Most archaeologists of Ged’s acquaintance could not resist taking something from every site they visited. Nothing crucial, nothing that could affect the interpretation of the site, not ‘treasure’ (he loved the fact that treasure was still a legal concept in the twenty-first century). Just stuff lying on the ground, ignored and neglected, at risk from the feet of passing tourists who couldn’t appreciate these items like the archaeologists did. They pocketed loose tesserae from the floors of Roman bathhouses, fragments of window tracery from roofless abbeys, potsherds from the acropolis of ancient Sparta, small chunks of painted wall plaster from Pompeii.
Ged was different. He didn’t take artefacts from ancient sites, he left new ones behind. Not litter, you understand, just small items: buttons, loose change, costume jewellery, souvenirs from childhood holidays, coins rendered obsolete by the euro – pesetas, marks, francs. Things for kids to find, a way to let them feel the momentary thrill of discovery, to make them realise they were treading the same ground as those who had gone before them. He liked the sensation of creating small mysteries: how on earth did that get here?
After all, that was how he’d got started himself, finding a coin on his first dig at a minor Roman villa, the summer before he went to university. He’d almost missed the tarnished bronze coin, the same excremental colour as the soil, but it was the metallic ring on his trowel that alerted him to its presence. He still had that first trowel, the one he’d bought from Rapid Hardware back home in Liverpool. The coin he’d found was pretty worn, but the site supervisor suggested it might have been issued by Carausius, a man he described as a ‘British usurper’. Back home, in the reference section of his local library, Ged found a brief entry in an encyclopaedia:
CARAUSIUS: Roman usurper, acclaimed as emperor in 286 by the troops stationed in Britain. Founder of the so-called ‘Britannic Empire’, based on the claim that the province of Britannia was independent from the Roman Empire. Overthrown and murdered by his finance minister, Allectus, in 293.
Ged’s A-level Ancient History course had been strictly Augustus to Nero, so this was all new to him. The idea that there might be all this other history, all these other emperors – even self-proclaimed ones – caught his teenage fascination.
All through university, Carausius was still there, like an itch at the back of his mind that needed to be scratched. In the university library he spent more time researching the so-called British Usurpers (most of whom actually seemed to be from Belgium, Gaul or Spain) than reading the set texts on his reading lists. He wrote his dissertation on the Third Century Crisis, a period of so many coups, assassinations and breakaway empires that forty men claimed the title of emperor within fifty years.
By the time he applied for a PhD, Ged knew exactly what he wanted: to become the leading authority on the coins issued by the British Usurpers. He’d been gradually building up his own coin collection – back then you could pick them up at places like Ribchester or Vindolanda for between five and fifty pounds, depending on the condition of the coin and the brevity of the usurper’s reign.
After completing his doctorate he did a short stint at the Royal Mint in Llantrisant (‘the hole with the mint’, as his colleagues used to call it), before spending a few years as a junior curator in Coins and Medals at the Ashmolean. Then a job came up at the Mercia Museum, which housed the third-largest coin collection in the UK; he reckoned that spending a few years in the Midlands would be worth it to climb another step on the ladder, with a job at the British Museum in his sights.
Sixteen years later, however, he was still there. His official job title was Keeper of Coins and Medals, but several years of funding cuts had also left him covering the work of former colleagues who had not been replaced when they retired. He still loved the feel of the coins, worn smooth by countless ancient hands. He enjoyed the challenge of reading all the abbreviated legends, like code-breaking. He still loved the idea that these little metal discs, exchanged for all manner of pleasures and necessities, had been used to convey news in a printless age, to lay claim to power and victory. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to spend much time with real, metal money any more. He seemed to spend all his time filling in Health and Safety forms and applying for grants. When he’d taken the job at the Mercia Museum he’d never envisaged that he’d still be there in his forties. Initially he’d had a paid assistant, but now he was lucky if he got an intern, fresh out of university and prepared to work just for travelling expenses. Ged himself was still on a decent salary, though; the museum’s new Director, recruited from a budget hotel chain, hadn’t yet managed to shift him off his old contract.
It was only when he turned the television on that he felt a sense of failure and stagnation. Almost every week it seemed that one of his academic contemporaries was fronting a superficial documentary about a subject far outside their own area of expertise. BBC Four’s history schedule seemed to be dominated by that public-school tosser Crispin Simms, with his poncey hair and his tailored shirts, pontificating about something with which he only had a passing acquaintance. The man hadn’t even finished his doctoral thesis, for fuck’s sake; he’d been a contemporary of Ged’s at UCL. Simms hadn’t even been a decent linguist. He used to make fun of Ged’s Lancashire accent (his bad impersonations always involved whippets and mills), but he was always quick enough to track down Ged in the library and ask him to translate Latin quotations for him.
