The world beneath our feet

Written by
24th January 2017

I am told that conservators at the British Museum sometimes use dentists’ rotating brushes for cleaning coins and jewellery. I learned this after a friend of mine went to a talk at the British Museum (BM) called The World Beneath our Feet. The talk happened to be in the same week that my daughter went to the BM on a school trip.


My friend learned about the BM’s role in identification of treasure. Since 2002 the BM has co-ordinated a national scheme for the identification of finds. The majority of the hordes that are handed into the museum are stashes of coins, usually concealed many hundreds of years ago.


In order to identify the coins, and determine their value, they have to be very carefully cleaned and the rotating brushes that dentists and hygienists use can be very useful.

X-rays for identification


Some hordes are in pots which for obvious reasons the conservators don’t want to damage. Their approach is to work down through the layers, just as archaeologists do. If the coins have corroded, extracting them from the pots is challenging, if not impossible. Sometimes the coins or jewellery and other treasure have corroded inside a bag or are compacted into soil. In these instances the conservancy team will send the treasures for X-ray.


This is another parallel with our work in which scans and X-rays can be essential for accurate diagnosis. A Faro scanning arm is the latest kind of device which a conservator might use to work out what is buried inside a pot or a clump of earth.

Ninth century coin


We don’t often give thought to what’s beneath our feet as we hurry places but every now and then a discovery is made which throws light on the past. For instance, and Anglo Saxon coin from the ninth century which is now in the British Museum after it was found and handed in by a metal detectorist.

My friend was interested to know that metal detectorists are now working closely with the British Museum and other museums and are invited in for discussions and information-sharing with the conservators.


Happily my daughter really enjoyed her school trip to the British Museum. I think I will be going there a bit more often, which I am delighted about!

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