Tag Archives: sceattas

Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy, including X-rays

Since 2014 or 2015 there has been a large project running at Princeton University in the USA called Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy (acronymised to FLAME, rather than the more accurate but less sexy FLAEME). Its aim has been to put the study of the late antique and early medieval economy onto a firmer quantitative footing than has ever before been possible, by reasoning that coinage is the best proxy evidence for it and assembling an absolutely massive database of coin types and finds from all available data, published and where possible unpublished, in order that really large-scale conclusions can be drawn from it. In this respect, the project is either a rival of or a complement to Chris Wickham’s huge book Framing the Early Middle Ages, whose title of course the project is riffing off and which argued that ceramics were the best proxy evidence, though he does observe that it would be fantastic to do a parallel project with coinage.1 Well, this is that project, and it has reached substantial proportions; checking in on their website today tells me that they have 233,816 coins in the database from 2,806 finds, and I think that more are still being added.

Now, wherever a database is made questions arise about methodology, because data generated by actual live humans living their real lives tends not to fit analytical categories perfectly. When I first heard of this project, one of the concerns the people I discussed it with was that, by uncritically dumping every publication they could find into a database unchecked—because how could they possibly check them all, given available time and the difficulty of identifying and recruiting suitable expertise for some of the weird bits?—the project would just multiply errors of attribution and interpretation by completely unknowable amounts, leading to the kind of bad numismatic maths we have decried on this blog before now and doubtless will again. This turned out to be something they were thinking about at Princeton, but nonetheless, the temptation to make a snazzy visual can still outweigh such cautions: the animation above is based on several questionable assumptions, most of all steady output at the mints concerned throughout the possible period of issue of each coinage, averaged down to a yearly output. In short, you’re probably seeing most dots on that map for much longer than they would have been there, and of course a massive number of mints doesn’t mean a massive output of coinage; the Merovingian Franks ran 80+ mints at once at times, and for much of imperial history the Romans only struck at Rome, but it’s no difficulty guessing who was making more coin… But the video does at least illustrate where minting was happening and roughly when and shows what could be done with such data by people who know what they’re doing. And FLAME is or was full of people who do know what they’re doing, so there’s hope.

Now, that is roughly where things stood with my thinking when, in late 2015, while I was winding up my post at the Barber Institute, FLAME got in touch with me to announce that they were having their first project conference in April 2016 and asking if I would like to talk there about the All that Glitters project. I did, I admit, wonder why they had asked me rather than any of the people on our team who actually work on the late antique or early medieval economy; maybe the Barber job looked like seniority to them, in which case it’s ironic that by the time I went I no longer had it. But go I did, and this is my very very late report on the conference.

Princeton University campus

Princeton University campus, from their own website

I had never been to Princeton before, and found it a surreal experience. Everyone was extremely nice, but the campus looks somewhat as if some mythical giant that was into modelling had acquired a lot of Hornby-type buildings from a giant Ancient Universities series and then, having arranged them nicely on its lawn, subsequently moved away, leaving it free for a passing university to occupy. It is weirdly like walking around a curated exhibit that happens to be teaching space. Nonetheless, the conference facilities were top-notch, so I adjusted. This was the running order for the first day:

Coins, Minting and the Economy in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, 29th April 2016

  • Alan M. Stahl, “An Introduction to FLAME”
  • Lee Mordechai, “The FLAME Project: Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy: An Overview”
  • Alan M. Stahl, “A Numismatic Introduction to FLAME”
  • Peter Sarris, “Coinage and Economic Romanitas in the Early Middle Ages (c. 330-720)”
  • Florin Curta, “Remarks on Coins, Forts, and Commercial Exchanges in the 6th- and Early 7th-Century Balkans”
  • Vivien Prigent, “A Dark Age ‘Success Story’: Byzantine Sicily’s Monetary Economy”
  • Marek Jankowiak, “The Invisible Part of the Iceberg: Early Medieval Imitative Coinages”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “The Marriage of Numismatics and X-Rays: Difficulties with the X-ray-fluorescence-based Study of the Early Medieval Mediterranean Economy”
  • Richard Hobbs, “Hoards of Gold and Silver in the Late Roman Empire”

As you can see a lot of this first day was dedicated to explaining the project to an audience not necessarily directly connected with it (including, mirabile dictu, Peter Brown, though he didn’t stay around for my paper…), which involved explaining that it was starting with minting and production (because you can use any coin that can be identified as data for that), and that a second phase (in which they are even now engaged) would deal with circulation, as measured by where the coins actually wound up after leaving their mints. The questions that this raised were about what material, space- and time-wise, was included, but also about what questions the project was intended to answer, and I would have to say that we really only got answers to the former.

Alan Stahl’s paper was basically a summary of coinage history across the period and raised questions of tinier detail, but to all those that were of the form, “why were they doing that?” he raised the factor of user demand, which is indeed something people don’t think about much; lots of stuff was apparently usable as coin we don’t think should have been, but it must be we who are wrong there.

