Sceattas and applied numismatics

Since I’m currently working with a bunch of numismatists, I thought I should take advantage of this to learn a bit more about the topic. So a few weeks ago I headed off to the 2010 International Symposium in Early Medieval Coinage (formerly known as the Sceattas Symposium), with the hope that some of it, at least, might make sense to a non-expert. It turned out that Tony Abramson, who had organised the conference, had done a very good job in getting researchers with a variety of approaches (even if slightly hampered by some speakers unable to come).

Hardcore numismatics was represented by Wybrand Op den Velde on ‘The mint places of the secondary phase porcupine sceattas’, which was using detailed analysis of the weight and shape of these coins to separate them into two groups, arguing for a south Dutch group, probably minted at Dorestad or Domburg, and a north Dutch group. This was the conference paper that the numismatists I talked to afterwards most appreciated, which probably points out the key difference between numismatists and non-numismatists. For the numismatists the technical details of identifying, classifying, dating and locating coins are fascinating in themselves. For the rest of us, the interest in this body of knowledge is how you might apply it to tell you about other aspects of the past. I’m very glad that someone is doing this kind of specialist work, I just don’t feel any urge to have that someone be me.

Several of the other papers gave some interesting ideas of the range of applications of numismatics. Philip Shaw from Leicester talked about ‘Learning to write Old English: early Anglo-Saxon coins and the creation of vernacular orthography’, about the different ways that coin legends represented Old English sounds that didn’t correspond directly to the Latin alphabet (such as ‘th’ and the Scottish ‘ch’). The answer seems to have been a mix of inaccurate representations, combinations of Latin letters, and modifying Roman characters (such as the creation of ‘eth’). Lucy Moore, meanwhile, was interested in the possibility of using coinage as a resource for costume history studies, and provided enough images to suggest the possibility was worth looking at. (This included demonstrating that early medieval coin portraits can’t be taken as simple imitations of Roman ones, since Roman portraits tend to show just a bare neck, while Anglo-Saxon ones have a neckline and bust).

On the art history, we also had a paper from Anna Gannon, called ‘Questioning Q’, looking at the iconography of the Q class of sceattas. As before when I’ve heard Anna, this produced an impression of her immense erudition combined with a vague feeling of disbelief. It often seems to me as an outsider that it requires a large amount of faith to decide that a figure on a coin is the Virgin Mary pregnant with Christ, as opposed to WALL-E. But then I don’t have much in the way of visual literacy/memory, and I don’t have a good sense of how the elite of a largely non-literate culture such as early Anglo-Saxon England might be able to understand such designs and their references.

The three papers which were applied most in the directions I’m interested in (kingship and economic history) were by Megan Gooch, John Naylor and Rory Naismith. Megan was talking on ‘The Viking kingdom of York in the tenth century’ and looking at the question of what territory it covered (rather than simply assuming that it was one political entity covering the area of the previous kingdom of Northumbria). She was looking at the evidence from both single finds of coins and hoards; single finds of northern Danelaw coins are mainly found east of the Pennines, from west of the Pennines we have mostly hoards, often on trade routes. From this (and other evidence, such as fortifications) she was arguing that the core of the kingdom was certainly east of the Pennines, but that we can’t necessarily assume that all the rest of northern England was also part of it. There are some evidential problems in applying such techniques (in particular, the fact that Scotland hasn’t got a portable antiquities scheme to encourage metal detectorists to report single finds), but as a way of exploring the intensity of a particular kingdom’s rule, this did show the usefulness of numismatic evidence.

Finally, I want to talk in a bit more detail about two papers looking more broadly at seventh and eighth century political/economic history, because that ties in with some of the recent stuff I’ve been reading. First up we had the archaeologist John Naylor, from the Ashmolean Museum on ‘The circulation of sceattas and the early emporia’. He was looking at how single find evidence might alter our ideas about the rise of emporia. Most of the English emporia sites (Southampton, Ipswich, London and York) have an early phase in the mid seventh century and then expand in the eighth century. These expansions look fairly carefully planned, with street plans and boundary ditches. The assumption has been that the emporia were developed and controlled by kings as part of their tribute systems.

The newer view he was supporting is that emporia should be seen as part of a North Sea economic zone, not needing royal stimuli, although possibly with kings taking tolls. How does the numismatic evidence support this? There is a broad distribution of gold coinage in England in 600-675, but virtually none known from the emporia. John was arguing that this distribution suggests a circulating currency (though I’m dubious about his claim that gold coins were actually used in economic transactions).

In the primary phase of sceattas (675-710) there is a much larger distribution of coins: particularly in East Anglia and in the coastal zone, often on communications routes, though they are still relatively rare from the emporia. (One of the problems, however, is that we have very few finds from London generally, owing to some careless people having stuck a whacking great metropolis on top of it). In contrast, in the secondary phase (710-750), there is further expansion, with all of south and eastern England having finds and far more being found at emporia. But there’s a lot of regionalization in monetization: there are actually fewer find spots in Kent in the secondary than in the primary phase.

John was then looking at the regions immediately round a couple of emporia (Ipswich and York), within a half-day/day’s travel. Around Ipswich, there was a contrast to the fates of Barham and Coddenham, both of which were significant sites in the seventh century, with a lot of coinage and metalwork. Barham carried on after 700, but Coddenham was in decline as Ipswich expanded. So was Rendlesham, which is a documented palace – John was sayin this argued against Ipswich being a royal foundation.