If Ged started shouting at the television screen when Ellen was here, she would suggest watching a film instead. Ellen was Ged’s girlfriend; he still didn’t feel he could call her his ‘partner’, even though it was now six years since they’d met at an archaeology conference. She lived in Edinburgh and they usually saw each other once every three weeks or so. But when he was alone on the settee, he found it difficult to break away from the tractor beam of Crispin Simms’s eyes, glowing with faked enthusiasm and supposedly raffish charm.
On Ellen’s visits, Ged might make an effort to cook something new, but when he was on his own he still relied on the same basic menu he’d learned to cook as a student: spaghetti bolognese, chilli con carne, vegetable curry, shepherd’s pie. As a creature of routine, he tended to cook the same dish on the same day each week. His supermarket visits were speedy and efficient, except perhaps for a few minutes of indecision in the beer aisle. He liked dark beer best: stout or porter. Looking at the ranks of bottles, with their jokey names or evocations of a lost agricultural age (there seemed to be a lot of poachers and pheasants), one of his grandfather’s corny jokes always came into his head. Why did the mild barmaid ale? Because the stout porter bitter.
The idea came to him one Thursday evening, while he was warming up a pan of chilli on the hob; he had never used a microwave and didn’t intend to start now. The week’s events had unsettled him. On Monday morning the new Director had called him in.
‘Sit down, Gerard – it is Gerard, isn’t it? I felt it was time we had a bit of a chat, got to know each other. I’ve asked my secretary to bring us some tea – I assume you don’t take sugar. I wanted to talk to you about the Coin Room. I’ve been looking through the budget projections for the coming year and I wanted to run an idea past you. As you know, the Coin Room is already closed on Monday and Wednesday afternoons, to save on staffing costs, but I’m now considering whether the best way forward might be to close it permanently to the public.’
Ged almost choked on his Earl Grey. ‘Are you seriously suggesting we close the Coin Room? With all due respect, I’m not sure whether you realise that our coin collection is of national importance – international importance, even. We get researchers from all over Europe and the States asking to use our collection.’
‘Oh, that’s not a problem. The coin collection would of course still be available by appointment to bona fide academics and researchers, but – let’s face it – the general public aren’t very interested in coins, are they? Coins aren’t very… sexy, to use the modern parlance. They don’t have any wow factor – whereas the mosaics in the Roman Room, they’re really something, aren’t they? I also want our displays to become much more interactive, and there’s not much you can do with a coin, is there?’
‘I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that. The Roman coin-handling sessions we run are very popular with the kids.’
‘Well, you can carry on running those sessions – we’ll just move them to the Living History section. Anyway, no firm decision has been made yet, but I just wanted to make you aware of the situation.’
‘What would happen to my job, if you were to decide to close the Coin Room?’
‘Well, obviously we would have to redeploy you to other tasks. The Documentation Officer is due to retire in July, so perhaps you could take over that role?’
‘But what about the work I do with Rachel Knight?’
‘Oh, well, she’s not strictly an employee of the museum. Her salary is actually funded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme – we just provide her with office space. In fact, we should probably look at whether we should be charging them some rent for her office.’
‘But I work with Rachel on an almost daily basis. She gets me to help her identify the coins that the public bring in – mostly Roman coins, I have to say. Her workload has increased massively since that television series about metal detectorists.’
‘Well, we’ll have another discussion at a later date. In the meantime I’d like you to start keeping a log of the time you spend working on the Portable Antiquities Scheme. We should maybe consider billing them for your time.’
The recollection of the conversation made Ged angry, but the circular motion of the wooden spoon in the pan was comforting, and the hearty smell of the dish still had the power to take him back to his student days, when it had felt as if there were all those new centuries waiting to open up their secrets to him. It occurred to him that there might just be a way to keep the Coin Room open, and maybe even kick-start his career again. Forty emperors in fifty years – surely there could be room for one more?
Making some suitable coins wouldn’t actually be too difficult – in fact, it would be quite straightforward. During his time as a postgraduate he’d done a bit of experimental archaeology to work out how Roman coins had been made in the third century. The methods were pretty low-tech, and the coins were of low quality, which was why they’d been so easy to forge. One of the coin hoards he’d studied for his doctorate had even turned out to be a forger’s hoard, with metal blanks and dies for making shoddy copies of official coins.
He decided that the safest place to insert his new emperor would be during the era of the breakaway Gallic Empire, a period of fourteen years when there was a pretty rapid turnover of usurpers in the North-West provinces of the Empire – in fact, two new ones had been identified even since he’d found that coin on his first dig. Members of the public found more coin hoards from those few years than from any other period of Roman Britain. Getting the metal right would be no problem; he’d just melt down a few coins issued by other usurpers. These ‘radiate’ coins, called after the spiky crowns favoured by the emperors, were supposed to be silver, but by the 260s they contained as little as one per cent silver – the rest was just copper alloy.
