Rome returns to Libya

January 11, 2002

Libya has entrusted the largest treasure trove of ancient Roman coins ever found, more than 100,000 items, to the Italian National Research Council for restoration and study.

The Libyan antiquities department took the decision almost two years ago, but an official announcement was made only recently. The coins will stay in Libya, at the Leptismagna Museum near Tripoli, to be worked on by a team from Italy's Institute of Technology Applied to Cultural Heritage.

"Italian archaeological missions have always enjoyed a good relationship with Libya," said Salvatore Garraffo, head of the institute. "During all the ups and downs of Libya's relations with the West, we continued to work in a pleasant atmosphere. Archaeological research began there in the 1920s, when Libya was an Italian colony. Since then we have practically never left, even during periods of Libyan hostility towards its former colonial ruler."

Libyan archaeologists found the 100,000 coins, mostly in silver-plated bronze, in the 1980s near Misurata, 200km east of Tripoli. They were buried in amphorae around a building that had been burnt. The coins date from AD294, during the reign of Diocletian, to AD333, when Constantine was emperor. They are of a type normally used to pay troops.

"The obvious conclusion is that they were for paying regular Roman troops, or more likely, native troops," Professor Garraffo explained. "Probably when whoever was in charge of the money was about to be attacked, the coins were buried. The nearby building, apparently burnt, suggests that soldiers guarding the money were captured or massacred without revealing the hiding place.

"There are coins from mints in Britain, Gaul and Asia Minor, and this should give us new insight into the movement of money in the late Roman Empire. There may have been more important discoveries of ancient coins that have remained secret, but this is the greatest officially reported."

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