Peter Sarris’s paper stressed how many small ways the Empire had to alter the value of its coinage, whether by changing its weight or by changing the rate at which it could be exchanged for precious metal, for all of which the money-changers charged. Peter could speak of this with authority because of being nearly finished translating Emperor Justinian I’s new laws, which are now out.2 I still wonder how many of the practises described there were occasional preventatives rather than regular operation, but of course I haven’t read the laws yet. Here again, though, came up the theme of change that was and wasn’t acceptable to those who actually used the coinage; it seemed to me hard to reconcile the power attributed to the emperor and state and that attributed to the people, or really, the market, in this vision of Byzantium, and I still have to think that one out.

Florin Curta’s paper also touched on this by thinking that we have evidence of army pay-packets of large-denomination copper coins in military sites in the Balkans, but that smaller-value coins also got up there somehow in smaller numbers, the state and the market meeting here again and creating a different pattern doing so here than anywhere else. Andrei Gândilà suggested that fourth-century Roman small change was still in use in many of these sites so that the dearth of small denominations might not have mattered much, which of course as a factor threatens to unseat any of the deductions that one might try to make only from what was being minted

Vivien Prigent’s paper included his debatable (as in, I’ve debated it) belief that the term mancus refers to low-fineness Sicilian solidi, but also helped explain how those coins, about which I was also talking, as well as the inarguably slipshod small change of the era, came to be by setting them in the context of the short-lived relocation of imperial government to Syracuse in the reign of the justifiably paranoid Emperor Constans II, and the much increased demand for coin in which to make payments that the increased state apparatus there must have involved. Of course, Syracuse was an active mint before and after that, so until you can get quantitative representation into the sample, that wouldn’t show up in the video above.

Obverse of a copper-alloy forty-nummi struck onto a cut section of an old coin at Constantinople in 635/6, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/BYZ/58

Obverse of a copper-alloy forty-nummi struck onto a cut section of an old coin at Constantinople in 635/6, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/BYZ/58

Reverse of a copper-alloy forty-nummi struck onto a cut section of an old coin at Constantinople in 635/6, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/BYZ/58

Reverse of the same coin. It’s not from Syracuse, but it makes the point!

Marek Jankowiak was there to represent the Oxford-based Dirhams for Slaves project, and was consequently talking about apparently-imitative Islamic coins that we get in the region once populated by the so-called Volga Bulgars, which exist either as isolated singletons in huge batches all struck from the same dies; he explained these through the slave trade, which I might doubt, but I had to agree that the best explanation of a find record like that is that local production of coinage had suddenly to be ramped up at very short notice now and then, and maybe the best explanation for that is a bunch of incoming people you have to pay at short notice… Still, slaves might not be the only reason for that. His general emphasis on counting the imitative coins as part of the sample is something I deeply agree with, however; but again, how could a project set up with FLAME’s premises (identifiable mints) do that? By being very vague about origin location, was one answer, but that means that the dots in that video above are sometimes artifical and sometimes historical, and to read it you have to know which…

Then there was me, and of course you know roughly what I was saying, which was, “we tried doing this analysis by XRF and it doesn’t work so don’t believe people who do that”, but I’m afraid the reactions it got were about equally split between “well yes, don’t do that then” (though the relevant person did then offer me use of a cyclotron if I could sort out the insurance…) and “man I gotta try that now”, so I’m not sure it really had the effect I was after!

All of this had been interesting to me but in some ways the last paper, by Richard Hobbs, was the most so, and not least because it showed again how small the difference can be in terms of results between the dedicated lone scholar with a personal project (and, admittedly, the British Museum behind him) and a massive well-funded team effort like FLAME. Hobbs had been assembling a database of Roman precious-metal hoards, coins included, which he was comparing substantially by bullion value, but in the course of doing so had noticed many weird things, such as:

  1. During the third-century crisis, unsurprisingly, there were hoards buried all over the Empire, especially on the frontiers, but during the period 395-411 it’s almost only the coasts of the English Channel that show them.
  2. Only Gaul really hoarded silver plate in the third century, and not many more places thereafter until a generalisation of the habit during the sixth century. Did coinage not work as well in Gaul as everywhere else, or something?
  3. Despite the numerous wars there, fifth-century Italy either didn’t hoard stuff or always recovered it (or we haven’t found it, but that seems unlikely; it’s not as if hoards from other period of Italian history are unknown)….

While a lot of this is down to detector bias, for sure, there is something here about variation of response to crisis (and to wealth!) across regions that we would struggle to see any way, but it’s still quite hard to interpret. One thing is that we are looking at non-recovery, not necessarily hoarding per se; we only have hoards whose owners didn’t come back for them, and that’s important. But still: what does it all mean? That is is often the result that assembling a lot of data gives us, isn’t it?

