Narrative accompanying The Lure of Sceats, a talk in Matt Hill’s Virtual Festival of Coins, October 2020.
When considering sceats its appropriate to recall EF Schumacher’s dictum that ‘small is beautiful’. I am enthralled by these enigmatic, alluring fragments of history which open a portal to the economic vibrancy, religious beliefs, mythology, art and technical competence of what many mistakenly call the ‘Dark Age’.
I’ll briefly share some terminology to avoid confusion.
The Anglo-Saxon term for the tremissis is thrymsa, better called a gold shilling.
The sceat or sceatta is now usually referred to as an early silver penny.
The Dark Age is better termed the Conversion Period consequent upon Augustine’s papal mission of 597 to the Kentish court of King Æthelberht, and
Merovingian refers to the ruling dynasty in Frankia during the period under discussion.
The origins of early pennies can be found in the late Roman coinage, specifically the tremissis, one third of a solidus. The tremissis shown is referred to as the Victory type due to the reverse motif.
Tribes migrating to western Europe were in fact far from barbarous and quickly assimilated Roman customs and practices. Emulating Roman coin types, specifically the Victory tremissis, gave their currency authority and authenticity. Many so-called pseudo-Imperial Victory tremisses have been found in England, evincing the extent of early commerce between England and the Continental Gothic tribes.
In Frankia, the Victory type was eventually superseded by another long-lived coinage – the National Series naming the mint and moneyer. The existence of 800 minting places and 1,600 moneyers shows the sophistication and volume of Merovingian coinage. Again, many have been found in England as a result of commerce.
There have been very few hoards of this material found in England. The purse hoard found in Sutton Hoo ship burial mound,
contained 37 different Continental gold tremisses.
This princely burial is thought to be that of King Rædwald of East Anglia, who died around 624.
In recent years, a substantial hoard all of Continental origin, has been discovered at Fincham, west Norfolk, despite initial attempts to evade disclosure.
Conventionally, the Crondall hoard was held to be the earliest indication of English minting.
Designs emulated Roman prototypes, invoking Romanitas, the spirit of Rome,
or were Merovingian tremisses,
though the majority – 69 of the 101 pieces - were gold shillings in crude native styles.
Included among the Crondall coins were two shillings, eventually attributed to
Eadbald of Kent. Given the poor literacy of early inscriptions,
the reverse legend of this type has defied full interpretation. Some of the specimens now known, seem to read ‘London’ whereas others can be transliterated to give a blundered rendering: M E A LLOETUS
It is not a huge leap to read this as MELLITUS. Mellitus was one of several papal emissaries sent in 601 to support Augustine’s mission.
The York coins are not represented in the Crondall hoard, possibly as York is remote from Crondall. I have recently interpreted the York type shown here as reading
another of the Roman emissaries sent with Mellitus. Paulinus became bishop of York around 627, when Edwin was king of Northumbria.
Mellitus and Paulinus would have been steeped in both the economic and symbolic functions of coinage. It is quite conceivable that they influenced respectively Eadbald of Kent and his brother-in-law Edwin of York, to act in concert.
[READ TEXT FROM SLIDE].
I would suggest they both issued gold coins with a common purpose - to commemorate the erection of a church.
Returning to the Merovingian coinage found in England, over the 90-year duration of the Frankish National Series, the gold content fell as can be seen from this pale gold specimen.
Similarly, Anglo-Saxon gold shillings lost purity as volume increased and more transactions were brought into the economic net. Pada was the more prolific of the two issuers of pale gold shillings during this transitional phase.
A second, if less productive moneyer of the transition period was Vanimundus, possibly a moneyer from the Metz region of Frankia.
Recent archaeological evidence on
grave goods and
ice core analysis has advanced the transition from gold to silver by as much as two decades
to the 660s.
At a stretch, this may resurrect the formerly discredited association of the Pada coinage with Peada of Mercia.
The transition to a new denomination is complete with the disappearance of any gold content from what is now the silver early penny coinage. Again, only one denomination circulated – there was no small change.
Given the tiny module, better specimens may be regarded as among the best of early Anglo-Saxon art.
Sceats in collectable condition remain difficult to obtain. Rare varieties, those in outstanding condition, those with provenance and especially those with pedigree, attract a premium.
The phases of the early Anglo-Saxon penny vary between the north and south of England.
The primary phase is earlier and longer in the south.
The secondary is later and longer in the north.
Sceats of similar module, weight and alloy were issued in the regions bordering the North Sea: England, Netherlands, France, Denmark
certainly by kings and bishops, but probably also by merchants. The coins are interchangeable despite the huge variation in designs. The mix found in trading locations may indicate the range of commercial relations.
