In this issue, Dr. Andrew Brown takes a break from emperors to celebrate the recent PAS milestone by looking at where it all began with coin recording…
New beginnings and records!
As many of you will be aware, the PAS hit a milestone recently with the announcement of the 1.5 millionth object recorded through the Scheme! Sadly, this wasn’t a coin(!), but nevertheless an interesting Papal bulla of Innocent IV (AD 1243-1254) that can be seen on the database here. In light of this achievement and the collaborative effort it represents between finds, volunteers, interns, museums, FLOs and the PAS, I was curious to see where it all began for the Roman coinage and some of the “records” that have emerged over the last two decades of the Scheme’s existence.
Where it all began…
The very first Roman coin on the PAS was a silver miliarensis of Constantius II (AD 323-361) recorded from Kent on the 12th May 1998 by Richard Hobbs (now the Weston Curator of Roman Britain at the British Museum). Although the record lacks an image (it was created prior to the Scheme having a centralised database), it is identified as being of the same dies as an example in the British Museum collection and so we have a good idea of what the coin is. See the original record here.
The first Roman coin recorded with an image is from a few days later, the 27th May 1998. This time, a horribly worn probable sestertius from Wakefield (Yorkshire) with a large piercing evident on the line drawing that accompanies the record! Remarkably typical for a large proportion of Roman coins we see every year reported through the Scheme, especially the early bronze coinage, which very regularly is poorly preserved to the point where identifying features are now lost. One of the few PAS examples with a drawing though, I suspect! See the full record here.
From the north west though, we see the first Roman coin record with a photograph – a denarius of Julia Soaemias, the mother of Elagabalus, recorded on the 10th June 1998. It seems to belong to a small group of Severan denarii reported to the PAS from the area of Kendall, Cumbria, which includes a much rarer coin of Julia Aquilia Severa, the second wife of the emperor Elagabalus – there appear to be only three other examples of her coinage on the database to date. See the full record here.
Oldest to newest
It is quite surprising that a search of the database reveals over 25 coins that were issued prior to 300 BC! Bearing in mind that Iron Age coinage does not really appear in Britain prior to the 2nd century BC, these are something of an anomaly. The majority of these early coins are Mediterranean types associated with the various Greek and North African city-states that emerged by the mid-1st millennium BC, but how and why they appear in Britain is a subject for discussion. Many of the genuine coins recorded are likely to be more recent losses from antiquarian or military activity, particularly since the 18th century, rather than genuine ancient losses that were circulating around the time they were struck. Others are clearly more modern copies and souvenirs of travels to the Mediterranean region. Distinguishing what is a genuine ancient loss in this regard is highly problematic, despite the range of types seen from around the Mediterranean region.
For some of these coin types there is increasing evidence that they could have reached Britain in antiquity, albeit some time after they were struck. The Siculo-Punic coinages of Sicily and North Africa for example, of which here are almost 30 PAS examples, have a quite similar pattern of distribution in Britain to the earliest cast bronze potins of the British Iron Age, which may suggest they could have been associated with various mechanisms of trade etc. over a long period of time that brought them to Britain.
There are examples that do appear to be genuine losses in Britain though and in recent years these have included coins from the Greek city-state of Massalia (Marseilles) (below left, full record here) and a wonderful drachm of Alexander III (“The Great”) found in Berkshire in 2019 wrapped in a lead sheet (below centre, full record here). Could it have a votive element or perhaps it circulated to Britain amongst other later silver coinage? There is extensive British coinage at the end of the Iron Age, which I will not go in to detail about here as this deserves proper treatment in its own right. Somewhat surprisingly however, the earliest Roman coin is a Republican bronze semuncia from Kent reported in 2019 that was issued earlier than many of the more than 46,000 Iron Age coins on the PAS (below right, full record here). Its findspot and preservation suggest it could well be a genuine ancient loss from a time when Britain was not integrated with the Roman world and from a period when we would not expect to see Roman silver in any volume let alone bronze coinage.
In contrast to the earliest ancient coins, the latest ones are harder to classify or quantify. We have seen in previous blogs that Roman coinage appears in Britain until at least the 5th century AD, but there are also some examples issued in the Mediterranean that reach British shores at a much later date. Gold continues into the post-Roman period, amongst the latest examples of official gold on the PAS being a semisses of Justin II from Gloucestershire (below left, full record here). Unofficial coinages like the example of Julius Nepos from the Isle of Wight also begin to appear more regularly (below right, full record here).
