Stay At Home Activities: Medieval Coins

When we talk about the Medieval period, we are referring to the time from the Norman Conquest in AD 1066 to the rise of the House of Tudor in AD 1485. During this period, the standard unit of currency was the penny – not a penny as we would know it today, but a larger coin made of silver. A full penny was therefore rather valuable. If small change were needed, a penny was simply cut into halves or quarters.

The coins were made in a workshop known as a mint. Today all coins are produced by one mint; the Royal Mint in Llantrisant, Wales. Thanks to modern technology, this one mint can produce all the coins required – almost 90 million a week! However, in the Medieval period there were no machines and the process of making a coin was far more laborious. To meet the demand for coinage, there were multiple mints based all over the country. For example, during the reigns of William the Conqueror and his son William II, there were more than 70 mints operating in England.

Minting coins in the Medieval period required a strong arm! A metal disc, known as a blank, was placed between an upper and lower die. The die is what contained the image that would appear on the final coin – a different design for either side. The upper die was hit (very hard) with a hammer and the force of the blow would stamp the design from the dies onto the blank. This is why we describe Medieval coins as being “struck” or “hammered”.

The person in charge of producing coins at the mint was the moneyer. The moneyer was responsible for making sure the coins produced were of the correct weight and fineness of silver. The penalty for producing inferior coins (without the state’s permission) was severe – mutilation or in some cases execution. This was to discourage moneyers from making profit by producing underweight coins or by lowering the content of silver in each coin to make it stretch further (known as debasement). However, there were times when this was encouraged, and even official policy. For example, Henry VIII was known as “Old Copper Nose” because his coins had so little silver in them! There were several times during the Medieval period when coinage became so debased that the king was forced to reform the coinage completely.

The early coins of the Medieval period were not much different to the Anglo-Saxon coins that preceded them but eventually they developed into the classic form that is characteristic of Medieval coins: the front-facing portrait of the monarch on the obverse (“heads”) and a cross with pellets on the reverse (“tails”). In fact, some of the coins are so similar that it is difficult to tell which king is on them!

The coins have the same basic layout, shown below:

The obverse shows the portrait of the monarch, around which is writing known as the legend. The legend contains the name and titles of the monarch. The initial mark shows you where to begin when reading the legend. The legend on the reverse of the coin tells you where the coin was minted. On earlier coins, you get the name of the moneyer as well as the mint. However, in AD 1279 Edward I ruled that the names of individual moneyers would no longer appear on the coins, so coins produced after this period have the name of the city or town in which the coin was minted on them instead. The legend will either begin with CIVI (for city) or VILL (for town).

There are more than 71,000 Medieval coins recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database. You can view coins from each ruler here. Once you’ve had a look, why not download our activity sheet below and have a go at designing your own Medieval penny? You can share your results with us on Instagram by tagging @findsorguk, or on our PAS Craft Activities Board on Pinterest.

Boredom Busters!

Many of us will find ourselves at home at some point over the next couple of weeks. If you’re looking for something to stave off cabin fever, why not take a look at the PAS database? With almost 1.5 million objects recorded, there is plenty to explore! You can see what has been found in your local area by visiting the County Pages or learn more about the different object types and how to record them using our Finds Recording Guides.

Image showing a circular seal matrix engraved with a sleeping lion curled up and facing left. A circle of inverse lettering surrounds the lion. Above this image is a stamped impression of the seal.
This sleeping lion clearly hasn’t found the PAS database yet! It’s a 14th century copper alloy seal matrix, record ID SF7416. Copyright: Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service, License: CC-BY.

You can also follow our Twitter and Instagram feeds where we share objects and news on a regular basis. We’d also like to announce our new Pinterest account full of wonderful objects for you to curate into your own “virtual museum” pinboard.

Check out our new Pinterest account for more fabulous finds: pinterest.co.uk/portableantiquities.

