Over the last twenty-five years there’s been a quiet revolution going on in British archaeology. During this time, the evidence from archaeological excavations has been joined by objects discovered by members of the public. These have been recorded of through a project covering England and Wales called the Portable Antiquities Scheme (or PAS for short). Run by the British Museum (along with numerous local partners), the PAS has so far recorded over one-and-a-half million finds since it began in 1997. This adds enormous amounts of new evidence from the distributions of objects across the countryside to the analysis of types of objects, their designs and decorations. Together all of this information helps us to understand the past in much more detail, and to tell new stories about how people lived their lives.

I’ve worked in the archaeology since the 1990s, over half of that time with the PAS as its National Finds Adviser for Early Medieval and Later Coinage at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford where I deal with coins reported to the Scheme which date from the fifth century and later. Through this work and my research on the early medieval period (the fifth to eleventh centuries AD) I’ve explored all sorts of diverse topics, including trade, hoards, burial rites, and coin designs. This has, in turn, fed into my book 50 Finds of Early Medieval Coinage, showing the reader the role, or roles, coins played in society, from stores of wealth and a means of exchange to amulets and propaganda.

A silver penny of Æthelred II ‘the Unready’ struck at the mint in Dover, Kent (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, 50 Finds of Early Medieval Coinage, Amberley Publishing)

When most of us think about what coins are for – if, in reality, we give it much thought at all – we think about buying and selling, trading or saving. During these activities, coins move around and, for historians, their circulation can be a very useful way to study ancient economies and trade networks. In other words, what happened to them once they left the mint and went hand-to-hand in transactions? This can involve ‘big data’, looking at all of the available evidence in the form of distribution maps, as I do in the book for silver pennies in eleventh-century England. This shows us that coins struck in different mint places – many towns had their own mints where coins were made – might circulate differently. The example I use (Find 44) explores the coins from Dover in Kent. This was a small mint, nowhere near the size of London’s, and the finds from the port are quite rare. When plotted on a map their distribution is much more limited than the overall pattern, with finds almost all from near to the coast showing that Dover’s contacts were mostly based around shipping and maritime links.

Map showing PAS-recorded finds from the mint at Dover recorded in comparison to all coin finds dating c.973–1066. (50 Finds of Early Medieval Coinage, Amberley Publishing)

A very different use for coins is their placement in graves. An example in the book (Find 6) is from Norfolk where the burial of a young woman, who died in the seventh century, sheds light on the use of coins as something other than just money. The objects placed with her in the grave suggest she was wealthy and important, including very high-quality gold jewellery and items imported from the Continent. On one necklace hung with gold objects were two coins, a loop added to each one so they could be worn. These coins were from southern France, exotic items whose presence illustrates how this woman, and most likely her wider family, were well connected and involved in trade networks to far flung places. That this young woman was buried in such a way as to highlight the importance of these long-distance connections shows their pivotal role in helping to define her identity and place in society.

Early Medieval Coinage
Two gold coin pendants found on a necklace in a Norfolk burial (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, 50 Finds of Early Medieval Coinage, Amberley Publishing)

The designs on coins are also important, telling us something about how those who issued them wanted to be seen. A good example are the coins of early Viking kings in Britain, who ruled parts of the country in the later years of the ninth century into the tenth. These kings quickly adopted Christianity and their coins are often used as ways to show this conversion. Sometimes it can be in quite subtle ways. A penny struck for Cnut of Northumbria (Find 34), who probably ruled in part of northern England around AD895–910, has as its design the letters of his name placed around a cross. These seem quite randomly located, but they are in fact in the order that a Christian would make the ‘Sign of the Cross’, and in doing so on a coin, it shows Cnut’s understanding of his new religion. 

Early Medieval Coinage
A silver penny of Cnut of Northumbria (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, 50 Finds of Early Medieval Coinage, Amberley Publishing)

These three examples are all very different, with diverse and surprising stories to tell. My 50 Finds of Early Medieval Coinage, illustrated with nearly 200 early-medieval coins and other objects, explores the seven centuries from the end of Roman Britain to the Norman Conquest. Using fifty specially chosen coins as its guide, this shows the reader that even the smallest of objects can tell the biggest of stories.

John Naylor’s book 50 Finds of Early Medieval Coinage is available for purchase now.