Coin helps date archaeological site|
September 18, 2017
(Image of coin courtesy www.bbc.com)
It’s amazing how just the find of a single coin can help piece together what transpired at the site of a former village.
That’s exactly what happened recently, when a coin of Alfred “the Great,” king of Wessex, was encountered at the archaeological site of a longhouse at Burghead Fort near Lossiemuth, Moray, in northeast Scotland. Experts believe this may have been a seat of power for the Picts, an ethno-linguistic Celtic tribal confederation dating from the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval period of about 500 to 1000 C.E.
Picts means “painted people.” The group is first mentioned in contemporary Roman records. Most of what is known of the Picts comes from Roman speech writer Eumenius and other Roman authors. Lossiemuth was built on the ruins of the site during the 19th century, the ruins of the fort thought to be destroyed for that reason. That view changed when recent excavations began under the direction of researchers from the University of Aberdeen in cooperation with the Burghead Headland Trust and Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service. The single coin found to date depicts Alfred’s image on the obverse, with a three-line legend on the reverse.
Alfred (about 849-899 C.E.) ruled Wessex beginning in 871. Alfred established the first fleet in the British Isles, successfully defending his kingdom against the Vikings. His codex is known today as the Doom Book. Both the Catholic and the Orthodox churches made him a saint. His annual feast day is October 26.
Alfred was the first king to assume the title Rex Saxonum or King of the Saxons. This title appears on some of his coins. Alfred was also the first individual to call himself King of the Anglo-Saxons.
There are about 20 moneyers that have been identified as having minted for Alfred. Alfred’s lunette type silver pennies were debased while production was high, leading to a coinage reform by the mid-870s. A lunette is a moon-shaped architectural detail as well as a small enclosure for the Eucharist host in the Roman Catholic Church.
Alfred then introduced a heavier cross-and-lozenge type coin. His portrait appears on the obverse of pennies issued about 880 at London, which is identified on the reverse as Lundonia. His “two emperor” portrait penny that he shares with Burgred (deposed in 873/4 C.E.) identifies Alfred as Rex Ang[lorum].
Most coins from the latter part of his reign are non-portrait issues; however, portrait coins are known from the mint at Aet Gleapa or Gloucester.
Dr. Gordon Noble is a senior lecturer at the University of Aberdeen. According to Noble, “The assumption has always been that there was nothing left at Burghead; that it was all trashed in the 19th century but nobody’s really looked at the interior to see if there’s anything that survives inside the fort. Beneath the 19th-century debris, we have started to find significant Pictish remains. We appear to have found a Pictish longhouse.”
Noble continued, “This is important because Burghead is likely to have been one of the key royal centers of northern Pictland and understanding the nature of settlement within the fort is key to understanding how power was materialized within these important fortified sites.”
He added, “There is a lovely stone-built hearth in one end of the building and the Anglo-Saxon coin shows the building dates towards the end of the use of the fort based on previous dating. The coin is also interesting as it shows that the fort occupants were able to tap into long-distance trade networks.”
Not all details about the coin were available at the time this article was being written, but Noble said, “The coin is also pierced, perhaps for wearing; it shows that the occupants of the fort in this non-monetary economy literally wore their wealth.”
“Overall, these findings suggest that there is still valuable information that can be recovered from Burghead which would tell us more about this society at a significant time for northern Scotland – just as Norse settlers were consolidating their power in Shetland and Orkney, and launching attacks on mainland Scotland,” said Noble.
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