Saturday 6 June 2015

The distribution of Numidian coins recorded from Britain since the nineteenth century

The aim of the following post is simply to share a distribution map of Numidian coins that have been found in Britain since the nineteenth century. These coins were minted in the ancient North African Kingdom of Numidia and fall into two distinct groups, those issued in the mid-first century BC–early first century AD and those issued during the second century BC.

The distribution of Numidian coins recorded from Britain (drawn by C. R. Green). The above map is based on data from the Portable Antiquities Scheme, Historic England's Pastscape database, J. G. Milne, Finds of Greek Coins in the British Isles (Oxford, 1948); and R. D. Penhallurick, Ancient and Early Medieval Coins from Cornwall & Scilly (London, 2010).

A worn silver denarius of King Juba I, 60-46 BC, of Numidia, North Africa, found in southern Lincolnshire (image: PAS).

Although there are relatively few Numidian coins known from Britain compared to many other early non-Roman types—especially Carthaginian issues of the fourth and third centuries BC, which dominate the record of Greek autonomous coins from Britain—there are nonetheless enough to be at least worth noting, and their spatial distribution would appear to be of some interest. On the whole, these North African coins fall into two groups, with the first group representing issues of King Juba I of Numidia (60–46 BC) and his son, Juba II (29 BC–AD 24). Of these, only a single coin of Juba II is recorded in the material surveyed here (from Piercebridge near Darlington), whilst eight of Juba I are reported. In general, these coins of the mid-first century BC–early first century AD have a marked inland, central and eastern distribution within England, although there is a western outlier contained in a somewhat dubious hoard of coins found at Bath in 1806. With regard to when and how these North African coins of Juba I came to be in Britain, it is worth noting that in the 1960s–70s a silver coin of Juba I of Numidia was found 'stuck' to a silver unit of the Icenian King Prasutagus (c. AD 50–60). Similarly, a number of the coins recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database were found singly within first-century AD hoards of Roman coins, such as those from 'North Suffolk', near Mildenhall, and Sutton (all Suffolk). The latest coins in these hoards date from AD 82–3, AD 79, and probably AD 37 respectively, whilst the report attached to the PAS record of the 'North Suffolk' hoard notes that 'Coins of Juba I are known to have circulated in Britain with Roman denarii, being of similar weight and size'. As such, the Numidian coins of Juba I and Juba II are probably best seen as genuinely ancient imports to Britain, arriving from the Continent with Roman coins either towards the end of the Late Iron Age or in the immediate post-Conquest period.

Map of the western and central Mediterranean in the period c. 148–121 BC, showing the extent of the Kingdom of Numidia in the reign of Micipsa, depicted here in light pink (image © Ian Mladjov, as per the licence).

The second group consists of coins of the second century BC that were minted by two of the early, great Numidian kings, Masinissa (202–148 BC) and Micipsa (148–118 BC), chiefly the latter. Masinissa was the first king of the unified Kingdom of Numidia, which was established in the aftermath of the defeat of Carthage in the Second Punic War of 218–202 BC. Micipsa was his son, who initially ruled Numidia with his brothers for a short period before becoming sole king through until his death in 118 BC. What is particularly of note here, however, is the very different distribution of these coins within Britain compared to those of Juba I—whereas the latter are found primarily inland in central and eastern Britain, the second-century BC coins have a distribution that is in the main coastal, western and southern. This contrast is clearly visible on the above distribution map and suggests that we could well be dealing with a rather different phenomenon to that which led to the presence of the first group of North African coins in Britain. In other words, if the coins of Masinissa and Micipsa are indeed ancient losses, then they probably arrived in Britain in a different manner and/or at a different time to the coins of Juba I and Juba II.

With regard to whether or not these second-century BC coins are, in fact, ancient losses, and when and how they might have arrived, two further points are of particular relevance. First, there are now a number of these coins known from Britain, as the above map shows, and they have not only been found widely distributed along the southern and western coasts of Britain, but also over a long period of time, from the early nineteenth century through until the early twenty-first. As such, the notion of them all being losses from modern collections might seem somewhat implausible. As Martin Biddle has noted with reference to a number of other primarily second-century BC coins from North Africa found in Britain (those of Ptolemaic Egypt), '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. The number of finds and the very various dates and places of their discovery demand some other explanation.' Whilst there are significantly fewer Numidian coins known from Britain than there are Ptolemaic issues, never mind Carthaginian, there are still arguably enough of them now recorded from a sufficiently wide area for this point to have a degree of validity in their case too. In other words, these coins probably similarly ought to be given the benefit of the doubt and treated as genuinely ancient losses, given their number, distribution and varying dates of discovery, unless there is obvious evidence to the contrary.

A Numidian coin of Micipsa (148–118 BC), found close to the Severn Estuary at Woolaston, Gloucestershire, and recorded as CCI 00.1404 (image: PAS)

Second, some of the find-spots of these early Numidian coins are of considerable potential interest. One of the coins of Micipsa plotted on the above map was, for example, discovered over four feet down at Mount Hawke (St Agnes), Cornwall, in 1981. Even more significantly, another was dug up in the nineteenth century at the massive and important prehistoric fort of Carn Brea, Cornwall, which was refortified in the Iron Age and has been the site of substantial finds of Celtic coins of the later second-century and first-century BC. Needless to say, such find-spots and circumstances are highly suggestive, with the Carn Brea coin in particular often thought likely to have been a pre-Roman loss, given where it was found. Indeed, it is worth noting in this context that Roger Penhallurick in his recent detailed survey of ancient and medieval coinage from Cornwall indicated that he considered both of the Cornish coins of Micipsa to be probably genuine pre-Roman imports, perhaps having arrived in Britain in the later second century BC. Similarly, that there was some sort of association between the two coins of Micipsa found in southern Dorset and the nearby and recently-excavated major Iron Age port of Poole Harbour, Dorset (discussed in a previous post), is not at all implausible. In this light, it can be observed that J. G. Milne, at least, certainly considered both of the Dorset coins to be genuine pre-Roman imports of the second century BC, brought to Britain by Mediterranean traders who used that harbour.

This is really the limit of what we can say about this second, earlier group of North African coins found in Britain at the present time. In sum, there would indeed seem to be a case for considering these second-century BC Numidian coins to be genuine ancient losses that, given their distinct and very different distribution, arrived in Britain separately from the issues of Juba I and Juba II, perhaps in the second-century BC itself. Quite what mechanism they found their way to Britain by is open to debate, but Milne's suggestion that these and other Greek coins of the second century BC travelled here with traders from the Mediterranean (who were perhaps seeking tin) has not only been endorsed by Malcolm Todd and others, but could also help to make sense of the primarily coastal, western and southern distribution of these early Numidian issues, for what it is worth. Indeed, it might be legitimately wondered whether their presence might not in fact somehow represent a much smaller-scale, second-century BC continuation of the earlier and increasingly well-evidenced Carthaginian trading contact with Britain, which seems to have taken place principally in the third century BC and before.

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