The database is also an excellent source of inspiration for creative activities, particularly if you’ve got little ones to entertain. You can try one of our ready-made activities or create something completely your own! Either way, we’d love to see your creations! Remember to tag us on social media so we can share them with everyone!

You could create an Anglo-Saxon brooch, like this wonderful example found in Norfolk. It is made of silver and dates to AD825-850. If you look closely you can see lots of Trewhiddle-style animals intertwined with the plant motifs. Download our activity sheets below to try your hand at Anglo-Saxon brooch design! 

Early Medieval silver disc brooch from Norfolk (record ID NMS-BECE1C). Copyright: Norfolk County Council, License: CC-BY-NC-SA.

Or, if the Romans are more your thing, download our activity sheet and have a go at designing your own Roman coin. Make sure you get your best side like old Trajan here!

Gold aureus of Trajan, dated AD114-117 and minted in Rome (record ID BH-80B838). Copyright: St. Albans District Council, license: CC-BY-SA. 

PAS 15 – Finds from Buckinghamshire

This year marks 15 years of the Portable Antiquities Scheme as a national scheme. Throughout the year we’ll be celebrating finds from each county – a find a day for the whole year! Here are the finds we’ve chosen from Buckinghamshire:

Images of finds found in Buckinghamshire. Top row from left to right: a Palaeolithic flint handaxe, a Roman buckle, a pile of Iron Age gold coins. Bottom row from left to right: a copper alloy Iron Age razor blade, front and back views of a post-medieval token, an unidentified dagger-shaped object, a Roman horse head figurine.
A selection of finds from the county of Buckinghamshire. Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, Licence: CC-BY.

 

Palaeolithic hand-axe (BUC-C48B16): a flint hand-axe, worked on both faces.

Iron Age razor (BUC-58FFF8): a copper alloy Early Iron Age ‘Hallstatt’ razor.

Medieval jetton (BUC-70358C): a copper alloy Tournai jetton inscribed with ‘Ave Maria Gracia’.

Roman buckle (BH-7FCB64): a copper alloy buckle with ring and dot decoration.

Early Medieval item (BERK-9E0A55): a highly decorated silver item, possibly from a horse harness

Iron Age coin hoard (BUC-6877F8): hoard of Iron Age staters and silver units.

Roman figurine (BH-9713CC): copper alloy head fragment of a horse figurine.

 

PAS 15 – Finds from Berkshire

This year marks 15 years of the Portable Antiquities Scheme as a national scheme. Throughout the year we’ll be celebrating finds from each county – a find a day for the whole year! Here are the finds we’ve chosen from Berkshire:

 

Images of finds found in Berkshire. Top row from left to right: an Iron Age buckle, a seal matrix with a stags head on it, front and back views of a Roman coin, a dress pin with openwork decoration. Bottom row from left to right: a silver dress hook, a brooch depicting a fish, a finger ring with clasped hands decoration.
A selection of finds from the county of Berkshire. Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, Licence: CC-BY.

Iron Age strap fitting (SUR-1C54E3): a copper alloy strap fitting, possibly from a horse harness.

Medieval seal matrix (SUR-7BBE56): a copper alloy seal matrix depicting a stag’s head with cross between the antlers, which is the symbol of St. Hubert of Lieges.

Roman sestertius (BERK-FE5596): copper alloy sestertius of Trajan, with the Basilica Ulpia on the reverse.

Post-medieval dress pin (SUR-A19E13): a silver-gilt dress pin, used for pinning clothing such as veils.

Post-medieval hooked tag (BH-A61221): a silver-gilt hooked tag, used to fasten clothing.

Roman brooch (PUBLIC-D19098): a copper alloy and red enamel plate brooch depicting a fish.

Medieval silver ring (SUR-A6A0F4): a silver finger ring depicting a pair of clasped hands.

