Potins and the Iron Age in Surrey

Surrey is a region which during the Iron Age (c800 BC – AD 43) sat on major fault lines of tribal identity, with powerful groups such as the Atrebates (Hampshire), Regni (Sussex) and Catuvellauni (north of the Thames) variously incorporating bits of the county area into their territory as their power waxed and waned. To the east, the Cantiaci / Cantii (after whom Kent and Canterbury are named) were the major group. This region was heavily influenced by continental cultures on the periphery of the early Roman world which resulted in the Cantii producing the first coins actually made in Britain, known as potins, between the mid 2nd to the mid 1st century BC.

A flat linear potin from Surrey, SUR-BB9339 © Surrey County Council

This word “potin” is of French origin and used to describe coins cast in clay moulds from a copper alloy with a high tin content. This would have made the coins shiny and silver-coloured when new – occasionally some examples turn up which retain this colouration (e.g. SUR-BB9339) – however by the time they get dug most now have a characteristic black patina from tin oxidation. They would have been cast in strips which were then cut into separate coins and as a result often retain characteristic cut edges from the runlets which joined them together (Mack, 1975: 3). The moulds themselves were made using “master” matrices of copper alloy which were cast with the design for one side of a coin in high relief and pressed into the clay. A rare example of one of these (albeit for a different type of continental style potin) has been found a few miles west of the Surrey border in Hampshire (SUR-08FD05).

The designs of the majority of potins found in England derive ultimately from coins produced in the Greek colonial Mediterranean city of Massalia (modern Marseilles) in southern Gaul in the late 4th century BC. These coins featured a head of Apollo on the obverse and a charging bull on the reverse. They were originally imported from the continent (e.g. SUR-1FB22D) and later locally copied in the mid 2nd century BC, in the form of what are known as “Thurrock” types, which adhere closely to the original design (e.g. SUR-7FF6E7). Later forms, known as “flat linear” types, greatly simplified this design into deep abstraction, ultimately reducing the head of Apollo to a circle, with a line for the neck and crescents for the eyes and the bull to a trapezoidal arrangement of lines (e.g. SUR-1DBC1E).

We actually don’t know what these coins were called by the people who made them, or what they were worth in fiscal terms, but they are generally only found in south east England, which probably reflects the limits of the political and economic influence of the Cantii themselves. Sitting very much within this sphere of influence, Surrey now has 69 examples of these coins recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database (www.finds.org.uk) and they comprise a distinctive component of the county’s Iron Age archaeological heritage. In fact, aside from the Cantiaci heartlands of Kent, the Thames estuary and East Anglia, Surrey has produced more of them than almost anywhere else in the country. They have been found in various places, typically in areas along the chalk dip slopes of the North Downs, where contemporary settlement activity is known to have been concentrated (Bird and Bird, 1987: 142).

Distribution of finds of potins on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database from Surrey.

It is clear that the role of coins in the Iron Age was quite not as we understand them today and it is likely that potins served a range of functions from monetary transaction (perhaps in quantity by weight), to use as political tribute, maintenance of social power structures and as votive objects with a religious function (Holman, 2016: 16). Archaeologically, they are known from hoards, as isolated finds and from settlement sites, usually as residual finds with no clear context. Occasionally however they turn up in securely stratified sequences which gives us a clue to their dating and sometimes they are found deposited at the base of pits as intentional acts of sacrifice, which perhaps gives us something of an insight into their role. This is seen at several sites in Kent (Holman, 2016: 10).

At Abinger in Surrey three coins were found associated with late Iron Age grain storage pits, at least two of which clearly seemed to be placed deposits; a fourth was also found incorporated within a cremation burial. These associations are important to both understand the role of the coins and the nature of the sites, offering scope for interpretations of behaviours surrounding food storage as well as mortuary ritual. With such evidence we can begin to envision the deposition of potins forming part of a range of practice involving various different aspects of life in the settlement.

As well as occupation sites, Surrey is distinctive for having a number of intriguing, rare and very important late Iron Age / early Romano British rural shrine sites ( Wanborough, Farley Heath and Titsey) where activities included the intentional deposition of huge numbers of coins in the early 1st century AD (Bird, 2004: 151). This makes the distribution of potins particularly interesting to study across the county, as in some cases they may represent an earlier manifestation of this type of depositional activity, a century or more before the Roman invasion and on different types of sites.

No regional synthesis of the specific economic use and social role of these coins in south east England has yet been attempted. Despite this, an increasing body of site-based evidence is becoming available which may one day allow us to place these coins within a more refined context of Iron Age culture, economy and belief. As a part of this process, data recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme will doubtless play a huge role in answering some of these questions.

Bird, D and Bird, J (Eds), 1987, The Archaeology of Surrey to 1540, Guildford: Surrey Archaeological Society
Bird, D, 2004, Roman Surrey, Stroud: Tempus
Holman, D. 2016, A New Classification System for the Flat Linear Potin Coinage, London: British Numinastic Journal
Mack, R.P, 1975, The Ancient Coinage of Britain (3rd Edition), London: Spink & Son