The term “Britannia” has a couple of meanings in the metal refining industry. There is Britannia silver, a grade of silver purity and composition, and Britannia metal, which is a type of alloy.
Although the two forms of Britannia are very different in terms of value, they are both lustrous, silvery metals. Britannia metal is very similar to pewter. It’s an alloy containing 93% tin, 2% copper, and 5% antimony (a metal similar to lead). Pewter usually made of 85–99% tin, with the rest being a mixture of copper, antimony, bismuth and lead.
Britannia metal alloy is very smooth, which makes it a perfect base metal for electroplating and gilding. As a matter of fact, the Oscars presented at the Academy Awards are made of Britannia with gold plating. Britannia is also commonly used as the base metal for cutlery with silver gilded on top. However, it’s important not confuse this type of cutlery for other sets made of Britannia silver.
Britannia silver is a standard of purity first issued by British parliament in 1697. It contains 95.84% silver (the rest is usually copper). Britannia silver was meant to become the new metal-working standard of purity for special and artisanal projects – replacing sterling silver, which is 92.5% pure. Aside from artisanal work, Britannia silver is also used for the bullion coins produced by Britain’s Royal Mint.
To tell whether you have something made of Britannia metal or Britannia silver, check for a mark indicating millesimal fineness. Britannia silver should have a 958 mark, while Britannia metal will have a much lower (or non-existent) one.
In our last post, we began the tale of treasure hunting partners Reg Mead and Richard Miles. After hearing a story from a farmer’s daughter about a field of silver coins near Grouville on the island Jersey, the two searched the island for 30 years trying to find the fabled spot. Finally, they found the field and made some exciting headway by using a deep-seeking metal detector.
When the detector went off, Mead and Miles spent more than 40 minutes digging. After getting a meter or so down, their shovel hit something. With a wedge and a thrust, a spray of dirt and coins shot up from the hole. With that, the two took a step back and evaluated their digging and their findings to date. It became clear that they had something monumental on their hands – a treasure too big for just two metal detectorists. They covered the hole and hid all traces of their search and excavation, then contacted archaeologists at the Jersey Heritage museum.
Soon, a proper excavation team was assembled to document and examine any findings in the field. To date, the area’s location is a closely guarded secret and the site is protected as an “Area of Archaeological Potential.” While the entire field is an area of great historical significance, it’s the contents from the original hole that Mead and Miles dug which has stunned archaeologists the most. From that hole, excavators recovered a massive block of clay (nearly 1 ton in weight) that archaeologists estimate to contain about 50,000 coins. Experts are still carefully breaking down the block and cleaning each coin it contains, but its apparent that the hoard demolishes the record of what was previously the largest coin hoard on Jersey – only 12,000 silver pieces.
But where on earth did such a vast hoard come from? Historians currently believe – based on the age and markings on the coins – that the hoard is a result of Julius Caesar. During the Gallic Wars from 58 to 50 BCE, Caesar’s army was on a rampage in the West, displacing the Celtic tribes in the area. Clearly hoping to return someday soon, the tribes buried their wealth and fled from the advancing Romans.
Today, the 2000+ year old treasure has a whopping value of about $15 million. The treasure laws of Jersey aren’t exactly clear, but it’s expected that the treasure will belong to the British crown, while Mead, Miles, and the owner of the field will split a handsome reward.
The quest began more than 30 years ago when metal detectorist, Reg Mead, heard a story from a farmer’s daughter. On the island of Jersey in the Celtic sea in the 1950s, this girl’s father was working the land. While removing a tree, he uncovered an ancient urn stuffed with silver coins. However, the urn was initially unnoticed. During the tree removal, the urn was broken and most of coins were scattered about the area. The farmer gathered up what coins he could find, but the rest were left in the field – plowed over and lost again to the earth. According to the farmer’s daughter, the field was somewhere near the parish of Grouville (the southeast corner of the island). With that story and general location, Mead and his treasure hunting partner, Richard Miles, started their long search for what they hoped would be a few Celtic coins. In the end, they discovered one of the largest coin hoards in history.
After years of checking out fields hither and yon, Mead and Miles believed that they had finally found the fabled field, based on geography and description. However, their initial searches of the field turned up nothing. Rather than give up and move on, Miles worked at developing a better search plan. By comparing satellite images, historical maps of the island, and land ordinance maps, he settled on an area that most likely hid the treasure.
Using the painstaking research to scan the field proved much more fruitful – the duo started turning up coins. Practically every time they went out to the area, they came back with some silver and bronze coins – some Celtic, some Roman. Sensing there was something special in that field, Mead brought out the big guns – his prized “deep-seeking” metal detector. While normal metal detectors only scan the surface of soil (about a foot or so) for precious metals, the deep-seeker was capable of detections more than a meter deep.
Miles and Mead took the deep-seeker to where the largest concentration of coins seemed to be, according to their previous outings. After about 20 minutes, the detector went crazy. Something big was below the surface. Find out what in our next blog post!