 

 

PAS 15 – Finds from Bedfordshire

This year marks 15 years of the Portable Antiquities Scheme as a national scheme. Throughout the year we’ll be celebrating finds from each county – a find a day for the whole year! Here are the finds we’ve chosen from Bedfordshire:

Image of 7 finds. Top row left to right are a seal matrix, a Roman buckle with horses on it, a gold Iron Age coin, a flint blade. Middle row: a circular medieval brooch, a Roman ring with an orange stone set into it. Bottom row: four views of a Roman pottery vessel.
A selection of finds from the county of Bedfordshire. Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, Licence: CC-BY.

Roman finger ring (BH-737CD3): a silver ring complete with intaglio depicting the Roman goddess Fortuna.

Medieval seal matrix (BH-5B8C07): a seal matrix made from lead, which reads “Simon the Knight”.

Roman/Early medieval buckle (LEIC-AE8085): a copper alloy belt buckle depicting two horses above two dolphins.

Roman vessel (BH-C0C3F7): an almost complete pottery vessel, identified as an infant’s feeding cup.

Mesolithic flint blade (BH-138112): a flint blade showing signs of retouching along both edges.

Medieval brooch (BH-457F21): a silver open-frame brooch complete with pin.

Iron Age stater (CAM-C9EF88): a gold Iron Age stater of Andoco.

 

PASt Explorers Conference Round-Up: Part Two

Welcome to Part Two of our round-up of the PASt Explorers Conference, which took place on the 18th November 2017.

Post medieval lead-alloy cloth seal
A post medieval lead-alloy “Worsted Reformed” cloth seal. The frequency and distribution of these finds attest to the large national and international market for this fabric (BH-95BF63).

Suitably refreshed after lunch and a wander round the fabulous galleries at National Museum Cardiff, we jumped straight back into the stories. This time, the story of how lead cloth seals led Stuart Elton (PAS remote volunteer) to volunteer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme and ultimately write a book on lead seals. Stuart emphasised the power of finds to turn a casual awareness of history into a desire to know more about the lives of our ancestors, who have suddenly become real through this interaction with an artefact. A feeling of obligation to record and share what he finds is what drew Stuart to the PAS, and he is a model of best practice. All finds have an accurate findspot  taken using GPS to ensure geographic validity, and each is bagged and filed with a copy of its PAS record, as well as being recorded on Stuart’s own database. So why cloth seals? Lead seals are a common find but, unlike coins, there was very little information available for them, despite the fact that they contain a wealth of information about our post medieval industry and its trading routes. And so the “Bag Seal Junkie” was born! As well as distilling all of his knowledge into a book, Stuart helps to improve the quality of lead seal data on the PAS database by reporting errors, so you see there is more than one way to volunteer for the PAS.

Roman copper alloy phalera
A Roman copper alloy phalera -or is it? (HAMP-94270F)

Next up, Steve Guy-Gibbens (PAS volunteer, Hampshire) took us on an investigative journey to uncover the story behind a Roman phalera – or is it? Phalerae are sculpted discs of gold, silver or bronze that would have been worn on the breastplate of a Roman solider during parades. They were awarded as a kind of medal for valour and often depict iconography that emphasises bravery and victory. As such, they can tell us many things, from stories of individual acts of bravery to Roman attitudes towards the military. So what about this example? The first challenge was identifying who or what it depicts. Some see a Roman goddess, others a lion. Who is right? The second puzzle that arose during Steve’s research was whether it was even a phalera at all. It is rather large compared to other examples, but it does have attachment holes suggesting it was mounted on something. There is no conclusive answer to either of these questions as yet but, as Steve found, this process of investigation and research is all part of the appeal. We can only work with the information and parallels that we have available and perhaps providing one definitive answer isn’t the key aim.  What really matters is that we record each find as fully and properly as possible so that the information is there for people to write the stories they choose to write. The PAS database leaves space for alternative interpretations and we can update records when new information comes to light. And who knows? Perhaps another example like this one will turn up to help complete the picture.

