Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The Thurrock hypothesis ― British tin trade in the 2nd century BC and later, part one

British Thurrock potin
early 2nd cent. BC
This story goes back almost ten years. Dean Crawford, who is a British metal detectorist has specialized knowledge on the coins of the Dobunni and the sites where they are found. In fact, he has discovered most of those sites himself. A British government treasure report some years ago noted that most of what we know about Dobunni coin distribution is owed to his extensive work. While being such a wonderful source, he has not published on them, but has reported innumerable finds to local archaeological units.

He contacted me in 2005 about a very puzzling site in south Worcestershire and then sent me a representative sample of the metal finds. Dominant in the finds were small and late silver coins of the Dobunni. When the site was first discovered in 1993, it was a hoard that was discovered. There was some "official nastiness" against the first finder involving the local archaeologists, who did not want the finder to be rewarded at all, and they used a 13th century local religious charter to support their claim. In the end, it all went very bad for them because when the modern church became involved, the finders and the landowner won and the site was made available for more detecting to take place. It was probably just as well, because field archaeology is, practically, about a site and the value of this site was mainly in that it served as an important clue to a far more important subject. To the best of my knowledge, and although the site was properly reported, it has been neglected by the archaeologists. Perhaps the difficulties left a bad taste in their mouths and they wanted no more to do with it. I can only speculate that they thought that if the finder and landowner could have been eliminated from the proper legal channels, then they might have been able to take possession of the material at no financial cost. It all revolved around the Church officials. Not too surprisingly, the Church took the ethical stand and the archaeologists lost. I have heard that a number of west-country archaeologists had expressed an anti-detectorist attitude almost completely opposite to the attitude in East Anglia with its "pioneer" in the matter, the late Tony Gregory. Hopefully, the situation has improved over the years.

A cut denarius of Antoninus Pius
from the South Worcestershire site
sent to me by Dean Crawford
Dean had noticed that later discoveries of silver coins were not "behaving" like those of a plough-scattered hoard. They appeared to have been scattered over the original ground surface and this gave me my first clue to the nature of the site at the time of the coins. The site also had a later history suggesting a strong possibility of later metalworking: there were small pellets of a silver alloy, and tiny flat ingots apparently of a very different silver alloy, and later Roman silver coins ending with Antoninus Pius.

A number of archaeologists who, perhaps because of lower than average intelligence or a dog-like faithfulness to certain doctrines of their profession frequently say that once anything is removed from its site without their intervention, then the science is lost. I like to turn things on their head, so when Dean was puzzled about the site and sent me the representative samples, I told him things about the site which he had not mentioned to me. By looking at what metal finds were present, and from his description about the original surface, I told him that that there would be quite a number of cattle-bones; that it would be likely be equidistant from any contemporary Roman sites; and that there would have been a spring there. Dean, wondering if I was a psychic, confirmed all of this. This type of site, whenever excavated, has always been identified as a religious site or temple. While being on "sacred ground" Caesar talks about such a site being a place where an annual Druidic council took place. Archaeologists have been slow to realize that the Druid's primary role was that of judges. Their connection to religion is more "administrative" and the ancient authors do not actually call them priests.

In The space and time of Celtic Art (Rethinking Celtic Art, Oxford, 2008, figs 2.6a and b), Duncan Garrow has perceptibly noted that the distribution of brooches and Celtic coins in Britain is virtually identical. It was one of things where I thought, "I wish I had noticed that! When I read his words, I remembered another feature of the South Worcestershire site which was a large number of brooches of types that I dated to about 75 AD. To better understand the actual situation, you could do no better than to read Robert A Dodgshon's Modelling chiefdoms in the Scottish Highlands and Islands prior to the '45 in Celtic chiefdom, Celtic state, Cambridge, 1995. In clan meetings, which descend from the earlier druidic councils, conspicuous consumption involving the slaughter of more cattle than is really required for the feast is common. The purpose is simple: in hosting such events, leaders wish to demonstrate their wealth and largess with displays. In addition to holding great feasts, the scattering of money and other valuables is also attested (I recall that Croesus did something similar) This is all done to gain support and to attract new clan membership and affiliations. The coins and brooches seem to have been examples of this for different times in the history of the site.

I sent some of the material to the US for XRF analysis, but there was something wrong with the results. I was getting readings for platinum on objects from the site and from a few other things from my collection. Sometimes even close to alloying percentages, it was clearly an error. All I had accomplished was to waste my time and money. I had also requested that readings be provided for Fe -- these were missing, and it is possible, (though I don't know how) that the Fe readings had been substituted with Pl readings. One cannot work with such guesses, so the analyses of the pellet and ingot are going to be properly done by a British scientist in the near future.

Perhaps the most curious feature of the site was the quantity of Thurrock potin coins. Although easily accessed information about stray finds of the Thurrock types in Worcestershire does exist to a small measure, this site shows that they are far commoner than is generally believed. Despite the very large numbers of these coins in hoards in south-east England, and stray finds in many other places, only one example was ever excavated in a stratified context. That was at Maiden Castle and its 2nd cent BC date made the excavator think that there must have been a mistake! While, of course, the numbers of stray finds of Thurrock potins are an infinitely small percentage of the finds of other Celtic coins and brooches, they do appear to follow the same wide distribution pattern.

Tomorrow, the Co to Ni ratio in west country copper sources (although you can read some pertinent information here and in the following blog entry). But there will be much more than just that topic.


  1. John - "In addition to holding great feasts, the scattering of money and other valuables is also attested (I recall that Croesus did something similar) This is all done to gain support and to attract new clan membership and affiliations."

    So why would the coins remain scattered? - E.L. Beck

  2. Such displays always had to be wasteful and they symbolized surpluses. All of the people at such meetings, regardless of their position in the society were busy either consolidating their existing status or looking to attract a different clan leader or member. Having any coins removed would have been a scandal and could lead to all sorts of "muck-slinging" with unpredictable results. It was in everyone's best interests to follow the system.

  3. Interesting it is that this is very reflective of our financial system today, with money chasing money (being scattered across the ground), rather than pursuing substantive investments that generate real economic activity. And today, what loftier status symbol does a hedge fund or private equity manager hold today than how much money is under management, regardless of whether that money is generating economic activity (rare), or simply generating paper growth (plentiful)? History really does repeat itself, just under different guises.

    1. Yes, it's said that history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes.

      Interesting comparisons -- I sometimes wonder how much these early social social systems have actually influenced today's society.