Sunday 20 December 2020

A Middle Byzantine coin from Carbis Bay, Cornwall

The aim of the following brief note is simply to share a recent find of a late ninth- or early tenth-century Byzantine coin that was discovered amongst the rocks at low tide on Carbis Bay beach, Cornwall. Carbis Bay is part of the wider St Ives Bay, where several sites have produced finds of Early Byzantine material and there seems to have been a significant early medieval site at Phillack on the Hayle estuary. There are only a handful of Byzantine coins of this date found in Britain when compared to both earlier and later periods, so it is an interesting find, and may offer some further context for the interesting tenth-century description of Britain as 'an emporium (bārgāh) of Rūm' in the Persian Ḥudūd al-ʿĀlam.

A copper-alloy Byzantine follis of Leo VI, dating from the late ninth or early tenth century, found at Carbis Bay, Cornwall (images: Jon Mann/PAS).

The coin in question is a copper-alloy follis of the Byzantine emperor Leo VI, dating 886–912 and minted at the imperial capital of Constantinople, which is reported to have been recovered from amongst the rocks at low tide on Carbis Bay beach, Cornwall. Jon Mann kindly communicated this discovery to me and the find circumstances, and I have subsequently passed it on to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), where the coin is now recorded as CORN-9511B2.

Looking at the general find context of this coin, it is worth emphasising that this is not the only such discovery from the Cornish and Devonshire coast. For example, the PAS records a copper Byzantine pentanummium dating from around 527–641 that was found about 2 to 4 inches down in sand in a rock pool below mean high water at Perranporth and is obscured by fossil accretion from being in the sea, along with a silver denarius of Maximinus I (235–38) that was discovered in sand near rocks on the same beach. Likewise, on the south coast at Long Rock, near Penzance, an eleventh-century Anglo-Scandinavian stirrup mount was discovered buried in the sand, and at Otterton near Sidmouth, Devon, a Byzantine follis probably of Tiberius Constantine (578–82) was found on the beach below an early medieval fortified settlement.

Turning to the local context of the Carbis Bay coin, two points are worth emphasising. First, this is not the only Byzantine find from the immediate area. Carbis Bay is part of the wider St Ives Bay, and this area has produced Early Byzantine material from two or three separate sites: 
  1. The important 'post-Roman' specialised industrial complex at Gwithian, at the eastern end of St Ives Bay. This has produced both North African and eastern Mediterranean late fifth- to sixth-century fine-wares, along with a substantial quantity of eastern Mediterranean transport amphorae.
  2. The churchyard of Phillack church, on the dunes to the north of the Hayle Estuary's Copperhouse Pool. This site has produced fifth- and sixth-/seventh-century stone sculpture (a Chi-Rho stone and a memorial stone) and a rim-sherd of late fifth- or early sixth-century Phocaean Red Slip-Ware from what is now western Turkey, excavated from the churchyard in 1973. Furthermore, a significant quantity of mainly Late Roman coins have been discovered from a number of sites in Phillack in recent years, with this regionally unusual concentration of Late Roman non-hoarded coinage including coins from eastern Mediterranean mints such as Alexandria and Heraclea that are rarely represented amongst site-finds in Britain, suggesting that the links to the eastern Mediterranean began in the fourth century.
  3. The early medieval settlement site at Hellesvean, St Ives. There are records of post-Roman Byzantine imports from this site, including 5 sherds of African Red Slip Ware from the Carthage region and a possible sherd from a Biii Mediterranean transport amphora.
In addition to this, it is worth noting that there is a credible case to be made for the local saint of St Ives, St Ia, being in fact the Byzantine St Ia who had a shrine by the Golden Gate at Constantinople and who appears in the famous late tenth-century Menologion of Basil II, rather than some otherwise-unknown Irish saint. Second, recent metal-detecting has revealed a significant amount of medieval activity near to Phillack, around 3 km from Carbis Bay, with some of the finds pointing both to sixth- to eleventh-century activity and long-distance contacts, including a Hiberno-Norse buckle of perhaps the tenth century, coins of tenth- and eleventh-century rulers of England, and an earlier Frankish or Anglo-Saxon brooch. 

The distribution of ninth- to twelfth-century Byzantine coins and seals in Britain, based on data from the PAS, the EMC, De Jersey 1996, Biddle 2012, Kelleher 2012 and Naylor 2010; click here for a larger version of this map. Note the two major concentrations of coins and seals shown on this map are Winchester and London, and coins nowadays considered to be modern losses are not included (image: Caitlin Green).

Finally, with respect to the national context, the Carbis Bay coin is one a number of Middle Byzantine coins now known from Britain, as mapped above. The major concentrations of these finds are centred on the two major Late Saxon cities of London and Winchester, but there are finds from other sites too, including two from the northern coast of south-western peninsula—a follis of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus dating to 913–19, minted at Constantinople, and a follis of Leo VI dated 886–912. These were found just inland from the coast, one in 2019 from a site that has produced other tenth- to eleventh-century material and which lies on a river crossing by the Late Saxon burh of Axbridge, and the second a decade or more earlier from a site just to the south of this one. In terms of the chronology of these coins within the Middle Byzantine period, the Carbis Bay coin of Leo VI is one of the earliest, but it doesn't stand alone. Aside from the two late ninth- to early tenth-century Byzantine coins from the Axbridge area noted above, there is also a follis of Basil I, dated 868–70 and minted at Constantinople, found just outside Winchester; two late tenth- or perhaps early eleventh-century coins from Winchester, one of which was recovered from an excavated context; another copper-alloy follis of the Byzantine emperor Leo VI (886–912), mint of Constantinople, found at Tarrant Launceston, Dorset; and a silver miliaresion of Nicephorus II Phocas, 963–69, found at Sporle, Norfolk. 

Although the meaning of these finds is open to debate, John Naylor has plausibly considered them to be ancient losses, something supported by the recent find from Axbridge and the excavated coin from Winchester. As such, the Carbis Bay coin and similar items may offer some further context for the interesting later tenth-century Persian description of Britain as 'an emporium (bārgāh) of Rūm', i.e. the Byzantine Empire, in the Ḥudūd al-ʿĀlam. Indeed, in this light it is interesting to note that not only do we have the evidence of these coins and the text of the Ḥudūd al-ʿĀlam, but there is also documentary evidence for the presence of a handful of Byzantine churchmen in tenth- to eleventh-century England and the Anglo-Saxon kings of this era seem, moreover, to have occasionally used the Byzantine title basileus for themselves.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2020, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.