A Cromford Dollar (Spanish silver 8 Reales coin)
A Cromford Dollar – a Spanish silver 8 Reales coin counter-marked with a Cromford Mill stamp (DENO-BBE206).

From the story of a single object to using objects to tell multiple stories, Simon Nicholson (PAS volunteer, Derbyshire) took to the stage to entertain us with a selection of tales from Derbyshire and how he uses PAS finds to bring these stories alive.  Like all of the speakers today, Simon’s passion for the past was sparked by archaeological finds and the local stories they can tell. By volunteering for the PAS he has ben able to work with these finds and weave them into his local history talks, some of which we were treated to at the conference. From a notorious 17th century forger to the tough and reliable pottery that lifts the lid on an early manufacturing industry, each tale was an example of how using finds from the local area can make a subject so much more engaging. Placing it in a local recognisable context can help to bring the history alive. The best example of this is the ‘Cromford Dollar’. These were Spanish silver coins counter-marked with a trade stamp that were used by tradesmen to pay their workers at a time when few silver coins were being minted in Britain. Most local people will have heard the term ‘Cromford Dollar’ but few will have seen them before. Using examples recorded on the PAS database, Simon is able to provide some background and colour to this local story. His listeners can literally hold history in their hands. The power of objects indeed.

Coins from the Shropshire Piano Hoard
Coins from the Shropshire Piano Hoard (Image: Shropshire Museum Service)

Finally, what better story to bring the day to a close than a story that became a media sensation? Emily Freeman and Evelyn Curl (PAS volunteers, Shropshire) lifted the (piano) lid on a Treasure find that captured the interest of the whole country, and beyond. In late 2016, a piano tuner in Shropshire was carrying out a routine job on a piano that had just been donated to a local school. The keys were a bit sluggish so he lifted the to take a look and found a stash of carefully wrapped packages. On further inspection each was found to contain a cache of gold sovereigns. The coins weren’t particularly old or special but they had clearly been packed away with great care by somebody. For reasons unknown that person never retrieved them leaving us with the threads of an intriguing story. The potent combination of gold and mystery caught the public’s attention and sparked a frenzy of media interest. The team at Ludlow Museum found themselves thrust into the limelight – it certainly was not the normal PAS volunteer experience! Now that the media furore has died down, we’ve been left with an incredible story of one of the more unusual finds on the database. It’s another great example of how there is much more to an object than first meets the eye, and a suitable point on which to bring this thought-provoking conference to a close.

 

Throughout the day we heard many, many different ways in which the finds on the database have inspired people to get involved with their local history. Behind every object is a story, sometimes many. With more than 1.3 million objects (and counting) recorded on the PAS database there are endless stories waiting to be discovered. Perhaps the purpose of the database is not to tell the stories but to provide the information from which the stories can be drawn. And we’re not just talking about official academic narratives here. There is more than one way to write about the past. What matters most is that the stories produced continue to engage people with their past. The database is for everyone, after all. What stories will you discover?

PASt Explorers Conference Round-up: Part One

On Saturday 18th November we were welcomed to the National Museum Cardiff for our annual PASt Explorers conference. Battling rail replacement services, inclement weather and hordes of rugby fans, attendees arrived at the museum ready for a day of engaging and thought-provoking talks. This year the theme was ‘Telling Tales’ and we explored the multitude of stories contained within the PAS database.

We had tales of discovery and tales of inspiration; familiar tales with a new twist, and new tales that are being unlocked through PAS data. We even had tales of tales! At the heart of each were the finds themselves, and this was the key theme that emerged throughout the day. We heard about finds that had sparked a passion, finds that brought communities together, finds that challenged existing narratives and finds that captured the imagination of the whole country.

