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From Aug 2006 - Nov 2013 WeDig provided a live forum for diggers & fans of Vindolanda. It has now been mothballed and will be maintained as a live archive.

Here you will find preserved 7 years of conversation, photos, & knowledge about a site many people love. Vindolanda gets under the skin. (Figuratively and literally as a volunteer excavator!) It's a place you remember, filled with people you remember!

Thanks for 7 great years!

A Guide to Coinage at Vindolanda


The Roman economy was a money economy. Coin circulation was the lifeblood of commerce across the Empire. Quite simply, coinage made Roman civilization work. And in frontier regions like Hadrian's Wall, soldiers' pay provided the major source -- the spigot -- for this coinage. Large chunks of cash were immediately taken from garrisons and placed into the local economy for bulk necessities like grain. More trickled out through individual purchases of clothing, armour repairs, household items, luxuries, tavern meals, brothel visits, what-have-you. For three centuries the army, with its regular pay, was the economic engine of nearly all commerce along Hadrian's Wall. An excavated coin isn't simply a random piece of old pocket change; it's part of a larger story. Coins found at excavations today can be invaluable clues to dating, to determining usage of a particular site, and to revealing the wealth/status of a community -- and the overall economic health of an era! All of this is true at Vindolanda. At Vindolanda, coins are a fairly ubiquitous find, and always of interest. Hopefully this brief primer will help a new digger learn a bit about this fascinating topicThe references at the bottom of this page including Casey's book on the topic and the Web sites of two Roman coin experts/enthusiasts are invaluable in providing more depth & detail.. This guide won't delve too deeply into actual Roman economics (it couldn't hope to). But it will hopefully help put those little discs of metal into context.

Coinage in the Roman world was more than money, it was propaganda. It generally showed the portrait of the Emperor (or his wife) on the front, often with his titles and accolades. The reverse represented the changing times & tides of Empire. 1st & 2nd C coins often glorified Roma or one of the gods/goddesses of wisdom, family, peace. 3rd C coinage tended to emphasise and praise the army. 4th C coinage tends to be militaristic, with images of fortress gates or subdued barbarians, and inscriptions declaring the "return of happy times." They are snapshots of a living world, and valuable for that reason in their own right. Beyond propaganda, study of Roman coins can tell much about the condition of the Empire over time, and offer windows into the goings-on of individual sites such as Vindolanda.

Roman coinage was originally based on the intrinsic value of the metals used. A large copper coin was worth more than a smaller one simply because it had more copper. Similarly, silver was worth more than copper, and gold more than silverGold was never a true "circulating" coin. It was paid in tribute, and used for massive transactions. Silver, copper, and brass were the workhorses of the Roman economy.. Sadly, the story of Roman coinage over the centuries is one of inflation and protracted debasement. A silver denarius of the late 1st Century was almost pure silver. By the middle of the 3rd C, so-called "silver" coins were actually 97% base metal with a little silver swirled in. Over time these trends pushed lower-denomination coins into oblivion, and finally ground the money economy nearly to a halt. The early 4th C saw a radical overhaul of the entire monetary system, but this too was followed by slow degenerationThis time it was degeneration of size rather than fineness. Late 4th C silver coins kept their purity for the most part. However, they were half (or less!) the size/weight of their early 4th C counterparts. through the end of Roman Britain in about AD410.

Overall, it's possible to lay out three main phases (realizing that some other interesting, but brief, forays were attempted on occasion). The earliest phase, originally set up under the first Emperor, Augustus, survived into the 3rd Century. Its breakdown was basically as follows (major denominations shown, with their ratio in value underneath):

aureus (gold)

Aureus of Septimius Severus, c. AD193
size generally 18-20mm
(picture courtesy Wikipedia.org)

1
denarius (silver/silver alloy)

Denarius of Domitilla, daughter of Vespasian, c. AD82
size generally 18-20mm
(picture courtesy Wikipedia.org)

25
sestertius (brass)

Sestertius of Hadrian, c. AD125
size generally 32-35mm
(picture courtesy Wikipedia.org)

100
dupondius (brass)

Dupondius of Trajan, c. AD105
size generally 23-26mm
(picture courtesy Wikipedia.org)