As a specialist in the field, he had to admit that his five coins were pretty convincing; a Roman auxiliary would definitely have accepted them in his pay. Soaked in vinegar and buried for a few weeks, they had already lost their initial sheen; they now had the dullness of a pre-decimalisation penny. The obverse showed the emperor’s head in profile, wearing a radiate crown; bull-necked and heavy-browed, he looked like he wouldn’t take any shit from anyone. After careful thought Ged had decided to call his emperor Argentius Verus, so the legend around the portrait simply read ARGENTIUS VERUS AUG, the appropriation of Augustus’s name being a crucial part of one’s claim to hold the status of emperor. For the reverse of the coin he decided to play safe, copying an image used on the coins of other usurpers: the female figure of Pax, carrying a cornucopia. The more troubled the times, the more these jumped-up generals claimed to be the bringers of peace and prosperity. It can’t have been that bloody peaceful, he thought, otherwise people wouldn’t have been stashing all these coins. He decided to use a London mint-mark, ML – the British connection would make the coins more attractive to the press. He deliberately didn’t stamp the coins very accurately, so the edge of the die didn’t line up with the edge of the blank.
He then just had to wait until a coin hoard of the right period came into the museum. Statistically, he knew he probably wouldn’t have long to wait. Metal detectorists brought in coins to Rachel in her role as Finds Liaison Officer. She would log and photograph individual finds and give them back to the finders (unless they wanted to donate them to the museum), but the several hoards that came in each year would be passed to Ged so that he could write reports on these potential treasure finds for the coroner.
The hot, dry summer of 2018, like its fabled predecessor of 1976, proved to be a gift to archaeologists. Aerial photographs revealed the outlines of previously unsuspected features, showing up as darker lines in the crops. Local legends were proved true. Mundane fields yielded new crops: barrows and burial mounds, chapels and villas, Roman camps shaped like playing cards. There was a marked difference, though, between 1976 and 2018, and that was the democratisation of this process of finding new sites. Now it seemed as if half the nation possessed a metal detector or a drone, or both. Ged knew that most professional archaeologists were a bit dismissive of amateurs, sometimes with good reason if they damaged the archaeology of a site, but for a numismatist like him, they were absolutely crucial. His job might be under threat, but he probably wouldn’t have a job at all if it weren’t for all these people going out into the fields and finding these third-century hoards. Some of them weren’t so amateurish, either; he’d met people in Rachel’s office whose knowledge of Roman coins would put many professional archaeologists to shame.
His hunch that he wouldn’t have long to wait proved right. A mere two months after he’d struck his coins, he was asked to write a report on a large hoard of a hundred and fifty-two coins found by a metal detectorist in a field at Acton, near Nantwich. The man who had found the coins – he worked on the assembly line at the Bentley factory in Crewe – had attempted to clean and identify some of them, but the majority were still stuck together. Ged’s brief was to produce a report for the coroner, to determine whether this find constituted ‘treasure’.
The coins arrived at the museum in the pot in which they had been found, which now sat on the table in Ged’s office. It was a parchment-ware pot, plain but well made, with a wide mouth. He ran his finger down the creamy-coloured belly of the pot, and round the curved rim. This could be it, he thought, this could be the one. The pot was the right period, and a cursory inspection of the coins suggested that most of them were indeed from the time of the Gallic Empire.
Ged was conscious that he had to maintain the hoard at its initial size, as it had already been logged on the Portable Antiquities database, but it was easy enough for him to swap two of his Argentius coins for two rather worn coins issued by a Gallic Empire usurper called Tetricus I – there were about forty of them in the hoard. He told Rachel that he should be able to issue an initial report for the Coroner fairly soon, although a detailed study of the hoard would take a lot longer.
The weekend before he was ready to publish his initial report – essentially a breakdown of the coins by emperor and period – Ged was invited to look at a dig on a newly discovered Roman villa site in Wiltshire. It had been organised by one of his friends, Chris Cox, an Archaeology professor at Reading University who was using the site as a training dig for her students. Their star find so far was a second-rate fourth-century mosaic in a limited palette of shades of brown and orange, depicting a rather podgy and complacent Leda being seduced by Zeus in the form of a swan – though to be honest, it looked more like a goose. Ged thought that someone creating a mosaic in Britain ought to know what a bloody swan looked like, but he kept his thoughts to himself because Chris was so excited about the mosaic; she said it provided new evidence for the survival of paganism in Britain well into the fourth century. The edges of the mosaic had been cleaned to establish its full extent. Under the pretext of going down to have a closer look, Ged managed to tuck the third of his Argentius coins into the soil under the edge of the mosaic, with just the very edge visible. He hoped that one of the students might have the fun and the kudos of noticing the coin. He would hold onto the fourth and fifth coins for now, until a suitable opportunity arose.
The following Monday he went down to see Rachel in her office.
