General introduction to English sceats
(images not to
Without sound identifications and chronologies, all other research based on numismatic evidence is compromised.
Mark Blackburn, (2011) 596.
Following the Merovingian precedent, the Anglo-Saxon system developed into a hugely varied, single denominational, silver sceatta coinage of a value more, but not entirely, aligned to regular
economic needs. Romanitas remained a strong presence throughout this transition.
I have written elsewhere on Roman design influence.
Romanitas in secondary phase sceatta portraiture
of Series K and T,
(coin right, found south
A characteristic of sceatta iconography is the conflation of
motifs not conventionally combined. It seems that we may be confronted here
with intentional ambiguity, possibly to ensure that the Conversion message had
the widest possible appeal among coin users of diverse traditions. For
instance, serpents are used in a way conventional to the Christian repertoire to
represent evil, sometimes counterpoised with a bird representing the ‘holy-spirit’
(some Series J & Q variants), but are also used as protective or apotropaic
elements (e.g. an Uroboros on either side of primary Series B) surrounding
Rare Series J variant: the defeat of
evil in two acts.
Rare Series J variant: the defeat of
evil in three acts.
Series QII: the defeat of evil in two
acts (SL group 64)
Perhaps the Anglo-Saxon penchant for riddles and magic, with
the added lure of runes, influenced coin design. Dolley (1976, 353) commented
on: ‘a number of designs harking back to pagan motifs with all the confidence
of a neophyte Christianity as convinced of its own acceptance as eclectic in
its art.’ In contrast, the anonymous and crude rendering of Series E, may be an
attempt by pagan traders to gain currency by deliberately avoiding identity and
Series B: syncretic imagery -
apotropaic Uroboros Series E: intentional anonymity
Found Castle Acre, Norfolk (SL group 16) ‘from
France’ (SL group 97)
There is a reasonable assumption that the best executed
variety of each type is at the head of the series. For example, Series R,
emulating primary Series A and C, shows a steady deterioration in execution and
alloy over an extended period (c.710
- c.750). What started out as a
well-designed, if stylised, obverse bust degrades into a few component elements
and the reverse votive standard degenerates into geometric symbols.
Progression l-r through Series A (rare
Valdobertus variety, found at Thwing)
, C(Epa) to early R (Sledmere)
Deterioration l-r in late Series R
(Tilberht), saltire cross reverse (found Rotherham)
to geometric loss of identity (type
70, found Adwick-upon-Dearne, Doncaster).
The sceatta coinage is divided chronologically into two
phases by the Aston Rowant (Oxfordshire) hoard, deposited c.
catalogued the generally well-regulated primary series (which had commenced by
the 680s) prior to the metal-detecting era, but his work remains relevant. The
subsequent explosion of creativity in the Secondary series extended to
mid-eighth century and exhibits an erratic decline in style and alloy. The
coinage is also divided territorially, by the Humber, with the north literate
and the south rarely either.
Sceats are found throughout the North Sea trading area including
Denmark, Frisia, Francia and England. ‘There was a fair amount of North Sea
exchange, it is true. By the eighth century there was more of it than could be
found on the seaways of at least the western Mediterranean.’
Clearly, users were not troubled
by the wide variety of designs, presumably handling with confidence motifs not
previously seen. Moreover, standards of execution varied enormously – portraits
equivalent in artistic merit to the best of early Anglo-Saxon art are found alongside
unrecognisable, naïve specimens. Whilst coins from numerous, typically
and mercantile sources all fall
into a recognisable metrology, variations in size, weight, and alloy are not
inconsiderable. This possibly
indicates that recipients were reasonably tolerant of, and confident in, what they
could have regarded, to some extent, as a fiat currency, or that
standards changed over time, or differed between areas. These features are
characteristic of monetization.
Metrological variations in
circulating coinage, Series E and U.
The fineness of the output
varies erratically over time and between emissions, presumably determined by
the variations in the silver supply available to the issuer. It is worth noting
that there were domestic sources of silver
- not all supply required the
export of produce. Salzman mentioned a number of early northern sources for
silver including, Alston Moor in Cumbria; Ashford, Bakewell, Crich, Hope, Matlock,
Metesford, Wirksworth, in Derbyshire; and Weardale, in County Durham.
