Thursday, 28 May 2015

The Iceni hypothesis — part 30

British Celtic coppers

top:       Cunobeline bronze coin
middle:  Durotriges cast stater
bottom:  Thurrock potin (tin ingot)
When seeing a British Celtic copper alloy coin, the commonest assumption is to think that its use was for small purchases at the local market. This might well be true for the top coin illustrated on the right. It is a coin of Cunobeline that is part of a series where Cunobeline is named as a son (filius) of Tasciovanus. Their distribution clusters around Harlow Temple, and Derek Allen wrote about the coin finds (paper). More recent work on the site and its coins has been done by Colin Haselgrove (abstract) and he kindly sent me signed off-prints of some of his publications including this one not long after its publication.

This type of Celtic coin most closely resembles Roman provincial coins and the die cutters would almost certainly have been intaglio gem-cutters trained in Roman or Greek workshops. The British Atrebates did not issue a copper alloy coinage, and it is tempting to see their silver minims as being equivalent as the Trinovantes/Catuvellauni did not use that denomination. Gone are any visual references to warrior iconography and Druidical abstraction is also absent. The subjects are drawn from the repertoire of the artist and picked as to be most relevant to the patron. Subjects from Roman Republican and early Imperial coins can also be seen on later British Celtic coins: gem cutters would often have to produce heads of emperors for intaglios and some of these were evidently pressed into service as generic ruler portraits. Some devices seen on Roman Republican denarii might well have also started out as intaglio gem designs. Before the massive coinage of the Roman empire, most coin issues were intermittent and virtually no one could have made a living as a coin die cutter alone. The most visible usage of such British copper coins was as religious offerings because a temple with piles of such coins (Harlow) is much easier to identify than a market cart and, most often, no physical evidence remains for a stray find or even an excavated stratified find to be called an accidental loss or a deliberate deposit. Different sorts of evidence, gathered together, does strongly suggest that the primary use for such copper coins was by the common people for small purchases and they are common in settlements.

The second coin illustrated is a crude cast stater of the Durotriges. At its time, it was the sole denomination of its tribe. Its general design ancestry goes back to the Belgic gold staters, but it is a "direct descendant" of a Durotriges base white gold stater of the same design as British A gold staters (which John Kent had attributed as the federal coinage of Cassiuellaunos). The Durotriges most significant site is not the unbelievably massive Maiden Castle but the Hengistbury Head promontory fort with its protected dock in the shallow Christchurch Harbour. I saw some stones there that looked like mooring stones, but the site lacks signage. There were also cupellation hearths there where silver was extracted, first from argentiferous west-country copper, and later from recycled billlon coins from Normandy and Brittany. Its sister-port was the Coriosolite port at the mouth of the River Rance.

A lot of different people really wanted to put the Durotriges out of business: an agreement with Caesar might have been the cause of the shift in the trade from Hengistbury to north of the Thames in about 50 BC, and the Coriosolite port was destroyed by the Romans during the early reign of Tiberius in 15 to 20 AD (L. Langouet, Les monnaies gauloise d'Alet in Les Dossiers du centre Regional Archaeologique d'Alet, 6, 1978, p. 25). Gallo-Belgic C gold staters were moving into Durotriges territory through Hengistbury, but the subsequent (perhaps continuous issue?) Gallo-Belgic E (Gallic War currency) did not go there. The design influence flows: Gallo-Belgic C - British A - Durotrigan E. The coin illustrated dates to about the time of the destruction of the Coriosolite fort, but the earlier struck copper alloy coins in the same design evolution was the last time that there was even a trace of silver in their coinage. A small group of Armorican(?) metal recyclers were attacked at the Le Petit Celland hillfort (Wheeler, Hill Forts of Northern France). The fort was unfinished and unused during the Gallic War, but the recyclers had a number of Coriosolite coins and pottery linking Jersey and Hengistbury, and were camped behind a makeshift gate. The remains of their huts were found and the coins and pottery were found below the burnt remains of the makeshift gate.

The Durotriges coin, although having an ancestry of military pay, is an example of a collapsed economy. Long before, even at the outset of Durotrigan E, no outsider would fight for the Durotriges at the standard pay (the stater was a unit of account). At this late stage it was "an object of value", but was not small change for the market. Peter Northover (BAR 222, 1992, p. 263) who first saw some sort of possible connection between the cast Durotriges "coppers", because these are not bronze coins at all, they are potin. Of slightly lower tin content than the later British potins which derive from the Thurrock types, they have comparable tin content alloys in some of the continental potins. Northover only mentions this in passing, most of the paragraph describing the uncertainties and disappointing results of studies of this coin type and looks toward a possible chronology. It does not speak of the usage for the type at all.

I am now of the opinion that the Durotriges cast coinage served no coin function, whatsoever. It probably started as coin-like ingots of base tin for trading purposes, functionally, but not not design influenced by the Thurrock potin (bottom illustration) but as the tin trade collapsed, it was stored as capital waiting for the market to recover (which it never did).

Tomorrow? I'll burn a few laurel leaves and come up with an idea for the next episode.

No comments:

Post a Comment