Iron Age coins, travel and other thoughts on the train to London

The Hallaton Treasure of coins, bowls and a Roman helmet discovered in south Leicestershire shed considerable light on the religious and social customs of the Corieltauvi people who lived in the East Midlands during the Iron Age. As Leicestershire County Council Archaeology Officer Helen Sharpe showed at a talk in Nottingham last week, this astounding collection of more than 5,000 coins included a huge number of locally made coins as well as examples from every coin-making Iron Age tribe in Britain apart from the Canti people of Kent and the London area.

gold coin, called a stater, from Hallaton

gold coin, called a stater, from Hallaton

The buried money also included 300 Roman coins, among them a Republican coin from around 200BC which may be the oldest such coin found in Britain. Then there was a solid silver bowl, a drinking vessel handle, ingots, two small pieces of coloured glass (the eyes from an idol? Sharpe suggested) – and of course the cavalry helmet, which was pieced back together over five years by the British Museum. Although the additional presence of the buried bones of 400 pigs has been shunted aside in all the media fuss about the bling, these organic remains strengthen the argument that the hilltop at Hallaton must have been an important outdoor shrine where people came together to feast and make offerings to their deities. Nobody, of course, can explain the presence of the helmet which, with its silver-gilt exterior and image of Cybele (the Anatolian mother-goddess of antiquity) above the front rim, must have been a gorgeous and highly prized example of Roman craftsmanship in its day. But back to the coins. Although it was already known that Corieltauvian coin-makers used Latin lettering to inscribe pairs of short (and to us, cryptic) groups of letters on their money, the Hallaton coins offered the suggestion that that the coin-nakers may still have been unsure of the Romans’ alphabet One coin inscribed with the already known word TATISOM had the ‘S’ backwards, which made it look as if the coin-makers wanted to imitate Roman writing – ‘but they didn’t really get it’, said Sharpe. It has always been assumed that these letters were abbreviated versions of the names of Corieltauvian chieftains, magistrates or co-rulers.

other side of the Iron Age stater

other side of the Iron Age stater

But while the Iceni people of East Anglia had a Queen called Boudicca, and the Brigantes had, at one point, a Queen and a consort called Cartimandua and Venutius (until they fell out, causing the Roman army to rescue Cartimandua), the many variations on local coins suggests that the Corieltauvi may have had many local leaders. And given the size of the Corieltauvian area, that isn’t difficult to understand. I was thinking about this issue when I took the train to London last Friday to attend the Current Archaeology awards (‘Roman Nottinghamshire’, which was up for book of the year, didn’t win, but it was nice to be nominated all the same). The train took 45 minutes to get from Nottingham to Market Harborough, which is the nearest town to Hallaton, at an average speed of, let’s assume, 100mph. Now, if it takes 45 minutes to travel from the Trent to the south of Leicestershire on a modern high speed train, imagine how long it must have taken for Corieltauvian people to ride or walk the same distance along their own well-beaten but occasionally muddy tracks. I’m not going to work the time and distance out now, but it would have been an undertaking that you didn’t do on the spur of the moment. Such a journey would have taken a few days and required some planning as to food, accommodation etc. As ever, the slower you travel, the bigger (and, I would argue, the more interesting) the world becomes. Yet the Corieltauvian area was, we understand, much bigger than the distance of the train line between Nottingham and Market Harborough. Here was a region which seems to have extended from north Nottinghamshire to Northamptonshire in the south and from the Lincolnshire coast to parts of Derbyshire in the west. Given that people could only travel as fast as a horse could carry them (if you could afford a horse, that is) is it likely that one chieftain could rule a tribal area – a civitas, or state, as the Romans later called it – of that size? If you summoned your lieutenants to a gathering in Sleaford, for example, how long would it take for the message to get to all of them and for them all to arrive? Far more likely, I think, that the ‘tribe’ was composed of several smaller and inter-related, intermarried, subtribes led by their own chieftains or pairs of chieftains – which is what the names on the coins suggest.  And perhaps this is why the Corieltauvi appear to have been over run by the Roman army so quickly; they were unable to put up a united defence under a single ruler. As armies through the centuries have found, one usually cannot win a war by committee…

Coin marked with the Tenth Legion found in the Hallaton Treasure

Coin marked with the Tenth Legion found in the Hallaton Treasure

The response to this argument, of course, is that the Brigantian area was even larger than the Corieltauvian region and they managed to have a queen and consort. But that was them.  Who said all Iron Age tribes had to be the same? But, ah, you say, didn’t much the same communication problems hamper the medieval monarchs – and yet they still managed to wield power and summon armies? True, but medieval England was pretty much a unified nation (and they had paved Roman roads to travel on). In the Iron Age England and Britain as entities did not exist – it took the Romans to make a proto-nation, even if it was a colonised province, out of what had been a patchwork of rival and warring tribal nations. After the end of Roman Britain, the land in Anglo-Saxon times reverted to the Iron Age pattern of rival kingdoms, where there may have been fewer reason, and reduced possibilities, for long distance travel than had existed under the Romans

A second interesting point about the Hallaton Treasure is that it shows just how productive local coin-mints must have been. And although most of the records of Corieltauvian coin finds have been outside Nottinghamshire,  by coincidence I was contacted a few weeks ago by a metal detectorist who wanted to show the Iron Age, Roman and Anglo Saxon material he has found in Nottinghamshire over the last few years. These included several Corieltauvian coins (bottom picture) showing the usual abstract renditions of horses – artwork that, in a different context, could be mistaken for a Picasso drawing. These items were all found to the north west of Nottingham. A touring exhibition about the Hallaton Treasure can currently be seen at Chesterfield Museum but a completely new show about it the treasure due to open at Snibston Discovery Museum in Leicestershire on May 23.

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Corieltauvian and (top) Roman coins found near Nottingham - not part of the Hallaton Treasure

Corieltauvian coins found near Nottingham

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