All of this was therefore good for getting conversations going, but it was made additionally surreal by the fact that one of the attendees, Stefan Heidemann, had been prevented from actually attending by a series of small disasters. Not deterred, he was therefore present by Skype from Germany, but not on the main projection screen as might normally have been done, but on a laptop that was placed where he could see the screen, or on a trolley so that his field of view could be changed between presenters and audience. The latter meant that his window on us had to be rolled about like a trolley, but this more or less worked, and the link somehow stayed up throughout. In the final discussion people were wandering up to Stefan’s wheeled avatar to say hi, and I couldn’t shake the idea that we were looking at the future here somehow, as if the gap between this and an entirely virtual presence of a digital-only academic was just a matter of degree. It made things odder…

Florin Curta delivering his paper at the FLAME Conference

This is Florin Curta presenting, but, if you look carefully, in the centre of the table in front of the screen is a laptop, face towards the screen. If you could somehow see that face, it would be Stefan Heidemann’s…

Anyway, all of this had meant that Stefan, who had been supposed to be speaking on the first day, actually led off the second, whose running order was thus:

FLAME, Phase 1: Minting, 30 April 2016

  • Stefan Heidemann, “The Apex of Late Antiquity—Changing Concepts of Monetarization in the Early Islamic Empire”
  • Lee Mordechai, “The FLAME Project: Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy. Details and Future”
  • Andrei Gândilà, “Legacy of Rome: Money in the Early Byzantine Balkans and Asia Minor”
  • Jane Sancinito, “The Mint at Antioch: Disruptions in the Fifth Century”
  • Luca Zavagno, “Coinage from the Eastern Mediterranean: an insular perspective (ca. 600–ca. 750 C. E.”
  • Tommi Lankila, “Coinage in the South Central Mediterranean in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages”
  • Paolo Tedesco, “The Political Economy of Accomodation and Monetary Circulation: the case of Gothic Italy”
  • Ruth Pliego and Alejandro G. Sinner, “Minting in the Iberian Peninsula 350–725”
  • Merle Eisenberg, “Money as Governance: The Burgundian Revolution of 500 C E.”
  • Jan Van Doren, “Merovingian Gold Coinage in the Low Countries”
  • Rory Naismith, “From Feast to Famine and Back Again: Mints and Money in Britain from Fourth to the Eighth Century”
  • Round Table chaired by Cécile Morrisson

As may be evident, this second day was much more about project participants presenting their data. Stefan, however, was again demonstrating how much a lone scholar could do with his own database, as well as a sharp knowledge of sharia law. He emphasised how devolved jurisdiction over Islamic coin could get: while gold was controlled centrally where possible, silver could be run at provincial level and types and identification of authorities vary there, and we are quite unclear about who issued copper-alloy coinage as sharia doesn’t consider non-precious-metal to really be coin, rather than, I suppose, tokens; imitative production to answer demand thus probably happened rather a lot, as indeed we have seen here with the Arab-Byzantine coinages of Syria and Palestine. Their circulation was very local, however, so for any long-range transaction small change was made by cutting up legitimate coin, to generate the fragments we have so many of from Scandinavian hoards, which were presumably counted by weight. Clearly Stefan could have gone on for longer—I think he was trying to summarise a book here—but even what he was allowed to say left me a lot clearer about the systems behind what I have seen in the material.

Once we got into the actual project members’ papers, however, it becomes easier to be economical in the reporting. Lee Mordechai helpfully emphasised many of the difficulties with the project I’ve raised above, but hoped that the second phase, when findspots and hoards were more fully integrated, would help clean things up a bit. He also emphasised that there was far more data out there than they were using in the form of the trade, whether just harvesting eBay (for which, of course, software once existed…) or trying to gather all auction catalogues (and eliminate duplicates?). So how selective is their data, one might ask?

Andrei, meanwhile, painted us a picture of circulation in the Balkans (despite the project not being onto that yet) that showed a tremendous mixture of coinages from different Roman and Byzantine eras being used together; how were their values calculated? If they were strictly face-value, why change the size of the coins? If they weren’t, why tariff coins against each other as Constantine IV was evidently doing when he issued new large ones?

Copper-alloy 20-nummi of Constantine IV struck at Constantinople in 664-685, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4304

Copper-alloy 20-nummi of Emperor Constantine IV struck at Constantinople in 664-685, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4304; note the small M, apparently indicating that this big 20-nummi coin was equivalent to an old small 40-nummi one like the cut-up bit above

