Archaeologists discover medieval treasure at Cluny abbey in France

Excavation site at the Abbey of Cluny (Saone-et-Loire). The researchers were initially interested in the building's infirmary, before accidentally discovering the treasure.
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A major cultural and religious hub of medieval Europe, the Abbey of Cluny has yet to reveal all of its mysteries. Archaeologists at the site have recently found a hoard of gold and silver dating from the 12th century, hidden in the old infirmary. Among many types of coins, the cache contained precious Islamic dinars.

In archaeology, a discovery can be a matter of a few centimeters. Narrowly escaping demolition in the eighteenth century, and later the teeth of an excavator, a fabulous treasure was discovered at the Abbey of Cluny in Burgundy (northeastern France) last September.

2 months on, the scientists have published an initial inventory: more than 2,200 silver coins, 21 gold dinars, a gold signet ring1  with a Roman intaglio2,  a folded piece of gold leaf, and a small gold object.

Unearthing old structures

With so many coins, all minted in the first half of the twelfth century, this cache constitutes an exceedingly rare find for medieval Europe.

Anne Baud, an academic at the Université Lumière Lyon 2, and CNRS engineer Anne Flammin, both of whom work at the ARAR,  were researching something completely different when they began this excavation campaign in 2015.

Even though Cluny was the center of the most extensive network of monasteries ever formed in the Middle Ages, none of the original complex survives, except for one wing of the transept. The archaeologists’ goal was therefore to find traces of the old structures. 

“We were focusing on the infirmary, an important part of the abbey that functioned like a small monastery within a larger one,” Flammin says.

“It only housed sick or elderly priests, who were subject to different rules—particularly in terms of diet, as they were allowed to eat red meat.” A study by the zooarchaeologist Benoit Clavel of AASPE  on animal and fish bone fragments recuperated from the site has allowed researchers to reconstruct the patients’ menu.

Samples were taken from 3 excavations at the location of the infirmary’s main hall, as indicated by a map from 1700.

An accidental discovery

In order to reach the depth that they want to study as rapidly as possible, archaeologists often remove the upper layers of earth with an excavator.

It was during this operation that an MA student spotted a coin rising up from the stratigraphy. By chance, the shovel had only brushed past the treasure without damaging it.

“We stopped everything and started digging by hand,” Flammin reports, in order to extract the hoard and document it before sunset. 

There was no doubt of leaving the treasure out in the open. It consisted of a cloth bag filled with more than 2,200 silver coins (deniers and oboles), most of them issued by the abbey in the first half of the twelfth century.

As the CNRS engineer points out, “Until now, the largest Discovery of Cluny deniers have represented at most a dozen coins each.” 

In the midst of these coins was a piece of tanned skin wrapped around the most prestigious items in the treasure: 21 Islamic gold dinars, a gold signet ring, a folded piece of gold leaf weighing 24 grams and a little gold object in the shape of a button.

The dinars were minted between 1121 and 1131 in areas of Spain and Morocco controlled by the Berber Almoravid dynasty.

A mysterious treasure

How much was all that gold and silver worth at the time? Monetary values are often difficult to assess hundreds of years later. Vincent Borrel, a PhD student working at the AOROC,  studied the coins and estimates that “the fortune should have been enough to buy 3 to 8horses, the equivalent of the same number of cars today.

It’s a considerable sum for an individual, yet it is by no means colossal on the scale of the abbey, for which it would have represented only a week’s supply of wine and grain for the priests.”

Indeed, the Order of Cluny had established priories throughout the Western medieval world. Through an complex network of transactions across Europe, many outposts forwarded their income to the main abbey, which had been authorized to mint its own currency since the eleventh century.

While this explains the presence of the silver deniers, the gold coins are a much rarer find for that period. “No Christian gold currency was issued before Florence began minting its florins in 1252,” Borrel explains. The 21 gold coins in the cache came from the vast region of Islamic Andalusia, at a time when the Christians had recovered about half of Spain.

The Order of Cluny had priories in the Christian areas, and one of them could have sent back the dinars following transactions with the Andalusians. The theory of a direct donation from the Christian kings of Spain has also been proposed.

Despite the number and value of the coins, the most valuable item in the treasure remains the signet ring. While the object itself was probably made in the twelfth century, its inset, a small intaglio portrait of a god, dates back to the Roman Empire. Such a jewel would have been worth more than the rest of the trove combined.

However, it is hard to trace its history over the centuries and to determine whether the ring was a private possession or had an official function. In fact, many questions stay unanswered. Who hid this treasure, and why? “Perhaps a member of the order wanted to bury his nest egg,” Flammin suggests.

“The area of the discovery could also link it to the purser, the monk who handled the monastery’s food budget.” 

One thing is certain: the researchers were very fortunate. “The treasure was discovered just below the medieval ground level, in a site that had been razed to the ground in the 18th century to build the new abbey,” Flammin recounts. “The excavations show that the workers at the time stopped digging only 10 centimeters from the cache.”

 

More than 2200 silver coins and oboles were found, issued largely by Abbey of Cluny and probably dating from the first half of the 12th century.
More than 2200 silver coins and oboles were found, issued largely by Abbey of Cluny and probably dating from the first half of the 12th century.

 

This folded gold leaf, these gold dinars, and this valuable signet ring were contained in a tanned and sealed skin.
This folded gold leaf, these gold dinars, and this valuable signet ring were contained in a tanned and sealed skin.

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P. Natasha Covers Classical Archaeology news and has been with Histecho since 2017. She has a Master's degree in MA Archaeology from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program. A California native, she also holds a Bachelor of science in molecular biology and a Master of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.