The emporia, or wics, are the mint places although some peripatetic striking is likely.
Although this map is well out-of-date, the wide dispersal of the coinage is clear.
Fundamentally, the coinage is a medium of exchange, although the denomination – worth, I would suggest, perhaps a day’s pay - remained too high to capture many regular transactions. Monetisation is inhibited by the absence of small change.
Metcalf estimated that the output of the Low Countries was prodigious – perhaps 27 million for Series D and twice that for Series E. Even if this is based on double the actual die longevity, half this volume, say 40 million coins, is massive – and not matched for several centuries subsequently. Nevertheless, partly due to the minute module, the survival rate is low.
Much was for trade with England, demonstrating the vibrancy of economic activity around the North Sea.
English law was codified from the start of the C7th but was based largely on cases brought before the judiciary. Many penalties were financial compensation for harm done with settlement enumerated in coin. The widespread reintroduction of coinage also facilitated payment of church dues.
Even though only the northern coins were literate, identifying each historically documented issuer clearly, the southern English sceats were largely uninscribed, but for a few notable exceptions. Despite this, the Christianising imagery is potent
and often expressed metaphorically
– the medium is the message for this Conversion Period coinage.
However, there are examples of ambiguity, often due to the issuers wanting to appeal to a spectrum of differing traditions. The coinage draws inspiration from these diverse traditions.
Influences include Roman, Byzantine, Germanic, Anglo-Saxon, Christian and pagan.
The coinage is divided by the Aston Rowant hoard conventionally dated to around 710.
The hoard consists of primary phase coins of conservative style. Classical coinage remains a major influence.
However, the subsequent coinage of the secondary phase displays an explosion of creativity with innovative designs though often the meaning remains tantalisingly beyond reach.
There is only slight evolution of style during the primary phase. The radiate bust of Kentish Series A, with its votive standard reverse is continued in
Series C, with an expansion into the Thames area
and into the Low Countries - in Series D.
It continues to the end of the secondary phase as East Anglian Series R.
C, D and R replace the lettering of Series A with runes – possibly an amuletic association with Bishop Eappa who, according to Bede, saved his abbey, Selsey, from plague.
The other main component of the primary phase is Series B, again displaying conservative styles, with a bird-on-cross reverse in a serpent circle.
This is continued stylistically, in the secondary phase, as Series J.
Stuart Rigold mapped out the primary series in 1960, then, in 1977, encapsulated the entire early penny classification in a mere 11 pages in the British Numismatic Journal. A paradigm of brevity.
A more comprehensive study is Metcalf’s magnum opus extending to nearly 700 pages plus lavish plates. However, his three weighty tomes were of academic gravity.
Anna Gannon made a ground-breaking contribution to the field with her study of iconography giving a scholarly tour of art historical forms, from which the engravers of sceats drew their inspiration.
My aim in creating Sceatta List was to improve access to this complex and neglected coinage, to simplify identification and give an indication of scarcity and value for the collector.
Occasionally the southern English sceats are graced by inscriptions, although a lack of historical documentation prevents identification of the issuers or moneyers named. Here we see a scarce Saroaldo, an extremely rare Valdoberhtus and an iconic Æthiliræd.
As already mentioned, also belonging to the primary phase is Series D from the Low Countries. Generally, the portrait is right facing. Metcalf held that what he called ‘lateral reversal’ implied imitative or unofficial design. However, this superb specimen demonstrates, as Rigold stated, that the lines between official and derivative are blurred.
The dominant Series E sceats from the Netherlands are present in England in substantial numbers evincing the depth of trade. Metcalf noted the prevalence of ‘porcupine’ sceats in sheep-rearing chalk uplands.
The eminent numismatist Humphrey Sutherland proposed the description ‘porcupine’ for want of a better description
– it is actually a degenerate bust and only becomes dominant in the secondary phase.
The origins of the reverse ‘votive standard’ can be seen in this roman type where the standard proclaims that the emperors has served 20 years, may he fulfil his vows for another 20. From the despairing and perplexed looks on the faces of the captives, this was not a universally popular plea.
Production of Low Countries’ sceats was prodigious – volumes were not subsequently exceeded for centuries.
For an in-depth study of, and comprehensive identification guide to, Series D and the incredibly complex Series E, I strongly recommend the Jaarbock volumes by Op den Velde and Metcalf.
English trading currencies in the secondary phase, notably Series R, were made in lower, but still significant, volumes. Note the longevity of the runes reading EPA and the continued use of the votive standard reverse. The immobile design is intended to convey stability and inspire confidence.