This paper and the discussion after it provoked me to write one of my own I’m giving in China in a couple of weeks, so I’m grateful, but it was a sharply divided discussion. Peter Sarris believed strongly that coin was basically moving by weight, in which case it seems stupid for the Empire to have issued coins of the same face value in larger sizes than previously; but this it repeatedly did. I tend more to believing in face value, seeing the size increase as essentially a PR exercise, which Andrei also suggested, and as others pointed out big and small coins did get used together, whereas if their value was different you’d expect only the big ones to be hoarded, but I admit it’s not unproblematic. Andrei wondered if old coin was treated as being equivalent to the piece of current issue that it weighed most like, and that seems murderously complicated, but it might be possible.3 Jane Sancinito was a Parthian specialist temporarily employed on sorting out the coins in the archive of excavations from Antioch that Princeton happens to have, which is what she told us about.4 Luca did roughly the same job for the Eastern Mediterranean island zone, as you’d expect, but again was able to emphasise how long-lived even the most basic small change could be, with Syracuse issues lasting a century or more in Crete and so on, and the overlap between supposedly conquered zones and still-imperial spaces in the wake of Islam, as has been said here, potentially telling us something quite important, but hard to specify. Paolo Tedesco was trying to link coin use patterns to the question of how ‘barbarian’ soldiers were settled in Italy that has generated so much scholarship, but it turns out that the coin finds don’t help, or at least suggest that very little money moved from the capitals to the south, as if everything there was sorted out locally.5 The two Hispanists summarised Visigothic gold coinage but noted that there was at least some silver and copper coinage too, which is still contentious among Spanish numismatists for some reason; this wasn’t news to me but I expect it was to others.6 Eisenberg was mounting an attempt to link the few Burgundian coins we can identify to known events that might let us date them, but wasn’t helped by the fact that the Burgundian laws refer to several sorts of coin we either haven’t got or can’t identify, and as Helmut Reimitz pointed out, were not even necessarily issued for the kings! The paper did provoke the useful announcement from Cécile Morrisson that all the Bibliothèque Nationale de France’s collection of Merovingian coinage is now online, however, which may be very useful to some people. Van Doren reminded us how much coinage the late antique Low Countries produced, almost all apparently for North Sea trade since it barely turns up in France. Lastly Rory Naismith did much the same exercise for Britain, but this involved calling into question the whole concept of mint as more than the identity carved onto a pair of coin dies, and in most British cases we don’t even have that, so how can these coins be attributed as a project like FLAME would want? The British record is however massively distorted by the huge volume of fourth-to-fifth-century Roman hoards; at a later point in the conference Alan Stahl revealed that they now had that data in FLAME, but its effect was simply to drown out everything that wasn’t British in whatever query one ran, so they’d had to exclude it again! What do you do when your evidence prevents you using your evidence? The round table addressed a lot of these questions, but it would be hard to say that it solved any of them…

Many of the same questions came up again in a final workshop the next day, along with many suggestions for how to get truer or more realistically qualified results out of the database. I think that this probably was useful to the project team, and maybe was the big point of bringing us all there; there as much can’t-do as can-do in their responses, but the discussion as a whole left me much happier than I had been going in that all this data would probably be more useful to have than not, and could answer many questions if flagged and curated with suitable cautions and references. (And indeed, work has continued and many useful things that were talked about at this meeting seem to have happened.) The labour still seemed immense, however, and it is perhaps not surprising that, although at this stage there was talk of publishing this conference, a journal issue, and many other things, in the end I’m not sure that anything has come of it except the still-developing database, which remains on closed access. The project director has moved on and now works on late antique environmental history; none of his publications seem to have come from the project, and I can’t find any signs that others have. Even the site’s blog is now inaccessible in full. One wonders how long the website itself will survive, and then what all this money and time will have been spent on. I suppose the message is: data is great, and could potentially change everything, but while they were right in these discussions to say that this dataset could answer a great many research questions, it may have turned out that having no questions has sadly doomed them to having produced no answers. Maybe this post can be an encouragement to others who do have questions to see if the FLAME database can answer them! But you will have to ask them first!


1. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), p. 702 & n. 16.

2. Peter Sarris (ed.) & David Miller (transl.), The Novels of Justinian: a complete annotated English translation (Cambridge 2018), 2 vols.

3. It was because of this discussion, and the following conversation with me, him and Peter in the bar, that I wrote in my “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (London 2018 for 2017), pp. 514–535, at p. 515 n. 4, that I think Andrei is going to solve this question for us. I was then thinking of Andrei Gândilă, “Heavy Money, Weightier Problems: the Justinianic reform of 538 and its economic consequences” in Revue numismatique Vol. 168 (Paris 2012), pp. 363–402, online here, but now there is also Andrei Gandila [sic], Cultural Encounters on Byzantium’s Northern Frontier, c. AD 500-700: coins, artifacts and history (Cambridge 2018), so I’d better read it and find out if he has!

4. For those of you watching closely, yes, that does mean the only female speaker on the whole programme didn’t get to present on her own work. I didn’t organise, I merely report, but I also note that among the people on the All That Glitters project for whom this would have been closer to their research area than it is to mine, two are women, so more women certainly could have been invited.

5. See for the debate S. J. B. Barnish, “Taxation, Land and Barbarian Settlement in the Western Empire” in Papers of the British School at Rome Vol. 54 (Rome 1986), pp. 170–195.

