Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 1-1 (May 2009)Nico Roymans; Joris Aarts: Coin use in a dynamic frontier region. Late Iron Age coinages in the Lower Rhine area

1 Celtic numismatics as a field of study

The field of Celtic numismatics developed in Europe from the 19th century onward, initially as a side branch of Antique numismatics. Originally, it concentrated on the coins struck by Western and Central European peoples in the centuries before the Roman conquest. These coinages began in the 4th century BC with the fabrication of faithful copies of Greek-Hellenistic coins. However, it wasn’t long before coins appeared with an iconography of their own, quite distinct from that of Mediterranean coin types.[2]

The initial focus of Celtic numismatics was on the typochronological organisation of the material, based on iconography, metrology, and the study of coin associations in hoards. But just as important was the attribution of coin groups to a specific tribe or people. For Gaul, this was based largely on the tribes mentioned by Caesar, which were –rather uncritically- assumed to have existed already much earlier, namely at the time the coinages were produced. This method of ethnic attribution is not without its problems, however, as we shall discover later. A key reference work for northern Gaul and the Rhineland is the synthesis of the Belgian numismatist Simone Scheers, which appeared in 1977.[3] Since the 1990s, the research focus has increasingly shifted to the processes of coin production, circulation and deposition, employing methods and interpretative frameworks popular among archaeologists. Researchers have come to realise that a coin’s information value lies not only in the object itself but also, and more specifically, in the context in which it is found. As a result, a recent in-depth analysis of archaeological contexts has prompted both a radical revision of the typochronology of northern Gallic coins and a study of the relationship between coins and ritual practices.[4]

These days archaeologists are increasingly engaged in the study of Celtic coins. Often their ultimate goal is to gain an appreciation of broader social phenomena, such as the nature and functioning of systems of exchange, ritual behaviour, the socio-political organisation of groups and how this changed over time.

A point of special interest are the functions of Celtic coins. Since the 1970s scholars have repeatedly pointed out the dangers of anachronistic interpretations, and have sought to arrive at more historically contextualized notions of coin use and exchange in ancient societies.[5] Inspired by Bohannan’s study of systems of exchange among the Tiv of pre-colonial Nigeria and by Lucas’ analysis of systems of exchange in medieval Ireland, one of the present authors developed a model for Late Iron Age societies in northern Gaul.[6] The model proposes the existence of a multicentric economy in which different, more or less mutually exclusive, spheres of exchange operated. Gold and silver coins functioned as items of exchange and as a means of payment in the prestige sphere, while the low-value bronze coins which emerged in the last phase of the Iron Age were used in everyday transactions in the subsistence sphere.[7] Many have associated the appearance of low-value coins with emerging markets and the beginnings of a monetary economy, but this remains a matter of conjecture.

At the same time, however, the frequent occurrence of large numbers of Celtic coins at cult places in Western Europe raises the question of the importance of ritual forms of exchange. Consequentially, a need has developed for models which focus on the interrelationships between the economic, social and religious dimensions of coin production and use. Relevant here is Bloch & Parry’s model showing the articulation of two kinds of exchange – that of a short-term sphere concerned with individual gain and competition, and a long-term sphere in which the reproduction of collective values, norms and cosmologies is paramount.[8]

Recent research has shown that the production of coins must be viewed in the light of the reproduction of the long-term sociocosmic order of the society which produced them. Appadurai’s notion of ‘tournaments of value’ is of particular value here: regularly recurring religious festivals in which the central values of the society were shaped anew and competition between elites played a key role.[9] Theuws employed this concept in his analysis of the production of gold coins in early medieval Maastricht, probably in the context of recurrent rituals and ceremonies on the feast of St. Servatius.[10] Cult places are favourite locations for such tournaments of value. Appadurai’s concept also appears relevant to coin production in Late Iron Age societies. We should not view the minting of coins (not just gold, but low-value coins as well) as a strictly profane affair, governed by economic and political considerations. The fact that sanctuaries tend to be the largest find spots for coins,[11] together with the frequent occurrence of religious symbols on coins, suggests a link with ritual and ceremonies addressing the central values and identity of communities.[12] Coins may have been minted under the patronage of deities.