Sunday 8 February 2015

Ptolemaic coins recorded from Britain by the Portable Antiquities Scheme

The primary aim of the following post is to very quickly share a distribution map of Ptolemaic coins that have been recorded from Britain on the PAS. The coins mapped and briefly discussed below date from the reigns of Ptolemy I to Ptolemy VIII, c.323–127 BC, and were minted in Egypt, Cyprus and Libya.

Distribution of Ptolemaic coins dating from the reigns of Ptolemy I to Ptolemy VIII, c.323–127 BC, recorded from Britain on the PAS through to February 2015 (drawn by C. R. Green)

As can be seen from the above map, the PAS records a small but significant number of these coins from Britain, many of which were found on or near to the coast or major rivers. Jennifer and Lloyd Laing, writing before the PAS came into existence, noted that the corpus of 'Greek autonomous issues' then known from Britain was dominated by Carthaginian coins, rivalled only by Ptolemaic issues, and the finds recorded from the PAS reproduce this pattern, as can be seen from the following map of mint sites of Mediterranean Greek autonomous issues. The varying size of the circles depicted on this map reflect the relative numbers of pre-Roman Greek coins from that mint that have been recorded from Britain by the PAS, with Carthaginian issues (minted in North Africa, Sardinia, Sicily and Ibiza) clearly most common of all, but Ptolemaic issues (minted in Egypt, Cyprus and Libya) a close second, and then coins from other areas and dynasties—such as Marseilles, Macedonia and the Seleucid Empire—being much less frequently found.

Mints producing the Mediterranean Greek autonomous coins that have been recorded from Britain by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (drawn by C. R.. Green)

Needless to say, a key question with regard to these coins is whether they are best seen as modern or ancient losses. With regard to this, several points can be made. First, the PAS coins do not stand alone, but instead form part of a larger corpus of Ptolemaic coins found in Britain over the course of more than a century, which is sufficiently substantial that we would have to assume a quite surprising and arguably implausible number of careless nineteenth- and twentieth-century coin collectors existed in Britain in order to explain it away. As Martin Biddle argued in 1975, when discussing the eight to ten Ptolemaic coins found in and around Winchester (Hampshire) during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, 'the proverbial absent-minded college don or cathedral canon, dropping items of his collection here, there and everywhere... has never seemed a very convincing character', and the number of finds and extensive time period over which they have been made means that these coins should probably be seen as genuine ancient losses unless there is obvious evidence to the contrary, rather than modern losses or even hoaxes.

Second, if some of the Carthaginian coins are thought to have been ancient losses that arrived during Britain's Iron Age, rather than in the Roman period, then there seems little reason why the same cannot be true of the Ptolemaic issues too. Indeed, it is worth observing that, for example, the Winchester coins are probably to be associated with the Middle to Late Iron Age oppidum at Winchester.

Third and finally, the map of coin mints included above does not look quite how we might expect it to if the Greek autonomous issues that have been found in a Britain were simply a random selection of losses from modern-era ancient coin collections. As was the case with the pre-PAS finds that Jennifer and Lloyd Laing mention, the PAS dataset is clearly dominated by Carthaginian and Ptolemaic issues, with, for example, notably fewer Macedonian, Anatolian, Syracusan, or pre-Hellenistic (Classical) Greek autonomous coins represented. This differential loss is interesting and might well inspire some confidence that many of the pre-Roman Greek coins that have been been found in Britain are indeed genuinely ancient losses.

The distribution of all coins from the neighbouring Hellenistic Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires that have been found in Britain through to 2015, as recorded by the PAS, Pastscape and Milne (image: C. R. Green). Note, the predominantly coastal and riverine distribution of these coins is of some potential interest in light of the discussion of the possible origins of Ptolemaic coins found in Britain offered above, and it is furthermore worth observing that at least one person buried in fourth–third century BC Kent is now thought likely to have actually grown up in the Nile Delta. Although the majority of the coins plotted here are Ptolemaic, a small but notable proportion are Seleucid, particularly from Exeter; in 1987, Malcolm Todd followed Milne and Goodchild in arguing that these coins may credibly reflect visits by eastern Mediterranean traders to the Exe Estuary/south coast in the pre-Roman period (and note here the Mediterranean anchor and Mediterranean-style harbour of this period recently discovered at Plymouth and Poole, respectively), although the Exeter collection of Hellenistic and later coins has also been conversely subjected to a degree of (arguably somewhat hypercritical) scepticism by George Boon too.

Map of the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires in c. 200 BC, drawn by Thomas Lessman (image: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0).

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2015, 2016, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.