6. If it is to you, the new data can be met with in Ruth Pliego, “The Circulation of Copper Coins in the Iberian Peninsula during the Visigothic Period: new approaches” in Journal of Archaeological Numismatics Vol. 5/6 (Bruxelles 2015), pp. 125–160 and Miquel de Crusafont, Jaume Benages and Jaume Noguera, “Silver Visigothic Coinage” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 176 (2017 for 2016), pp. 241–260.

Standing figure facing with two long crosses

It seems to have been a while since we had anything here about coins, so here’s a little coincidence that I notice every time I teach with it on my late-antique survey module, Empire and Aftermath. Predictably, I use coinage as a source on this, because we have a good collection to play with and it gets students involved who might not react so well to purely textual sources, but each year I do I am struck by something I remember from much longer ago in my career, which is this coin:

Obverse of an early English penny, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, De Wit Collection, CM.1815-2007

Obverse of an early English penny of the so-called Series L, struck at London in the late-seventh or early-eighth century, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, De Wit Collection, CM.1815-2007

Reverse of an early English silver penny struck at London, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, De Wit Collection, CM.1815-2007

Reverse of the same coin

This is an early Anglo-Saxon penny, and it’s one of the very rare ones that actually carries some legible information about its place of issue: you may not believe me, but the letters around the presumably-royal bust decode as LVNDONIA, London. How many people could have read this, given that the actual coin is about the size of most people’s little fingernails, is another question, but it does, and a sibling of this coin in the same collection was even recovered from the River Thames, so that’s nicely coherent.1 However, today I’m more interested in the reverse imagery. Here it is bigger and clearer:

Reverse of a silver penny probably struck in the Thames Valley between 730 and 745, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1815-2007, De Wit Collection

So, what can we be sure that we have here? A figure, apparently in a tunic and body-armour, with long-hair or a head-dress of some kind, holding a long cross in each hand, seems reasonable. But he or she is also standing on some kind of crescent, perhaps? And the people who have tried to read this image have therefore wondered if she or he is on a boat, and thus even perhaps a missionary bringing the Christian faith to the English peoples as had indeed happened scarcely two generations before this coin was likely struck.2 It leaves the armoured-looking dress a little hard to explain, but as an iconographic reading it certainly fits its context nicely. But compare it to this one:

Copper-alloy Arab-Byzantine follis struck probably in Syria in the mid-seventh century, provenance and location unknown

Copper-alloy Arab-Byzantine follis struck probably in Syria in the mid-seventh century, provenance and location unknown, though I found it in Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications 12 (Washington D.C. 2008), p. 32. It’s not actually part of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, however, so I don’t know where it now is

I’m sorry that I have no better image of this, but it is one of those enigmatic coins produced in Syria during the earliest decades of Islam that I love to talk about so much.3 And here, again, we appear to have a figure, apparently in a tunic and body-armour, with long hair or a head-dress of some kind, holding a long cross in each hand, standing on some kind of crescent. And the people who have tried to read this image have not usually got much further than that it is a development or degeneration of a standing figure of the Byzantine emperor such as is seen on the later coinage of Emperor Heraclius, where he stands in campaign attire with a long cross and cross on a globe, and indeed it doesn’t seem too far a stretch. It might seem weird that a putatively Islamic issuer changes a small cross for a bigger one on a figure that is, putatively, still the emperor who no longer ruled them, but again, we have reason—from the coins!—to suspect that this was a very fluid period and we can’t, for example, be sure that the issuer of this coin wasn’t Christian and didn’t think that the emperor was still in charge, despite the current local régime change, so it’s all far from impossible.4

Copper-alloy 4-<i>nummi</i> of the Emperor Heraclius, overstruck at Constantinople onto a cut portion of an older coin, probably of Anastasius I or Justinian I, in the early seventh century, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3732

Copper-alloy 4-nummi of the Emperor Heraclius, overstruck at Constantinople onto a cut portion of an older coin, probably of Anastasius I or Justinian I, in the early seventh century, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3732. The coins of this type usually carry Heraclius’s son standing behind him at his left, but many, like this one, were so carelessly made that he escapes the impression

The problem thus arises only when you know about both of these coins at once. If this is one design, as it appears, then it can’t easily be both a derivative Heraclius and Saint Augustine of Canterbury or whoever, not least because the Anglo-Saxon one also has a royal or imperial bust on it. It is possible, just about, that both engravers were deriving from the bronze coinage of Heraclius, but that is very hard to imagine being available as a model in Britain, since being copper-alloy it only had value inside the Empire; a few Byzantine bronzes are known from British contexts, but very few and to my knowledge from no later than the 580s.5 Also, we have to explain two unconnected engravers both deciding to do exactly the same things to the same design about half a century apart. It’s even less likely, to be honest, though still not impossible, that someone brought the Arab-Byzantine coin to Britain or the Britain-based engraver had met it in Syria.6 There are, admittedly, other versions of this design in both Britain and Syria that come closer to their supposed archetypes, and parallel evolution is maybe more plausible than I just made it sound, but there is, thankfully, a simpler answer. It looks like these:

Copper-alloy coin of Emperor Constantine I struck at London in 310-312, private collection

Copper-alloy coin of Emperor Constantine I struck at London in 310-312, private collection, image from Wildwinds under Constantine I, RIC VI 195

Silvered copper-alloy <i>antoninianus</i> of Empress Severina struck at Antioch in 274, CNG Coins

Silvered copper-alloy antoninianus of Empress Severina struck at Antioch in 274, CNG Coins, image from Wildwinds, Severina, under RIC 20 V

The shared reverse type between these two issues is a figure of Concordia with two military standards, personifying harmony among the soldiers, Concordia militum, sometimes such an important message for a Roman ruler to send… It’s an image that still turns up out of the ground every now and then in Britain even now, and I imagine it’s not unknown in the Middle East either, but anyone digging up Roman settlements in either place in the seventh century would have had a chance of coming across one. The design, of course, is not a bloke with two crosses, but a lady with two imperial standards, but three or four centuries later some adaptation to the times probably shouldn’t surprise us, and it’s less of an adaptation than is required to get there from Heraclius and his campaign shorts.

Now, of course, that both engravers had such an image before them explains some things, but it doesn’t tell us either what they thought their model showed or what they understood in what they turned it into. The people who think the English coin shows a saint on a boat may still be right; that may be what the engraver decided the border of the original design meant, or even what it could mean; there was all kinds of scope for invention here.7 Likewise, in Syria, the choice to super-Christianize what had been a secular and indeed pagan image could have a lot of possible meanings, but they could certainly have been deliberate. By suggesting a model I don’t mean to suggest that the engravers of the coins didn’t have anything of their own in mind. But I do think it’s kind of cute that to do that, they themselves were probably engaged in exactly the same game as that we’re playing here, trying to figure out what was shown on these coins from hundreds of years before their own time.


1. There’s an absolutely huge literature on early Anglo-Saxon pennies, or sceattas as they’re widely known, and no space here to try to list it all, but the introductory discussion to coins like these particular ones that I use for students is Rory Naismith, “Money of the Saints: Church and Coinage in Early Anglo-Saxon England” in Tony Abramson (ed.), Studies in Early Medieval Coinage, 3: Sifting the Evidence (London 2014), pp. 68–121.

2. E. g. Catherine Karkov, “The Boat and the Cross: Church and State in Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage”, in Tony Abramson (ed.), Studies in Early Medieval Coinage 2: New Perspectives (Woodbridge 2011), pp. 63–71.

3. Citation is in the caption, obviously, but Foss is also a pretty good guide to the whole coinage, at least if you are prepared to be more relaxed about chronology than he wants to be.

4. Helpful here, or at least I find it so, is Marcus Phillips, “The Import of Byzantine Coins to Syria Revisited” in Tony Goodwin (ed.), Arab-Byzantine Coins and History (London 2012), pp. 39–72.

5. Known to me from gossip but also from Tony Abramson, Coinage in the Northumbrian landscape and economy, c. 575–c. 867, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 641 (Oxford 2018), p. 92, where his source is also gossip, but hey…

6. For a realistic assessment of pilgrimage from England to the Holy Land in this period, see Peter Darby and Daniel Reynolds, “Reassessing the ‘Jerusalem Pilgrims’: the case of Bede’s De locis sanctis” in Bulletin for the Council for British Research in the Levant Vol. 9 (London 2014), pp. 27-31, DOI: 10.1179/1752726014Z.00000000022.

7. On which see Anna Gannon, “Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery” in Barrie Cook and Gareth Williams (edd.), Coinage and History in the North Sea World, c. AD 500–1250, The Northern World 19 (Leiden 2006), pp. 193–208.

Seminar CIX: where’s the money in early Anglo-Saxon England?

I think I’ve decided to run with this theme for the moment, though some things may get shifted around for greater elegance. I’ll advertise any major changes, though. Thankyou all for comments. Now, back to the backlog! It probably won’t surprise you, now that you know that the Winton Institute for Monetary History were being medieval in their seminar series last year, that I was back there before long, on this occasion because Michael Metcalf was speaking, and he is a man whose work I’d read quite a bit of as an undergraduate and heard much of during my time at the Fitzwilliam Museum, but never actually met. He could best be described as Mark Blackburn‘s opposite number in Oxford, but started rather earlier and has perhaps said some more, um, adventurous things, so I was interested to see what would transpire.1 His paper, presented on the 16th November 2011, was entitled, “Thrymsas and sceattas and the balance of payments”.