Reece listed the Mendips, the
Peak District and Flintshire.
Spufford dismissed hoards and political
action as viable long-term sources of the additional silver required for the
substantial sceatta coinage.
As the gold tremissis became
more debased, more silver was required for that coinage and, subsequently, this
may have been a source of supply for the sceat, but mining and trade flow must
constitute the main sources. MEC
that ‘the economic niche filled by the silver must have been quite different
from that of the gold’
and argued that a major source of silver for
minting in Merovingian Francia, was silver plate originally gifted by
senatorial families to the Church then secularised by Pepin – there were far
more ecclesiastical deniers struck than there had been tremisses.
England exported slaves and
wool, and Frisia brought pottery, brooches and Coptic bronze vessels. Silver
made up the balance in England’s favour. Frisia exported glass, bronze-work and
pottery to Scandinavia and received furs in exchange. Again, Frisia paid the
deficit in silver. Until its fall to the Franks in the 730s, Frisia sold on
these luxury goods to Francia in exchange for goods. Settlement would have been
in silver mined, most likely, from the argentiferous deposits at ‘Metullo’,
Melle, and minted initially at nearby Poitiers.
It remains uncertain what the value of a sceat may have
been. A single denomination equivalent to a day’s pay is a substantial,
indivisible amount not easily exchanged for the daily necessities of life. 
Page discussed the work loads of different ranks.
and Gannon (2003) remain the main sources for study of the classification
and iconography, respectively.
Abramson (2012d) is a
comprehensive visual guide to the main varieties. As the number of main
varieties now exceeds 630
(excluding sub-varieties), only
the Northumbrian varieties will be discussed in any detail. The well-executed, epigraphic
Northumbrian series allows greater discrimination in typology than is possible
elsewhere in the sceatta coinage.
a-d: Northumbrian Series Y (a & c,
737-58) and East Anglian Series Q (b, 740s & d, 725-45).
Sceatta reverses compared.
Findspots a-d: ‘4 miles east of York’,
Norfolk/Cambridgeshire, South Newbald and Harwell.
Sceats of Northumbrian
Series Y and East Anglian Series Q share syncretic design elements and styles. Series
Q is an imaginatively varied, well-executed and comparatively rare,
ecclesiastical coinage which complements Gipeswic’s
trading currency of the long-lived, abundant and conservatively designed Series
Abramson (2012a). As regards sources of
influence, Blackburn (2011 592) quoted the example of grave 22 at Brighthampton
containing a Roman hoard rediscovered in early Anglo-Saxon times.
Abramson, (2012a) p. 73-104, SL
Finds evidence from a probable hoard, offered at
auction by cgb.fr
in June 2013, suggests that the variety on the right was
possibly minted in Quentovic.
Abramson, 2012d 249 for an explanation of the
Mark Blackburn supported an early date for this exotic
species, (Chick 32).
Conservatism in coin design, even the
immobilisation of an idée fixe
used to inspire confidence.
Wickham (2005) p. 818.
other than Northumbrian.
Gannon 17, suggests that those with Christian
imagery were the emissions of minsters, though Marion Archibald had raised this
in an earlier, unpublished lecture on the Monita Scorvm
variety (T&S p. 435) and
in her contributions to Webster and Brown. See also Naismith in SiEMC
Abramson (2012b) 110. Millimetre scale shown.
which usually occurs with lead.
Sixty miles from where Charles Martel defeated the
Muslims at Tours in 732.
Abramson (2012b). At a gold to silver ration of 12:1 this would value a tremissis or gold
shilling at say two week’s pay, which would be reasonable in terms of a Roman
soldier’s pay. An alternative would be to assess buying power – early law would
suggest that a sheep is worth perhaps two to four sceats.
p. 94-5. He also makes the interesting suggestion
that blacksmiths made coins (82-3).
Metcalf (1994) addresses the questions: “where and
when the coins were struck, and in what quantities…how they circulated and…the
purposes for which they were used.” To these, Gannon’s adds a third approach –
the art-historical appraisal.
See Abramson 2012b for a critique of Cribb’s ‘Money
as Metaphor’, with its particular applicability to the iconography of sceats.
as at May 2015. See Abramson 2012d supplemented