Saturday, 10 June 2017

Viking hack silver

Cut bar hack silver
Following my earier post on the Vikings I want to post a little about hack silver, a prevalent feature of Viking finds. Hack silver is, as the name suggests, cut up bits of silver objects, such as Islamic coins, jewellery etc, but also metal from these sources reformed into bars and strips or even droplets.
Globular hack silver
I had thought that this material was then remanufactured into other items like jewellery or new coin of Viking type but it appears that hack silver itself was used as a form of exchange into the early 11th century and I wonder whether it is any coincidence that the three pieces that I have conform approximately to the weight of a half penny (dirhem fragment, 0.5 grammes), penny (globule, 1 gramme) and three halfpence (cut bar, 1.6 grammes), albeit at a time when the weight of a penny fluctuated greatly, even within a single series.

Islamic Ayyubid dirhem cut, Viking hack silver
It has been postulated that there became a social divide in the use of hack silver as a means of exchange through time where once it had been used universally within Viking culture with the lower strata continuing to use it whilst the more elite began to become a more monetized society. With increasing monetization the range of weights of any particular series of coin became more fixed and the value for exchange was done less by weight and more by recognised value.

Islamic dirham of the Ayyubids, 192 AH
The use of hack silver as a method of exchange seems to have petered out during the 11th century and this has been linked to the debasement of the Islamic dirhems of the Fatimid dynasty.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017


Exhibition poster
It is thirty-seven years since I went to the great Viking exhibition at the British Museum (and again when it came on tour to the provinces and I saw it in York). At the time the display was hailed as groundbreaking as it presented the Vikings in a less war like manner. In those days the Viking settlement of Coppergate in York was still being excavated and the visitor experience was several years away from opening.

Viking exhibition catalogue, 1980
Now there is a new touring exhibition in York and I am eagerly anticipating my planned visit for Saturday. I went to the museum today to see if I could acquire a copy of the exhibition catalogue ahead of my visit but, unlike in 1980, there is no catalogue for this current show.

Coppergate wood & oyster shells from the Viking waste pits
There seems to be a resurgence in the study of history of Viking Britain and archaeology, and this, combined with the contemporary documentation, has located the winter camps of the micel here, or great army, as it swept through Britain; 871/2 London, 872/1 Torksey (Anglo Saxon Chronicle “Her nam se here wintersetle oet Turcesige”), 873/1 Repton, 874/5 by the Tyne. The last of the camps, the one of the winter of 875/6’ is thought to be on the outskirts of York, a site in the literature known as “Ainsbrook”, a portmanteau name made up from the names of the detectorists who initially located it, or also “Arsny” an acronym of a riverine site north of York.

Ainsbrook finds
The winter camps are not just military establishments entirely garrisoned by men; they are, apparently, functioning mixed gender settlements becoming a hive of economic activity if the preponderance of recovered weights is anything to go by. It would appear that the weights would have been used for, amongst other things, weighing the hack silver and gold, the cut up and sometimes remelted remains of precious metal that includes dirhems, silver coins from the Arab world.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

"Carausius lies here under these stones"

Whilst recently staying in north Wales one of the things I wanted to see was the Roman gravemarker of Carausius. The stone, found during the 19th century, proclaims in coarse Latin epigraphy that “Carausius lies here under these stones”. Above the inscription is a christogram, the amalgamation of the first two letters of the word “Christ” and marks this burial to be overtly Christian.

Carausius is an unusual name, known from Roman history in the form of a Menapian usurper who took Britain out of central Roman control at the end of the third century. Note that Menapiae is in the area of modern Belgium. Interestingly William Stukeley in the 18th century postulated that instead of being from Menapiae that Carausius was Menavian, ie from south Wales.

It is unlikely that this usurper is the same Carausius named on the grave marker as it thought that it probably dates to the fifth or sixth century AD.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Odenathus, the "lion" of Palmyra

I have just been reading a paper in BCEN 2015 on new adventus and profectio types from the mint of Antioch during the sole reign of Gallienus by Charles Euston. In the paper they question whether the control of the Antioch mint was under the control of Odenathus, ruler of Palmyra and Roman ally for some time after the recapture of the mint after the usurpation of Macrianus and Quietus. He doubts the hypothesis of J._M Doyen that aurei and medallions were struck by Odenathus at Antioch to celebrate his own victories.

