15 January 2019
James Booth assesses the latest edition of the comprehensive guide to silver sceattas, which according to author Tony Abramson remain a ‘still neglected’ field
Spink: London, 2017
Link: Buy the book from amazon
This is the second edition of this ground-breaking book, first published in 2012, and now republished with a more user-friendly introduction and many additions.
As Abramson comments the silver sceattas remain a ‘still neglected’ field. They are tiny (about a centimetre in diameter), generally lack inscriptions to fix them in place and time, and show a bewildering abundance of different designs. On the other hand, those who simply browse Abramson’s images with an alert eye, or who find themselves drawn in by the fascinating account of research to date in his introduction, will find rich rewards indeed.
Some of the coins are strikingly characterful, some beautiful: a Roman emperor profile, a bird on a cross, a wolf-whorl, a pecking bird, a standing sphinx with breasts, an abstract spiky ‘porcupine’.
Those interested in cultural history will be intrigued by Abramson’s question (based on Anna Gannon’s iconographical research) of whether some coins show deliberately ambiguous transitional pagan/Christian symbols.
Is this a ‘Wodan’ face, or the face of Jesus?
Could this bird and serpent have been seen by Anglo-Saxons as both a pagan representation of good defeating evil, and also a Christian image of the holy spirit defeating the devil?
One recently discovered rare type derives from the Virgin orans design, familiar on Byzantine icons and coins. In the south of England this coinage lasted about eight decades, beginning with the transition from gold coinage in about 685, and ending with Offa’s adoption in the 760s of the Carolingian broad penny showing kings’ and moneyers’ names.
Within this timespan only a relative sequence can be established.
Abramson therefore takes a ‘descriptive’ approach, based, on ten somewhat arbitrary ‘Themes’:
- Radiate bust
- Profile head
- Diademed bust
- Bird and branch
- Facing bust
- Helmeted bust
Research in the series is still at an early stage, and secure attributions of dates and mint-places may be made in future as die-studies and hoard analyses accumulate. As it is, his approach enables him to display all the 679 ‘varieties’ currently known in a reasonably navigable layout.
The ‘descriptive’ approach does, however, seem perverse when one notes that the only ‘Theme’ defined in terms of geography, ‘Northumbria’, is number 6. The Northumbrian series is anomalous. From the 690s onward it shows the king’s name, and it persists many decades after the broad penny had been adopted in the south, lasting into the early ninth century. Surely the Northumbrian group should have been listed last in the volume?