In York, by contrast, while there is a cluster of first phase sceattas on routes into York, in the second phase there are relatively few finds from within an ‘inner zone’ of 0-15 km, but a wider distribution beyond that, covering the whole Vale of York, making it look as if trade was funnelling into York. Unlike in Ipswich, there’s the possibility of royal or episcopal control of the emporium at York.

John ended by claiming there were profound changes around 710, though it’s hard to be sure whether there’s a move towards tighter control over trade or just larger markets sucking in trade. But he was arguing that the fact that before 710 the coastal zone has a different find pattern from inland argues against a tribute economy, and instead suggests there’s already a commercialized economy.

In contrast to this talk, which focused on the early eighth century, Rory Naismith, from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge gave a paper on ‘With a bang or a whimper? From sceattas to broad pennies in the mid-eight century’, which, as its title suggests, was looking at a change in appearance of coins between 740-770s from small and relatively thick pennies to broader flatter pennies with inscriptions. This suggested a closer association of kings and coinage. There had been a few English coins with royal names before this, but only for short periods. While some kings may have patronised moneyers, it is likely that there was considerable delegation to moneyers, judging by the variety of designs before 740/750.

The mid-eighth century was also notable for a decline in both the quantity and quality of the coinage. The low-point of single finds is around 740-750 and there is also a break in hoard deposition after 740. From around 760, there is the hoard from Middle Harling in Norfolk, which has very debased coins, less than 30% silver. The last southern English series of sceattas are also generally lighter and more debased (more so than coins known from Frisia and Paris).

Rory then went on to discuss a series of coin reforms in the mid-eighth century. First was a recoinage early in the reign of Eadberht of Northumbria (737-758). Then there was that of Beonna of East Anglia (749-760), where substantially heavier coins (similar to the Northumbrian weight of 1.15 g) largely replaced earlier and foreign coins. There was also new coinage by Pippin III of Francia from 751-755 (which removed the moneyers’ names seen on Merovingian coinage), and reforms by Offa of Mercia and Eadberht of Kent, which seem to have emulated Carolingian coins, but kept the moneyers’ names. Rory was suggesting that the start of the process of reform may have been in Northumbria, on the fringes of the coin region of western Europe, because that was where declines in fineness etc were felt first.

Put together, the two papers offer a challenge to the existing narratives of early medieval economic and political history, which tend to be top down. It suggests that there’s a commercial economy in England before there are substantial kingdoms and that later and more powerful kings are taking over or exploiting such trade rather than triggering it. That’s a challenge not just to Chris Wickham’s ideas about how the economy is powered by aristocrats becoming more dominant, but Philip Grierson’s ideas about the lack of commerce in the period. If the evidence we had came from elsewhere, one possible argument is that we’d underestimated the residual effect of Roman trade patterns, but Britain is the clearest example of somewhere that almost completely lost romanitas. It’s also not clear where the moneyers are coming from. There’s a clear separation of the aristocracy in England from the seventh century, but the moneyers aren’t part of that, so who are they and how did they establish some kind of independence? (Rory talked about them moving between kingdoms). Sceattas are starting to give us a fascinating picture of seventh and eighth century England and the Continent (and more coins kept on being found), but it’s going to take some thought as to how we can combine their evidence with that of other material.


One thought on “Sceattas and applied numismatics

  1. Wow, loads of things. Your write-up makes me wish I’d been able to go, which given that neither of us are numismatists is probably a compliment both to speakers and to your report. I clearly must catch up with Megan, as it sounds if she has some ideas that gel well with my limited ones about the north.

    Otherwise, I would add some caution to the Moore report (as it were) as, sure, it’s easy to find Roman portraits with bare necks but it’s also very easy to find them in cuirasses with cloaks draped over their shoulders and I would say that those were a lot more common, especially in the era of Constantine which is probably the relevant one for British archetypes. So I wonder, there.

    I’ve had the same feeling of disquiet about gold coins as transaction items, not least because the prevailing view of the Visigothic gold in Spain is exactly opposite, but Mark Blackburn has suggested to me that I should think not of people actually turning up with them in their pockets and buying, say, twenty sheep or a cart-load of flour (though you know, that could happen I suppose) but of traders running their accounts on tick at the market all day and settling up at day-end with big lumps of money, and that’s where the gold comes in. Certainly, the finds pattern is becoming inarguable in Eastern England I think (and in Spain, metal-detecting is illegal so that sort of dind doesn’t occur).

    I think that I am persuaded by the trade-driven economy, but I don’t think that that means Chris has to be wrong that it’s marginal, just that coinage is associated strongly with that margin. Where I think he could adjust better to Hodges et al. is that aristocrats and kings are also strongly associated with that margin, it would seem, and so even if trade is marginal to the economy at large (and here Mark would disagree anyway) it could still be very important as a source of power and prestige for the people in charge (much as share-trading was apparently confined to a wealthy élite of banking gentlemen when the Monopoly cards were first written).

    Rory’s moneyers give me problems, as I think I’ve discussed on blog. I agree that they seem to be there, but I don’t have a category for them. We seem to be looking at something weirdly like a near-national artisan’s guild composed of people who don’t actually make stuff. Er, what? And so on.

    Er, that might be it.


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