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

2 The Lower Rhine coin database and its research potential

In this study we focus on coin use in the Lower Rhine plain, a region corresponding to the present-day southern and central Netherlands, northern Belgium and the adjacent German Lower Rhine region. It is also the northern periphery of the area where Celtic coins were used. The past decade has seen a radical change in our perception of the social organisation of the societies that lived here in the Late Iron Age: they have been shown to be more complex than we thought. The settlement pattern is not simply one of individual farmsteads and small hamlets; it also features larger settlements with centre functions, particularly in the religious domain.[13] The practice of collective weapon depositions at cult places points to the emergence of a new social arena for elite competition in which martial values were cultivated. The contrast with the more southerly regions in Northern Gaul is less extreme than is often suggested.[14]


Fig. 1 Tribal map of the Lower Rhine region and neighbouring areas at the time of Caesar’s conquest.

So wherein lies the specific research potential of the study of Celtic coins in the Lower Rhine region? We would like to distinguish three elements:

a. The region’s location in the northernmost zone of coin-using societies on the European continent. A number of intriguing questions concern the process of coin introduction. How should we construe the late and sluggish start in the Lower Rhine zone? How should we interpret the substantial regional differences within this area? And how did societies which used coins differ from societies which did not?

b. The relationship between the emergence of new coin issues and the historically documented, dynamic political geography of the region in the second half of the 1st century BC. We are dealing here – in part as a consequence of Roman frontier policy – with the dynamics of disappearing tribes and the genesis of new ethnic groupings (see Figs. 1 and2). To what extent are these processes evident in the numismatic material?

c. The quality of the numismatic data. In the Netherlands, many coins found by amateur archaeologists using metal detectors are systematically recorded and inventoried. This has produced a meteoric rise in the number of finds (see Table 1). We now have access to fairly representative distribution patterns of the various coin types for the Netherlands, as well as to context information.


Table 1. Increase in the number of coins found in the Netherlands, with 1980 and 2005 as reference years.


Fig. 2 Historically documented migrations of Germanic groups to the western Lower Rhine region in the second half of the 1st century BC.

Figure 3 shows the processes behind the formation of the current database of Celtic coins from the study region. This diagram underpins a host of interpretations with regard to the production, circulation and deposition of coins in this study. Distribution maps are an important analytical tool, but they leave us with some fundamental questions: just how representative are they of coins actually present in the soil and to what extent do they present a distorted picture of ancient coin deposition and loss?[15]


Fig. 3 Diagram showing the formation processes of Late Iron Age coinages in the Lower Rhine region (after Roymans 2004, Fig. 4.9).

Distribution patterns are influenced by regional differences in the intensity of metal detector use, different national legislation in this area, and differences in soil type and in patterns of modern agrarian land use. For example, the number of find spots in the Netherlands has jumped spectacularly within a short time, by the sheer intensity of reported finds and by effective coin inventory programmes (see Tables 2 and 3). Conspicuous here is the high proportion (about 75%) of coins found in ordinary rural settlements. The Dutch data suggests that this category of find spots may be underrepresented in the data from France, Belgium and the German Rhineland, something we need to bear in mind when interpreting distribution maps. Nevertheless, this does not mean that distribution maps are useless: even within the Netherlands, they reveal significant patterns. We can also compare the distributional evidence with the composition of coin lists of special find spots, such as cult places, oppida and Roman camps in the different regions. This too may tell us something about regional coinage patterns.


Table 2. Distribution of silver and bronze triquetrum coins across different find spot categories in the Batavian region and the German Rhineland. (After Roymans 2004, table 6.1).


Table 3. Distribution of AVAVCIA coins over different find spot categories in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. (After Aarts & Roymans, in press).