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4.33 Grams of History

September 26, 2004

Here's an interesting true tale with a modern lesson. Once upon a time long ago, in a land now called Britain, there was an Anglo-Saxon king named Offa. No, really, King Offa. He was one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon monarchs, according to experts who weren't alive back then but still seem certain.

In 757, central Mercia was ruled by Aethelbald, who had ousted his brother Aethelstan, who had usurped his father, Aethelwulf. One day Aethelbald turned up dead. Offa volunteered to rule. That seemed to happen a lot before the days of voting. The Anglo-Saxons liked successions tidy. Tedious election campaigns were not yet a problem, and Offa pretty much controlled the supply of weapons of individual destruction.

According to historians, King Offa was a devout Christian -- except, of course, for the lying, murdering and adultery parts. For about four decades, which seemed a long time before black-and-white TV, Offa ruled much of England south of the River Humber. One way or another, Offa gained territory and influence, creating a powerful kingdom.

Not counting the immense earth wall he built to keep out the Welsh, Offa took a broader perspective of life and progress than most local rulers of the time. He knew the economic value of trade, for instance, and even instituted the concept of minting silver and gold coins that carried value and a flattering profile of the king everywhere.

Offa wanted his son to succeed him despite the lad's unpronounceable name, Ecgfrith. When Offa passed on in 796, his son became king. But only for five months. He ended up dead around Christmas, and Coenwulf became king despite obscure royal lineage. Coenwulf was a cunning fellow and became powerful too, placing his name on the coins and ruling for a quarter of a century.

On an overcast day early in the 9th century, one of Coenwulf's humble subjects was walking along the River Ivel in Bedfordshire. A coveted gold penny slipped from his purse onto the slick path and rolled into the grass. A penny was a significant sum back then.

One millennium and two centuries later, about 438,000 days of battles and pedestrians coming and going, a modern-day dog seeking a good spot to do his business was sniffing along the same river path. When the dog stopped, his owner looked down. He thought he saw something. He did. There lay the only known surviving gold coin with Coenwulf's name, 4.33 grams of history.

Next month in London that gold penny from the past is scheduled to be auctioned, probably bringing about 50 cents in interest for every day it was lost. The lesson: When your dog wants to go walking, go walking. Then, watch where he's stepping.

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