Counterfeits, clippings and copies in Derbyshire

Derbyshire appears to have been a hotbed of coin counterfeiting in the past. Several counterfeit Roman denarii and 17th century half crowns and shillings have been discovered in the county and recorded with the PAS. Counterfeits were silver plated (e.g. DENO-DAAFF0), or made from base silver and disguised with a silver wash (e.g. PUBLIC-F070C6). They can be very high quality copies that would have looked genuine and are now only recognisable because of damage to the coins revealing the copper alloy core  (e.g. DENO-9B79DE).

Silver plated contemporary copy of a Roman denarius of Julia Domna.
Silver plated contemporary copy of a Roman denarius of Julia Domna from Wormhill (DENO-DAAFF0). Copyright: Derby Museums Trust. Licence: CC BY
Silver plated contemporary copy of a Roman denarius of Julia Domna
Base silver contemporary copy of a Roman denarius of Julia Domna from near Catton (PUBLIC-F070C6). Copyright: Roger Thomas. Licence: CC BY
Silver plated half crown of Charles I.
Silver plated half crown of Charles I from Wormhill (DENO-9B79DE). Copyright: Derby Museums Trust. Licence: CC BY

Later Roman coins were also copied, but not necessarily for malicious reasons. In AD 260, Britain, Gaul and Spain broke away from the rest of the Roman Empire, forming an independent Gallic Empire. The Gallic Emperors minted their own coins (based on radiates minted by the central Roman Empire) in Trier in large quantities, many of which are found in Britain. When the Gallic Empire was reabsorbed by the central Roman Empire in AD 274, coin minting in Trier ceased. The mints in Rome were not used to minting coins for Britain, so there was a shortage of radiates in Britain. The inhabitants of Britain had grown used to a monetary economy, so people began to make their own copies of radiates (known as barbarous radiates) out of old Roman sestertii and other pieces of scrap copper alloy. One of the most well known coin hoards from Derbyshire is the Amber Valley Hoard (DENO-A6AE06) which contains 3631 radiates, all but four of which are barbarous radiates. The barbarous radiates in the hoard are very crude; clearly not meant to fool anyone.

The Amber Valley Coin Hoard.
The Amber Valley Coin Hoard. Copyright: Derby Museums Trust. Licence: CC BY

It was a common but illegal practice to clip the edges of silver coins in order to melt the silver down and use it for other things including counterfeiting coins. Until 1662, most coins were struck or hammered from irregularly shaped pieces of metal, so it was easy to get away with this crime.

Counterfeiting and clipping was a big problem for the authorities who made various attempts to prevent it. During the Roman Republic, some denarii were minted with serrated edges (e.g. DENO-C8C497), a feature thought to discourage counterfeiting. They were only short-lived so they were clearly not successful.

Roman Republican silver denarius serratus of L. Papius, from Holymoorside and Walton.
Roman Republican silver denarius serratus of L. Papius, from Holymoorside and Walton (DENO-C8C497). Copyright: Derby Museums Trust. Licence: CC BY

During the medieval period, the change from short cross to long cross coinage in 1247 was probably intended to prevent clipping. Coin clipping and counterfeiting was a crime punishable by death. In spite of these measures, coin clipping and counterfeiting continued and was particularly common during the English Civil War when counterfeiters thought that they were more likely to get away with it. Several hoards of clippings from that period have been discovered in Derbyshire. One of these was found in Alderwasley (DENO-060EAA). The video below is from a Blue Peter episode. Skip to 5:25 to see the finders talking about their discovery.

Derby also has a connection to coin counterfeiting. Noah Bullock set up a business on a boat on the River Derwent, where he clipped and counterfeited coins. He was arrested and only escaped the hangman’s noose because he knew the magistrate. The Noah’s Ark pub in Derby is named after him.

Many of the coins mentioned in the article are currently on display in Derbyshire Unearthed: Coins and Coin Hoards, an exhibition of Treasure and PAS finds at Derby Museum and Art Gallery.

Meet the FLO: Alastair

Alastair Willis, FLO for Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire
Alastair Willis, FLO for Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. Copyright: Alastair Willis. License: All Rights Reserved.

Tell us about yourself.

I have been the Finds Liaison Officer for Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire since May 2015. I started out as a PAS volunteer in Wiltshire before getting two Headley Trust funded PAS internships, firstly in Wiltshire and Hampshire, and then in Lincolnshire. I also volunteered in the Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum.

What does your role involve?

As FLO, I am responsible for identifying and recording archaeological objects found by members of the public in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. I also visit metal detecting club meetings, attend finds days and other outreach events at museums, and deal with Treasure finds.

What area of history/archaeology are you most interested in?

I studied Ancient History and Archaeology at University and then did a Master’s degree in Egyptology, so my specialism used to be the relations between Egypt and the Aegean in the Late Bronze Age, Having moved into British archaeology, I am most interested in the Roman period, particularly Roman coins, but I really enjoy seeing objects from other periods as well, especially the Iron Age.

Why did you start working for the PAS?

The PAS really attracted me because FLOs and volunteers get the opportunity to see and handle objects from all periods of human history. The PAS’s goal to record objects found by members of the public and make them accessible to both researchers and the public really appealed to me. I think the preservation of our heritage is hugely important and requires the cooperation between many different parties including archaeologists, museums, metal detectorists, landowners and other members of the public.

What do you enjoy most about working for the PAS?

I get to work with and learn about such a wide range of objects, many of which have only just been discovered.

What is the most exciting find from Derbyshire you have recorded so far?

This stone head (DENO-B52638) potentially dates to the Iron Age, but it is possible that it is much more recent.

Stone head possibly dating to the Iron Age
Stone head possibly dating to the Iron Age (DENO-B52638). Copyright: Derby City Council. License: CC-BY

What is your favourite find from Derbyshire that has been recorded on the PAS database and why?

I think the Ashbourne Hoard (DENO-651C91 and DENO-64DAE1) is the one of the most fascinating finds from Derbyshire. It consists of two gold aurei of Carausius, a Roman emperor who ruled Britain and parts of Gaul between AD 286 and 293. Gold coins of Carausius are extremely rare finds. These two coins would have represented two months pay for a soldier at the time.

A gold coin called an aureus of the emperor Carausius
Gold aureus of Carausius from the Ashbourne Hoard (DENO-651C91). Copyright: Derby City Council. License: CC-BY.
A gold coin called an aureus of the emperor Carausius
Gold aureus of Carausius from the Ashbourne Hoard (DENO-64DAE1). Copyright: Derby City Council. License: CC-BY.