‘I’m going to send you an electronic copy of the report on the Nantwich Hoard,’ he said, ‘but I just wanted to let you know that I think we might have something a bit unusual on our hands. Most of the coins are all the usual Gallic Empire stuff, lots of debased radiates, but there are a couple of coins issued by an emperor I don’t recognise.’
He knew Rachel would be excited; she asked to see the coins, so he took her up to his office at the back of the Coin Room, and showed her the coins under a large mounted magnifier, pointing out the salient features. Rachel had trained as a medievalist, but if the coins could fool her, that was a good start, given the number of Roman coins that passed through her hands. He needn’t have worried.
‘Hey, I think you’re right, I’ve not come across this name before. He looks a bit jowly, doesn’t he, like Carausius? So what are you going to do about your discovery? Are you going to tell Sadim?’
Ged smiled at Rachel using their shared name for the Director. He was Midas in reverse, all right; everything he touched turned to shit.
‘I’m not sure – I don’t want to jump the gun, in case I’ve got this wrong. I probably need to spend more time studying these coins. It’s quite a big claim, to say you’ve identified a new emperor. I don’t want to look like an idiot afterwards.’
‘But everyone knows you’re the leading expert in this field. If you say it’s a new emperor from the Gallic Empire, it’s a new emperor. You told me yourself that a couple of new ones had turned up over the last thirty years. You ought to tell the Director, Ged, the museum could really do with the publicity.’
‘You’re right, I’ll mention it to him today. I don’t suppose he’ll be very interested though; he doesn’t have a lot of time for coins. He said they weren’t sexy enough.’
The news broke in an otherwise quiet week, devoid of plane crashes, natural disasters, celebrity divorces or casting-couch scandals. There were still plenty of wars going on, with their attendant disasters of famine and cholera. There was another Ebola outbreak in the Congo and refugees flooding out of Syria, Yemen and Venezuela. But the British public was tired of all that, so instead the ‘lost emperor’ gained a foothold. At first there was just a small piece at the bottom of page seven of the Times, quoting the Mercia Museum’s press release virtually word-for-word. The editor perhaps thought it might be of interest to the dwindling proportion of his readers who’d studied Latin at school or read Ancient History at university.
But then the tabloids decided to run the story, alongside insets featuring hastily googled summaries of third-century Romano-British politics. Ged’s favourite headlines were ‘Hail Caesar! Brit Ruled Roman Empire’ and ‘Carry on Argentius: Car Worker Coins it in’. The Observer ran a piece about Roman emperors with British connections, who mostly seemed to have died at York (Septimius Severus and Constantius I). It was accompanied by a photograph of the seated statue of Constantine outside York Minster and an inset on Septimius Severus’s ethnic origins. The Telegraph persuaded a flamboyant Conservative politician, an Oxford classicist, to write a piece comparing the short-lived breakaway Gallic Empire to Brexit.
Just as it looked as if the press might be losing interest in the emperor, a new impetus was given to the story by the news that another Argentius coin had turned up, this time at a newly discovered Roman villa in Wiltshire, many miles from the original find. The press reported that the coin had been found under a fourth-century mosaic floor, proving that the coin must be earlier than that. Ged’s friend Chris was interviewed, as well as the student digger who had found the coin. A more specialist article in British Archaeology suggested that museums might want to check their holdings of third-century Roman coins, as there could perhaps be more coins issued by Argentius lying unrecognised in drawers and storerooms.
Visitor numbers to the Mercia Museum shot up, fuelled by its appearance in newspaper features suggesting cultural activities to do with the kids during the summer holidays. The Museum Director hastily commissioned a new display case, to stand alongside the one containing the rest of the hoard. The lettering across the top of the case read ARGENTIUS VERUS: BRITAIN’S LOST EMPEROR. The centrepiece consisted of the two tiny coins, each the size of a twenty-pence piece, positioned behind a magnifying lens. A rather speculative artist’s impression of Argentius, looking suspiciously like Oliver Reed, filled most of the rest of the space. A caption, written by Ged, appeared above the logo of the local waste recycling company, who had sponsored the exhibit.
Radiates of the usurper Argentius Verus, late third century CE.
These coins from the Nantwich Hoard are the first to be identified as issues of a previously unknown usurper, Argentius Verus. Although the exact date of his short-lived reign has yet to be established, it is likely that he was proclaimed emperor by the troops stationed in Britain during the years of the ‘Gallic Empire’ (260-274), in which the north-western provinces – the area covered by the modern states of Britain, France and Belgium – declared their independence from the central government in Rome. A further possibility is that Argentius may be the Governor of Britain (whose name has not been recorded) who led a rebellion during the reign of the legitimate emperor Probus (reigned 276-282).
