Remarkable Coins: ‘Celtic’ coin of the Iceni


11 April 2024
Dr Courtney Nimura, FSA, Curator for Later European Prehistory at the Ashmolean Museum highlights this remarkable Bury B coin from the Ashmolean Museum collection.

The origin of the Bury B Unit

This silver unit is featured in the Iron Age coin collection in the Heberden Coin Room at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology as part of the John Talbot Collection and is from a village in Norfolk. 

This type of coin, a Bury B unit, was likely made around 30 BC, when East Anglia was inhabited by a community referred to as the Iceni. This ‘tribe’ revolted against the Romans in AD 60/61 led by their ‘Queen’ Boadicea. The pre-Roman Iron Age in Britain (c.800 BC-AD 43) was a period of both social and political change and was also when the first coins were introduced to Britain from Europe around the mid-2nd century BC.

These first coins were originally imported but then minted locally shortly thereafter. The early issues of locally made coins bore designs that reflected connections to Europe, often referencing the iconography of Gallo-Belgic coins. Gradually, local minters developed their own ornamentation that was decidedly local in both style and content. 

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The Bury B Unit Details

This small silver coin is around 16mm in diameter and is an ideal example of the types of motifs and visual tropes that were represented in so-called ‘Celtic’ coins. On the reverse of this coin, there’s a horse in mid-gallop, above which are symbols that represent solar bodies like the sun. On the observe there’s a profile of a head, complete with locks of hair, hair band, a prominent nose and pointy chin. One almond-shaped eye is depicted in the middle of the face. What is special about this coin is that when you turn it, the lock of hair in front of the face becomes a second eye and the face on the coin seems to follow you. 

The Ashmolean Museum

If you want to see the hidden face for yourself, you can interact with this coin and inspect it close-up in the Ahshmolean’s first ever online exhibition. Open every day, the Ashmolean Museum is the University of Oxford’s museum of art and archaeology, which was founded in 1683. Its Heberden Coin Room is one of the leading international coin cabinets, with particular strenghth in the fields of Greek, Roman, Celtic, Byzantine, Medieval, Islamic and Chinese coinages. For full details, see the website.