A short preface about terminology: The coins of Iron Age Britain are commonly referred to as being ‘Celtic’, even if this term is strictly inaccurate and was only applied to these peoples in recent times. In seeking to balance usage with accuracy, I have adopted the terms ‘British Celtic coins’ and ‘Pre-Roman British Coins’ interchangeably.
The reasons for collecting ancient coins are as diverse as the collectors themselves. Motivations range from artistic appreciation, a fascination with history, the thrill of treasure-hunting, to the quest for financial gain. It is not hard to see why coins of the ‘classical’ world have so much to offer collectors. Greek art has been seen as the gold-standard for over two thousand years. According to the Roman poet, Horace, ‘Captive Greece captured her rugged victor and, armed with the arts, invaded rustic Latium’1 . Indeed, two thousand years later, Irene Vallejo, in her epic history of books in the ancient world, Papyrus, tells us that the ‘Romans recognised Greek superiority without losing any sleep over it’2 . The coins of ancient Greece provide us with accessible miniature masterpieces, some of which are signed by their engravers.
1 Epist, 2.1.156-7
2 Irene Valljo, Papyrus – The Invention of Books in the Ancient World, 242
Whilst fluency in Latin and Greek and familiarity with Homer and Virgil may no longer
be viewed as educational necessities, Greece and Rome still capture our imagination. It is
no coincidence that Mary Beard is perhaps the UK’s most treasured public intellectual, given the plethora of history books, historical novels, documentaries, and films about the classical world. A Greek or Roman coin provides the collector with the chance to touch, feel and own a piece of that history. Founded forty years ago, the National Council for Metal Detecting (NCMD) boasts over thirty thousand members, and has a mission to promote, protect and encourage metal detecting in the UK. From its origins in the nineteenth century to its practical adoption for military and industrial purposes in the twentieth century, the technology has both advanced and become affordable. But it is the thrill of discovery and the possibility of financial gain that has led to its explosion in popularity, which in turn has unearthed Roman (and, as we shall see, Celtic) coins.
The market is booming, with increased activity and extraordinary prices being achieved. Take, for example, the wonderful 460 BCE Naxos tetradrachm, one of the most prized types from Greek Sicily. Eight auctions by Sotheby’s in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries hammered this coin at an average of £40 or just under £4,000 at current prices. Fifteen auctions over the last fifteen years have seen the same type hammer for an average of almost sixty-times that. Of course, condition and provenance have always driven up prices, with the best examples. in both periods selling for two-to-three-times the average. The laurels for the highest selling ancient coin of all time had until very recently, lay with the iconic ‘Eid Mars’ Aureus of Brutus when it was knocked down for £2,700,000 in October 2020. However, the result would be annulled in January 2023 when it was announced that the coin had been confiscated on account of a falsified provenance. Soon after the coin (alongside a Naxos tetradrachm from the same sale) would be repatriated to Greece, ultimately acting as a cautionary tale for collectors and dealers alike.
As a collector, it pays to be a little paranoid and highly sceptical. By focusing on a particular series or type of coin, it will increase your ability to research a particular example. Buy from trusted dealers and auction houses, evaluate a coin based on sales of similar examples and build your own view of provenance. Collecting for enjoyment rather than (pure) financial gain probably mitigates some of the risks. But, in recent years at least, ancient coins have generally proved a good investment. This brings us to British Celtic coins. I shall start by posing the same question in reverse: why are they not collected to the same extent as their Greek and Roman counterparts? In some respects, Celtic coins generally are the stepchildren of the ancient numismatic world. Most auctions confine them to a preamble to the ‘Greeks’, and rarely place them in their own category, other than specialist houses and auctions. This is partly a question of supply and demand, with many fewer coins on the market and interest among collectors confined to their country of origin. But this is also a function of prejudices that date back to the classical period itself.
Unlike their Greek and Roman counterparts, there are no contemporary written accounts by those who produced these coins in Britain and on the Continent. This immediately places these objects of material culture in a different category. If we don’t have written accounts, then how can we judge an object, like a coin, as ‘art’? Thus, classical coins fall to art historians to examine, while Celtic coins fall to archaeologists, along. with other unnarrated imagery, like rock art. Reliance on classical commentators has also reinforced the view that the ‘Celtic peoples’, were uncivilised. Roman writers portrayed Britain as a wild place on the edge of the known world, ‘flat and overgrown with forests’ with a climate ‘overcast, with its frequent rains and cloud’3 . The population was viewed as similar if more primitive to those of Gaul, being ‘simple and barbaric’, and ‘yet to be fully pacified’4 . Clothing themselves in skins, and in battle ‘dying themselves with woad, which produces a blue colour’, they were described as man eaters, who commit the ‘the worst and most bestial atrocit[ies]’, with ‘wives together in common, particularly brothers along with brothers, and fathers with sons’5 . Living in almost a state of nature with little or no agriculture, ‘the forests are their cities; for they fence in a spacious circular enclosure with trees which they have felled, and in that enclosure make huts for themselves and also pen up their cattle – not, however, with the purpose of staying for a long time’6 .
