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

4 Conclusions and discussion

The present data gives us a clear picture of the development of Celtic coinage in the Lower Rhine region. Coinage began here in the 2nd century BC with imported gold coins. It was not until about the mid-1st century BC that coin production – starting off with gold Eburonean triskeles staters –came into full swing, reaching a peak in the second half of the 1st century with issues of low-value coins. Distribution patterns also shed light on the considerable regional differences in intensity of coin use in the study region. Coins are virtually absent from the coastal zone and the area immediately north of the Rhine delta, while the density of find spots is so high in regions like the eastern part of the Dutch river delta and the adjacent zones upriver along the Lower Rhine and the Meuse that we may safely assume that the population of almost every rural settelement was familiar with coin use.

The above data suggests several leads for further discussion. The first concerns possible links between the numismatic material and the historically documented ethnic dynamics of the Lower Rhine frontier region, where the latter half of the 1st century BC was pre-eminently a period of ethnogenesis, or, more specifically, the formation of new tribal confederations (Fig. 2). The Batavi, Ubii and Tungri were new entities, and we see this reflected in the numismatic material, each group minting its own issues. Also of interest is the fact that the coins produced in the territory of the Batavi and Ubii – triquetrum staters and quinarii featuring the ‘dancing man’ respectively – were continuations of already existing coin series from beyond the Rhine, with the oppidum on the Dünsberg in Hessen as the probable centre of production. Here we see special coin movements that may relate to historically documented group migrations.[31] This topic also confronts us with an important methodological issue. The Lower Rhine example, with its intense tribal dynamics and discontinuities, highlights the dangers of projecting tribes further back in time on the basis of numismatic data.

A second topic are the reasons behind the minting of large quantities of low-value bronze or poor-quality silver coins in the study region in the second half of the 1st century BC. In contrast to older gold coins, the relatively late, low-value coins in Gaul and the Rhineland are generally regarded as small change and are associated with emerging markets and the monetized exchange of goods.[32] However, there is no serious evidence in the Lower Rhine region for the existence of larger market centres, which argues against a strictly economic interpretation of native coin issues in the period before the advent of Roman camps under Drusus in about 15 BC. It is therefore in traditional tribal contexts that we must seek an explanation. Coins were probably minted in connection with public ceremonies and rituals (tournaments of value, to use Appadurai’s term), which were designed to produce and reproduce central ideas and values of collective identities. As such, coinage contributed to the symbolic construction and social cohesion of groups. It is perhaps no coincidence that the coin production boom in the Lower Rhine region coincided with the formation of new tribal entities. The production of ANNAROVECI and class I AVAVCIA coins ran parallel with the ethnogenesis of the Tungri. We can associate the minting of the bulk of Lower Rhine triquetrum coins with the ethnogenesis of the Batavi, while the production of Lower Rhine variants of the quinarii featuring the ‘dancing manikin’ may be linked to the formation of the Ubii.[33] These were new political groupings (arising out of Roman frontier politics), which also sought to profile themselves as ethnic entities. From this perspective then, the low-value coins were not primarily struck to satisfy an economic need for small change. The first coin series to which this applied were the class II/III AVAVCIA coins, which appear to have been deliberately minted for use within a Roman monetary system, targeting the camps and camp villages.

This broader cultural interpretation helps to explain several features of these low-value coin issues:

a. Their presence in ritual or ceremonial contexts, especially cult places

b. Their depiction of religious symbols, especially the triskeles and horse in the Lower Rhine region

c. The fact that some low-value coin series (particularly bronze triquetrum staters) gradually evolved out of gold prototypes and were still enriched with a small quantity of gold and/or silver right until the end. This suggests that they were not struck as low-value coins, but should be seen as continuing the old stater tradition.[34]

A third topic is the extent to which the introduction of coinage implies a new kind of society. It is generally accepted that coin use was characteristic of more hierarchical tribal formations dominated by elites. After all, coin use – and certainly coin production – presupposes leaders operating at the tribal or subtribal level who were in a direct or indirect way responsible for the coin issues. These leaders used coinage to create social networks and to strengthen the collective identity and social cohesion of communities. The frequent occurrence of coins in ordinary rural settlements shows that individuals were highly integrated into supralocal networks dominated by elites. As such, Late Iron Age societies which minted coins appear to have had a different structure than societies from earlier phases of the Iron Age.

A fourth topic is why coin use was not adopted by societies north of the Rhine delta or in the Belgian-Dutch coastal region.[35] A combination of factors may have been responsible for this phenomenon. Certainly relevant was the fairly limited agrarian potential of coastal landscapes and the low intensity of exchange networks with regions further to the south.[36] The isolated geographical position of the coastal zone was exacerbated still further by the lack of overseas contact of the Rhine/Meuse delta with England during the Iron Age. The relatively isolated position of coastal communities remained a constant throughout late prehistory and protohistory. In the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age, these communities appear to have had no access to prestigious goods like swords, bronze vessels and horse gear.[37] In the Roman period, handmade native pottery predominated for much longer there, and urban development came about very slowly and laboriously. At the same time, socio-cultural factors may also explain why coin usage failed to be taken up by these communities. We could, for instance, envisage societies with a strong inward-looking identity and a highly segmented tribal structure in which there were no authorities to mint coins. In short, there was no real need for a coinage.


Fig. 16 Model for the production, circulation and deposition of Late Iron Age coinages.

A final topic is our changed perception of the production, circulation and deposition of Celtic coins in the light of the above. In summary, we can devise the following model (Fig. 16). The primary minting of coins occurred in a ritualised context, emphasising the central values of the community that struck the coins. Evidence for this can be found in the imagery on the coins, which refers to their sacral origin. This appears to be a universal phenomenon, however, and not one which is confined to Late Iron Age societies.[38] Further evidence could be the fact that many coins have been found on the sites of central cult places. This requires some explanation. For most coins, we only know where they ultimately ended up in the soil as a result of deliberate deposition or loss. A concentration of coins at a cult place can be explained in two ways. The first assumes that the coins were produced there during tournaments of value by people who were the key players. They were part and parcel of the gift exchange between these central figures and their followers that took place in this ceremonial context. The coins may have been offered at the cult place itself, or have been lost there, or a combination of the two. Most coins, however, will have been taken at the close of the ceremony to the homes of the participants. This led to a rapid primary distribution of coins across the settlements within the core region where the tournament of value was held. The money may then have been kept for later use within the settlements, or offered in a ritual context in the settlement itself. Coins unearthed by archaeologists excavating rural settlements will thus have been part of ‘unsuccessful’ savings hoards or of ritual depositions. Coins from the savings hoards might then have begun a ‘secondary’ circulation through use in various kinds of payment, especially in the social-ritual sphere. As stated above, the use of coins for market exchange seems less likely because our region lacked any significant market centres. But even if they had existed, this does not mean that money was actually used for payments in the subsistence sphere. A monetary market can exist only if it is supplied regularly with new coins. But the coins were not minted for this purpose, and it is unlikely that the secondary circulation referred to above possessed enough volume to make possible a monetized market exchange.[39] It is conceivable that coins were offered during this secondary circulation and that many of the coins found at cult places are the material result of a final ritual deposition. This is the second explanation for the concentration of coin finds in central cult places. Coin finds from sanctuaries can thus be interpreted as a kind of palimpsest representing different stages in the circulation of money: the initial stage during the production and issue of coins, and the final stage, following a series of payments, when the coins once again became part of a ritual deposition.[40] Once included in such a deposition, it is unlikely that coins later embarked on a third circulation phase. The re-use of offered money (conversions from the long to the short term in Bloch & Parry’s terms) carries a taboo in many societies, and there are indications that this was also the case in the Late Iron Age and the Roman period.[41]

Analysing distribution maps is a complex matter because we often do not know which moment during circulation a coin deposition reflects. Our task is made even more difficult by post-depositional processes that colour our perception. Nevertheless, we can in some instances link the distribution of particular coin groups to the model described above. For example, the earliest AVAVCIA issues can be associated with the ethnogenesis of the Tungri, and a significant portion of the silver and bronze triquetrum staters with that of the Batavi. Clearly, there was a greater need to affirm or create value systems in periods when new group identities were being forged. This could have boosted the numbers of tournaments of value in the Lower Rhine region from about 50 BC until the early Augustan period. The minting of coins may have played a significant role here. We have already shown that the many additional marks on triquetrum staters indicate a series of issues spread over time.[42] These marks can probably be interpreted as markers for a particular occasion when the coins entered into circulation – in other words, a tournament of value.

What then are the possibilities for future research? Our knowledge of Celtic coinage in the study region can be substantially enhanced by the detailed study of dies, supplemented by metal analysis. This would increase our understanding of issue size and the location of mints. The ongoing meticulous registration of new coin finds from excavations and of coins in private collections will of course continue to be of critical importance. As a result, we can expect coin distribution and context-differentiation patterns to be more representative of ancient deposition than they are now. At a higher level of analysis, there is a need for a new conceptual framework to interpret the entire repertoire of use for Celtic coins. This will entail a study of exchange systems in the broader sense, one which incorporates the socio-political, economic and religious dimensions of exchange. Celtic coins offer excellent opportunities in this regard because of their religiously inspired iconography, their occurrence in a wide range of contexts and their link to political authorities.[43]