Argentius is depicted wearing the spiky ‘radiate crown’ typical of the imagery on coinage issued by both legitimate and non-legitimate emperors during this period. Analysis of the metal has proved that these coins have a similar composition to other coins issued during the period of the Gallic Empire, being predominantly copper alloy with only one per cent silver content. Radiate coins were worth two denarii and were originally made of solid silver, but by the period of the Gallic Empire debasement of the coinage had become common practice, even by legitimate emperors.
The museum shop ordered substantial stocks of Argentius T-shirts, featuring a greatly enlarged and airbrushed version of the coin; the silver-on-black version proved to be the biggest seller. Visitors could also buy Argentius-themed tea towels, mugs and fridge magnets. The museum ordered ten times its normal stock of rubber ducks attired as Roman emperors. The range of Roman legionary outfits for children was renamed ‘the Argentius Collection’, despite Ged’s protests that they bore no relation to what a Roman general, let alone one leading a breakaway empire on the fringes of northern Europe, would have worn in the late third century.
Local businesses in Nantwich were quick off the mark, too. A fish and chip shop was renamed Argentius’s Plaice. The local brewery produced two new beers: Argentius Ale (‘a lightly hopped summer session ale, with notes of apricot’) and Emperor Porter (‘a robust dark ale, made from chocolate malt, with hints of plum’). The pump clips featured the emperor’s profile; he was definitely looking more attractive with each new incarnation. The local tourist office produced a pamphlet called ‘The Argentius Trail’, written by the Local History Society, featuring a three-mile walking route which linked the tenuous pieces of evidence for Roman occupation in the area, including remarks about Roman salt mining. The site of the battle of Nantwich, fought during the English Civil War, was thrown in for good measure. A secondary school in Crewe, trying to rebuild its image following a poor Ofsted report, decided to rename itself the Argentius Academy, with a new logo featuring the emperor’s head in gold against a background of imperial purple.
Buoyed by the unexpected success of his project, Ged submitted a proposal to the commissioning editor for history programmes at the BBC, suggesting that he would be happy to front a documentary on Argentius. He emphasised his academic credentials as Britain’s foremost expert on coins of the Gallic Empire, and added that he was the curator who had identified the coins issued by this previously unknown emperor. He reminded them that the Argentius coins, together with the rest of the Nantwich Hoard, currently came under his remit at the Mercia Museum. He received a brief emailed reply saying that the BBC had already commissioned a programme fronted by Crispin Simms, but perhaps Ged could do a short piece to camera describing how he felt when he realised he was looking at coins issued by a previously unknown emperor?
He didn’t linger at work that day, but went straight to the Engraver, a pub he and his colleagues sometimes frequented for after-work drinks, although these occasions seemed to have tailed off during the last couple of years. To his surprise, the pub was now stocking Nantwich Brewery guest ales. It was an old-fashioned pub with bare floors and no food, apart from crisps, pickled eggs or pork pies. The Argentius Ale was too hoppy for his taste, but he had to admit that the Emperor Porter was actually rather good – probably one of the best things to have come out of his hoax. He tried to settle down with a newspaper and his pint of porter, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that everything was running away from him. Argentius had now become public property, an asset to be exploited by commercial organisations. He felt oddly protective of him, as if, having summoned him into reality, he was now responsible for his welfare.
The BBC documentary on Argentius aired on a Wednesday evening, highlighted by the broadsheets as a ‘Pick of the Week’. Ged squirmed at his own brief cameo. Did his voice really sound like that? His hair and beard looked the texture and colour of a mammoth’s, especially when compared to Crispin Simms’s glossy sable locks. His mood became more despondent as Simms delivered a facile explanation of the Third-Century Crisis whilst gesticulating around Nantwich town centre. Ged shouted ‘Wanker!’ at the screen a few times, but it didn’t lift his mood.
The Director had arranged a publicity event at the museum the following Friday. There would be a drinks reception – paid for by Tilley’s Metal Recycling, the same company that had sponsored the display – for the detectorist who’d found the hoard, plus a range of local dignitaries, museum staff and volunteers, and members of the Friends of Mercia Museum. The prospect of having to stand and make small talk with the mayor, whilst drinking indifferent prosecco, wasn’t one that appealed to him. It appealed to him even less when the Director positively bounced into Ged’s office on Tuesday.
‘Gerard, you’ll never guess who I’ve managed to get to attend our little soiree on Friday! Crispin Simms has agreed to come up from London to give a short introductory talk on the Nantwich Hoard and the significance of the Argentius coins. Yes, I know it’s going to cost us a few bob – he’s asking for a fee, and I’ve arranged to put him up at the Churchill on Friday night – but I think it’s well worth every penny. He says he’ll bring some copies of his latest book and do some book signing as well. I’ve invited the Mercia Argus and the radio station, and I reckon that now we’ve got Simms we can persuade the BBC Midlands News team to come down too. It all helps to generate more publicity, and it’ll be a great opportunity for you to meet someone like him.’
Jesus Christ. That was all he bloody needed.
