A Ptolemaic Coin from Leatherhead, Surrey

This extraordinary copper alloy coin (SUR-4EA551) was found by a walker in a nature reserve in Leatherhead, Surrey, apparently lying on the ground surface. Although heavily worn, it is identifiable as being from the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, possibly a dichalkon (1/24 drachm) or diobol of Ptolemy II (Ptolemaios II Philadelphos), minted in Alexandria and dating to 285-246 BC. The obverse depicts the diademed head of Zeus-Ammon right; the reverse shows an Eagle standing left on thunderbolt, with wings open and the letters ΛΞ in left field.

A Ptolemeic coin from Leatherhead (SUR-4EA551)

This exotic find was recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) with, as is so often the case, absolutely no archaeological context and presents us with a real mystery. On the face of it, two possible origins can be suggested; as either a modern or ancient loss. Perhaps the most likely suggestion is that it can be dismissed as a relatively modern deposition, perhaps dropped in the last century by children playing with something acquired as a souvenir from service in Egypt during wartime or the period of the country’s incorporation within the British Empire. There is however, the tenuous possibility that it may represent a contemporary import from the late British Iron Age, perhaps exposed on the ground surface by a burrowing animal or weathering. If so it may offer tantalising evidence of pre-Roman trade networks and contacts with the Mediterranean.

This idea is not quite as ridiculous a suggestion as it sounds. There are now more than 20 examples of similar Ptolemaic coins which have been recorded as finds from England and Wales on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database (www.finds.org.uk) alongside dozens of contemporary exotic coins of Helenistic, Punic, Numidian and Greek origin dating to the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC. Many of these on the PAS database have been flagged as “finds of note” – that is, finds where the recorder is sufficiently convinced of their validity as a part of the local archaeological record to mark them as significant within it. In these cases, attributes of site association, the presence of contemporary finds or the condition of the patina (which can differentiate coins originating from desert environments as opposed to British soils) can be used to suggest that the coin is not to be immediately dismissed as a modern loss.

Even so, in isolation as stray finds outside of an excavated archaeological context, these types of unusual finds can always just be written off as most likely being modern losses. The strength of the data recorded on the PAS database is however in being able to look beyond such finds in isolation to examine their wider occurrence across the country. Combined with increasing numbers of other early (pre conquest) Roman colonial and provincial imports which are being recorded (including notable examples from Surrey such as SUR-D6E275 and SUR-E28078) it is possible to suggest that at least a few of these coins represent a genuine archaeological insight into Iron Age trade. Perhaps such exotic coins, whilst not retaining exchangeable value as currency in the early British monetary economy, were regarded as curios or keepsakes by traders and travellers, occasionally making their way back into the possession of local people in this part of the country. The findspot of this example is particularly interesting from the perspective of the county’s archaeology as it lies close to the transportation corridor of the Thames, known to be a major trade route to the continent in the late Iron Age. Of course, in order to corroborate such ideas we would need examples found within a unambiguous depositional context of the period; until then all we can offer from the PAS evidence is the suggestion.

This coin is currently on display to the public at the Surrey History Centre in Woking.