200
as (copper)

As of Nero, c. AD66
size generally 23-26mm
(picture courtesy Flickr.com)

400
semis (brass)

Semis of Nero, c. AD60s
size generally 16-20mm
(picture courtesy Flickr.com)

800
quadrans (copper)

Quadrans of Augustus, c. 5BC
size generally 13-15mm
(picture courtesy Wikipedia.org)

1600

Relation to Coins Found at Vindolanda

The contemporary levels where these coins can be found are Periods I through VI-B (and some early Period VII levels). Gold at Vindolanda is very rare. Denarii are common, as are high-value copper coins (sestertius, dupondius, and as). Denarii are 18-20mm large, and can come up with purplish-grey corrosion from higher levels, or almost pristine from deeper, sealed layers. A sestertius will be over 30mm large, while a dupondius/as will be about 23-26mm. Copper & brass from higher levels can be badly corroded, but in deep deposits can come out almost pristine, or with beautiful verdigris.

By the beginning of the 3rd C. Emperors were churning out ever larger quantities of denarii (the coin of choice for the army) to support the troops, and they simply didn't have the silver for it. So the silver content of new coins plummeted dramatically year by year. This in turn led to massive inflation, as everyone knew that a new "denarius" wasn't worth anything like its older counterparts. This downward spiral eventually pushed the old small brass & copper coins out of existence. (It simply wasn't convenient to have to walk around with literally hundreds of the heavy copper coins just to buy bread.) The old Augustan system needed a revamp.

In AD215 the emperor Caracalla created a new coin, known now as the "antoninianus." It seems to have been meant as a double-denarius. (The image of the Emperor on the front of this coin had a "radiate" crown-like figure on his head, as opposed to the usual laurel wreath. The same effect had been used on the dupondius to show it as a "double-as.") After a couple false starts, this became the coin of choice for payment to armies of the 3rd Century. Fractional copper & brass coinage production ceased. Later, denarii & sestertii also disappeared one after another, until by the 260s antoninianii were about the only thing being minted anymore. For our purposes, 3rd Century coinage can be broken down (again, -very- roughly) as follows:

aureus (gold)

Aureus of Macrinus, c. AD218
size generally 18-20mm
(picture courtesy Wikipedia.org)

1
antoninianus (silver alloy, later mostly base metal)

Antoninianus of Philip, c. AD248
size generally 18-20mm
(picture courtesy Flickr.com)

12 1/2
denarius (silver alloy)

Denarius of Elagabalus, c. AD220
size generally 18-20mm
(picture courtesy Wikipedia.org)

25
sestertius (brass)

Sestertius of Gordian, c. AD238
size generally 32-35mm
(picture courtesy Wikipedia.org)

100

Relation to Coins Found at Vindolanda

The contemporary level where these coins can be found is Period VII. Gold at Vindolanda is very rare. Antoninianii are common (as are counterfeits and barbarian copies!). Denarii and sestertii of this period can be found. Antoninianii & contemporary denarii are 18-20mm large, and can vary from passable/fair quality (early 3rd C) to silver-washed base metal (later 3rd C). High-quality specimens can come up with purplish-grey corrosion from higher levels, or almost pristine from deeper, sealed layers. Most will be baser specimens, either black & corroded or sometimes with a nice toning/verdigris. A sestertius will be over 30mm large, and can be badly corroded, but in deep deposits can come out almost pristine, or with beautiful verdigris.