‘I already know him, actually. We were both postgraduates at UCL. He never actually finished his doctorate, though.’
‘Splendid! You’ll be able to show him round, then, put him at his ease. By the way, make sure you smarten yourself up for Friday. Get a haircut and some decent clothes – you’re not on bloody Time Team, there’s no call to look like some kind of yokel.’
It was a quarter to seven on Friday evening. The collar of Ged’s new shirt felt too tight; he hadn’t worn a tie for years. His tie, one he’d bought years ago at the British Museum, featured little Spartan warriors on a dark blue background. It was either that or his old rugby club tie from university. His best trousers felt a bit tight round the waist; he reflected that it had probably been a while since he’d last attended a wedding or a funeral. The people he knew didn’t tend to get married; perhaps they didn’t die, either.
The museum’s Sculpture Hall echoed to the clink of glasses and overenthusiastic greetings. A low podium had been set up at one end in front of a large screen, which was flanked by banners emblazoned with the sponsor’s logo – a series of cogs in varying shades of green. Argentius-themed balloons were arranged in tasteful clumps. Waiters glided between eighteenth-century marble statues of Artemis and Apollo, proffering canapés. The Director had brought in outside caterers, so the food was a lot classier than what they usually got at public events – smoked salmon and caviar blinis rather than a dish of olives and some mushroom vol-au-vents. He was debating whether to grab a drink – he’d already had a snifter of Jameson’s before coming out, to fortify himself – when Rachel walked up to him with a glass of prosecco in each hand. She was wearing an elegant green evening dress, very different from the jeans and oversized jumpers she usually wore at work. There was a red blob in each glass, which on closer inspection turned out to be a raspberry.
‘Hey, I brought you a drink. You’re looking pretty smart – nice haircut.’
‘Yes, I even splashed out on a beard trim too. You scrub up pretty well yourself – that’s a beautiful dress.’
‘It’s actually the dress I got married in. It seemed a shame to waste it.’
‘I’m sorry, Rachel, this sounds awful – we’ve worked together for five years and I didn’t even know you were married.’
‘I’m not, any more, but I still like the dress. Anyway, what’s Sadim got planned for tonight, then?’
‘Well, that prize wanker Crispin Simms is supposed to be giving a little talk on our hoard—’
‘—and our emperor,’ added Rachel.
‘Then we’re all supposed to fawn over him, buy his bloody book and take a selfie with him.’
Rachel started frantically signalling at him with her eyebrows. He turned round to see the Director heading towards him, with Crispin Simms in tow. Simms seemed to have gone for a louche Bohemian look – he was wearing a cravat and a velvet jacket that Ged would have described as British Racing Green.
‘I believe you two already know each other, old university chums and all that. I’ll leave you to catch up for a couple of minutes – but Crispin, don’t forget, you’re on in five.’
Ged looked round for Rachel, but she’d disappeared. It looked like he was stuck with Simms on his own. His glass had mysteriously emptied, so he grabbed another drink off a passing waiter.
‘Hello… Ged, isn’t it? Like your Director said, I think we were at university together.’
‘Yes, that’s right. I’m the Ged that used to help you translate your Latin inscriptions.’
‘Yes, well… some of us have come a long way since then. I had no idea you were working here – have you been here long?’
‘I’ve been here sixteen years, but given that I was interviewed for your BBC programme on the Nantwich Hoard, I’d assumed you already knew where I worked.’
‘Oh, I leave all that stuff to the researchers. I just concentrate on delivering the script to camera; the producer puts it all together afterwards. To be honest, I don’t find coins terribly… sexy, you know? It was a tad difficult spinning an hour’s show out of pretty thin content – I mean, these coins aren’t even real silver, are they? But I have to say I was still pretty pleased with the result. Everyone loves the idea of a new Brit on the imperial throne. I imagine you’ve probably seen the article I wrote for the Times on this Argentius chap.’
‘Yes, I read it. It wasn’t very accurate, but then you always were a bit sloppy with your research.’
‘Ooh, that sounds like a hint of sour grapes there, Ged. You always did have a bit of a chip on your shoulder, working-class hero and all that. But it’s all open to speculation, isn’t it, spinning a yarn out of a few bits of metal? I mean, we know nothing about this man apart from those coins. I’ll let you into a little secret, though. I’ve just signed a contract to write a book on British emperors. I’m thinking of calling it When Britain Ruled Europe. I could even offer your services to my publisher as a fact checker, if you’d like the chance to earn a few bob.’
Ged polished off his prosecco, took a deep breath and decided it was time to put this patronising shit in his place. He leaned towards Crispin Simms conspiratorially, and lowered his voice.
‘Well, I’ll let you into a bit of a secret too. What would you say if I told you I’d made all those coins myself?’
‘I’d tell you not to be ridiculous. I’d also say that it’s amazing what some people will do just to get a bit of attention. Now, if you don’t mind, I haven’t got time for this nonsense. I’ve got a speech to make, in case you’ve forgotten.’
