Coins in unexpected places, part 1: a buried collector?

I try and keep the numismatics to a minimum here, though you may not have noticed. Partly this is out of a fear of being type-cast, as numismatics may be the source of my job (though not my job itself) but I want to be a historian, dammit. And then partly it’s also out of a great awareness that though it may look like I know a lot about coins, I am still very capable of making stupid mistakes if let talk about them for very long. But of late, all work has been on my own index, or on a paper on, well, coins, that needs turning round so as to appear this year. And of course the day job is coins too. Currently, admittedly, it’s Mughal coins of India, but the medieval always gets through. So two separate cases have arisen lately where I experienced great surprise at early medieval coins being where I found them, and I lack for other things to write about. So! here you go with the first.

Plates 2 & 3 of Santos Gener's article on the Sagrada Familia hoard

Plates 2 & 3 of Santos Gener's article on the Sagrada Familia hoard

I should arguably have known about this already as it’s not new, but no-one else seems to have paid much attention to it either.1 In 1950 the Bishop of Córdoba was having a housing estate built (hey, CofE? There’s a lesson for you there about how to really combat homelessness) and in the garden of one of the places they were flattening to build the new ones, they found a pot, which transpired to be full of coins. In total there were 170 whole coins, and an awful lot of fragments. Almost all of the coins were Arabic silver dirhams from the al-Andalus mint, which was a national institution that operated in several of Muslim Spain’s large cities, usually Córdoba but not always. However, also among them were some twenty Carolingian silver deniers, four whole ones and the rest fragmentary.

Plate 10 of Santos Gener's article on the Sagrada Familia hoard, the Carolingian coins the third row and the fragments

Plate 10 of Santos Gener's article on the Sagrada Familia hoard

That there should be Carolingian silver in an Islamic hoard, even in Spain, is I think almost unprecedented. Samuel de los Santos Gener, who wrote it up (and has a street named after him, too), did not mention any other such finds but then it is pretty clear that he knew his Islamic stuff a good deal better than any of this Christian money, with which Cordoban medievalists usually wouldn’t have to deal. Nonetheless, it’s not impossible that as a merchant in al-Andalus one would pick up some Carolingian silver from traders, ecclesiastical visitors to the local Christians or even pilgrims to the very few martyr sites they had there before a bunch of fundamentalists that the local Christians largely disowned set out to create some. Why such a merchant should then bury them in a supposedly safe town is another question but Santos’s identifications, that the pieces are all southern French deniers of Charlemagne, Louis the Pious and Charles the Bald, would fit with the idea that the pieces might have been in circulation. To be fair, Santos made no such interpretative effort, just listed the coins.

However, that’s not what they are and the genuine identifications, as well as those of the Islamic coins, don’t fit at all well with such an idea. In particular the third one from the left on the second double row (the plate arranges each coin in pairs, obverse above and reverse below) was brought to my attention because it’s so odd that someone visiting wondered if it might be an Arabic copy of a Carolingian coin, which would be unprecedented. Now, we have some local expertise in such matters, and it has been bent to these plates, and we reckon that:

  1. the big piece that Santos ascribed to Charlemagne (768-814), second row first at left, is, at the very least, not a genuine coin and not from that long ago, though it does as he said bear the mint signature of Arles;
  2. (ii) that the second one along is indeed as Santos says a Temple-type denier of Louis the Pious (814-40) from Toulouse;
  3. (iii) that the third, odd, one is most probably a denier of Louis the Blind (905-10) struck at Venice, though it may still be a fake;
  4. (iv) the fourth, fragment, is also from an Italian mint and also a Temple type but may be for a different ruler;
  5. (v) that the first on the fourth row is not a denier at all, but its half, an obol of Charles the Bald (840-77) most probably struck at Toulouse;
  6. and that the rest are not identifiable in any amount of time we’re prepared to put it.2

That’s enough to change the picture, anyway, because already we’ve got coins from most of a century represented, and more if the ‘Charlemagne’ piece is actually one of his, though its obverse legend is nothing we recognise and we don’t know why Santos thought so.3 And actually that matches the Islamic content, which is much large of course, in both number and physical size of coins, and dates right through from 775 to 910 anno domini. Islamic coins certainly stayed in circulation longer than Carolingian ones did; those tended to be recoined every now and then but some traded or otherwise carried into Spain might have escaped. All the same, two ranges of a long century does not look like a currency hoard. At which point the deposition location of the hoard becomes an interesting factor. We are talking about more or less here:

It’s changed a bit since 1950, mind, not least because of the houses being finished, but it had changed even more between 1950 and the time this hoard would seem to have been deposited, which must presumably be shortly after 910 or there’d be coins from later on in it. Back then, you see, this was holy ground, as you’d expect with it being so close to the mosque, and there was a cemetery here,4 which means this pot of coins was probably a funerary deposit. Now, grave goods is not a common Islamic thing, but I do wonder if this wasn’t something someone didn’t want to leave behind. It’s a century-plus of coins, after all, and though as you can see from the first plate, which is almost the oldest stuff, some of it was trashed, some of it was very good; these hadn’t been circulating all that time, he or she had got some nice ones. In short, I think this was a collection, and I think it was buried with its owner. We have a very small amount of anecdotal medieval evidence for coin collection, but it only attracts chroniclers’ interest when it’s a rich patron’s hobby; we do know however that old coins were a matter of interest, because their designs keep turning up again on new ones. So I don’t think this is particularly implausible, but even if it is, I can’t think of another more plausible for the retention of this outdated currency in a highly-monetised state. I may be projecting, but I think I see a numismatist through these plates. Though I hope he doesn’t see me back, because the Museo de Córdoba could only afford to buy three of the coins, and the rest were dispersed in sales, so his collection’s all over the place now if that’s what it was.5 Oh well. At least it was photographed first. In the next of these posts post I describe how I’ve recently faced exactly that scenario of dispersal and am therefore even more likely to be projecting…

1. Samuel de los Santos Gener, “Monedas carolingias en un tesorillo de dirhemes del Emirato cordobes” in Numario Hispánico Vol. 5 (Madrid 1956), pp. 79-87 & lam.s 1-10.

2. On the Christiana Religio type of Louis the Pious and its Temple reverse, see S. Coupland, “The Medieval Euro” in History Today Vol. 52 (London 2002), pp. 18-19, if you like your numismatics lite, or idem, “Money and coinage under Louis the Pious” in Francia Vol. 17 (Sigmaringen 1990), pp. 23-54, if you prefer it serious; that article is reprinted as no. III in idem, Carolingian Coinage and the Vikings: studies on Power and Trade in the 9th century, Variorum Collected Studies 847 (Aldershot 2007), and there are also papers in there for several of the other Carolingian rulers, including Charlemagne. As for the Louis the Blind coin, it seems to me very similar in design to Philip Grierson & Mark A. S. Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. 1: The Early Middle Ages (5th—10th centuries) (Cambridge 1986), no. 1020, which is King Berengar of Italy probably at Venice (we’re no longer sure why Philip thought it was Venice but he did), and Louis the Blind’s regnal dates fit both Santos’s reading of the legend and the terminus post quem non of the Islamic coins. This is the sort of dodgy basis we work on you see :-)

3. Santos said (“Monedas carolingias”, p. 87): “No consta en este denario ni el busto ni el nombre del monarca, sino solamente la cruz equilátera y el título de rey de los arlesianos + T. ARLETAN REX; no obstante, por su tipo, parece ser la única del tesorillo que pertenece al reinado de Carlo-Magno, el fundador de la Marca Hispánica”. This amounts to ‘it looks like a coin of Charlemagne even though there’s not another one like it’ and I’m afraid we’re not convinced.

4. Santos cited (ibid. p. 81) Rafael Castejón, “Córdoba Califal” in Boletín de la Real Academia de Córdoba (1927), p. 304 and al-Khushani’s History of the Judges of Córdoba in the translation of Juan Ribera, Historia de los jueces de Córdoba por Aljoxani (Madrid 1926), p. 106.

5. Santos, “Monedas carolingias”, p. 79.


One response to “Coins in unexpected places, part 1: a buried collector?

  1. Interesante el enlace de Kenneth Baxter.
    También ha sido interesante para el obrero de la construcción Antonio Martínez la sentencia a su favor que le otorga el premio por encontrar 1.900 piezas de oro, aunque no ha estado exenta de polémica dicha sentencia.

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