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2,000-year-old Celtic hoard of gold 'rainbow cups' uncovered in Germany

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In Brandenburg, a state in northeastern Germany, a volunteer archaeologist discovered an ancient stash of Celtic coins whose "value must have been immense."

The 41 gold coins were minted more than 2,000 years ago and are the first known Celtic gold treasure in Brandenburg, according to Manja Schüle, Brandenburg's Minister of Culture, in December 2021.

The coins are curved, which inspired the German name "Regenbogenschüsselchen" which is German for "rainbow cups." "In popular belief, rainbow cups were found where a rainbow touched the Earth, similar to the legend that there is a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow." "In an email to Live Science, Marjanko Pileki, a numismatist and research assistant at the Coin Cabinet of the Schloss Friedenstein Gotha Foundation in Germany, who studied the hoard, said

According to Pileki, rainbow cups "fell directly from the sky and were considered lucky charms and objects with a healing effect." Peasants were likely to find the ancient gold coins on their fields after rain, "free from dirt and shining," he said.

In 2017, Wolfgang Herkt, a volunteer archaeologist with the Brandenburg State Heritage Management and Archaeological State Museum (BLDAM), discovered the hoard near the village of Baitz. Herkt noticed something gold and shiny after obtaining permission from a landowner to search a nearby farm. "It reminded him of a small liquor bottle lid," Pileki said. "It was, however, a Celtic gold coin."

Herkt reported the discovery to the BLDAM after discovering ten more coins, bringing the hoard's total to 41 coins. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime find," Herkt said in a statement. "It's a great feeling to be able to contribute to the study of the country's history with such a discovery."

Pileki was able to date the hoard's minting to between 125 B.C. and 30 B.C. by comparing the weight and size of the coins to those of other ancient rainbow cups. According to Pileki, the core areas of the Celtic archaeological culture of La Tène (circa 450 B.C. to the Roman conquest in the first century B.C.) occupied what is now England, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, southern Germany, and the Czech Republic at the time. "We find a lot of rainbow cups of this type in southern Germany," he said.

However, because Celts did not live in Brandenburg, the discovery implies that Iron Age Europe had extensive trade networks.

What exactly was in the hoard?

19 of the 41 gold coins are staters, with a diameter of 0.7 inches (2 centimetres) and an average weight of 0.2 ounces (7.3 grammes), and 22 are 1/4 staters, with a diameter of 0.5 inches (1.4 cm) and an average weight of 0.06 ounces (1.8 g). Pileki, who is also a doctoral candidate in the archaeology of coinage, money, and the economy in Antiquity at Goethe University in Frankfurt, described the entire stash as "plain rainbow cups."

Because the coins in the stash are similar, he believes the hoard was deposited all at once. However, it's unclear how this collection — the second largest hoard of "plain" rainbow cups of this type ever discovered — wound up in Brandenburg.

"It is unusual to find gold in Brandenburg, but no one expected it to be 'Celtic' gold of all things," Pileki explained. "This discovery broadens the distribution area of these coin types once more, and we'll try to figure out what it might tell us that we didn't know or thought we knew."