Gallo-Belgic gold stater with disjointed horse - blank reverse.

Base silver stater of the Durotriges tribes, from Dorset. Disjointed 'Head of Apollo' design on obverse.

Tasciovanus sliver coin, imitating the silver Roman coinage of Augustus. Butting bull on reverse. Lettering 'TASCIA' on obverse.

Tasciovanus gold stater with Celtic warrior on horseback and lettering 'AS beneath.

Between c. 500BC and the mid 1st century AD the Celts were one of the most widespread and influential peoples in Europe. They stretched from Britain across the mainland as far as Galatia (which means ‘land of the Celts’). They were well known to both Greek and Roman, classical writers, who give us much fascinating information about their character and customs. We read that ‘they lived in unwalled villages, without any superfluous furniture; for as they slept on beds of leaves, and fed on meat, and were exclusively occupied with war and agriculture, their lives were very simple…..their possessions consisted of cattle and gold, because these were the only things they could carry about with them everywhere according to the circumstances, and shift where they chose.’ (Polybius, Histories - 2.17. 8-12, written about 140BC).

It is interesting that Polybius cites only cattle and gold as their possessions. Though the great gold torcs such as those discovered at Snettisham in Norfolk are familiar to most of us and continue to be rescued from under the plough by fortunate farmers, Celtic coinage is perhaps less familiar. The Celts’ own interest in ‘money’ probably stemmed from their widespread use as mercenaries across the ancient world. Renowned as they were for valour in battle, kings or city-states were prepared to employ Celtic warriors in times of war to fight on their side, and to reward them with money in the same way that they rewarded their own troops, with, however, slight differences.

In the ancient Greek world every city had its own coinage, valid in its own ports and markets but usually needing to be changed into the currency of another city before it could be used there, similar to the way we still need to change money at the borders of different countries. Before the days of Rome, whose coinage was circulated throughout the Empire, the one notable exception to this rule was the coinage of Alexander the Great, whose conquests took him right across the Greek world and well into India. His coins as a result became the most widely recognised and accepted of any, even after his death in 323BC, and it must have been for this reason that the first coins of the Celts were copies of Alexander’s coinage. There was a significant difference however; virtually all the coins in the Greek world were of silver, whereas the Celts preferred theirs to be made from gold. It was not until later that the use of silver and bronze became common metals for use in Celtic coinage, as a result of contact with the Romans.

Celtic coinage continues to be the subject of much research and debate. In the absence of written sources our knowledge of its use and distribution depends entirely upon archaeology, and more recently on the extraordinary and diverse rare ‘finds’ by responsible metal detectorists. Coins ‘travel’ very easily, and were of course undated in our sense of the term. They also carry little or no inscription, therefore identification is not straightforward, and it is easy to see how the study of the subject is somewhat of a minefield!

Here are just four examples of Celtic coins, to give some idea of the variety of types and artistic styles that are found. Three come from Britain - the Gallo-Belgic gold stater below has its origins in Europe.

On one side of this gold coin, known as a Gallo-Belgic stater and dating from c.40BC or slightly earlier, is a horse. The horse was clearly an important status symbol for the Celts. They fought from horse-drawn chariots, and the presence of horses and chariots in the graves of British and European Celts seems to be an indication of how highly they were regarded. The style of the coin is remarkable, indeed almost ‘Cubist’, though at least recognisable. The horse’s belly seems to sag, the legs are mere sticks, the face is a square opening, and it has a disjointed tail. The various patterns of ornament and pellets above and below the horse are unexplained, though in many coin-types they take over almost completely from the horse. The other side of the coin is completely plain. In contrast, he most common of British Celtic gold staters have a design explained as a ‘close-up’ of part of the head of Apollo; certainly the laurel wreath on these coins seems to extend across them, and the semicircles in the design are probably derived from an ear and an eye.

There was a later silver coinage of low denomination, and frequently made from impure or debased silver, which would have been more use in day-to-day transactions than the high denomination gold coins, whose value may be gauged from the fact that on one occasion we read of soldiers being paid one gold stater each for an entire campaign! Both sides of a typical example from the British Durotriges tribes of Dorset and west Hampshire are shown here. The designs, though intriguing, are distinctly baffling. Are they ‘abstracts’, or are they stylisations to which we have lost the key?

Within the range of Celtic currencies, even smaller change was provided in the form of potin coins. These were made from a lead/tin alloy. The coins were minted in strips that were then cut into individual units.

Cunobelinus (c.10BC-40AD) was a great Celtic chief based at Camalodunum, the area of present-day Colchester in Essex, not long before the Roman occupation of Britain. It would seem that there had been contact between the Celts in Britain and the Romans for some time before the invasion by the emperor Claudius in 43AD. One of the ways in which this can be seen is the fact that Cunobelinus and his predecessor Tasciovanus had imitated some of their coin styles. We cannot be sure whether they thought that this would impress the Romans, or whether indeed they were so impressed by them that they decided to revise their coinage accordingly, or whether they just liked the style of coinage.

Some of the coins of Cunobelinus had the letters TASCO printed on them, the first letters of Tasciovanus his predecessor, making it clear that he, Cunobelinus, was now in charge. Like the Romans, the Celts were not slow to realise that coins were an ideal medium for propaganda. Shown on the left is a small silver Celtic coin of Tasciovanus himself, very much a British Celtic coin, but the design copies a Roman silver denarius coin of the emperor Augustus, whose reign began in 27BC. The lettering TASCIA (Tasciovanus) can be seen, and the reverse has a bull with lowered head facing left, similar to the Roman silver coin of Augustus. Earlier coins of Tasciovanus were much more individual, as shown by the beautifully artistic gold stater illustrated, showing a horse and warrior, with the abbreviated lettering AS (a very shortened version of Tasciovanus) beneath. On the other side are two crescents back-to-back, sourrounded by four small circles with dots, said to represent chariot wheels.

Soon after the invasion of Britain by the Romans the production of a distinctively Celtic coinage ceased - the only coins produced at this stage being copies of Roman coinage of very variable quality, perhaps produced when supplies of ‘the real thing’ ran short. Such coins are known as ‘barbarous radiates’, and many are known during the reigns of the emperors Tetricus and Claudius Gothicus, as well as other emperors of the late 3rd and 4th centuries AD.

Celtic coins have a fascination all of their own. They are examples in miniature of late Iron Age art, baffling though the designs may be at times. Why did they choose to represent horses and people in this very abstract way? It was surely not due to a lack of technical skill. The coins are fascinating too because of the light they shed on an important and unique period in the history not only of Britain but also of Europe as a whole. Indeed, in the absence of written records they are one of our most important sources for this period.

Most museums will have some Celtic coins on display, and the lower denominations are common enough to be available from dealers fairly cheaply. There are various reference books available on the subject, ranging from the large and magnificent volume by Van Arsdale that covers almost all known Celtic coins, to books such as ‘Coinage in the Celtic World’ by Daphne Nash, or Allen’s ‘The Coins of the Ancient Celts’ that are available through libraries. Nowadays there are also several excellent websites containing databases and enlarged pictures of all types of Celtic coinage.

- © Frank James