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Ancient coins reveal cross channel connections between England and Europe

An analysis of 49 silver coins minted in England, Belgium, the Netherlands and France, has revealed the cross channel connections that occurred during the 7th and 8th centuries AD.

At the time, there was a surge in the use of silver coinage in north-west Europe, which according to a new study published in the journal Antiquity, came from two distinct sources.

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“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,” says co-author of the research, Professor Rory Naismith from the University of Cambridge. “But there wasn’t any hard evidence to tell us one way or the other, so we set out to find it.”

To trace the origins, a team from the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, conducted a chemical analysis of 49 silver coins in the collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

The study revealed that the earlier coins, which date from AD 660-750, had origins in the eastern Mediterranean, suggesting that they were likely melted down silverware from the Byzantine Empire.

“It’s fair to say we were surprised by this result” states lead author Dr Jane Kershaw from the University of Oxford. “We know of some surviving Byzantine silver from Anglo-Saxon England, most famously from Sutton Hoo, but far greater amounts of Byzantine silver must have originally been held in Anglo-Saxon stores. Connections between Byzantium and Anglo-Saxon England were closer than most people think.”

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“This was quantitative easing, elites were liquidating silver stored in valuable objects and using that silver to make coins that then circulated widely” Dr Kershaw continues. “It would have had a big impact on people’s lives. Far more people than before would have used coined money and thought in terms of monetary values.”

In contrast, the silver used for the later coins, dating from AD 750-820, were sourced from Melle, in Aquitaine, France, around the time of Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire.

The authors suggest that Charlemagne precipitated a sudden and extensive increase in Melle silver by asserting tighter control over the production of coins within his kingdom. A comprehensive account from the 860s delineates how Charlemagne’s grandson, King Charles the Bald, reformed coinage by providing each mint with a small amount of silver as an initial fund to initiate the process.

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

Importantly, this highlights the efforts made by early medieval rulers to regulate their economies and displays England’s, specifically the kingdom of Mercia’s, dependence on French silver.

Header Image Credit : Antiquity

Sources : Antiquity | https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2024.33

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.
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