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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

Global Trade in Times Well Past; Evidence from coins

'Global Trade' has been one of the Government's watchwords for Brexit. Yet, a moment's reflection shows that this isn't anything new. You just have to think that by the end of Tudor England traders from this island were trading across Europe, down into Africa, and across the oceans to Asia.

But we can take the story back far before the 16th century. Under the Roman Empire, we imported into Britain luxury goods such as olive oil, papyrus, amber, and even silk (found in a female burial in Spitalfields, London) all the way from China.

Despite what might have been thought when the Roman Empire fell, and Britain was abandoned (410 AD) to a century or more of conflict before the Saxon invaders forced the Romano-Celts back to the Westernmost parts of Britain. But in recent years a reassessment of this period has led to a new interpretation of Byzantine coins found in the era immediately following the withdrawal of Rome at the start of the 5th century. For example three Byzantine coins from The Eastern Roman Empire have been found in North Wirral on the side of The Mersey, dated to this immediate post Rome period. What we know is this area remained Romano-Celt for quite a time, as the name of the town Wallasey demonstrates. The name of the town is Saxon and means the island where the foreigners (or Welsh, in the Saxon language) lived.

There have been a number of Byzantine coins discovered in the east of Britain where the Saxons had quickly established themselves, and this has been a puzzle. An earlier view was that such coins were accidentally dropped by coin collectors. This was never a satisfactory explanation, for I have yet to meet a numismatist who carries part of their collection in their pocket and then drops them on a country walk! Today the answer being given is that the presence of Byzantine coins and other Byzantine goods, such as the silver bowl in The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial and a silver spoon found in the Prittlewell Ship Burial, were either traded or gifts from the Western British part of the island which had maintained relations with Byzantium. This is a more convincing explanation in my view, but we await further evidence to support the thesis. This view has been expressed by Dr Caitlin Green in her blog, see her 'An eleventh century Chinese coin in Britain'.

But we have evidence from deep into the so-called Dark Ages from the early 8th century when we know that the Venerable Bede left in his will my 'tiny box of pepper'. Such pepper, a highly prized luxury, would have come to Northern England all the way from India. The beautiful blue colour used in Saxon manuscripts, such as The Lindisfarne Gospels, is made from lapis lazuli, the sole source being Afghanistan.

A fascinating Numismatic insight is the striking by King Offa of Mercia (757-796) of a unique gold penny. The normal penny denomination of Saxon England was minted in silver. Gold was a rare resource. Thus Offa's coin has enormous interest for us. But it is also of interest in another way too. It has an Islamic inscription on its reverse side - although incorrectly spelt. No, Offa wasn't a Muslim but his gold penny was a copy of an Arabic gold dinar, and in copying the coin the Mercians also copied, without knowing its meaning, the Arabic inscription. You can see one in The British Museum. It may have been issued for English pilgrims making their way to the Moslem held Holy Land, rather than for use in Mercia itself; but shows contact from Central England to the Middle East.

The article I have just mentioned above by Dr Green is captioned with reference to Chinese coins found in sites which point to medieval trade between China and ourselves, and the example of pepper and blue colouring means this is not to be dismissed out of hand.

In the last three years two Chinese cash coins have been discovered, The first in Cheshire, and the second in Petersfield, Hants. The first find was again dismissed as having been dropped in modern times - there's our careless numismatist again! Dr Green argues, convincingly in my opinion, that the second coin found (incidentally near where part of a blue and white porcelain bowl was found) argues for trade between medieval England and China. Given also, as Dr Green points out, that there are written records of envoys from the Mongols reaching the England of the 13th century, as well as of Englishmen going east. the first coin found has been dated to 1068-77, the second to 1008-16.

So please, everyone keep looking for further examples of Chinese coins in a medieval setting. I am determined to find something Chinese here in Worthing, other, of course, than Sweet and Sour Pork with rice from my nearest Takeaway.

PS If you find a second Offa gold penny then you are looking at it being worth £ ?. And I shall demand a cut for alerting you!

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