The Proof of the Coin is in the Weight

 

Metal detectorists come across many unusual items from bygone ways of life on their expeditions. Spindle whorls are common, as are shoe buckles. One of the most interesting items, though, are coin weights.

 

Coin weights were used for centuries to ensure the quality of precious metal coinage, almost always for the larger denominations of coins. They were one of the first technological developments to prevent coin clipping and counterfeiting. Generally made to match the lowest possible weight at which a certain coin could be considered legal tender, they were made of lower-quality metal like iron or bronze.

 

800px-Al-Walid_ibn_Abdul-Rahman_-_Inscribed_Pound_Weight_-_Walters_476_-_Three_Quarter_Left.jpgWeights are first found in the Ptolemaic and Byzantine Empires, as well as in ancient China. Islamic civilizations also used coin weights, eventually preferring glass weights, as they were thought to be unalterable. Islamic weights are the first to appear in Britain, having been introduced by the Vikings, who traded extensively with both civilizations. Many weights bear the names of rulers and other important individuals, making them valuable to historians and other researchers. By the time they were introduced to the Carolingian Empire, weights had begun to be stamped with the same dies as coins, to ensure that the weight could be clearly matched to the right coin.

 

 

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Post-medieval coin weight, probably German. Credit to Ciorstaidh Hayward Trevarthen, used under CC by SA 2.0

There are hundreds of different kinds of coin weights, from many countries and eras. In England, all coin weights were made for gold coins until Charles I in the 17th century. English-origin weights frequently have a design only on the obverse, until Henry VIII, when the shilling and pence values of the coin were added to the reverse in Roman numerals.

 

 

In the 1500s, sets of weights complete with scales were brought into production. An order to the warden of the Mint in 1587 dictates the creation of “true” weights with the symbol of a crown E (Elizabeth I being Queen at the time). The order states that no other weights may be used, and that every city, town, and borough must have a set of the balances and weights. The punishment for using any other weight was imprisonment. Another order the following year provided for the manufacture of special cases for the weights and balances. “The descriptions of five cases are given – the first of wood with 14 coin-weights, a balance, a suite of weights marked from 1 to 5 dwts (pennyweights) and a suite of up to 5 grain weights, the whole to cost 4s 6d. The cheapest set was to cost 3s 1d. […] The evidence is that the proclamation did not have the desired effect for in 1589 a Richard Martin complained to the Lord Treasurer that he had expended above £600 in providing scales and weights marked with an ‘E’ crowned, the far greater part of which still remained upon his hands.”

 

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Late medieval coin weight, found in Warwickshire. Credit to Helen Glenn, used under CC by SA 2.0

Square weights were specifically banned by Parliament in 1632: ‘many of them, which were in common use were too heavy , and others too light, so that men bought and received by one weight, and sold and delivered by another’. The round weights from after this edict are some of the most commonly found.

 

 

After 1775, all coin weights were required to undergo testing; those that were accurate were stamped with a mark certifying their accuracy. A ewer mark indicated testing at the Founders Company of London; an Imperial crown indicated the Royal Mint; a lion passant indicated London; and an anchor for Birmingham. In 1891, Parliament passed the Coinage Act: this gave a governmental guarantee for all new coins, bringing the need for coin weights to an end.

 

In addition to the official weights, homemade weights were occasionally used. “In some coinweight boxes from the late-17th century onwards are found a small nest of cup-weights similar to those used for other commodities since late-Medieval times. These however are intended for weighing silver coin and are marked VS (for the crown), 2S 6D, IS and ½S or 6D. These were probably used during transactions for weighing quantities of worn clipped coins or even scrap up to an actual coin value and are not strictly therefore coinweights.” Apothecary weights may also sometimes be mistaken for coin weights, as the systems are similar.

 

Coin weights have been used almost everywhere that coins have circulated, and have been one of the longest-lasting technologies used to counteract bad currency. Though there are now many modern technologies that help prevent widespread coin devaluing, weight is still one of the most reliable ways to check a coin. To this day, many collectors keep a precise scale on hand to weigh prospective purchases and ensure that they are getting the coin that’s been advertised.

 

(Featured image is a coin weight from the reign of Edward III of England, found by detectorist Scott Bevan. You can follow Scott on Twitter to see more of his discoveries.)

Digging Up the Past: A Detectorist’s View of Coins and History

Scott Bevan is a metal detectorist in Birmingham, England, and has uncovered quite a few interesting coins and other historical artifacts; follow him on Twitter to keep up with his detecting adventures. This interview has been edited for clarity; all photographs are courtesy of Scott Bevan.

 

Stamp and Coin Place (SC): What is the best or most interesting coin you’ve ever found?

 

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Scott Bevan (Scott): That’s a tough question to answer! I categorize my coins into 3 groups: milled coins, hammered coins, and ancient coins. I’ve only ever been lucky enough to find one ancient coin, which was a copper alloy Roman coin, minted in Trier (Germany) between the years of 310-313 AD, under the reign of the emperor Maximinus Daia II. I’ve always had a fascination with Ancient Rome and Roman Britain, so this was an extra special find for me.

 

 

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But saying that, I’ve only recently unearthed my second hammered coin: a King Edward VI sixpence, minted between 1551-1553, which is also a fantastic coin, even though somebody from the period decided to clip a lot of the silver from around the edge of the coin. A common practice in medieval Britain, although not normally to this extent. If I was pushed to make a decision, I’d probably opt for the Roman coin, purely because of the period it’s from and the fact that it’s my only one.

 

 

SC: Quite a find! What was the most valuable item you’ve uncovered? The most unusual?

 

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Scott: Again, that’s a bit of a toughie. I have absolutely no intention of selling any of my finds if I can help it, therefore I never really pay much attention to the monetary worth of my finds. However, I have two finds that particularly stand out when considering both the uniqueness and value of my collection. The first would be a medieval chest or casket key that I discovered recently in Staffordshire. Dating from the period 1150-1400, the key is one of my favorite and most unusual finds. I was reliably informed that it was worth in the region of £150 – £200.

 

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The second would be my Bronze Age flat axe head. I’ve still got to take it to the museum to be appraised, but it’s at least 3,000 years old. It could be as much as 4,500. I found it in a field in Nottinghamshire a few months ago. I have no idea of the value of the axe head but I suppose like pretty much everything that’s for sale, it’s only worth as much as someone is prepared to pay for it. Mine’s not for sale!

 

SC: I have to ask: what’s your best story from a time you went out detecting?

 

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Scott: You’re probably expecting a vivid account of the time I found my Roman coin, my key, or my axe head. But it’s another day that stands out head and shoulders above any of those, and the finds were sparse on that day. I’d only been detecting for a few months when a friend and I attended a club dig in Derbyshire. It was a busy dig with around 50 or 60 people present. As the finds were so few, my friend and myself decided to call it a day around mid-afternoon. There was only one exit from the fields and as we’d had a deluge of rain in the days prior to the dig, the land leading through the gate had turned into a swamp.

 

Like the caring person that he is, my friend urged me to lead the way, picking my way through the bog, looking for any sign of semi solid ground. I was about 4 or 5 feet from the safety of the car park when I spotted what I thought was a cement ledge. It looked wet but I assumed that was because of the recent rainfall. So, spade in one hand and detector in the other, I leapt for the ledge…and landed two-footed in what can only be described as a trough of manure. Seriously, it was about 2 feet deep and I was sinking at an alarming rate. It was above my knees and every time I attempted to pull a foot out, it was like a vacuum sucking it back in. It was at this point that I began to scream. Like a Royal Marine, I’d like to add, which only helped to gain me a bigger audience. Eventually, having used my spade and detector like crutches, I managed to free myself, minus a boot. At no point did anyone standing around laughing offer to help. The journey home was a quiet and rather smelly one.

 

SC: Well, that’s definitely an experience to remember! Can you tell me about your basic process? How do you go about finding things and what do you do once you’ve found them?

 

4588c19b-459e-4b17-8ca1-b8c41efb1eb1.pngScott: I’m still relatively new to metal detecting, but I’ve noticed that people have different approaches to the hobby. Some people do extensive research of an area before detecting. Others, like myself, are grateful of being granted permission to detect anywhere. Permission is vital, though. Wherever I detect, I first get permission from the landowner: it’s imperative. Then it’s all down to patience and, dare I say it, luck. If you don’t walk over it, you’ll never find it. Obviously there’s an element of skill involved, mostly in the setup of your machine, but I’m still learning and it’s very much down to trial and error at the moment. When I do discover something of note, I show it to my local Finds Liaison Officer, who’ll identify the item for me and record it in a database that is aimed at recording all finds in Britain for the purpose of research. I then add them to my collection, and often spend hours wondering who the last person to hold them was and how they were lost. I’ve spent many an idle hour lost in thought to those questions.
SC: So with the chances of not finding anything, along with bad weather and the danger of cow droppings, why keep detecting? Why is it important to you? Do you think it offers any benefits to society?

 

b2d6287e-b9d5-43f2-ae2f-4e83af3e8da3.pngScott: There are varied opinions on metal detectorists but I can only answer this question from my own personal experiences. I’ve always had an affinity for history and the past. Even as a boy, I’d marvel at discovering an old Victorian penny; I excelled at history in school. But as I got older, I discarded my love of history and pursued alcohol and less academic interests. 4 years ago I gave up drinking, which subsequently led to me becoming quite withdrawn. I lacked interest in doing anything and often found myself spending days on end at home. Then someone suggested that I go metal detecting. At first, I dismissed the idea. I thought it was a hobby for old people with no social life or scavengers illegally searching for items to sell on the black market. I think this is the perception that a lot of people have about detectorists: people detecting illegally in the hope of making money, without the slightest interest or regard for the history that they’re unearthing. I’m afraid that does happen; they’re the people who make it so difficult for the rest of us.

 

CpbuUuDWEAA4if5As far as my experience goes, metal detecting has given me a new lease on life. It’s helped me to overcome a difficult period in my life and given me something to aim for and achieve. I only mention this to make people aware, in the hope that the next time they see someone searching a field with a detector in hand, that they won’t jump to assumptions as to who that person is or why they do it. It’s all treasure to me, regardless of its monetary value. Yesterday, I dug up a shoe buckle from the 1700’s. It’s a little bent and has obviously seen better days, but at some point 3 centuries ago, that was somebody’s pride and joy. And I get that. I respect it. And I feel privileged to hold it and have it in my collection. To me, it’s a personal connection to individuals who lived hundreds of years before me. A story that was on pause until I discovered it and pressed ‘play’ again, and now it resumes.

 

Even if you don’t necessarily have the urge or passion for metal detecting, I hope that at least on some level you can understand that connection. So yes, there are bad detectorists who deserve no part in this wonderful hobby. But on the whole, if done for the right reasons and with passion, metal detecting is a connection to the past and a way of unearthing treasures otherwise long confined to history. Just make sure you keep an eye out for wet cement, it’s not always what it seems!