The Director mounted the podium, tapped his glass with a fork and called for silence.
‘Welcome, everyone. Thank you for coming down to the museum tonight. We’re here to celebrate the Nantwich Hoard and its finder, Gary Lockhart’ – Gary, seated on the podium, waved uncertainly at the crowd – ‘and to look at the significance of Gary’s find for our understanding of the Roman occupation of Britain. First, it gives me great pleasure to introduce one of the BBC’s most popular history presenters, Crispin Simms, the foremost expert in this field, who’s going to give us a brief introduction to the hoard and its historical importance.’
Crispin Simms took the microphone to enthusiastic applause, especially from the Museum Friends, who were all stood together on one side of the room.
‘Hello, everyone. It’s great to see so many people interested in the history of Roman Britain. This year, as you all know, has seen a major new archaeological discovery – probably the most significant within the last ten years – leading to the identification of a previously unknown British emperor’ – there was a ripple of applause – ‘from the third century AD. I give you – the Emperor Argentius Verus!’ The screen behind him suddenly flickered into life, revealing a giant version of the Argentius portrait from the museum’s display.
‘This summer, three coins issued by this emperor have come to light. Two are from the Nantwich Hoard, which you can see in the excellent display upstairs in this very building, and the other one, from a newly discovered Roman villa in Wiltshire, will shortly be going on display at Reading Museum.’
Looking back at this moment, Ged could never exactly pinpoint why he had done what he did. Was it a sense of frustration at the stagnation of his career – the feeling that everyone else seemed to be going places, when the highlight of his week was usually just trying a new beer? Perhaps it was the alcohol, or an angry reaction to being patronised by a preening fop who pretended to knowledge he didn’t have? He was certain, though, that he wouldn’t have done it if Simms hadn’t been there. He was seized by the desire to make the man look like an idiot in front of his adoring fans. Ged stepped into the empty space right in front of the podium, and turned to face the guests. He had to shout to make himself heard in such a high-ceilinged room.
‘Actually, Mr Simms here doesn’t know the full extent of the find. There are more than three coins – I’ve got another one here.’
He fished the fourth coin out of his pocket and held it up. Gripped between his chunky fingers it looked tiny. A murmur of interest began to go round the crowd.
Crispin Simms tried to brazen it out, as if Ged’s intervention were planned.
‘Now that’s fantastic news! And what a treat for our guests here tonight! Everyone, this is my good friend Ged Wolski; we go way back to university days. So don’t keep us in suspense, Ged, where did this latest coin turn up? Has the Nantwich Hoard thrown up another historical treasure?’
‘It came from the same place as all the others – my garage. I made it myself.’
The room suddenly livened up; the evening had just become much more fascinating. There was a buzz of excited conversation. The television cameraman was now filming the exchange between Ged and Simms.
‘Well, Ged, I think you’ve probably had a few too many glasses of bubbly, but if you insist on pursuing this absurd suggestion – just supposing you did make these coins yourself, how do you account for the find of another coin issued by the Emperor Argentius, all the way down in Wiltshire?’
‘Quite easily. I planted it myself when the site director invited me to visit her training dig. You can ask her, if you want. Her name’s Chris Cox – she’s a professor at Reading University. She’ll confirm that I visited the site to look at the mosaic shortly before one of her students found that coin.’
At that point the Director walked over and grabbed the microphone off Crispin Simms, glaring at Ged like a basilisk. He motioned to the cameraman to stop filming, drawing his finger across his throat.
‘Thank you, Gerard – Gerard Wolski is our Keeper of Coins at the museum, by the way, a very valued colleague. In fact, he’s the man who first identified the Argentius coins. Thank you, gentlemen, for trying to add a bit of amusement to our proceedings tonight, but it’s time we got back to the serious matter in hand. Remember that this evening is intended as a celebration of the fruitful collaboration between museum professionals, our very generous sponsors, our superb army of volunteers, and members of the public like Gary here. Crispin, please continue with your introduction.’
Simms didn’t get a chance to continue, though, because now Gary Lockhart had stood up and walked to the front of the podium.
‘Hang on a minute, are you trying to claim that some of those coins I found are forgeries? No way – those coins had been in the ground for seventeen centuries.’ He started jabbing his finger towards Ged. ‘Or are you saying that you’ve been tampering with my find, or nicking coins from it? I did everything by the book, followed all the guidelines, reported it immediately to the Finds Officer. I didn’t keep a single sodding coin for myself, even though it would have been the easiest thing in the world. I think I deserve a proper explanation of what’s been going on here.’
The Managing Director of Tilley’s Metal Recycling was also starting to look decidedly twitchy. Ged got the impression that he’d want some reassurances from the Director before sponsoring any more events at the Museum. Ged seized the opportunity caused by Gary’s outburst to make another intervention.
