Between 660-750 AD, Anglo-Saxon England saw a major revival of trade and commerce. This led to a huge increase in the use of silver coins, moving away from just gold. Archaeologists have found around 7,000 of these old “pennies” made of silver. That’s a massive number, almost as many as from the entire Anglo-Saxon period before that (5th-1066 AD).

For decades, historians have wondered where the silver came from to make all these coins. Now, a team of researchers from Cambridge, Oxford, and Amsterdam universities have solved the mystery. They studied the composition of coins held at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

The researchers first looked at 49 coins from 660-820 AD under a microscope. They took microscopic samples and analyzed different elements and isotopes of lead in the silver. This revealed two main findings about where the silver came from.

A selection of coins from the Fitzwilliam Museum that were studied, including coins of Charlemagne and Offa
A selection of coins from the Fitzwilliam Museum that were studied, including coins of Charlemagne and Offa. Credit: The Fitzwilliam Museum / University of Cambridge

First, in the earlier coins from 660-750 AD, they found the silver had a chemical and isotope signature that matched silver from the Byzantine Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean from the 3rd to early 7th centuries. All the silver in these coins was very similar, with high gold content. This showed the main source was Byzantine silver entering Western Europe long before being made into coins.

Second, in later coins from 750-820 AD, the silver was very different. It matched silver mined at Melle in western France. Records show mining there boomed in the 8th-9th centuries. The researchers think Melle silver flooded regional silver reserves after 750 AD and mixed with older Byzantine silver stockpiles.

This study provides new insights into powerful rulers like Charlemagne and King Offa of Mercia, who both controlled silver mining and coin production. It shows close economic and political ties developing between England, France and other regions as they depended on silver for currency.

Where valuable resources like silver came from was important and could influence relations between rulers. Overall, the discovery sheds new light on trade and politics in early medieval Northern Europe.


Sources

University of Cambridge | Kershaw J, Merkel SW, D’Imporzano P, Naismith R. Byzantine plate and Frankish mines: the provenance of silver in north-west European coinage during the Long Eighth Century (c. 660–820). Antiquity. 2024;98(398):502-517. doi:10.15184/aqy.2024.33


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