Sunday, January 25, 2015

Coins in a museum - not as dull as it sounds

To the British Museum to see coins. Accidentally though, as my intention was to view a small exhibition about Indian Ocean trade in ancient times, of which more another day perhaps. Weaving my way last Tuesday through the galleries in search of room 69B, coins were in truth far from my thoughts. I normally have little difficulty walking past these quintessential museum objects, as they squat unblinking in their display cabinets. But a cluster of visitors round a small table aroused my curiosity. I discovered they were passing a small collection of coins from hand to hand, encouraged by a young curator named Kate whose only stricture was that we had to hold the coins over the table in case they fell through the cracks between the floorboards.

The bronze bar is mighty heavy. It's a tax remittance
Apart from the bronze bar, the heaviest was a copper 2d (bottom right, that’s a two-penny coin pronounced tuppeny piece) dated 1797. Jane Austen may have handled it. But unlikely, as it proved unpopular due to its excessive weight, and was withdrawn after a couple of years.  Known as a cartwheel.

A gold Dinar from Egypt around 1052 CE (top row, middle). Famed for the purity of its gold, it was much coveted in the West. Also much counterfeited in the West, using low quality gold.

When I was small my father read me Treasure Island of which my only abiding memory is a parrot chattering "Pieces of Eight" perched on Long John Silver’s shoulder, the prototype of all pirates. And that’s more or less all I knew. But now I can tell you that a piece of eight was 8 Reales (top right), also known as a Spanish Dollar. Struck from South American silver, it was the form in which the Spanish galleons transported their bullion across the Atlantic. By the late 18th century Pieces of Eight had become the first worldwide currency. 

A massive bronze bar weighed well over a kilogramme.  To pay your taxes in the Roman Republic, about 300 to 250 BCE, you had to buy one of these 'struck bronze' objects and take it to the tax office, or so we were told.  They are mentioned on this Wikipedia page, but not the bit about tax.

Silver siege money of the English Civil War (bottom row, middle). Minted in Newark in 1646, though minted may not be the right word as it wasn’t really a coin.  'Money of necessity' was issued by towns loyal to the King Charles, perhaps to reassure mercenaries, or simply to allow everyday transactions. Siege money was made from jewellery donated (I wonder?) by the citizens, and the one we handled had a hole near one corner, suggesting it was made into a pendant after the Restoration to proclaim “I fought for the king”.

Fakes, ancient and modern. £1 coins on the left, Roman on the right.
That was the end of the hands on session. Next, in a nearby case I came across the fakes. Roman coins and £1 coins. But the fake Roman coins weren't modern fakes to fool collectors, no: they were faked around 340 CE.  A hoard of 815 coins was found in Suffolk, faked from copper alloy. How do curators know they are fake, one wonders?  It's all here. And another fact: one in every 35 £1 coins in circulation today is a fake.

Lastly, what desperate circumstances impelled someone to bury this jug of gold coins under the floor in a house near Corbridge in Northumberland in 160 CE? They wedged two bronze coins in its neck in an attempt at deception, and never came back to reclaim their hoard. But whoever they were hiding it from didn't discover it either. It was found in 1911. When the jug was lifted the bottom fell out.

If you'd told me I was going to write a blog about coins in a museum I wouldn't have believed you. So there's a little lesson for us all.

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