I recalled a passage in the Sybilline Books that may actually lend support to the Doyen theory of Odenathus promoting his campaign successes. A coin reverse type in the antoninianus series from Antioch features a walking lion, either holding a thunderbolt or, on some types, a bull’s head. The 13th Sybilline book, dealing with this period of Roman history, states from line 210:

The very mighty Romans, one of whom
Shall have the number seventy, and the other
The number three, even then the stately bull,
That digs the earth with his hoofs and stirs up
The dust with his horns, shall many ills
Upon a dark skinned serpent perpetrate
That draws a trail with his scales; and besides,
Himself shall perish. And yet after him
Again shall come another fair-horned stag,
Hungry upon the mountains, striving hard
To feed upon the venom-shedding beasts.
Sent from the sun and breathing forth much flame.
And then too by his shameless recklessness
Shall he destroy the well-horned rapid stag

The general commentary accepts that the lion referred to is Odenathus and I just wonder (without wanting to over read the ambition of the die cutter’s intention) whether the lion of the Antioch coin type is a reference to Odenathus.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

The Galba aureus in Wakefield museum

A chance visit to a charity shop yesterday threw up a interesting batch of postcards, all unused and the same design and useful to use as notelets to numismatic friends. The batch of thirty or so cards bore an image of an aureus of Galba currently in the collection of Wakefield Museums. It inspired me to do a bit of digging about this coin and how it came to the museum.

Sadly there is very little online, apparently found by a metal detectorist working in the vicinity of Castleford (Roman Lagentium, thought to mean 'The Place of the Swordsmen') during road construction work in the centre of what was the Roman fort.

Most of the information gleaned came from Bland and Loriot’s monograph on Roman gold coins found in Britain. In that work it is entry number 646.

It is interesting to note that although the coin was found in 1979 it was not able to be included in the 1984 significant revision of Roman Imperial Coinage volume 1 where the type (obverse legend 5c, bust G (laureate, right) was only recorded as a denarius, the recorded aurei with obverse legend 5c being paired with a left facing laureate bust or a right facing laureate and draped bust:

Monday, 2 January 2017

A unique Silandos/Tabala mule

I recently came across this ancient coin that has a rather interesting story. It was sold as a 21mm bronze coin of the Silandos mint in Lydia (Turkey), an autonomous issue under Roman rule most often dated to around the Severan period in literature. Having searched through a number of references I was unable to place the type with helmeted Roma on the obverse and Tyche holding a rudder and cornucopia on the reverse. The obverse is known, for example, on SNG Copenhagen 547.

SNG Cop 547

I then took a closer look at the legend on the reverse, reading EΠI Λ MAPOC Y IE TABAΛEѠ[N ], a reverse type of Tabala in Lydia, not Silandos! Although the reverse legend is known, for example on the coinage of the city under Commodus and Crispina (eg SNG von Aulock 8272), the Tyche reverse design is not recorded for Tabala in the references I have consulted.

There is the thought that such mixes of types of different cities occurs because coining was a specialist craft and one location was contracted to produce types for a number of neighbouring cities. Thus errors could occur with the mixing of city types, although this combination was unknown to Konrad Kraft in his work Kaiserzeitliche Münzprägung in Kleinasien. This looks to have occurred here but, unusually, mixing a known obverse/portrait side from Silandos with a new, unrecorded reverse type from Tabala and is probably unique.

This coin can be bought HERE.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

A dynastic coin of Claudius

Claudius, Tetradrachm, c.45-6 AD, RPC I 5164

I recently acquired this “dynastic” coin, made in Alexandria, Egypt, of the emperor Claudius. His portrait is featured on the obverse of the coin. The reverse has a veiled female figure standing left. You would probably think of Demeter at first glance, however, the figure is named and that name is Messalina, Claudius’ third wife. In her hand, outstretched, there are two small children, Claudia Octavia and Britannicus.

Little is known about Messalina’s life prior to her marriage in 38 to Claudius, her first cousin once removed, who was then about 48 years old. Claudia Octavia was born in AD 39 or 40, a future empress, stepsister and first wife to the emperor Nero; and Britannicus in AD 41. When the Emperor Caligula was murdered in 41, the Praetorian Guard proclaimed Claudius the new emperor and Messalina became empress.

With her accession to power, Messalina enters history with a reputation as ruthless, predatory and sexually insatiable. Her husband is represented as easily led by her and unconscious of her many adulteries. In 48 AD, he went away on a trip and was informed when he returned that Messalina had gone so far as to marry her latest lover, the Senator Gaius Silius. While many would have ordered her death, the Emperor offered her another chance. Seeing this as weakness, one of his head officers went behind the Emperor's back and ordered Messalina's death. Upon hearing the news, the Emperor did not react and simply asked for another chalice of wine. The Roman Senate then ordered a damnatio memoriae so that Messalina's name would be removed from all public and private places and all statues of her would be taken down.