For as long as there have been coins there have been people willing to risk the, usually severe, penalties for counterfeiting them. Unofficial versions of Roman coinage are regularly found across the Roman Empire, sometimes the output of con-artists seeking to defraud, and sometimes products of necessity to counter a wider shortage of low value coinage. This latter type of counterfeiting was perhaps sanctioned by the authorities, or at least had a blind eye turned to it.
The 3rd and 4th Centuries in particular were times during which many copies were produced and circulated freely. For example it has been estimated, based on Portable Antiquities Scheme data, that as many as one in three coins in circulation in Britain during the 3rd Century were fakes of varying quality. (Walton 2012).
While the copied coins themselves are a fascinating area of study, and something that anyone working with Roman archaeology will encounter regularly, what I would like to focus on here is the evidence we have for one method employed in the manufacture of counterfeit coins – casts made from ceramic moulds.
Official coin issues were produced through hammering a blank disc of metal (known as a ‘flan’) using dies carved with the coin’s design. Some counterfeiters employed this same method, but the problem was that their ability to reproduce the delicate imagery seen on official coin dies was limited, resulting in the type of coin seen in the image above. These coins were often made from less valuable alloys, sometimes designed to mimic the colour of official issues, and sometimes plated with the official metal but with a base metal core. Another option was to make a mould of an official coin and then cast it in metal. This method is attested though the discovery of ceramic discs impressed with coin designs in various parts of Britain, including Lincolnshire.
A recent study of these moulds in London, where an enormous assemblage of c.800 moulds and fragments was discovered in 1988, has shed light on how they were used (see Hall 2014 for the full study, and Hall and Goodburn Brown 2015 for a slightly shorter overview). I won’t reproduce their illustrations here, but their results suggest that the coins moulds were produced in stacks – each individual mould containing the obverse of one coin on one side, and the reverse of another coin on the other. This way, a stack of moulds would leave voids with the impressions of both sides of a specific coin waiting to be filled with the molten metal. A triangular notch cut into the side of each mould (see for example moulds 1, 2 and 4 in the Lincolnshire catalogue, below) would carry the metal into the void. Three stacks of moulds were placed together and contained with a larger ceramic vessel for casting.
Lincolnshire coin moulds
The Lincolnshire examples come from five sites – Lincoln (five moulds), Bottesford (five moulds), Sleaford (three moulds), Ancaster (two moulds) and Nocton (two moulds). Publication of the moulds is extremely limited, with brief notes published on two of the Sleaford finds (Whitwell 1964) but little else. Twelve of the moulds are in The Collection: Art & Archaeology in Lincolnshire, two are in the British Museum (though not on their online database) and the location of three are unknown. The moulds can be divided into two chronological groupings – early 3rd Century and early 4th Century, reflecting the two main periods of counterfeiting activity seen more widely.
Lincoln, Ancaster and Sleaford are major settlements and might be expected to be a focus for coin counterfeiting activity, but Bottesford and Nocton are more unusual findspots, as no sizeable occupation has yet been discovered there. Other Roman finds at Bottesford (eg recorded with the PAS) hint at activity in the area, and the find of two separate coin hoards and two possible curse tablets have led to the suggestion that a shrine might have existed nearby (see NLM-7C6EA5). Might counterfeiting activity at the site be associated with the production of coins sold to be given as offerings at a shrine? The Nocton moulds, found during drainage work in 1811, relate to the Car Dyke – the great man-made canal running for c.80 miles along the fen edge and believed to have been built in the early – mid 2nd Century.
Of the five moulds from Lincoln, four are recorded as having come from the ‘City gaol’, and one from ‘Carholme’. The ‘City gaol’ provenance, however, is slightly problematic. At the time of the donation of the moulds to the museum in 1907, that description might be expected to relate to the current Lincoln Prison on Greetwell Road, which opened in 1878. The previous City gaol was located at Sessions House, however, and the find date of the moulds is unknown. If they were found some years before their donation to the museum, it is possible that they were found at the Sessions House site. Hopefully further documentation will come to light which elucidates this issue. The single mould from ‘Carholme’ was found in 1881. The area is situated to the west of Lincoln, c.600-800m from the city walls.
