Next Tuesday (26th April) I’m giving a talk on coins as contemporary deposits at the British Numismatic Society. This has obviously got me thinking about coins and about how, throughout history, they’ve not only been employed as deposits (e.g. in springs, wells, trees, etc.) but also as concealed deposits.
They’ve been found having been secreted away in various domestic locations. In Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, coins dated to 1797 were found alongside a Christening spoon beneath the tile flooring of a house. In Abercarn, Caerphilly, a coin was found alongside a pair of child’s shoes that had been nailed to an attic beam. The Museum of Cambridge has a copper farthing in its collection which was found in the brickwork above the front door of the museum itself, a 17th century building.
The custom of secreting away coins doesn’t belong solely to the modern era. Ralph Merrifield, in his 1987 book The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, catalogues several examples of Roman coins having been discovered in similar settings. For example, a handful of unofficial coins of the 3rd century were found buried at the foundation level of a building in Lime Street, London, while a single coin of Antoninus Pius was discovered in a pot buried beneath the floor of a building in Southwark. Merrifield believes that they were buried there for luck or as a substitute for a foundation sacrifice – a custom that’s not exclusive to domestic settings. Coins were also deposited in the mast-steps of ships, such as the coin of Domitian found in a Roman boat from Blackfriars, London (image below, from Merrifield 1987).
Ó Súilleabháin, in his 1945 paper on ‘Foundation Sacrifices’ (The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 75 (1), 45-52), also lists coins as objects commonly found concealed in buildings. These aren’t, however, necessarily foundation ‘sacrifices’; as Ó Súilleabháin explains, the fact that coins have dates on them may suggest that they were concealed to provide information for future generations. A coin could be selected because it bears the date that a building was constructed or renovated, information that may be interesting or useful to future finders. This is the reason why coins are often included in modern-day time capsules, which I’ve written about in a previous post.
Obviously not all coins were concealed for the same reasons. Some may have been intended as foundation sacrifices; surrendering something of value to placate the spirits of the site on which a building is being erected. For others, the simple notion of lucky coins may have motivated their concealment; they were intended to bring luck into the house or maybe specifically, via some notion of sympathetic magic, to ensure financial stability. Or perhaps they were intended as time capsules, letting future generations know when a house was built or refurbished. However, I have a childhood memory that makes me believe there’s another option.
The kitchen in the house I grew up in had thin, faux-wooden panelling covering one wall. It was flimsy material and over time a crack appeared – small enough for my mother to not bother repairing it but just large enough for my sister and I to periodically shove pennies into. There had been no specific motivation behind our deposition of coins – no articulated notion of sacrifice, wish-making, or luck-granting – merely the satisfaction of watching them disappear as we slipped them through the crack, irretrievable, and hearing the little thud as they hit the bottom. We did this whenever we came across a spare penny and, over the years of our childhoods, I imagine that we accumulated quite a sizeable hoard – a hoard that has no doubt been discovered during the 20 or so years since we moved out.
What did the finders think when they tore down the panelling and discovered a cache of pennies secreted away? Seeing that they were all contemporary coinage, they probably will have guessed correctly: the inevitable idle detritus of a house with children. But what if the coins haven’t been discovered yet? What if they’re discovered in, say, 100 years’ time? Will the finders, separated from us by time, be tempted to read more ritual into it than was actually there? Will they jump to the conclusion of ‘foundation sacrifice’ or ‘time capsule’, over-interpreting the evidence?
I’m not arguing that coins were never concealed for specific purposes. As I said above, there were probably many different reasons for their concealment, both preternatural and practical, and of course accidental loss could account for some. But for others, something simpler – but no less interesting – may account for them: children’s playfulness.