I would now like to take a closer look at some of the outstanding art in the southern secondary phase, although I claim no expertise in art history.
While the artistry has lost the engravers’ skills of classical times, these modelled portraits are not to be dismissed as crude. They contrast starkly with the disintegrated runic busts of the mass-produced Series C, D and R.
Regarding this last coin, forward facing portraits recall Byzantine images. As Rory Naismith has written, they are ‘perceived as carrying an air of serene disconnection that was thought especially proper for Christ and the saints.’
Forward facing portraits were already present in the primary phase as shown by Series Z,
which evolves through several stages.
Here we have a portrait with a distinctly haunted appearance.
This last one, a unique specimen, is particularly charismatic, perhaps portraying a death mask.
The reverse displays a creature conventionally described as a hound but appears to me more like a wild boar – a venerated symbol from the classical world and northern European mythology.
On the Benty Grange helmet, the pagan boar, associated with protection, faces towards a cross on the nasal in a display of syncretism, the fusion of ideologies.
This carved side panel of St Cuthbert’s coffin shows a similar figure, with forked beard and halo, though the almond-shaped eyes appear to be open.
The coinage shows many twin standard bearers. This Series N specimen, unusually, shows them facing over a long cross pommée.
Note the stark contrast between the overt militarism of Roman prototypes and the humility of the early pennies: perhaps the observer was prompted to recall the biblical phrase ‘they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks’.
The allusions are to biblical precepts rather than military conquest.
Whilst the first shown here is a fairly typical example of the standard-bearer design, with cross and bird-of-prey,
the second is extremely rare and more complex. Note particularly, the tiny creature either side of the almost featureless head.
Often one or both long crosses are replaced by foliage.
This fifth, unique, image is remarkable in the number of crosses incorporated – two triquetras as headdresses, a long cross pommée either side, a pectoral cross and two more inverted at the hem – seven in all!
Perhaps the final, rather curious image recalls the biblical phrase ‘go naked…’?
The Roman origins of this obverse are self-evident.
The motif is also familiar from contemporary artefacts such as the stunning early C8th Franks or Auzon whale’s bone casket. On the left panel, the she-wolf lies on its back, with the twins above, back-to-back.
In the first coin, the twins are nourished by drops of milk, in the lower obverse, they hold a cross pommée between them.
However, the reverse is even more enchanting. A songbird is poised in long stalks of foliage, which bend to bear its weight. The imagery is rich in metaphor.
Returning to Continental sceats, In the secondary phase, the porcupine is full blown, and the reverse standard evolves into more complex forms.
This mass-produced coinage of the Low Countries, issued during the tenure of the powerful King Radbod, favours anonymity, possibly to enhance its currency. Rarely do we see portrayal. However, in the margin of this specimen is a tiny, beautifully crafted bird.
There are many iconic designs in this coinage.
Here we see a lion with a curling tongue, chevron mane and a cross above.
The Animal Mask type is a highly desirable rarity –
whereas Series H, with its reverse peacock, was made in substantial numbers in the Hampshire emporium of Hamwic. The peacock was a symbol of immortality due to the reputed incorruptibility of its flesh.
Incoming sceats to Hamwic would have been recycled into this local design. Dies are differentiated and enumerated by a wide variety of mintmarks on both obverse and reverse.
The final image on this slide, the swan, was illustrated in Withy and Ryall as early as 1756, but then disappeared from view for 240 years.
Although the plate is drawn by the notorious John White the sceats are faithfully portrayed.
The swan reverse is highlighted.
Shown below, is an example of Series M.
Series M has a sinuous animal obverse with vine-scroll reverse.
A rare variety has what Anna Gannon has described as a pascal lamb.
The reverse is familiar from many contemporary sculptures of inhabited vine-scrolls.
The mythological centaur has been reinterpreted in Series S from barbarity into a caring and nurturing Christian context, perhaps intended to reflect the journey of the Anglo-Saxons. The reverse displays a beaded spiral cross consisting of the tongues of four rotating serpents. Serpents are used ambiguously to convey protection in the Germanic tradition or a mortal threat in the Christian repertoire. So, possibly both sides project the same theme – an evolution from barbarity to morality.
A similar reverse has just three serpents, the triskeles, which is familiar from contemporary artefacts.
Including the hanging bowl from Sutton Hoo
and this beautiful pendant from Kent, whose design spirals outward.
This spiral of two creatures, probably birds rather than serpents, evokes the interlaced pattern prevalent on illuminated manuscripts and early Anglo-Saxon artefacts
– such as the elaborate buckle from Sutton Hoo.
This tiny, curled serpent looks ferocious with its barbed tongue.
However, this more complex construct envelopes the cross protectively.
