coins were inside a vessel which bore the owner’s name, Selvius Calistus. The coins came from different periods: from the Neronian period (54-68) until the rule of Caracalla (198-217) and Geta (209-211), as the leading archaeologist Veselka Katsarova of the city’s museum explained. A curious detail: All 111 coins of Domitian (81-96) show different reverses. 

When archaeologists of the National Institute and Museum for Archaeology and the Sofia Regional Museum for History started their work in summer of 2015, they were looking for the Forum of Serdica, the precursory settlement of the today’s Sofia. And they actually found coins in “room 1” of a large site underneath today’s square.
Right now it seems as though these buildings were built during the second half of the 2nd century AD. Smaller rooms were probably facing the streets and served as storage rooms or shops; this is indicated by amphorae, coins and a set of game pieces.
The affluently equipped main part of the building had a large formal colonnade hall. This could have been a thermal bath or the working hall for the city’s governor. Until the building was abandoned in the 5th/6th century, it had seen numerous conversions. One particularly significant refurbishment took place in AD 300: At the time, a mint was built in Serdica, which did not only produce local coins but also minted gold, silver and bronze coins which were meant to circulate in the whole empire. 

Archaeologist Veselka Katsarova explained the current finds to the Bulgarian media: “We’ve come to a layer with material from the end of the 3rd and the beginning of the 4th century in which we have discovered slag and bellows for fanning up fire for metal smelting,” This layer can be dated by use of coins from the time of Emperors Gallienus (253-268), Claudius II (268-270), and Aurelian (270-275) up until the beginning of the 4th century. They also found remnants of bellows – clay fragments with metal particles.
At an excavation under the adjacent cathedral during the 1970s and 1980s, archaeologist Magdalina Stancheva had already made similar discoveries. Chemical analyses of all of these finds are now supposed to provide more results.
This central location is actually quite uncommon for a mint, since metal-working facilities were usually taken outside the settlements during antiquity. But a bronze bar, which could have been used to mint coins, which was also discovered in the building, could be another indicator. 

And the big silver treasure? Archaeologist Katsarova says: “The treasure had probably been prepared to be smelted and cast into new coins which were up to date for the 4th century AD.” Due to the low silver content, this could have been done with huge profits. 

The excavators stress that their interpretation is only a hypothesis and they plan on getting more evidence through further research. Experts on this subject have expressed doubts on the matter. The Bulgarian archaeologist Dr Evgeni Paunov, who is currently living in Vienna, thinks that the presented theory is “pure speculation” and that the finds do not offer “any reliable evidence”. In conversation with CoinsWeekly, Paunov said that he was waiting to see finds of minting tools, blanks, clay forms etc. to prove that the find in fact constitutes a mint. The excavators still have a lot of work to do until these doubts will be resolved. 

In recent years, the web portal “Archaeology in Bulgaria” repeatedly reported on this excavation:
About the beginning of the excavation
About the hoard
About the first buildings found
And about the current interpretation as mint