Reverse of a silver penny probably struck in the Thames Valley between 730 and 745, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1815-2007, De Wit Collection

A sceatta (pronounced 'she-att-er'), to wit, a silver penny probably struck in the Thames Valley between 730 and 745, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1815-2007, De Wit Collection. This is the reverse; it's really about a centimetre across.

It used, as Professor Metcalf began by saying, to be thought that the monetary economy began in the High Middle Ages, but ever since metal-detecting got big this has got steadily harder and harder to maintain. The take-off point keeps getting earlier and earlier as more coin is discovered. Especially prevalent have been finds of the earliest coinages of early medieval England and its neighbours, the coins usually known as sceattas (though Mark preferred ‘early pennies’) and their rarer gold predecessors, thrymsas. These have multiplied to such an extent that everyone is now agreed that the old classification of them makes no more sense but very few people have dared to risk putting a foundation down in the ongoing flow of evidence to start a new one, so the coins remain somewhat poorly understood.2 Once it was clear that the high medieval proponents were wrong, anyway, the next paradigm came from none other than Richard Hodges, who in the early 1980s suggested that these coins were in use only by élites and that the average peasant never saw them.3 This was defensible at the time of writing but is an especially hard-hit casualty of the increase in evidence; there’s just too much now, too widely-spread, for any sensible reconstruction of how much there once was to fit such an idea. So, it’s necessary to rethink what coinage in early Anglo-Saxon England was actually doing.

Reverse of Anglo-Saxon gold shilling of King Eadbald of Kent (616-640) struck at Canterbury, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.778-2002

A thrymsa, or shilling, in this instance of King Eadbald of Kent (616-640) struck at Canterbury, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.778-2002, the reverse again, and even tinier than the previous

This paper had a go, then, at doing this by analysing the distribution of finds of these coinages. We are especially able to get at these now because of electronic resources like the venerable Corpus of Early Medieval Coin Finds at the Fitzwilliam and the rather newer NUMIS in the Netherlands. Playing with these quickly reveals the one-sidedness of finds of the (probably) earliest sceattas, of which many were made in both the Netherlands and England but English ones of which are only found in the latter, whereas the Low Countries ones get everywhere.4 This suggests to Professor Metcalf a balance of payments, and he suggested therefore that wool was a key export even this early, since the coins are in fact found most thickly in the Cotswolds and Yorkshire Wolds, wool-producing areas of note. That also suggests that the goods were shipped direct with no trade on the way! So, that might be élite, if that’s how you see English wool production even as early as the seventh century,5 though it might also not, but the distribution of finds of locally-minted gold coins of the seventh century is basically uniform, so it seems quite unlikely that the good stuff was being concentrated by any such interest. The élite hypothesis does, therefore, seem to have to go.

Replica of an Anglo-Saxon coin die found at Cripplegate, York, with modern UK twopence piece for scale

Replica of a (much later) Anglo-Saxon coin die found at Cripplegate, York, with modern UK twopence piece for scale

A lot of the paper rested on estimates of the sizes of coinage, an area in which Professor Metcalf has become famous.6 For example: we can now identify nine hundred dies used in the striking of the surviving corpus of seventh-century thrymsas. There are various well-established means for multiplying these figures up towards an estimate of the whole coinage, which when applied here reasoned for three million plus coins total, on a multiplier of five thousand coins per total extrapolated dies, and more probably something like a million in circulation at once.7 Of the gold. If we use modern parishes as a guide to how many villages there were (and you see here what I meant by ‘adventurous’), we might then expect there to be 300-odd gold coins in any given village at once! Now, I am pretty dubious about this kind of arithmetic, as you will know, although even if you halve these figures and double the number of ‘villages’ (a thing that didn’t really exist in the seventh century but let’s just assume it means ‘district’ or ‘area’ and that’s fine8—and one point that came up in questions that I’d never considered is that one thing that must be missing from distribution maps of coin finds is settlements, at least where they have continued, because you can’t metal-detect in towns!) that is still quite a lot of gold to spread out. All the same, even if the actual numbers are rubbish, one point is still true: doing the same maths with the same multipliers for later Anglo-Saxon England nets you much much less. Unless there was something specifically weird about the way money was produced in one or other period (and there certainly was about the later period, given how widely and in what small quantities it might be minted, but that ought to exaggerate the later figures, not shrink them), England was more monetised in the seventh century than it was even in the eleventh.

Distribution map of sceatta finds in England and the Continent

Distribution map of sceatta finds in England and the Continent, from Archaeology in Europe (linked through) not one used by Professor Metcalf, whose maps' detail was rather finer, but I somehow find scrounging other people's handouts onto the web without their okay a step too far

So, you know, what, why and how? The answers are yet to come, but the questions are getting louder and louder. Some answers that did get suggested in questions were, the obvious one perhaps, a consumer class in the peasantry (John Blair), monasteries (also John Blair, you will be shocked to learn) both as consumers and as industrial drivers of the economy, salt and meat being bought in bulk (the latter of which was also John’s suggestion, in fact) and, back from the dead, the élite (Anthony Hotson, though here obviously channelling Chris Wickham, sadly absent), in as much as by promoting commerce and appropriating surplus that people are thus made to produce they are causing production and a market economy… And any of these might be the right answer, or indeed all of them, but none of this is coming from texts, or Henri Pirenne would likely have had the answer eighty years ago. This is one of those instances where the answer really does lie in the soil.


