Friday, 22 May 2015

The Iceni hypothesis — part 26

Wishing Tree near Ardmaddy. This fallen hawthorn —
known as the wishing tree — has hundreds of coins
embedded in the bark. The hawthorn was a sacred tree
in the Celtic culture and the practice was to make your
wish or prayer at the tree and then offer a coin to the
spirits or fairies.

photo and caption: Gerry McArdle (Geograph)
The hypothesis depends on some very specific features to be present in the vicinity of a multiple find of coins. This category of find is rarely mentioned in news reports because people mostly want to hear about hoards or the discovery of an archaeological site, and a multiple find is somewhere between the two. I illustrate a potential multiple find of the future to the right. If the post-holes remain visible after the tree has rotted away then it might be identified as an archaeological site and as the coins will likely survive, then it could be identified as a shrine to some unknown god. Without the features of a structure (the post holes), it might be called a scattered hoard (although given the surrounding terrain, "plow-scattered" would probably not be suggested). Of course, if in our hypothetical future, the WWW has survived, then the nature of this site will be easy to interpret with a visit to the coordinates on Geograph.

Reading news reports about finds of many ancient coins, the explanation mostly falls into two categories: a hoard that was buried at a time of danger, or a religious site or temple where the coins were "offerings to the gods". Wanborough Temple is the best-known example of the latter. It would really depend on the scale of the square structure whether it should be called a temple or a shrine, as  Celtic shrines are attested as very small structures, but the circular structure being called a temple is highly problematical because this would appear to be the only pre-Roman Celtic temple discovered anywhere. The coins and some apparent priestly regalia are the only identifying features to justify the temple label. Caesar mentioned that the Druids met to decide legal and political matters at a consecrated spot. The location would have been chosen because it had religious significance to the indigenous population. We see this sort of thing everywhere and can even find examples of churches set up within old stone circles. As the place is revered anyway, why not? This is a very common sort of syncretism that allows a reverential attitude to be adopted to a new religion by having it understood to be the heir to earlier beliefs. The most important thing to remember, though, is that in prehistoric belief there was no division, whatsoever, between politics and religion. Both might well have been described at the time (lacking the terms anthropology and culture) as "Our ways" and the religious aspects allowed the "our" to include the indigenous populations who probably had very different politics to the more recent arrivals. As Britain currently separates church and state, the descriptions we choose play an important part in the understanding of a site and calling any apparently sacred site a temple, or imposing only religious functions on it, also imposes a modern world view that takes us further from ancient realities. We are creating the past in our own image.

Without some structures, stratification, and/or context of related finds, seems to be a matter of opinion whether any location is an archaeological site. Some people seem to think that even disturbed plough soil is an archaeological site but how the find of an ancient coin or artifact makes it an archaeological site is difficult to fathom. An ancient coin might have been dropped by an ancient person or a modern coin collector; it might have even arrived at its find location in a truck load of top-soil in 1965. My favorite find location for a Celtic coin was in the crop of a chicken!

Lacking any archaeological evidence other than a stray coin find, you would think that this hypothesis could offer us nothing, but the location of a nearby Druid council site might be indicated if we pay attention to specific dies in addition to specific types of coins. Instead of having a distribution map showing stray finds of the Iceni boar/horse type, imagine how much more informative would be a series of distribution maps for each die. Again, this sort of thing will only work for huge issues with lots of dies that suggest a fairly long period for the coins to be struck. Even then, it might come as a surprise just how fast ancient die cutters and moneyers actually worked. We cannot set up an experiment to decide this. I have seen craftsmen with many years of experience do things that to me was little short of magic: I designed a gold and silver pendant for a girlfriend decades ago and after the jeweler had finished it, he suggested that it might look better with a scalloped edge. I agreed and so he took a thick leather glove and a chisel and after mounting the pendant in a globular steel bench vice he had designed and built, he carved the scallop edge perfectly with the steel chisel in less than ten seconds.

By plotting stray coin finds by chronological die identity then there is a very good chance that the original distribution patterns might still be visible in some areas (especially those "off the beaten track" where circulation would be slow). A number of such maps could be arranged as an animation to see any directional flow. Many of the coins would be later dispersals but coins get lost right from the start and in the less populated areas the original patterns should still be visible to some degree. Some locales might even only have coins from a very narrow part of the issue's chronology.

On Monday, why and when certain types of coins were made.

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