Again, we are presented with a fierce serpent with a vicious forked tongue. However, the creature is surrounded by a second serpent. If this is to protect the observer, then the engraver is thinking on a higher plain.
In the second specimen the protective, enveloping serpent, is more clearly executed.
The geometric designs in the sceatta series tease the eye – such as this beautiful expanding Celtic cross, with rosettes filling the quarters.
The extremely rare cross ancrée also hides a pellet cross.
This annulet cross variety is set against a starry background. Not a scrap of space is left unfilled.
This horror of vacant space is a feature of the dense carpet pages of illuminated manuscripts. Perhaps an evil spirit will infiltrate the slightest void.
These geometric designs resonate with the wonderful garnet-encrusted, cruciform inlaid jewellery of the period. Here we see an abundance of intricate cross ancrées.
Here we see stepped elements in blue crystal,
and here in garnet.
Plausibly, some sceats with geometric designs are attempting to emulate jewellery.
The reverse of this geometric design is a backward-looking biped with a leg raised behind its head.
We see a beast in a similar posture on contemporary sculpture. The creature could be a custodian of treasure in the Germanic tradition, although it appears to be in terror-stricken flight.
The coinage is not only rich in metaphor, albeit it obscure, but is intentionally ambiguous. Is the snake emanating from the lion’s mouth hostile or protective?
It could be both!
Might it convey different meanings to diverse groups of observers depending on their origins and beliefs? There is much that lies tantalisingly beyond our comprehension.
Uniquely among ancient coins, pairing some sceats tells a story.
Here we have a wading bird with a serpent rising to attack from below.
On the second specimen, we have the foreground bird challenged by a pincer-jawed fiend.
In the third example, we have a confrontation between the backward-looking bird on the right and the opened-jawed serpent, left.
These all allude to the eternal conflict between Good and Evil. How will this be resolved?
In the first case, the bird tramples its attacker underfoot and now looks to the cross.
In the second, the serpent is replaced by the cross.
And finally, we have a more complex scene. The bird turns its back on the serpent and again looks to the cross. Remarkably the serpent actually looks crestfallen.
The observer is reminded of the biblical phrase ‘Get thee behind me, Satan!’
Of course, in the world of 2020, I may have got these pairings in the wrong order!
Historians, medievalists and archaeologists have catalogued every comparable contemporary artefact – stone sculptures, illuminated manuscripts, paintings and icons, carvings, jewellery and ornaments. Coinage remains the most fertile and yet most neglected source.
Now turning to Northumbria, which occupied a substantial area between the Humber and Firth of Forth. This was divided into two feuding sub-kingdoms.
To the north, Bernicia occupied a geographically larger area, ruled in the Iron Age by the Brigantes.
To the south, Deira was the rival dynastic house occupying a smaller area including the land of the Iron Age Parisii to the east.
Occupancy of the throne swung like a pendulum between these fierce dynastic rivals. In the C7th, nearly all Northumbrian monarchs died in the quest to conquer their territory. In the C8th, nearly all died in internecine conflict.
In 685, against the counsel of his advisors, including Cuthbert, the ambitious King Ecgfrith fought the Picts at Dun Nechtain. In the subsequent annihilation, he lost much northern territory, his army, reputation and life.
His austere half-brother, Aldfrith, succeeded to the throne. Bede referred to this monarch as “…a man most learned…(who) ably restored the shattered fortunes of the kingdom”. Sir Frank Stenton considered him equivalent to Alfred the Great in learning and strategy.
Aldfrith was the first king identifiably named on English silver coinage.
His only failing was the inadequacy of his succession. As a result, the kingdom was run by incompetents for a third of a century after his death.
No recognisably Northumbrian sceats were minted, but the deficiency was made good by use of southern sceats – predominantly of Series J and G.
Whether some elements of J are indeed northern emissions is a matter of debate.
A Frankish denier of Reims was unearthed near Bridlington – possibly a prototype.
Perhaps the design implies collaboration of church and state rather than confrontation.
The mirrored heads recall a stater of the Iceni in its iconography.
I will briefly speculate on a couple of other sceats with possible Northumbrian associations.
This type is Primary Series E, variety G from the Low Countries.
I have added an extremely rare variety with a reverse that departs from the normal beaded standard. The margin contains a legend starting VVILL… more clearly shown in another specimen. Within the compartment is a Y-shaped symbol and a crosier.
It was suggested to me by Professor De Wit that this may have been issued by Willibrodr, a Northumbrian emissary who became Bishop of Utrecht for 44 years. This long tenure mirrors the duration of Series E.