1. Most famously, perhaps unfairly, in one of his earliest papers, “How Large Was the Anglo-Saxon Currency?” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 18 (London 1965), pp. 475-482, where he used an estimate of 30,000 coins produced by each hypothetical die to produce a maximum figure that somehow immediately became orthodoxy…

2. The basic classification goes back to Stuart Rigold, if I understand rightly—and I really may not!—in his “The principal series of English sceattas” in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 47 (London 1977), pp. 21-30, but this rapidly got liberally beaten about, not least in David Hill and Michael Metcalf (edd.), Sceattas in England and on the continent: The Seventh Oxford Symposium on Coinage and Monetary History, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 128 (Oxford 1984) and subsequently in D. M. Metcalf, Thrymsas and Sceattas in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Oxford 1993), 3 vols. Lately Tony Abramson has proposed a new classification in his Sceattas – An Illustrated Guide (London 2006), but the profession doesn’t seem to be happy with this and I believe we can expect more work on this soon, fostered not least by Tony’s readiness to get people together and talking about these coins as witnessed in the volume he’s edited, Studies in Early Medieval Coinage 1: Two Decades of Discovery (Woodbridge 2008), which came out of Leeds sessions (a lesson to me in prompt publication).

3. Richard Hodges, Dark Age Economics: the origins of towns and trade A. D. 600-1000 (London 1982, 2nd edn 1989).

4. Presumably this is all available in W. Op den Velde & D. M. Metcalf, The Monetary Economy of the Netherlands, c. 690-c. 715 and the Trade with England: A study of the Sceattas of Series D, Jaarboek voor Munt- en Penningkunde Vol. 90 (Utrecht 2003) and eidem, The monetary economy of the Netherlands, c. 690 – c. 760 and the trade with England: a study of the “Porcupine” Sceattas of series E, Jaarboek voor Munt- en Penningkunde Vol. 96 (Utrecht 2010 for 2009), but I confess I only just now found out about those so I can’t say for sure.

5. My ill-disguised Grierson fandom obliges me to mention Philip Grierson, “The Relations Between England and Flanders Before the Norman Conquest” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 4th Series Vol. 23 (London 1941), pp. 71-112, repr. in Richard W. Southern (ed.), Essays in Medieval History: selected from the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society on its centenary (London 1968), pp. 61-92, though even he didn’t try to push the wool link back this many centuries, not then having the last seventy years’ finds to work from.

6. Not just his “How Large was the Anglo-Saxon Currency” above, to which one might like to compare Philip Grierson’s reply, “The Volume of Anglo-Saxon Coinage” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 20 (London 1967), pp. 153-160, repr. in Grierson, Dark Age Numismatics: selected studies, Collected Studies 96 (London 1979), XXXVIII, but more recently Metcalf, “Some Speculations on the Volume of the German Coinage in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Thomas Fischer & Peter Ilisch (edd.), Lagom. Festschrift für Peter Berghaus zum 60. Geburtstag am 20. November 1979 (Münster 1981), pp. 185-193, another one I know of rather than know, and Metcalf, “Can We Believe the Very Large Figure of £72, 000 for the Geld Levied by Cnut in 1018” in K. Jonsson (ed.), Studies in Late Anglo-Saxon Coinage: in memory of Bror Emil Hildebrand (Stockholm 1990), pp. 165-176, which I have actually read, although a very long time ago…

7. Since these methods involve at crucial points making up figures, I don’t myself put much trust in them and in this I’m guided not least by Ted Buttrey, “Calculating ancient coin production: facts and fantasies”, Presidential Address in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 153 (London 1993), pp. 335–351, but also by the careful compromise suggested by Martin Allen, “The volume of the English currency, c. 973–1158″ in Barrie Cook & Gareth Williams (edd.), Coinage and history in the North Sea world, c. AD 500–1200. Essays in honour of Marion Archibald (Leiden 2006), pp. 487-523. There’s a computer simulation test of the various statistical estimators in use published by Warren Esty, “Estimation of the size of a coinage: a survey and comparison of methods” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 146 (London 1986), pp. 185–215, which gives some reason for credence in such methods, but ultimately I’m with Ted on this: even if it might just be right, it’s inherent to the method that you can’t know that… That doesn’t invalidate Professor Metcalf’s relative conclusions, however!

8. See Helena Hamerow, “Settlement Mobility and the ‘Middle Saxon’ Shift: rural settlements and settlement patterns in Anglo-Saxon England” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 20 (Cambridge 1993), pp. 1-17.