Boon and Rahtz (1965) in their study of 3rd Century counterfeiting noted that, on the national level, the finds ‘avoid large centres of habitation, but in general do not lie far from them’, and the Lincolnshire finds would tend to support this assertion. It would be an interesting area of future research to analyse the clay the moulds are made from to see if they match any known pottery production sites.
The catalogue below lists each of the moulds and a description of the coins they were made from, either from personal inspection (moulds 1-12) or written descriptions (moulds 13-17). Identification of the obverse is usually more certain than that of the reverse, where imagery could represent similar coinage produced by a number of rulers. Coin legends can be particularly difficult to read with accuracy from the moulds.
For the early 3rd Century group, with the exception of a single obverse of Faustina II (the wife of Marcus Aurelius (AD161-180)), the coins all date to the Severan dynasty: Septimius Severus (AD193-211), Caracalla (AD198-217), Elagabalus (AD218-222) and Severus Alexander (AD222-235). The coins are all silver denarii, and would all have circulated at the same time. Although the latest coins represented by the moulds may indicate the time that the counterfeiting was occurring, the dramatic reduction in the silver content of coinage in the mid 3rd Century may indicate that these were older coins specifically chosen as the higher silver content of the official issues gave the counterfeits a higher profit margin. The moulds may therefore represent counterfeiting activity of the AD260/270s rather than the AD220/230s.
For the early 4th Century group, the Sleaford finds all date generically to the Tetrarchy (AD293-c.313), with only one obverse of Maximianus (c.AD300) identifiable. The Nocton moulds are slightly later, identified as belonging to Constantine I (AD307-337) and his mother Helena. All of the 4th Century moulds are copies of copper alloy folles.
Some of the moulds (1, 3, 4 and possibly also 13 and 14) have one blank face, indicating that they were positioned at the end of a stack. Three of the four moulds found at the Lincoln gaol site are such examples, a high percentage that indicates that the surviving assemblage represents only a fraction of what must originally have been produced. Mould 9, from Bottesford, has a reverse impression on each side, suggesting that it represents a mistake in the manufacturing process.
The moulds provide a fascinating insight into the practicalities of producing the counterfeit coinage that we encounter so often in later Romano-British archaeology, and indicate that the practice was carried out several major towns in Lincolnshire, and perhaps at more rural locations as well. The numbers known from Lincolnshire remain small, however, when compared with larger assemblages known from elsewhere – such as the c.800 from London mentioned above and finds of multiple hundreds of moulds in Gaul and Germany, including 2,539 from Pachten. The small and friable nature of the moulds, combined with the fact that they were liable to break when having the coin removed, suggests that many more Lincolnshire examples await discovery and identification.
Catalogue of Lincolnshire coin moulds
All images have been horizontally flipped to make coin imagery and legends legible. Images only available of moulds 1-12.
Boon, G. C. and Rahtz. P.A. 1965. Third Century Counterfeiting at Whitchurch, Somerset. Archaeological Journal Vol CXXII
Hall, J. 2014. With Criminal Intent? Forgers at Work in Roman London. Britannia Vol 45
Norgate, K. and Footman, M. H. 1898. Some notes for a history of Nocton. Architectural Society Reports and Papers Vol XXV, part 1
Phillips, C. W. 1934. The Present State of Archaeology in Lincolnshire Part II. Archaeological Journal, Vol XCI
Walton, P. 2012. Rethinking Roman Britain: Coinage and Archaeology. Collection Moneta 137
Whitwell, J. B. 1965. Archaeological Notes 1964. Lincolnshire History and Archaeology Vol 1