What may clinch the argument is that Willibrodr’s attribute was a crosier – as shown centrally on the coin.
A second type for which I have postulated northern associations – partly due to the northern findspots – is what I have dubbed the Fledgling variety. It’s more likely an osprey
– the one that Bede featured in his biographical ‘Life of Cuthbert’. On close inspection, our bird clearly has a fish in its mouth, with which it intends to give Cuthbert and his assistant sustenance on their sojourn.
Eventually, Northumbrian coinage was restored with the literate and handsome fantastic beast issue of Eadberht,
a significant improvement stylistically on Aldfrith’s efforts.
The beast could be a fusion of biblical lion and Celtic stag, recalling a popular pagan deity of the north.
Here we see a rock carving from Whithorn in Dumfries and Galloway.
There is also an obvious affinity of design between East Anglia and Northumbria.
The reverse of this sceat is the exceptionally rare stag variety of Series Q.
The occupant of the East Anglian Sutton Hoo mound burial hedged his bets between paganism and Christianity.
I’ll digress from Northumbrian coinage for a moment. The Gundestrup Cauldron features an antlered deity grasping a powerful snake. The stag represented a potent beast and the antlers exemplify the annual cycle of renewal and rejuvenation.
This cycle is recalled, for example, in the serpent border of Series B, where the universal, self-sustaining Ouroboros bites its own tail.
Another representation of the cycle of renewal and revival is the triple tail on many of the beasts shown on sceats. It is thought to represent the Tree of Life and its associated mythology.
Returning to Northumbria, the fantastic beast type continued for half a century after its revival by Eadberht, being issued by a succession of monarchs. However, Bede’s death in 735, denies us his perceptive judgment and historical perspective on their performance in office.
The only exceptions to the fantastic beast type were occasional joint issues, such as the two exceptionally rare types of the patrician king, Æthelwald Moll, one with Moll’s son Æthelred, even though his succession to the throne was interrupted by rival dynasts.
His other joint issue was with Archbishop Ecgberht.
It speaks volumes for Ecgberht’s diplomacy that he was able to issue jointly with a succession of rival dynasts after the retirement of his brother Eadberht.
In acknowledgement of Iconoclasm, under Ælfwald I, there was a transition away from Pagan – or indeed any – imagery in Northumbria.
The reverse now named the moneyer. This had the benefit of transferring responsibility for the integrity of the coinage to a named official, in this case Cuthheard, who was sufficiently resilient to serve a succession of rival monarchs.
Here we see Cuthheard again,
together with his fellow moneyers at Æthelred’s mint – all clearly by the same hand.
There is a suggestion in Stewart Lyon’s Sylloge that the last of these,
Cudcils (Cuthgils), was active after the devastating Viking assault on Lindisfarne in 793. The Cudcils sceat is of poor fabric, it is not engraved by the same hand and the workmanship had deteriorated – only to be expected under the relative austerity after the Viking attack on Lindisfarne – but the symbolism of the shrine could be a reference to the destruction of 793.
Unsurprisingly, the raid had great economic significance. The confidence underlying North Sea trade collapsed along with the coinage. Æthelred died in a revenge attack at Eardwulf’s behest in 796, and we know of a mere handful of sceats of the mighty Eardwulf.
796 also saw the deaths of Offa of Mercia and his successor – the Northumbria scholar Alcuin refers to it as ‘The Black Year’.
Given the exogenous shock of Lindisfarne, the north was in no position to migrate to the broad penny introduced by Offa and his contemporaries, following Frankish precedent.
The only known moneyer for Eardwulf was the enduring Cuthheard.
Eardwulf was one of two patrons of Breedon-on-the-Hill. This imposing church is replete with sculpting of the period, much of it comparable with motifs on the coinage.
Eventually, Eardwulf’s son’s Eanred resurrected the sceat, but the silver content was much reduced. This issue probably pre-dates Northumbria’s submission to Wessex at Dore in 829.
Could the moneyer possibly be the same Cuthheard?
Conventionally, these coins are regarded as stycas, but it is better to reserve that name for the truly base, subsequent coinage, issued until the Viking conquest of York in 867.
The unprepossessing and mass-produced styca was denigrated by most numismatists until this century. However, it represents a step change in monetisation, as the intrinsic value is, for the first time, commensurate with daily needs and provides the populace with a coin sufficient to surrendered to the church for the salvation of souls without it being too great a financial imposition. The church’s take is evidenced by substantial hoards of these base coins, in the absence of higher denominations.
I’ve only touched the tip of the sceatta iceberg. There’s still so much we don’t know, and we shouldn’t confuse belief with knowledge.
What isn’t surmise is conjecture.
29th September 2020