Painting titled "A reading from Homer" by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, dated 1896
A reading from Homer by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1896. (Wikimedia Commons)

We kicked things off by laying a theoretical foundation for the day as Lauren Speed (PASt Explorers) explored the nature of objects and storytelling, asking us to ponder why we find these objects so fascinating. What is their power to engage us and why is this important? Some big themes to sum up in a short space but it really comes down to the link between ourselves and our material culture. Objects are a direct and very tangible link to the past. Like people, they have a chronology, biography and life-span. They carry not just the physical marks of their past use but also the meanings and values given to them throughout their life. Storytelling is an engaging and powerful way to unlock this information as it prompts us to look beyond the empirical data and think about the people behind the objects. Who made it and why? Adding some humanity to the way we talk and write about the past is vital for engaging as many people as possible and this is what we’re all about, after all.

Late Bronze Age bronze tool and weapon hoard found in Trevethin, South Wales
The Trevethin Hoard, discovered by a local detectorist and acquired by Pontypool Museum through the Saving Treasures project (NMGW-3EA2A8).

Next up, we were treated to some examples of these ideas in practice as Dr. Rhianydd Biebrach (National Museum Wales) introduced us to the Saving Treasures; Telling Stories project. This is a 5 year Heritage Lottery Funded project that is helping local museum to acquire treasure finds for their collections and provides funding for local community archaeology projects to help people tell the stories of their local areas. Lots of examples were discussed but the story of the Trevethin Hoard probably best demonstrates the impact of the project. This is a hoard of Bronze Age axe- and spearheads found by a local detectorist. With the help of the Saving Treasures project, the hoard was acquired by Pontypool Museum where it is now on display. As well as being important archaeologically, the hoard has had a significant impact locally in an area more known for its industrial history. In fact, Bronze Age activity was previously unknown in this area and so the hoard is a source of immense local pride.

Statue of Boudica outside Westminster
Statue of Boudica looking warrior-like in her chariot outside Westminster (Paul Walter, Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-2.0)

From new local stories, we moved onto the long-established narrative of Boudica and the Iceni uprising as Natasha Harlow (PAS volunteer, Nottinghamshire) revealed some of the results of her doctoral research into personal belongings recorded on the PAS database. We have plenty of images and stories of Boudica but archaeological evidence is lacking – her ‘costly’ chariot burial has yet to be found and the finds we have don’t support the image of Boudica passed down to us by classical writers. The ‘Iceni war of independence’ has left us a trail of destruction and hoards but not the harrying with fire and sword described by Tacitus. Instead, small finds recorded on the PAS database point to continuity in settlement and material culture in Iceni territory. Densities of brooch finds suggest manufacturing and workshop sites that continue  through the revolt period, whilst the appearance of Latin text on votive items show an adoption of certain incoming beliefs mixed with old practices. What we seem to have is a story of resistance, selectivity and connectivity during the Iron Age to Roman transition. And what of Boudica herself – real-life warrior queen or an invention of Roman propaganda? For now, the answer depends on which story you prefer.

Early medieval gold visigothic tremissis
Early medieval gold Visigothic tremissis found by Dominic Shelley (CAM-13B6F3)

We rounded off the morning session with a surprising story from a field that wasn’t meant to have anything in it, as Dominic Shelley (PAS self-recorder, Cambridgeshire) showed us the find of a lifetime. After a quick scene-setting canter through the Dark Ages, we were quite aware that this sleepy corner of Cambridgeshire was pretty quiet during this period of history. Nevertheless, Dominic went out, permissions granted and detector in hand, to explore a local field and happened across an unexpected find: an early medieval gold Visigothic tremissis, minted in Spain and in very fine condition, just slightly worn. So not just unusual but hardly used. What then is the story behind this coin? It would have been worth a lot to its owner – 3 tremisses would buy you 70 litres of olive oil or 67 litres of wine, and if you stole a cow you’d be fined 2 tremisses. Is it evidence of a wealthy Visigoth living in Cambridgeshire? Probably not, but it does represent an interesting story. Somebody was bringing this coinage into the area and beyond, as shown by similar finds recorded on the PAS database. It does show us that Britain was not isolated in the 6th and 7th centuries and it is also a good example of how PAS finds are helping to change long-established ideas and stories. Previously it was believed that these coins had a purely symbolic function because they were known only from burials – money to pay the ferryman in the afterlife. Thanks to the PAS and finders recording their finds, we now have examples of these coins from non-burial contexts and can show another side of the story; that these coins were part of the economy too.

