Mid- September, a large treasure consisting of coins and jewellery was found at the Abbey of Cluny. The find points to the role of medieval abbeys as “early banks”.
In 1201 the Danish Archbishop, Absalon, died leaving a testament. One of the posts concerned “the silver, which he “had” at Cluny. Half was to be donated to the Abbey, while the other half was to be sent to Clairvaux. This silver was obviously kept there as a financial resource, which Absalon might draw upon whenever he needed to send delegates to Rome or his other European contacts. In short: Cluny functioned as a sort of bank.
Recently, a vast treasure was discovered during an archaeological excavation at the Abbey of Cluny, in the French department of Saône-et-Loire. Consisting of 2,200 silver deniers and oboles, 21 Islamic gold dinars, a signet ring, and other objects made of gold, it is a singular witness to the financial importance of this centre. Never before has such a large cache of silver deniers been discovered in France. Nor have gold coins from Arab lands, silver deniers, and a signet ring ever been found hoarded together in this manner.
The treasure is currently undergoing a detailed study. So far, however, we know that the 2200 silver deniers and oboles were minted at the Abbey, while the 21 golden dinars stem from the Middle East. While the silver coins date from the beginning of the 12th century, the Islamic golden dinars can be dated more precisely. They were struck between 1121 and 1131 in Spain and Morocco during the reign of Ali ibn Yusuf (1106–1143), who belonged to the Berber Almoravid dynasty. The treasure is thus too early to have belonged to Absalon, but it may very well bear witness to the same economic network.
Of particular interest is a golden signet ring with a red intaglio showing a Roman bust. An engraving – AVETE – denotes something like “hail thee”. The ring, the golden dinars, a folded sheet of gold foil weighing 24 g and stored in a case, and a small circular object made of gold, were all found wrapped in a piece of leather and stuck into the cloth purse, which held the coins.
The treasure raises numerous questions, which Vincent Borrel, a PhD student at the Archaeology and Philology of East and West (AOROC) research unit is currently asking himself:
- Who owned the treasure? Was it a monk, a church dignitary, or a wealthy layman?
- What can the coins teach us? Where were the silver deniers of Cluny struck? Where did they circulate? How did Islamic dinars, minted in Spain and Morocco, end up at Cluny?
- Why was the treasure buried?
- What building lay above the treasure when it was hidden? Was it a building, now in ruins, that we know little about?
 Diplomatarium Danicum 1:4, 32 (1201)
Press release, Lyon 14th Novembre 2017
Treasure of coins from Cluny. Credit: Alexis Grattier-Université Lumière Lyon 2