There were no credit crunches in the Late Iron Age: highly skilled Celtic mintmasters took painstaking care to ensure money had real, solid, and unchanging value. Mark Landon has studied two huge hauls of coin-making debris from North Hertfordshire and reports on his findings.
If Roman propaganda is to be believed, Britain before the Claudian Invasion of AD 43 was peripheral, backward, and barbarous. But now new research shows the wild and woolly natives were, in fact, metalworkers with a skill and subtlety surpassing that of the smiths of Rome.
The most abundant evidence we have of the British metalworking tradition is coinage. Driven by the requirements of a booming trade economy, by the turn of the millennium the mintmasters of the British tribes were turning out ever-larger quantities of coins, made to closely controlled standards of weight and composition, and using sophisticated alloying techniques to disguise the effects of debasement.
The designs with which these coins were impressed were complex, fraught with symbolism, and – given the absence of magnifying lenses – amazingly detailed. The most recent estimates suggest that some later issues were produced in hundreds of thousands.
This is mass production, but the minting process devised by these consummate craftspeople seems, to our eyes, supremely ill-suited to the purpose. There was considerable variation in the details of the procedure, not only from region to region but from site to site, and even within individual assemblages. However, in broad outline, it took a minimum of eight steps to make each single coin.
How do we know this? We have the coins, of course, which bear traces of the final stages of their manufacture as well as the imprint of the dies in which they were struck. But, crucially, we also have fragments of the clay trays in which the pellets were cast.
Forty kilos of debris
Until lately, very little research had been carried out on these clay trays. However, two large, roughly contemporary deposits of coin moulds found recently in the Late Iron Age settlement area of Braughing and Puckeridge (two neighbouring villages in Hertfordshire) have enabled a far better understanding of the scale and complexity of minting in the territory of the Catuvellauni, and provided tantalising glimpses of the way in which the issue of coin was organised.
I found the first deposit myself, eroding from a river bank near Ford Bridge on the outskirts of Braughing. Stewart Bryant, head of the Hertfordshire Historic Environment Unit, and Debbie Priddy, the regional archaeologist for English Heritage, arranged funding for a small evaluation trench in advance of bank stabilisation work. The dig was directed by Jonathan Hunn of ASC Ltd, and we retrieved nearly 10kg of moulds, with around 6kg of pot, bone, and furnace debris.
The second major deposit was the Puckeridge assemblage, found approximately ten years ago by an anonymous amateur under circumstances that remain unclear, and only reported in 2007 thanks to the tact and diplomacy of Julian Watters, PAS Finds Liaison Officer for Hertfordshire. Some of the material had been offered for sale on eBay, and the remainder was purchased by Chris Rudd, who kindly made it available for study.
The Puckeridge assemblage comprises more than 2,600 fragments of coin moulds, weighing some 30 kilos, 17 kilos of associated pottery, and a quantity of bone. If these two new finds are added to earlier discoveries of coin moulds, then the Braughing/Puckeridge settlement becomes the largest mint site known in Europe, surpassing even Old Sleaford in Lincolnshire. For the last three years, I have been using this material to carry out the first comprehensive, large-scale comparative survey of coin moulds.
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