Author: Andrew Birley

Published:27th April 2020

Small change to a mighty purpose. 

There is something primal and very special about finding your first roman coin on an excavation. It is one of those moments that lives with you, that you will always remember. You can’t quite put your finger on why such an otherwise ordinary artefact should hold such power. Why finding a coin gives many people more pleasure than a pottery sherd or an animal bone. Perhaps a reason is that each one has a face or an image and therefore an attached or perceived personality which is very real and still present long after the person on the coin has departed. As archaeologists we are trained to look at coins in an analytical way, as a piece of evidence like all other artefacts. A coin can provide a connection and information about the ancient people of the site. It can offer insight into the economic activities that took place, the date in which a level or a feature or building was in use, and information about trade and connectivity.

Most coins found on the Vindolanda excavations are the sort of small change that comes from behind your sofa or when you empty the coppers out of your wallet. They give us what we need as archaeologists in terms of the evidence above, but some coins, and some collections of coins are very special as they really show an extra social dynamic or offer a window into an event or a person’s life.

In over 29 years as an archaeologist I have found plenty of coins but below are my favourite four coins from Vindolanda and why.

Nero – aureus. Emperor between 54-68AD. The most valuable coin ever found at Vindolanda, the only gold coin from the site and dedicated to an emperor who died before the site was founded. What makes this coin special is the context of its discovery. Recovered from the foundations of a late 4th century building the coin was no-longer in circulation when it was dropped yet here it was, worn almost smooth by constant use, from passing hand to hand over four centuries. If only that coin could talk and tell us who it had met, where it had travelled and the sights it had been witness to its story would have been incredible. The Vindolanda volunteer who found the coin, Marcel, had worked on the site for many years and we were absolutely delighted for him.

Two sestertii of Trajan. Emperor between 98-117AD. These two coins, which came from the very same mould were found on two quite separate parts of the excavations at Vindolanda in 2003, over 60metres apart from one another, an incredibly rare event. Trajan, rather than Hadrian (who came next) is the emperor who is responsible for the garrisons at Vindolanda where most of the ink writing tablets come from. When a Vindolanda archaeologist locates a coin with his face it is like meeting an old and very respected friend.

Coins of Julia Domna – The empress (193-211) and Syrian wife of emperor Septimius Severus. ‘The mother of the camp’ following her husband and sons to Britain to wage war in the north and bringing imperial glamour, fashion and taste to Roman Britain. We often venerate or admire male emperors, but Julia Domna is a wonderful reminder of the power and influence of Roman women on Britain and its history. Although far fewer coins depict women than men, the site always had a mixed gender community and this coin reminds us of that fact even if it is unlikely that she personally visited Vindolanda.

Coin of Arcadius, a siliqua – This is the last datable Roman coin to come from the site at the moment. It was found in a small chalet or house, a part of an arm purse of four coins which also included 3 worn flat silver republican denarii and the coin mint date is around AD 393. The building in which it was found could well have continued into use into the 5th century and the coin might have taken twenty years or more to make its way to Vindolanda. This reminds us that Roman coins had more staying power in Britain than the legions themselves.

So what about my first coin? Well, it is a cheeky find. I was 16 and excavating with my dad, helping him out on weekends. He walked across a plank with a wheelbarrow to empty and a sestertius of Trajan dropped off the mud on the bottom of his welly boots on to the wooden plank. I bent down and picked it up and handed to him. We were both delighted.

For further reading about Vindolanda coins I would recommend Anthony Birley's Coins of Roman Emperors found at Vindolanda. This book is available from our online shop. Click on the image below to visit the shop.