Increasing examples of Byzantine bronze coins have also been recorded through the PAS. Although these have in the past been interpreted as modern losses, their recovery on sites with known contemporary archaeology and their distribution within Britain is instead pointing to some of these coins being genuine ancient losses. Sam Moorhead has done much work on these coins and is currently updating their number and distribution nationally.
Out of curiosity I wondered what “records” were contained within our database records. By that, I mean those coins that hold the record on the PAS database for being, for example, the biggest or smallest seen! This is by no means comprehensive but it does give all of you reading this a challenge to have a search and see what else you can find (or indeed other examples that might knock the ones listed below off their perches!).
The smallest Roman coins on the PAS measure as little as c.5mm in diameter and are mostly contemporary copies of late-3rd and 4th century date, or chopped up nummi of Magnentius and Decentius. Examples that can be identified to proper types include the coin below from County Durham which measures just 6mm in diameter!
In contrast, some of the early bronze Roman coins can get as big as almost 40mm in diameter. The largest I can find that can be securely identified to type and scale being this double sestertius of Trajan Decius – a whopping 37.96mm in diameter compared to the tiny radiate above.
Although this may seem a slightly unhelpful comparison, it really does demonstrate the range of material that is found and recorded by FLOs, their interns, volunteer and finders on a regular basis. The material is by no means uniform or even in some cases remotely comparable, which makes the job of identifying what you have often all the more difficult. To give an idea of the scale we are talking about in the two coins above, the figure below illustrates the two coins at the same scale and the difference is quite incredible!
While the smallest coins recorded on the PAS can weigh fractions of a gram (the radiate above weighs just 0.4g), the largest early bronze coins can be over 30g. The largest I can find with an image on the database so far is a sestertius of Antoninus Pius from West Sussex which at 32.87g is 82 times heavier than the little radiate! Of course, these both circulated at slightly different points during the Roman period, but the difference is huge.
One of the most travelled coins on the database is perhaps the silver drachm of one of the “western satraps”, the Kshaharata King Nahapana dating to c.AD 119-124. It’s origin in the Saurashtra Peninsula of Western India means that it has travelled several thousand miles to reach Britain. Silver coinage from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan is also recorded through the PAS, and there are currently at least 22 identified Indo-Greek, Indo-Scythian, Indo-Parthian, Western Satrap, Kushan, and Kushanshah coins on the database. It is still unclear whether any (or which) of these coins are ancient losses or the result of modern colonial activity.
The commonest emperor represented within the PAS data is Constantine I (AD 306-337) with over 18,500 records attributed to him (example below left). However, given coinage was issued in his name for over 30 years, this is perhaps a little misleading. In fact, the most prolific emperor within the PAS data is probably Claudius II (AD 268-270), for which there are over 6100 records for the coinage issued during the two years of his reign (example below centre). In contrast, one of the rarest is Nigrinian (AD 283-285), for whom there is just one PAS coin (below right).
In a previous blog post we looked at the current state of play in terms of the database and the Roman coinage, but it might be worth a quick recap here just to tie together the milestone of 1.5 million objects recorded through the PAS. Of this number, there are currently 324,329 Roman coins within 293,196 database records. Nummi are the most commonly seen denomination, with over 165,000 examples, of which 44,039 alone belong to Reece Period 17 (AD 330-348), which remains the most prolific period of coin use and loss in Britain. The mint of Trier is most common for nummi – with over 23,800 examples – the London mint currently has almost 7,000 coins attributed to it. After nummi, radiates are the next most common (almost 70,000 coins) followed by denarii (almost 16,000 examples). Statistically, you are more likely to see Roman coins in the east of England (Suffolk, Norfolk, Lincolnshire), the south west (Wiltshire and Hampshire), and Yorkshire, than you are the Midlands, the far south west (Cornwall and Devon) and the north west.
The work we are able to do on ancient coinage in Britain has been affected hugely by the material recorded through the PAS. Coinage accounts for a third of all PAS records, and Roman coinage forms two thirds of that total. Without the ongoing support of finders willing to report their coins and the continued hard work of FLOs, their volunteers and interns to record them, we would not be able to do everything we currently do. The PAS data is dramatically changing how we view the numismatic landscape and it is only through the continued recording of material that we can continue to develop new understanding of all periods of coin use within Britain. We are fortunate to have a dataset unparalleled anywhere worldwide – and a substantial component of the 1.5 million finds currently recorded on the
PAS database. Thank you and keep doing what you do!