For collectors of British Celtic coins, it is particularly distressing that the ‘godfather’ of the discipline, Sir John Evans (1823-1908), also initiated the view that these coins were inferior to the classical prototypes on which they were based. He famously mapped British coins back to the Philippus, the fourth century BCE gold stater of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great. Unlike his contemporary Charles Darwin however, Evans plotted a ‘degradation’ rather than positive evolution in the coins over time7 .
3 Strabo, Geographica, 4.5.2 and Tacitus, Agricola, 12
4 Ibid, and Tacitus, Agricola 11
5 Dio, Roman History, 62.7 and Caesar, Gallic War, 5.14
6 Strabo, Geographica, 4.5.2
7 John Evans, The Coins of the Ancient Britons, 24.
In my forthcoming book, Art or Imitation? I make the case for collecting British Celtic coins. With well over one-hundred-coin images, the case in some respects is made by the coins themselves. They are objects of great beauty. and originality, frequently exhibiting great skill, imagination, and even apparent humour. It is possible to map early influences from the Continent, from the late second century and early first century BCE, especially in the more conservative medium of gold. Equally, during the later period of production, from the end of the first century BCE to the middle of the first century CE, the south-eastern ‘dynasties’ of Commios (circa 50-25BC, of the ‘Atrebates’) and Tasciovanos (circa 25BC-AD10, of the ‘Catuvellauni’) adopted Roman iconography. In between, there was an explosion of creativity, particularly in silver. Derek Allen describes this as a process of disintegration, abstraction, and reintegration8. The implication that adopting a prototype from a prior period undermines the artistic originality of the later work, is clearly flawed. All art has prior influences and conventions, but that doesn’t mean we can only confine it to the craft of reproduction. British Celtic coins adopted the convention of a ‘heads’ (a human head or face) and ‘tails’ (a horse) from Gallo-Belgic (and before that Macedonian) prototypes. But, like subsequent Roman coins, the Macedonian ‘original’ copied the format, subject and imagery of earlier Greek coins.
8 D F Allen, The Coins of the Ancient Celts, 131.
If we lift this reductive lens when appreciating British Celtic coins, we see considerable development and innovation. We cannot know who the ‘heads’ portray but what we see is an extraordinary range of styles, particularly in early silver, from the abstract to the surreal and magical, often loaded with symbols. Equine images, on the ‘tails’, adopt a distinct range of techniques from lunate (comprising crescents), annulate (ringed-pellets), disjointed/abstract (lines and pellets) back to naturalistic portrayals. In addition to faces and horses, British Celtic coins also portrayed a menagerie of other animals, from snakes to dragons, stags to hunting dogs. By far the most prevalent of these were boars, prized for their meat and admired for their ferocity. They were a prestigious and possibly sacred animal, portrayed not only in a wonderful range of naturalistic ways but also in a more abstracted form that could equally be used for a war banner. Another distinctive feature of British Celtic coins is the prevalence of ‘hidden-faces’. Whether by accident or design, perhaps one-in-ten coins (in my collection) have an image that resemble a head peeking out at you. Some appear happy, others sad, and even screaming. We can only speculate as to their purpose, but one theory I discuss within the book is that they are the engraver’s signature. Finally, while not a unique phenomenon, certain British Celtic coins appear to have been used for propaganda purposes by the rival dynasties of South-East Britain. The successors to Commios in the Southern region and those of Tasciovanos in the North Thames emblazoned their names, pedigrees, and logos on their coins. Cunobelinus (AD8-41, of the ‘Trinovantes and Catuvellauni’) adopted a corn ear symbol, presumably to indicate successful harvest, while Verica (AD10-40, of the ‘Atrebates and Regini’) used a vine leaf, possibly to suggest an alcoholic celebration.
It is estimated that there are perhaps 100,000 coins of 1,000 distinct types that have been
unearthed in Britain from this pre-Roman period. Every year, thanks to the passion of metal detectorists, more examples and ‘new’ types are. discovered. This means there is a growing supply of coins to the market. There also appears to be increasing demand and prices realised, even if these remain some way behind those of Greeks and Romans. In November 2020, a gold stater of the famous son of Cunobelinus, Caratacus, hammered for a record-breaking £71,000. More recently, a coin of Vercingetorix (82-46BC) of Gaul sold for €390,000 in a French auction. A Gallic chieftain of the Arverni tribe who led rebellion against Caesar in 52BC, Vercingetorix in recent years has been hailed as a French hero. The attraction of legend will thus always achieve high prices. So, why do I personally collect these coins? Often beautiful, neglected, and intricate, British Celtic coins provide a glimpse into a sophisticated society that much of history has previously dismissed. These tiny objects allow you to touch a fragment of the past.
British Celtic Coins: Art or Imitation? An introduction to the coins of pre-Roman Britain will be published by Spink Books in September 2023. For further information or to purchase a copy please email [email protected], or visit www.spinkbooks.com.