Gold staters, largely of Icenian production, from the Dallinghoo – or Wickham Market – Hoard. as the archaeological record for Britain’s Iron age tribes can be quite sparse, coinage offers one of the best ways of learning about these cultures. (IMAGE: Portable Antiquities Scheme)
In a period that is largely defined by the Romans and their written histories, thanks to a relatively poor archaeological record, coinage offers one of the best ways of learning about Britain’s sometimes elusive Late Iron Age tribes. A ten-year study of the coins of the East Anglian Iceni by John Talbot has delved into the production, distribution, and characteristics of their currency, illuminating previously unknown aspects of their culture. Here, he explores questions of identity, and hunts for hidden faces.
Aside from Boudica and her ill-fated rebellion of AD 60/61, the Iceni of northern East Anglia are particularly well known for their gold and silver work (see CA 217). In fact, this industry provides one of the main archaeological indications of their existence. This is particularly true in terms of their coinage, which most likely started around 50 BC and continued until the Boudican Revolt. Like the Iceni themselves, it was tightly focused around Norfolk, north Suffolk, and the Cambridgeshire fens.
It is often suggested that Iron Age coinage is not money in the modern sense of the word, being rather more analogous to prestige objects – used by societies in various forms of gift exchange – but there was little evidence known to support this theory. To address this question and hopefully learn more about the Iceni in the process, over the course of ten years I studied dies relating to over 10,000 coins. This enabled me to work out the organisation of the coinage, where previously there had been long lists of seemingly unconnected types – a process that not only provided a more in-depth and accurate chronology for the coins and how they developed over time, but also revealed more about the sophistication and nuance of the Icenian culture. Over the course of the project, it became clear that the coinage did in fact have a monetary role similar to contemporary ones, but with a greater intrinsic value. I was also able to examine some of the exceptional imagery used on the coins, and how this gradually took on features of mass production.
The Iceni are best known for Boudica and her ill fated rebellion, but archaeologically the biggest evidence for their existence comes from their gold and silver production – as evidenced here by the Snettisham Hoard, found in Norfolk between 1948 and 1973, and thought by some earlier writers to have belonged to Icenian royalty. (IMAGE: Portable Antiquities Scheme)
The Iceni produced their coins by striking a pellet of alloy – or an alloy flan – between two engraved dies. These dies wore at different rates and were often replaced separately, which means that if you can identify the dies used to strike a sequence of coins and the relative extent to which they were worn, you can establish a clearly defined chronology for long sequences of coins.
Identifying dies based on the impression left on a coin can be difficult, though. Icenian dies frequently had almost twice the surface area of any one coin, meaning that coins from the same die can look quite different depending on the part of the die that struck them. Also, as the dies wear out, the images on the coins become harder to connect to a specific die.
Examples of heads and hidden faces on Icenian coinage. (IMAGE: John Talbot)
To solve some of these problems, I used computer graphics to superimpose photographs of one coin onto another; this allowed me to fade or cut through the top image to establish whether two coins were struck from the same die. Identification was further facilitated by developing a technique to provide composite images of coins struck by different parts of the same die. These images can help to reconstruct almost complete dies.
Using these methods, the project identified almost 1,600 different Icenian official dies and several hundred Iron Age forgeries. Many of these formed long die-chains with a definitive internal chronology, and by comparing these to other evidence like hoard content and distribution, the organisation of Icenian coinage became clearer.
The Iceni had four denominations of coinage, two of gold alloy (staters and quarter staters) and two of silver alloy (units and half units), which were produced during four separate periods: the ‘early local’, and ‘first’, ‘middle’, and ‘late’ periods of denominational coinage. Although the coinage from the early local period may have had an intrinsic value attached to each type of coin (and thus may be considered ‘denominational’ to a certain extent), there were no stylistic links between gold and silver types. Instead, minting appeared to be a much more haphazard affair, particularly in terms of the silver coinage, which was often manufactured in smaller volumes and only used locally within East Anglia.
Bury F obverse depicting a left-facing head. The nose and chin are cut deeply and the lips shallow, so that, when the coin is rotated, the facial features align, partly due to the dished shape of the coin. The scroll before the eye becomes a second eye, presenting a frontal image of the face. (IMAGE: John Talbot)
This period also saw much experimentation with numismatic imagery and frequent variations from die to die. There was some consistency, though. The obverse of the gold coins was like other British Iron Age coinages and bore abstracted imagery originally derived from Macedonian staters, but via Gallo-Belgic antecedents. The reverse, however, is specific to the Iceni. It depicts a wolf, or large dog, with a bird on its back. Meanwhile, the silver units of this period invariably have a head on the obverse and a horse on the reverse. Half units are more variable, however, with complex designs, usually including a boar on the obverse and a horse on the reverse.
After approximately 40 years of this very localised production, the gold coinage became extremely debased until around the second decade BC, when the production of the Snettisham stater seems to have reinstated its value. From this point, production became more standardised, so much so that distinct stylistically linked groupings, including both gold and silver coinage, could be identified – which I call ‘issues’. These changes were part of a broader set of events among the Iceni, which included the deposition of many coin hoards. During the denominational periods, each identified issue had similar imagery on the reverse of each coin, but obverses varied. By identifying die-chains it became clear that during this time three larger mints emerged, prosaically named A, B, and C. These produced coinages in parallel with each other, and sometimes each appears to have operated from multiple locations, though during the first denominational period only A and C were operating.
Five common Icenian inscriptions – ‘Saenv’, ‘Aesv’, ‘Ece’, ‘Anted’, and ‘Ecen’ – found on coinage from the late denominational period. (IMAGE: John Talbot)
The start of the middle denominational period (c.AD 5) was also a time of broader changes. This is evidenced by another series of hoards and a change in imagery. All three mints were now in operation and images of back-to-back crescents appeared somewhere on every issue from this period. Mint A used the motif on every stater, but the other two used them on almost every coin type. This period also saw the start of a significant reduction in the minting of gold coinage.
The late denominational period (c.AD 25) is largely defined by the appearance of inscriptions on the coinage. After this point, the coinage of two of the mints, A and C, always carried inscriptions and back-to-back crescents. Mint B, on the other hand, used neither. Following the trend from the middle period, the use of gold continued to decline.
What is also clear from the die-study is that there was no coinage production after the Boudican Revolt, and there are no reliable finds which link Icenian coinage to Roman coinage thereafter. While the evidence is not definitive, this study strongly suggests that while the Iceni were allowed by Rome to continue minting coinage after their conquest and up until the Boudican Revolt, afterwards it was halted and circulation ceased. This may be tied to the Icenian fate in general, which seems to have led to the loss of their autonomy and full incorporation into Roman authority.
This is an excerpt from a feature published in CA 341. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe.