CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..
WHEN ONE HEARS the word “Celtic”, one naturally thinks of Ireland (unless one is from Boston, in which case one naturally thinks of basketball).
It may therefore seem surprising that none of the vast and complex coinage that numismatists describe as “Celtic” was struck in Ireland. “Celtic” coins come mainly from France, Britain, Spain, and central Europe. Ancient and medieval Irish were talented metal workers–as we see from treasures like the Broighter gold collar (1st century BCE) and the Ardagh Chalice (eighth century CE)–but they lived in a coinless society. Roman and other ancient coins have been found in Ireland, but they were kept as bullion, deposited as ritual offerings at sacred sites or worn as ornaments, not used as currency (Aitcheson, 275).
As a Romanized Briton, St. Patrick (died c. 493 CE, possibly earlier) would have been familiar with the use of coins. But despite their conversion to Christianity at his hands, the Irish stubbornly retained their traditional forms of money: cattle, slaves (particularly young women), sacks of grain, and bits of silver:
“The evidence of coin hoards indicates there were no coins minted or circulating in Ireland in the seventh and eighth centuries. When metal was the means of payment, it was in the form of bullion or, perhaps, worked up into goods (Gerriets, 333).”
There were no cities, and hence no urban economy; but some monasteries grew into small towns, in a shifting constellation of small squabbling kingdoms.
Beginning around 795, the annals of Irish monasteries report raids by Vikings from Norway. The Vikings came to slave and loot, but soon they settled and married the natives. In 841 they established a permanent base on the site of Dublin, where they ruled with some interruptions for three centuries. Vikings also settled at Waterford, Wexford, and other points around the coast. After a few generations, these “Hiberno-Norse” spoke Gaelic and adopted much of Irish culture, including Christianity.
As seafaring traders and pirates (these occupations were largely interchangeable in this era), Scandinavians were accustomed to using a wide variety of coins: Anglo-Saxon silver pennies, Frankish deniers, Byzantine bezants, and even Islamic dinars and dirhems.
About the year 995, Sihtric III “Silkbeard”, (also spelled Sitrick, Sigtrygg, Sitriuc, and many other variants) King of Dublin, issued silver pennies that closely imitated the contemporary Anglo-Saxon coins of English King Aethelred II.
Sihtric was the son of Olaf Cuaran, Norse King of Dublin and York (ruled c. 989-1036). Sihtric’s mother, Gormflaith, was an Irish princess, daughter of the king of Leinster in the southeastern part of the island. Some of Sihtric’s coins bear his own name, and spell out the name of Dublin (“DYFLIN,”); others simply copy the names of Aethelred and various English mints and moneyers. These were the first coins struck in Ireland, and the reason for issuing them was probably both practical (to pay mercenaries) and symbolic (to enhance the king’s prestige by displaying his wealth and power.)
Only a handful of specimens have been found in England. Even when the coins bear the names of English kings and mints, they weren’t intended to pass as counterfeits: “[T]hose in charge of the mint were content to emulate English coins still more closely if it helped to secure acceptance for them in Ireland and the rest of the Viking world (Blackburn, 123).”
The British numismatist Michael Dolley (1925-1983) classified Hiberno-Norse coins into seven distinct “phases”, covering a period of over 150 years. Phase I coinage lasted 20-25 years and went through several designs.
The most common type imitates Aethelred’s “Long Cross” issue, bearing an obverse image of a bare-headed king draped in a cloak. The “voided cross” reverse could serve as a guide for cutting the coin into halves or quarters since no smaller denominations were struck.
Other Phase I types imitate Aethelred’s “Crux”, “Helmet”, and “Last Small Cross” designs. Late Phase I coins imitate the “Quatrefoil” type of Cnut (or “Canute”) who ruled as King of England from 1016 to 1035.
Phases II and III
During Phase II (c. 1018-35) the coinage became lighter, possibly reflecting the declining fortunes of the Kingdom of Dublin. While early Phase I coins weighed about 1.5 grams, by Phase II they are down to 1.2 or even less. Inscriptions become “blundered” – numismatic shorthand for a jumble of letters – but bits of the name “Sihtric” and “Dyflin” are still often recognizable. On the obverse, a J-shaped symbol – interpreted as an inverted bishop’s crozier – sometimes appears behind the bust. Small pellets appear in the angles of the long cross on the reverse.
The “Long Cross” design no longer imitated current English coinage, and hoard evidence suggests that Anglo-Saxon coins did not circulate much in Ireland after about 1020.
By Phase III (c. 1035-60), the “inscriptions” become meaningless strokes:
“It is somewhat surprising that none of the rulers of Dublin attempted to restore the literacy of the coinage at any stage in the remaining century and a half, when the neighbouring English coinage was thoroughly literate (Blackburn, 114).”
The weight of Phase III coins falls again, to 0.7 gram or less, and a distinctive feature is a pair of spindly “hands” in opposite angles of the cross on the reverse.
Phases IV and V
The brief Phase IV (c. 1055–65) and longer Phase V (c. 1065-95) saw further deterioration in the weight and workmanship of the coins. This was a chaotic period in Ireland’s long history, with various minor kingdoms and clans competing for control of the coastal towns.
Hiberno-Norse rulers lost control of Dublin in 1052, and some of these coins may have been struck at other locations. Some Phase IV coins are described as scratched die types, because the design seems to have been crudely scratched into the dies, rather than carefully engraved.
A very rare obverse type has a crudely executed bearded bust wearing a pointed cap.
Phases VI and VII
In Phase VI (c. 1095–1150) the weight falls to half a gram or less and the stylized bust on the obverse becomes almost unrecognizable. The coins are often so thin that the obverse strike shows through on the reverse. By the end of the coinage, sometime after 1150, the rare coins of Phase VII are just bits of silver foil stamped with a short cross design that shows on both sides.
The mint and issuing authority are unknown. This type of coin is called a bracteate (from the Latin bractea, “a thin leaf of metal.”) They were too fragile to circulate for long, and were frequently recalled by the mints, discounted, melted down and reissued.
In 1169 a group of Anglo-Norman knights landed near Wexford to help an ousted king of Leinster regain his throne. Two years later, English King Henry II (ruled 1154-1189) arrived with a larger army, taking possession of Dublin and claiming the title Lord of Ireland. It was the beginning of 750 years of English domination, ending with the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922.
Collecting Early Irish Coinage
The Irish Republic has strict laws against metal detecting, and all antiquities found in the earth are considered the property of the state. As a result, much of what we know about Hiberno-Norse coinage comes from stray finds, hoards discovered in the 19th century or even earlier, and a few controlled archaeological excavations. Coins reaching the market are relatively rare and command high prices: choice Phase I specimens in recent sales have sold for $3,500 to $4,750 USD. The highest price paid for a Hiberno-Norse coin–for a Phase I “Quatrefoil” penny of Sihtric, one of just four known–was apparently $12,000 in a 2007 auction.
* * *
 National Museum of Ireland:
 National Museum of Ireland:
 Known as “Aethelred the Unready”, he ruled 978-1016.
Aitcheson, N.B. “Roman Wealth, Native Ritual: Coin Hoards within and Beyond Roman Britain”, World Archaeology 20 (1988)
Blackburn, Mark. “Currency under the Vikings, Part 4: The Dublin Coinage c. 995-1050”, British Numismatic Journal 78 (2008)
Dolley, R. “Hiberno-Norse Coins from the Lockett Collection”, British Museum Quarterly 23 (1961)
Dolley, Michael. “Medieval British and Irish Coins as dating evidence for the archaeologist”, World Archaeology 1 (1969)
Gerriets, Marilyn. “Money in Early Christian Ireland According to the Irish Laws”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 27 (1985)
Haverfield, F. “Ancient Rome and Ireland”, English Historical Review 28 (1913)
Morrison, K.F. “Review of The Hiberno-Norse Coins in the British Museum, by R.H.M Dolley”, Speculum 42 (1967)