Coin Relief – Issue Thirteen

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.

Miliarensis of Constantius II c.AD 350-355, of the same type as the first Roman coin recorded on the PAS database (British Museum collections BM: B3939, copyright: The British Museum).

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.

Sestertius(?) of unclear type, c.AD 41-260. Obverse and reverse types are illegible but it is possibly mint of Rome. Record ID is NLM108 (Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY).

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.

Denarius of Julia Soaemias, c.AD 218-222. Record ID is LVPL50 (copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY). 

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.

Origins of Greek and Roman Provincial coins recorded through the PAS (copyright: Andrew Brown).

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.

Distribution and heat map of British potins (left) and Siculo-Punic bronze coinage (right) recorded through the PAS (as of 2019). Note the concentration in both examples in the south east and especially Kent (copyright: Andrew Brown).

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.

Follis of Heraclius, c.AD 629-631. Record ID is BERK-A366F7 (copyright: Oxfordshire County Council, License: CC-BY).

Some records!

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!

Copper alloy Barbarous radiate c.AD 275-285. Record ID is DUR-0CE268 (copyright: Durham County Council, License: CC-BY).

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.

Double sestertius of Trajan Decius c.AD 249-251. Record ID is SUR-A56AE5 (copyright: Surrey County Council, Licence: CC-BY).

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 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.

The heaviest Roman coin on the PAS database – a sestertius of Antoninus Pius. Record ID is SUSS-7DFC31 (copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, Licence: CC-BY).

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.

Drachm of Nahapana c.AD 119-124. Record ID is DENO-1080E2 (copyright: Derby Museums Trust, License: CC-BY).

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).

Some statistics

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.

Map of Roman coinage in England (excluding Welsh IARCW data) by parish with more than 20 coins. The heatmap beneath demonstrates the concentrations of recorded material. Note that these are also the areas where it is easier to recover within the modern landscape so there may be biases in this regard (copyright: Andrew Brown).

Thank you!

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!

Making History

PAS reaches 1.5 million milestone!

The 1.5 millionth archaeological object discovered by the public has been recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database this week. The find – a medieval papal bulla – is the latest in a long line of objects recorded that are helping to transform our understanding of life through time on the British Isles.

The British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) was first set up in 1997 so that archaeological objects found by the public can be recorded to help advance our knowledge of past. All the discoveries on the PAS database since its inception 23 years ago have been made by members of the public. Most of them are found buried in the ground by metal detectorists, but people also make discoveries whilst gardening, carrying out building renovations or simply taking a walk.

Medieval papal bulla (seal) of Pope Innocent IV, dating to 25th June 1243 – 7th December 1254. Discovered in Shropshire and recorded by Finds Liaison Officer Peter Reavill, this is the object that took us over the 1.5 million mark. Record ID is HESH-6359C4 (Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, Licence: CC-BY).

Thanks to the public’s efforts, including those made through responsible metal-detecting, our understanding of past communities living in Britain over thousands of years has radically improved. Many individual finds have transformed what we know almost overnight and have become some of the most famous historical objects in the UK, such as the gold treasures of the Staffordshire Hoard. A number of discoveries are so important to the history of the life in Britain that they have been acquired or displayed by museums for the public to enjoy. But all the information recorded on the PAS database is freely available to anyone, and is used by students, scholars, researchers and the public alike.

To celebrate this important milestone, the British Museum with BBC History Magazine today also reveal 10 discoveries by the public and recorded on the PAS which experts have judged to have most transformed our knowledge of the past. These include a silver-gilt badge in the shape of a Boar found near the site of King Richard III’s death in battle, and the discovery of thousands of Roman ‘grots’ – worn-down coins – which has reshaped our understanding of Roman Britain. The full list can be seen in this month’s edition of BBC History magazine.

The silver-gilt livery badge in the shape of a boar – the emblem of Richard III. Record ID is LEIC-A6C834 (Copyright: Leicestershire County Council, Licence: CC-BY).

There is a large diversity amongst the 1.5 million discoveries. They range in size from vast coin hoards – the biggest was the Frome Hoard of 52,500 coins – to one-of-a-kind single pieces such as the 3,500-year-old Ringlemere Cup. The oldest items include prehistoric-worked flint from 700,000 years ago; the youngest include 20th-century military badges. Recorded finds include arrowheads, axes, beads, brooches, buckles, coins, combs, finger-rings, gaming pieces, knives, sculpture, spindle whorls, tokens and vervels.

A small selection of the 1.5 million objects recorded onto the PAS database. There’s something from every county in this picture – see if you can recognise any!

Every single one adds an important piece to the jigsaw puzzle of the past so we encourage you to report your finds if you do discover something – you are helping to transform our understanding of the past. You can find your nearest Finds Liaison Officer on our contacts page. If you find something, let them know! If you are interested in what has been discovered in your area, check out the County Pages or have a look at this database search and use the filters on the right hand side. Happy exploring!