‘None of you even thought to question the guy’s name, did you? Look at it, up there on that screen. Argentius Verus. Do you know what that means in Latin? After all, most of you lot are old enough to have studied Latin at school.’ He gestured towards the group of Museum Friends. ‘Well, I’ll tell you what it means. It means “true silver”. It’s a joke.’ He picked up a cake fork and brandished it. ‘The point is that these coins contain about as much silver as this cutlery.’
‘Actually,’ said the Director, ‘those cake forks are solid silver. We got them on loan from the Churchill.’
Ged was suddenly aware of the silence in the huge room. His eyes were beginning to stream and he was starting to regret making a scene. He had no idea how to get out of this situation.
Rachel came to his rescue. He felt a light touch on his arm as she led him out of the hall, his sweaty fingers still clutching the fourth coin. The crowd parted to let them through, but he couldn’t bear to look at anyone. Rachel led him out into the museum lobby, her heels clacking across the Victorian tiled floor. She sat him down on a bench near the door.
‘Ged, what’s the matter? You’re not pissed, are you?’
‘I’ve had a couple of drinks, but I wouldn’t say I was pissed.’
‘Be honest with me, now. Were you telling the truth out there?’
‘Yes, I’m afraid I was. Argentius was my invention. It was wrong of me to deceive you, of all people, but you were so thrilled when I showed you those coins I didn’t have the heart to tell you the truth. I’ll quite understand if you don’t want to work with me any more – that’s if I even still have a job.’
Rachel began to shake. Ged was mortified at the thought that he’d upset her so much – she was his only real friend at work, the only person he could have a proper laugh with. Then he realised that she was shaking because she was laughing.
‘I think it’s absolutely brilliant. That Crispin Simms is such a slimy twat – he’d already tried to chat me up, that’s why I made myself scarce when the Director brought him over to see you. And the look on Sadim’s face when you said you’d made those coins was absolutely priceless – it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me at work. Come on, I think what you need is a pint of Emperor Porter – if they’ll let us in the Engraver looking so overdressed.’
That weekend, Ged felt as if he was living someone else’s life – as if his own life were on hold, like a frozen ready meal waiting to be thawed out. His creation had proved far more successful than he had dared hope, but he had clearly underestimated how much the public had enjoyed the idea of a ‘British emperor’, let alone how much the Museum had been making off the extra merchandise sales. He kept rehearsing in his mind what he would say to the Director when he was called in on Monday morning. In his fantasy meetings he offered to invite the Director to visit his garage so he could show him how he’d made the coins. He considered trying to make one with the Director’s head on, wearing a radiate crown. Or maybe he could argue that his hoax had been for intellectual purposes, to raise public awareness of all the forgeries out there in the art and antiquities trade?
In real life, the meeting didn’t go like any of the versions he’d rehearsed. The Director was not alone in his office: Marcus, the Deputy Director, was there too. Ged had worked with Marcus for years; he’d used to get on with him quite well, but since his elevation to the second-to-top job he’d become increasingly pompous.
‘I’m sure you can appreciate why we’ve called you in this morning, Mr Wolski. We have considered letting you go, but Marcus here speaks very well of you and says that this is the only blot on your sixteen years of service to this museum – though frankly, as far as I’m concerned, staying in the same institution for sixteen years signals a distinct lack of ambition. So, we are officially informing you that you are now on a formal written warning for bringing the organisation into disrepute through those absurd claims that you made at a public event. I’ve spent all weekend trying to smooth things over with Gary Lockhart and Mike Tilley; I had to tell them a cock-and-bull story about your blood sugar being out of kilter. But you will still be expected to apologise to them both in person – particularly Mr Lockhart, who is most concerned about the doubts you cast on the integrity of his hoard.
‘I must emphasise what a serious breach of discipline this is. If there are any further problems then you will be dismissed without notice and without pay in lieu of notice. While we’re on the subject of pay, you should be aware that I will shortly be announcing a full staffing restructure. As your job title will be changed…’ (he looked down at some papers on his desk) ‘… to Senior Curator and Documentation Officer, you will of course be moving onto one of our new contracts.’
‘But that means I’ll be losing five grand a year!’
‘Well, looking on the bright side, you’ll be paying less tax, won’t you? Sadly, public bodies like ourselves are no longer in a position to pay the kind of inflated salary that you have been fortunate to receive for the last few years. I should also say that as long as you are prepared to hand over the other coin that you stole from Mr Lockhart’s find, we will not be pressing charges. We cannot afford any more negative publicity.’
Ged couldn’t be bothered to fight any more. He placed the coin on the Director’s desk. Sod it. If nobody was prepared to believe him, if nobody was prepared to accept that he’d been telling the truth, then let the lie live on. Let Argentius live on, and let him take his place on the Wikipedia list of third-century British usurpers.
For more short stories, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.