The hole story
Brett Hammond, of TimeLine Originals, provides an introduction to ancient and antique coin jewellery, which has become increasingly popular with collectors in recent years
A few decades ago a coin into which someone had bored or drilled a hole might have gone directly to a junk box or melting pot; looked upon as of little or no collector value in a hobby where everyone aimed to own f-grade or better specimens. Today, thanks mainly to a huge increase in ancient coins encountered by dealers and collectors, there is a greater awareness that an ancient hole may transform a coin from damaged goods to a collectable artefact.
Holed coins turned up by metal detectorists come under the scrutiny of several pairs of eyes. Finders themselves look closely, of course; but each coin also meets the gaze of fellow club members; of the Finds Liaison Officer appointed by the local archaeology service; perhaps of a coin dealer; and certainly of many other detectorists if the coin is photographed for the Portable Antiquities Scheme. This greater awareness has confirmed that holes must be accounted for by more than simply dismissing them as the results of the ravages of corrosion during many centuries in the ground. Holes were certainly deliberately made in ancient coins to reduce their value as currency; or to deface the portrait of the issuing ruler; even to nail the coin to a timber structure, or to a tree, near a sacred shrine. But when a hole was carefully placed at the edge of a coin and often made at a spot on the coin where the hole would not damage a portrait or some element of the design, we can reasonably conclude that the intention was to pass a cord, or a chain, through the hole and wear the coin as a pendant. In other words, as an item of coin jewellery.
The practice is probably as old as the earliest coins, and numerous Ancient Greek examples holed for wearing as pendants have come to light on excavation sites in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions. We cannot be certain why particular coins were selected for pendants; perhaps weight, size, reverence of a leader’s portrait - all may have played their parts. But it does seem highly likely that the many Ancient Greek coins bearing the open-mouthed image of a Gorgon mask were chosen as pendants because the mask was regarded as both lucky and protective; capable of frightening off evil and enemies when worn as a charm.
The Romans wore coins as jewellery, often piercing them by making holes on opposite sides, which suggests that they were strung together as bracelets and necklaces. Two holes close together on a coin ensured that when a cord was looped through the hole a particular side would be displayed. This practice became more widespread in Imperial times when emperor worship flourished and coins provided citizens throughout the empire with portraits of the deity who ruled in distant Rome. Finds of pierced bronze coins, and of thinly plated fourrées (contemporary forgeries of silver coins) indicate that even at the lower levels of society coin jewellery found a ready market. The wife of a humble labourer, or a household slave, would have prized such a possession.
A display of loyalty
Gold, on the other hand, was worn only by the rich and noble, who took to wearing finger rings made from mounted gold coins, though they were always far less common than rings set with gemstones. When the emperor Claudius agreed to become a god in the eyes of his subjects he granted permission for the wearing of rings engraved with his image. And as excellent portraits of the emperor appeared on his gold aurei, they were set into rings and medallions by nobles keen to display loyalty to the emperor. A superb example of such a finger ring from a later reign was discovered by a detectorist at Poringland, Norfolk in 1998 when he unearthed a specimen set with an aureus of Postumus (AD 260-69)
People who mistakenly regard the Anglo-Saxon centuries as a Dark Age must experience quite a shock when they gaze with admiration on some of the magnificent coin jewellery from the period brought to light by detectorists and now on display in museums around Britain. The finds show clearly that the Anglo-Saxons took coin jewellery to new heights of artistry, though when they first arrived in England they probably limited their coin jewellery to Roman gold coins pierced as pendants.
Writing in The Midlands Portable Antiquities Scheme’s Summer 2005 Newsletter, Dr Kevin Leahy, Finds Adviser, said about Anglo-Saxon coin brooches, which evolved from the earlier pendants: “Until the start of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, Anglo-Saxon coin brooches were seen as rare. A list of all those then known published in 1971 contained nine examples ... the total recorded since people started to be interested in this sort of thing. When I looked at the same type of brooch last year, using Portable Antiquities data, I found we had an additional 36 examples. This is a revolution in our knowledge...”
The earliest of these coin brooches were undoubtedly Continental imports; but as the following official description of The Wilton Cross - a gold and garnet cloisonné pendant set with an Early Byzantine coin - attests, craftsmen in England were soon making them: This pendant displays the reverse of a lightweight solidus of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (reigned AD 610-41), which can be dated to between 613 and 630... The coin is held in a filigree collar and surrounded by a ring of garnet cloisonné. The dated coin means that the Wilton Cross could not have been made before AD 613 ..[...].. probably in an East Anglian workshop.
Coin brooches gradually degenerated to nummular brooches, which imitated coins and often included crude portraits and blundered inscriptions. By late Anglo-Saxon times the ubiquitous silver penny became the obvious candidate for coin jewellery. Pieces were often gilded and fitted into silver mounts for use as high status brooches, a practice which continued until the reign of William the Conqueror.
A brief flourish in coin brooch popularity occurred during the reign of Edward the First (1272-1307) when his newly introduced large groats, with their eye-catching long cross reverses, were made into brooches with reverses gilded for ostentatious display. The practice became so widespread that few coin collectors now possess a specimen that does not show signs of earlier gilding.
From time-to-time since then coins have attracted the attention of jewellers - professional and amateur. An abundance of small silver coins in late-Stuart, Georgian and Victorian times encouraged their use, sometimes mounted, though usually holed as appendages on watch chains and bracelets. Further down the social scale the large surfaces of copper coins such as cartwheel pennies provided palates on which sailors, soldiers and their sweethearts often inscribed tokens of affection. Many were then drilled and worn as pendants. Meanwhile, climbing the social ladder once again, gold sovereigns caught the eyes of jewellers as those coins began to disappear from circulation in the early 20th century. Vast numbers now remain on view only as mounted specimens in sovereign brooches.
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Guide to Coin Jewlery collecting
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10 August 2009
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