Finally, by the early 270s, a long string of civil wars led to the last, utter collapse of the Augustan system. Inflation had outstripped the best efforts of successive Emperors (legitimate & otherwise). Desperate to keep up, the Empire flooded the market with literally millions of junk-metal "antoninianii," with disastrous results. Trust evaporated, the bottom fell out, and the cash economy largely collapsed. Trade reverted to a barter economyThere was also a brisk trade in very old & worn, but higher-quality, silver coinage. The exchange rate for these coins isn't known. It's likely that they were exchanged on an ad hoc basis, agreed between vendor & buyer. for much of the next generation, although Aurelian and later Diocletian both made major efforts at currency reform. It took Constantine in the early 4th Century to stabilize a new system of coinage. He reintroduced a new gold standardThis standard, based on very high-grade gold at a rate of 72 coins to the Roman pound, was ferociously guarded from here on. It actually survived in various later kingdoms/empires until at least the 11th Century., restored silver to the system, and returned money to the forefront. However, the late 3rd C crisis had uncoupled gold and silver from each other. Their relative values now fluctuated year by year, and would until the end of Roman Britain. This and other 4th Century crises led to a wildly confusing & competing set of silver, silver-alloy, and bronze coinages. In the end, dozens of different coin series with dozens of different sizes & weights floated on the market at the same time. That said, a few major series of the 4th Century economy looked broadly as followsAs a quick note, nearly all 4th C coinage shows the Emperor with an Eastern-style diadem on his head. The old laureates & radiates are gone. If your coin has a diadem, it's 4th C.:

solidus (gold)

Solidus of Julian, c. AD361
size generally 15-16mm
(picture courtesy Wikipedia.org)

1
miliarense (silver)

Miliarense of Valens, c. AD375
produced sporadically, possibly ceremonial
size generally 18-20mm
(picture courtesy kenelks.co.uk)

~14-15
siliqua (silver)

Siliqua of Jovian, c. AD363
produced in both "heavy" and "light" thickness
size generally 15-18mm
(picture courtesy Wikipedia.org)

~25 (early) - ~60 (late)
nummus & fractionals (base metal or vaguely silvered)

Nummus of Theodosius I, c. AD380
sizes vary from 12-25mm
(picture courtesy DougSmith.ancients.info)

? (up to several thousand)

Relation to Coins Found at Vindolanda

The contemporary levels relating to this coinage are Periods VIII-IX. (As of yet there is no confirmed 5th C/Period X coinage known from Vindolanda.) Gold at Vindolanda is very rare. Silver & silver-alloy is also increasingly rare in later levels. 4th Century coinage at Vindolanda tends to be copper, leaded bronze, and occasionally silvered bronze specimens. The volume of 4th C coinage on-site is quite high. Most pieces are tiny, and had such low intrinsic value that it simply wasn't worth the owner's time to try to find it if one dropped.

An important note: As mentioned above, the wild fluctuation in size and quality of coinage over the centuries meant that many transactions were done on an ad-hoc basis. Old coins of higher quality could carry a premium, and were very sought-after. It is quite common on-site to find coinage that had been circulating for as much as 200 years! (Usually any such coin is a high-grade denarius of the mid-2nd C or earlier.) Plus, all the rebuilding activity at Vindolanda meant the ground was often churned up and relaid. Old, lost coins could be deposited as spoil in new contexts. So just because you're digging in a later level doesn't mean your potential coinage finds are limited to its date range. Unfortunately this all has negative effects on how useful a single coin can be in determining the time-frame of a particular trench.

So how does this knowledge help an excavator? First, individual coins may be good dating devices. For example, a coin from AD251 found under a flagged floor means that the floor cannot have been laid before AD251! Second, the presence or absence of coins from an area can give a big clue to the use of that area. For example, the western gate of the visible fort has been heavily excavated. No coin later than the mid-350s has been found. Since later coins can be found spread out all over the rest of the fort, this is a clue that this gate may have been blocked up & taken out of use by the late 4th C. Third, a large enough spread of coins over time can help an archaeologist learn whether a site had a typical or atypical economy for the period, compared to other sites. Taken together, this all has huge implications for understanding the site & its relation to the larger world. Every coin that you can retrieve from the soil is one more piece of the puzzle. So keep your eye out as you're digging!

As one last note, when you're digging, please never try to clean a very grotty coin beyond a simple soaking with water. It's tempting to try to find out what it is, but it's all too easy to damage a weakened coin's surface beyond recovery. Don't risk destroying information -- leave coin cleaning to the conservation team. You can always note the context you found it in, and follow up later to learn what it was.

References:
Vindolanda Excavations Reports: 1994, 2001-'02, 2003-'04, 2005-'06
Casey, P.J. Roman Coinage in Britain. Shire Archaeology, 1994.
http://dougsmith.ancients.info/
http://www.kenelks.co.uk/coins/roman/roman.htm

Page created by Harold Johnson