Monday 28 December 2020

Another eleventh-century medieval Chinese coin found in England

A previous post discussed a find of a Northern Song dynasty Chinese coin from England whose context suggested that it may have been a genuine ancient loss from the medieval period, along with a variety of textual and archaeological evidence for contact between England and East Asia in the Middle Ages. The following post returns briefly to this question, noting the recent discovery of a second Northern Song dynasty coin from England. 

A copper-alloy Chinese coin of the Northern Song emperor Zhenzong, dated 1008–16, found near Petersfield, Hampshire (image: PAS).

The coin in question was issued between 1008 and 1016 during the reign of Emperor Zhenzong of the Northern Song dynasty and was found at Buriton, Hampshire, around 9 miles from the coast. As was the case with the other eleventh-century Chinese coin discussed here previously, the coin doesn't seem to be part of a 'suspicious' grouping of finds or deposited curated collection, and the field that it was recovered from has also produced a handful of medieval- and immediately post-medieval finds. These include a coin of King John minted at London in 1205–7, a medieval cut farthing of perhaps 1180–1247, two fragments of one or more medieval or early post-medieval vessels, and two mid-sixteenth-century coins. As such, it seems credible that this coin too could have been a medieval-era loss, and in this context it is worth noting that such Northern Song coins might quite credibly have arrived at any point up to perhaps the late fourteenth century, given that they continued to circulate in significant numbers well into that era. 

Looking more generally, the fact that we now have two, rather than one, eleventh-century Northern Song dynasty coins from England, both recovered from what seem to be medieval to early modern sites, adds weight to the case for considering them genuinely ancient losses. Interestingly, this find was also made only around 20 miles away from the only confirmed medieval imported Chinese pottery from England, a sherd of blue-and-white porcelain from a small cup or bowl that was found in a late fourteenth-century context at Lower Brook Street, Winchester. As to the wider context for these coins, the evidence for the presence of people who had, or who may have, travelled from East Asia in England during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was surveyed in the previous post, as was the evidence for people from Britain and Ireland in East Asia then. However, it is worth additionally drawing attention here to the 'global' distribution of medieval Chinese pottery and coins west of India, as mapped below, which demonstrates that finds of Chinese pottery and, to a lesser extent, coins outside of East Asia are by no means unknown.

With regard to the medieval Chinese pottery finds mapped below, substantial quantities have now been recognised from around the Indian Ocean coast and in both the Persian Gulf and Red Sea areas into northern Egypt. Archaeological finds of Chinese porcelain from Europe are much rarer, although definite examples are known from Winchester, Lucera (Italy) and Budapest (Hungary), along with a handful of surviving intact items that are believed to have entered Europe in the medieval era. The most famous of these are the so-called 'Marco Polo jar', a thirteenth- or fourteenth-century Chinese Qingbai porcelain jar found in the Treasury of San Marco in Venice, and the Gaignères-Fonthill vase, an early fourteenth-century Chinese Qingbai porcelain vase that was almost certainly present in Naples in the fifteenth century. In addition to these, there are a number of documentary references to Chinese pottery from medieval Europe. So, the 1323 will of Queen Maria of Naples and Sicily is believed to mention Chinese pottery, as does a 1363 inventory of property belonging to the Duke of Normandy and a 1379–80 inventory of Louis I, duke of Anjou. It also appears in, for example, a document from late fourteenth-century Genoa listing merchandise including porcelain, lustre ware and glass, and a 1456 inventory of the property of Piero di Cosimo de' Medici of Florence. As such, it seems clear that Chinese pottery was present in the households of the wealthiest people in Europe during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Turning to the medieval Chinese coins mapped below, these are recorded much less frequently as archaeological finds and do not appear in documents from Europe at all, although this latter is hardly surprising. The only other certain find from Europe is a find of a tenth-century coin from Bulgaria, although a scattering are also recorded from East Africa, the Persian Gulf, the coast of Arabia, India, and Sri Lanka, suggesting that it is not impossible that a handful of examples might have made their way to Red Sea or Persian Gulf ports and then into Europe.

The distribution of archaeological and textual evidence for the presence of medieval Chinese pottery (black open circles) and coins (blue dots) west of India, set against the maximum extent of the Mongol Empire in the late thirteenth century in red; the map is based on Whitehouse 1972, Cribb and Potts 1996, Vigano 2011, Vigano 2014Zhao 2015Meicun and Zhang 2017Василев 2017 (image: Caitlin Green, drawn on a base map from Wikimedia Commons).

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.