09.07.03, Abramson, ed., Studies in Early Medieval Coinage

Main Article Content

Alan M. Stahl

The Medieval Review baj9928.0907.003


Abramson, Tony, ed.. Studies in Early Medieval Coinage, Vol. 1: Two Decades of Discovery. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2008. Pp. 204. ISBN: $80.00.
ISBN: 9781843833710.

Reviewed by:
Alan M. Stahl
Princeton University

The studies in this volume treat, from a very wide range of methodologies and disciplines, a specific segment of early medieval coinage: silver coins of the seventh and eighth century circulating on the English and Continental sides of the North Sea, which are generally called sceattas by modern scholars and collectors. These small coins rarely have any inscriptions or other indications of origin, so their attributions must be based on find spots and comparisons with other series. In the past few decades, the study of sceattas has been taken up by archaeologists and art historians as well as a growing cadre of numismatists, and attributions that were once mere guesses can now be evaluated on the basis of substantial amounts of evidence.

Many of the articles in the volume under review were presented at a symposium held in Cambridge, England, in 2006; the two decades invoked in the title refer to the time passed since a previous symposium on sceattas had been held in Oxford (actually in 1984). In fact, as several of the contributions point out, the signal dates in the study of the coinage could be given as 1977, when Stuart Rigold published a brief article setting out the classification of the issues that stands as the basis of subsequent discussions; or as 1993- 94, when D. M. Metcalf published the three volume corpus Thrymsas and Sceattas in the Ashmolean Museum Oxford, which summarized the state of the field and introduced modern techniques of analysis to a subject that had been dominated by antiquarian approaches.

Most of the contributions to the publication under review are short essays crafted to meet the circumstances of a one-day conference or the request for supplemental papers to round out the volume. Newcomers to the field will probably find themselves lost in the minutia of series designation letters and sub-type names. Those seeking a systematic introduction to the early coinage of Anglo-Saxon England and Frisia will be advised to work their way through the discussions in Metcalf's Corpus, and use the studies in the present volume as a sample of the scholarship of the present day and a preview of that of the future.

One of the principal sources of the growing interest in sceatta study has been the enormous proliferation of newly published finds, some with full contexts and others with frustratingly limited ones. An example of the former type is in the report by Claus Feville, "Series X and Coin Circulation in Ribe," (pp. 5267) where a careful analysis of stratigraphic finds from more than three decades of excavation gives a chronological as well as geographical dimension to the attribution: not only was the series in question (commonly known as the Wodan/Monster type) minted in the region of the Jutland site (and possibly at the emporium itself) in the mid-eighth century, but examples of the issue continued to be lost until well into the ninth century, after Carolingian reformed pennies had taken over the circulation in other parts of the continent.

An example of less satisfying provenance information is found in "Sceattas from a Site in Essex" by Mike Bonser and Tony Carter (pp. 91-95). The authors explain that "the detector user, who is known to both of us, agreed to allow his coin finds to be examined and published on condition that the location was not revealed... The productive area...has produced Celtic, Roman and medieval coins...through to late medieval. The total number of coins, which have all been single finds, numbers several hundred." Despite the value of the publication of photos of twenty of these specimens and the knowledge contributed by the information that they were found in Northwest Essex (in the end rather little), one cannot but be alarmed at the apparent systematic destruction of an archaeological site of at least a millennium's duration.

Many of the new additions to the corpus of sceattas with known provenance derive from relatively recently enacted antiquities legislation in England and Wales: the Treasure Act of 1996 and the Portable Antiquities Scheme introduced soon thereafter. While coin hoards are subject to state regulations similar to those of other European countries, coins found singly can be shown to regional experts who record them and their findspots for inclusion in an online database. An online search at http://www- cm.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/dept/coins/emc/emc_search.php reveals more than 2,300 coins of the period in question with known provenance, most found within the past decade.

The availability of these specimens on the internet (along with unprovenanced ones on such sites as eBay) has allowed such intensive studies as "The Sceattas of Series D" by Wybrand op den Velde in collaboration with D. M. Metcalf (pp. 77-90), which divides a predefined series into three distinct issues on the basis of die-strings and suggests that while most are of Frisian origin, certain varieties were probably minted in England.

The growing precision in attributions presented in this book has allowed archaeologists, historians and art historians to draw new inferences about this poorly documented era. In "Series K: Eclecticism and Entente Cordiale," (pp. 45-52) Anna Gannon uses the new data to push the iconographical observations she made in her 2003 book on The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage [cf. TMR ID 04.02.21] in respect to several animal representations. In "Thrymsas, Sceattas and the Cult of the Cross," (pp. 23-30) Ian Wood uses new coin evidence to sound a note of caution about the apparent references to Constantine's conversion in the imagery associated with early Anglo-Saxon kings. John Newman's "Sceattas in East Anglia: An Archaeological Perspective" (pp. 17-22) combines artifact distributions with those of coins to examine the origins of early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, while Richard Hodges in "Fifty Years after Dunning: Reflections on Emporia, their Origin and Development" (pp. 113-18) suggests how the growing knowledge of minting contributes to an understanding of the rise of trading settlements in the North Sea region.

This book is announced as the first volume in a series devoted to current research on sceattas. In view of the potential of further findings on this large and complex coinage to illuminate the history of the transition of the North Sea region from a marginal fringe of the late Roman world to the center of new medieval civilizations, this is a welcome prospect.

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Author Biography

Alan M. Stahl

Princeton University