Objects in focus
The die that struck Britain’s first coins?

One of the most recent acquisitions made by the Department of Coins and Medals is a highly unusual object – an ancient punch or ‘die’ used to manufacture coins in the second century BC. The die was found in Bredgar, Kent by a metal detector user in 2013 and is being used to shed new light on when the first coins were made in Britain.

Iron age coin die

Iron Age coin die. 200 – 150 BC, Bredgar, Kent, Copper-alloy, Diam. 2.6 cm, British Museum 2014,4014.1. (Photo (c) Trustees of the British Museum)

 

Iron Age coin die, showing two sides and the face. 2014,4014.1

Iron Age coin die, showing two sides and the face. British Museum 2014,4014.1. (Photo (c) Trustees of the British Museum)

The earliest coins found in Iron Age Britain date from around the second century BC and, until recently, it was believed that they were produced in Gaul (a region roughly equivalent to modern day France and Belgium) and imported into south-east England. These coins, known as Gallo Belgic A, were based on the gold coinage (staters) issued by King Philip II, ruler of the Greek kingdom of Macedon from 359 – 336 BC and father of Alexander the Great.

Gold stater of Philip II, showing obverse (front) and reverse. 1911,0208.2

Gold stater of Philip II, showing obverse (front) and reverse. 345 – 310 BC, Greece, Gold, Diam. British Museum, 1911,0208.2. (Photo (c) Trustees of the British Museum.)

Gallo Belgic A stater_544

Philip’s coin shows a representation of the god Apollo on one side and a chariot drawn by two horses on the other. Iron Age coins derived from these staters carry abstract versions of these images. The hair and laurel wreath on the image of Apollo, for example, are much exaggerated. Similarly, the image of the horse on the reverse of the coin has been stylised and is reminiscent of the Prehistoric chalk horses found on the hillsides of Britain, such as the one at Uffington.

Aerial view from a paramotor of the White Horse at Uffington. Photo by Dave Price and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons licence

Aerial view from a paramotor of the White Horse at Uffington. (Photo: (c) by Dave Price and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons licence)

Close examination of the coin die revealed that it was used in the production of the early Gallo-Belgic A coins. What this means is that, although it is the third Iron Age coin die to be found in the UK (the others are also in the British Museum), it is almost certainly the earliest. The most significant aspect of this discovery is the fact that it is a British find. This raises the intriguing possibility that the earliest known coins from Britain were actually made here and not just imports from the Continent.

Gallo-Belgic B coin die. 2005,0418.1

Gallo-Belgic B coin die. 200 -125 BC, Copper alloy, Alton, Hampshire, British Museum 2005,0418.1. (Photo: (c) Trustees of the British Museum)

Around 250 Gallo-Belgic A coins are known from Britain and France, but unfortunately the new die cannot be linked to any of them. This fact has been used to suggest that it may have been a forger’s die. In reality, however, we can read very little into the fact that we do not have an example of a coin struck using this die. Little is known about the mechanics of coin production in the Iron Age and, in particular, about the authorities that produced them. The distinction between an ‘official’ and a ‘forger’s’ die may not be have been relevant in Iron Age society. A programme of scientific analysis will tell us more about how the die was made and used, but its precise origins are likely to remain a mystery.



The die is on display in the Citi Money Gallery.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

To find out more about what to do if you find an ancient coin or other artefact with a metal detector or otherwise, visit the Portable Antiquities website, where we answer frequently asked questions about treasure and other finds.