Home Archeology History Researchers Solve Mystery of Early Medieval Silver Coins

Researchers Solve Mystery of Early Medieval Silver Coins

by admin
A selection of coins analyzed by Kershaw et al.: Early Period coins - (a) series A early penny, (b) series E early penny, (c) Frankish denarius, Rheims; Late Period coins - (d) penny of Offa (757-796 CE), (e) denarius of Charlemagne (768-814 CE), Mainz (after 792/3 CE), (f) denarius of Charlemagne, Quentovic (after c. 812 CE). Image credit: Fitzwilliam Museum.

Between 660 and 750 CE, Anglo-Saxon England witnessed a profound revival in trade involving a dramatic surge in the use of silver coins. Scientists have recorded around 7,000 of these silver ‘pennies’ — about as many as we have for the rest of the entire Anglo-Saxon period (5th century – 1066 CE). For decades, experts have agonized over where the silver in these coins came from. Now, University of Cambridge’s Professor Rory Naismith and colleagues have solved the mystery by analyzing the make-up of coins held by the Fitzwilliam Museum.

A selection of coins analyzed by Kershaw et al.: Early Period coins – (a) series A early penny, (b) series E early penny, (c) Frankish denarius, Rheims; Late Period coins – (d) penny of Offa (757-796 CE), (e) denarius of Charlemagne (768-814 CE), Mainz (after 792/3 CE), (f) denarius of Charlemagne, Quentovic (after c. 812 CE). Image credit: Fitzwilliam Museum.

“There has been speculation that the silver came from Melle in France, or from an unknown mine, or that it could have been melted down church silver,” Professor Naismith said.

“But there wasn’t any hard evidence to tell us one way or the other, so we set out to find it.”

Previous research has tested coins and artifacts from the silver mine at Melle, but the study authors turned their attention to less-studied coins which were minted in England, the Netherlands, Belgium and northern France.

To begin, the researchers analyzed trace elements in 49 of the Fitzwilliam’s coins (dating from 660 to 820 CE).

Next, the coins were analyzed by ‘portable laser ablation’ in which microscopic samples were collected onto Teflon filters for lead isotope analysis.

While the coins mostly contained silver, the proportion of gold, bismuth and other elements in them guided the team to the silver’s previously unknown origins.

Different ratios of lead isotopes in the silver coins provided further clues.

In the 29 coins tested from the earlier period (660-750 CE), which were minted in England, Frisia and Francia, the scientists found a very clear chemical and isotopic signature matching 3rd to early 7th century silver from the Byzantine Empire in the eastern Mediterranean.

The silver was homogenous across the coins and characterized by high gold values (0.6-2%) and a consistent isotopic range, with no distinguishable regional variations among them.

No known European ore source matches the elemental and isotopic characteristics of these early silver coins. Nor is there any meaningful overlap with late Western Roman silver coins or other objects. These coins did not recycle late Roman silver.

“This was such an exciting discovery. I proposed Byzantine origins a decade ago but couldn’t prove it,” Professor Naismith said.

“Now we have the first archaeometric confirmation that Byzantine silver was the dominant source behind the great seventh-century surge in minting and trade around the North Sea.”

“These coins are among the first signs of a resurgence in the northern European economy since the end of the Roman Empire. They show deep international trade connections between what is now France, the Netherlands and England,” said University of Oxford’s Dr. Jane Kershaw.

The authors emphasize that this Byzantine silver must have entered Western Europe decades before it was melted down because the late 7th century was a low point in trade and diplomatic contacts.

“Elites in England and Francia were almost certainly sitting on this silver already. We have very famous examples of this, the silver bowls discovered at Sutton Hoo and the ornate silver objects in the Staffordshire Hoard,” Professor Naismith said.

Together, Sutton Hoo’s Byzantine silver objects weigh just over 10 kg. Had they been melted down they would have produced around 10,000 early pennies.

“These beautiful prestige objects would only have been melted down when a king or lord urgently needed lots of cash. Something big would have been happening, a big social change,” Dr. Kershaw said.

“This was quantitative easing, elites were liquidating resources and pouring more and more money into circulation. It would have had a big impact on people’s lives. There would have been more thinking about money and more activity with money involving a far larger portion of society than before.”

“We hope to establish how and why so much silver moved from the Byzantine Empire into Western Europe,” Professor Naismith added.

“We suspect a mixture of trade, diplomatic payments and Anglo-Saxon mercenaries serving in the Byzantine army.”

“The new findings also raise tantalizing questions about how and where silver was stored and why its owners suddenly decided to turn it into coins.”

The study’s second major finding revealed a later shift away from Byzantine silver to a new source.

When the team analyzed 20 coins from the second half of the period (750-820 CE), they discovered that the silver was very different.

It now contained low levels of gold which is most characteristic of silver mined at Melle in western France.

Previously obtained radiocarbon data has shown that mining at Melle was particularly intense in the 8th and 9th centuries.

The study proposes that Melle silver permeated regional silver stocks after c. 750 CE and was mixed with older, higher-gold stocks, including Byzantine silver.

In the coins minted closest to Melle, the proportion of gold was lowest (under 0.01%) while furthest away, in northern and eastern Francia, this climbed to 1.5%.

“We already knew that Melle was an important mine but it wasn’t clear how quickly the site became a major player in silver production,” Professor Naismith said.

“We now know that after the Carolingian dynasty came into power in 751, Melle became a major force across Francia and increasingly in England too.”

The study argues that Charlemagne drove this very sudden and widespread surge in Melle silver as he took increasing control over how and where his kingdom’s coins were made.

A detailed record from the 860s talks about Charlemagne’s grandson, King Charles the Bald, reforming his coins and giving every mint a few lbs of silver as a float to get the process going.

“I strongly suspect that Charlemagne did something similar with Melle silver,” Professor Naismith said.

“Management of silver supply went hand-in-hand with other changes introduced by Charlemagne, his son and grandson including changing the size and thickness of coins and marking their name or image on the coins.”

“We can now say more about the circumstances under which those coins were made and how the silver was being distributed within Charlemagne’s Empire and beyond.”

The findings give new context to Charlemagne’s delicate diplomatic relations with King Offa of Mercia in England.

Like Charlemagne, Offa took an active role in the silver trade and currency management.

Both kings saw trade and politics as inseparable.

In a surviving letter sent to Offa in 796, Charlemagne discussed trade in commodities as well as political exiles.

The pair also entered a trade embargo when a marriage negotiation turned sour.

“There was a lot of communication and tension between Charlemagne and Offa,” Professor Naismith said.

“Offa wasn’t in the same league, his kingdom was much smaller, he had less power over it, and he certainly didn’t have as much silver.”

“But he remained one of Europe’s most powerful figures who was outside of Charlemagne’s control.”

“So they maintained a pretence of equality. Our findings add to a dynamic that England and France have had for a very long time.”

“We have no doubt that people in England would have been very aware that their silver was coming from Francia and that they depended on it.”

“When commodities are only in certain places in limited quantities, questions of power and national interest will always come into play.”

“In the early Middle Ages, this transcended borders and rulers weren’t the only people involved.”

“Merchants, churches and other wealthy people all had an interest. Rulers taking much more direct action was new for this period.”

The team’s paper was published today in the journal Antiquity.


Jane Kershaw et al. Byzantine plate and Frankish mines: the provenance of silver in north-west European coinage during the Long Eighth Century (c. 660-820). Antiquity 98 (398): 502-517; doi: 10.15184/aqy.2024.33

Source Link

Related Articles

Leave a Comment

Pierre Rayer News
Universal scientific discoveries