 

So a jam-packed morning! After a chance to see the fabulous tremissis in the flesh, we broke for lunch, and this is where I will pause this post. Join us next time for part 2.

New-look Finds Recording Guides go live!

Following user research carried out earlier this year, the Finds Recording Guides section of the County Pages website has been revamped to provide easier navigation and an improved user experience.

Finds Recording Guides Home Page
Improved visuals and easier navigation.

The Finds Recording Guides are technical guides aimed at helping people record objects onto the PAS database. They contain a wealth of information on how to record, including which object type to use, what to call various object parts and how to write an effective object description. You can now browse the guides in a variety of ways and even see which ones have been most recently added!

Just one of the ways in which to browse the guides.

 

We currently have 19 guides available, with many more to be added in due course, so please do check in regularly to see what’s available. The online nature of the guides means that they can be updated so they will always contain the most up-to-date information on recording practices for the PAS database.

 

One of our recently added guides – fabulous beasts!

The Finds Recording Guides are the result of months of hard work by the PASt Explorers team, with particular mention to Rob and Helen for writing them, and to Mary for conducting the user research and doing all the back-end computer wizardry to make the guides look so fantastic.

Gunpowder, treason and plot

It’s Bonfire Night tomorrow so we’ve uncovered 5 fabulous finds from the PAS database to help you remember, remember, the 5th November!

 

Silver Sixpence of James I (LEIC-0ED383)

Silver sixpence of James I, dated 1605.

Dated 1605, the year of the Gunpowder Plot, this is a particularly fine example of a James I sixpence. It has the Royal Coat of Arms on one side and the crowned bust of the almost-unfortunate King on the other. As well as the Gunpowder Plot, James I had to contend with two earlier plots against him, despite having a more moderate attitude towards Catholics than his predecessor.

 

Decade Ring (LON-F30014)

Post-medieval gold decade ring.

Although James I was reasonably tolerant towards Catholics in his early reign, recusancy – or the refusal to take part in Anglican worship – was still a punishable crime. In some cases, adherence to Catholicism resulted in the death penalty. Decade rings like this one were a discreet way for Catholics to practice their faith. The ten ‘bumps’ on the ring represent the ten prayers that make up the Rosary and were used to keep count of the number of Hail Marys said.

 

Powder Measure (HAMP2710)

Post-medieval lead-alloy powder measure

Lead-alloy powder chargers like this one were used to measure the appropriate amount of gunpowder for loading into a musket. Guy Fawkes was an experienced soldier who fought for Spain in a number of conflicts. It is thought that he gained his knowledge of gunpowder and explosives from his time as a solider and he may well have used a powder measure like this one during his service.

 

Pilgrim Badge (LON-6FABC6)

Late medieval pilgrim badge in the shape of a Catherine Wheel.

This medieval pilgrim badge is in the shape of a Catherine Wheel. According to Christian tradition, Catherine of Alexandria (later St. Catherine) was condemned to torture upon a spiked ‘breaking wheel’. However, when she touched the wheel it flew into pieces. Subsequently, such devices became known as Catherine Wheels and it is from this that the popular firework gets its name.

 

Hedgehog Belt Mount (LEIC-E45175)

Medieval belt mount in the shape of a hedgehog.

This medieval belt mount is in the shape of a hedgehog. Such mounts were used to decorate leather belts and came in a wide range of shapes and styles. The humble hedgehog might seem an odd decorative choice but they do appear in many medieval manuscripts and even on some coats of arms. And remember, if you’re having a bonfire tomorrow, don’t forget to check inside for hedgehogs before you light it!