How to read a hammered silver coin [Stamp and Coin Mart, July 2010, Page 98, 99]
Brett Hammond of TimeLine Originals offers some useful advice on how to decipher the often confusing text seen on hammered coinage
It is perfectly understandable that on taking up coin collecting beginners find it difficult to correctly identify many early English hammered silver coins. A monarch's name can prove difficult to read even on a coin in e.f. grade, while moneyers' names and some individual letters often remain obscure to the untrained eye no matter how eagerly one squints through a magnifying glass. Of course, the difficulties are compounded by the technical jargon and the truncated and/or abbreviated descriptions found in dealers' catalogues where the assumption seems always to be that readers have years of experience at deciphering the esoteric information.
Other hurdles beginners must surmount come in the form of elisions, or apostrophe marks, indicating places where the die cutter omitted letters to abbreviate a legend. Additional mysteries across the surfaces of hammered coins include various crescents, crosses, stars and geometric shapes, as well as heraldic devices including flowers, birds and animals that initially mean nothing to newcomers, but which often carry enough information to accurately date and identify a coin as soon as one achieves competence with what can seem at the outset like a secret code.
If you fall into the beginner category take some comfort from this: making a start on the hobby was much more difficult in earlier times. The 1940s/50s, for example, were decades of expansion for coin collecting, often fuelled by fathers and older brothers bringing foreign coins home after war service. Some who had served in the Middle East and Italy brought British youngsters their first opportunities to hold a Roman coin in the palm of a hand. But when the juveniles had scraped up enough pocket money to buy a copy of a magazine that might carry a column or two on coin collecting they had to make do with black and white photographs, often poorly lit and invariably too small to reveal much detail. Even most coin catalogues from those days carried no photographs, or at best a few b/w plates at the end of the texts and well removed from the detailed written descriptions on which advanced collectors relied.
Embark on the hobby today and you'll find lavishly illustrated magazines such as S&CM ... and online catalogues like those offered by Timeline Originals ... and numerous internet sites where superb digital colour photography lets you get close-up to any coin that catches your eye. Sadly the vast majority of provincial High Street coin dealers have gone as a result of ever increasing overheads, so your opportunities to physically hold an ancient coin may have to wait until you can attend one of the major coin fairs that take place several times a year.
Another route to ownership of a few ancient hammered is to buy two or three low-grade specimens as a cheap lot and examine them closely, taking your own photographs and viewing them on a computer screen. The illustrations with blue backgrounds alongside this article show single coins from a lot bought very cheaply because each coin has one badly worn face. Nevertheless close-up camera work reveals some interesting and educational information still visible to the camera's electronic eye. In fig.1 pick out the word CIVITAS in the legend and you will spot that, at about eleven o'clock, the letter A seems to have its horizontal bar at the top of the letter rather than at its middle. This Gothic A in legends did not fully give way to the Roman A we use today until the reign of Elizabeth the First.
Fig. 2, on the same coin rotated a little, shows a typical medieval R at about twelve o'clock. You might take it for a modern lower case n; but the medieval R was often depicted on coins with its front leg not touching the rear vertical leg. In fact the word reads CANTOR, so even the reverse on this poor specimen can still tell us something of the coin's history: it was minted in the city of Canterbury and it carries an abbreviation of the city's Latin name in its legend: CIVITAS CANTOR.
Fig, 3, at about eleven o'clock, has a letter you will almost certainly read as a P. However, this is the way our Norman ancestors wrote the letter W; the coin was issued for that famous conqueror, King William, with his name and titles written as +PILLEMVS REX I (the last letter 'I' is part of the letter A for Anglorum). I said earlier that in the 1940s coin collectors had to rely on black and white photographs of coins; but if you look back to a time before photography and examine a few books published for Victorian coin collectors you will encounter some beautifully engraved illustrations. In my opinion they often show legends and other details on coins with greater clarity than our modern high-resolution images. Fig. 4 shows a Victorian page depicting coins of William I. Many thousands of lost hammered silver coins are utterly destroyed every year as a result of plough damage and weathering in the soil. The fragments frequently turn up as finds for metal detectorists. If you have a friend who owns a detector let him/her know you are about to start collecting hammered silver and you will probably get some fragments for free. Even such candidates for the melting pot can be worthy of a second glance. The fragment shown in fig.5 has all the stress marks of a long and arduous time in the ground. Nevertheless, we can still make out four pellets in one quarter of a short cross. That is quite uncommon; most hammered silver coins have three pellets in each quarter. There's a challenge for a numismatic detective in that grubby piece.
Returning to lettering, I have included fig. 6 - a high grade medieval groat - because its clear legend shows an interesting variety of letters in their medieval forms. The inner legend reads VILLA CALISIE which we would call the Town of Calais. Notice the unusual C at the beginning of CALISIE and the very similar E at the end of the name. Also compare the I's and L's. If you make your own notes, and perhaps images of letters such as these you will soon become proficient at differentiating them and reading legends correctly. As a small test, can you now read the name of the city in the inner legend of the groat shown in fig. 7 ?
Finally in this briefest of introductions to medieval lettering, fig. 8 shows a clear example of the elision mark used when the die cutter needed to abbreviate a name - in this case the Latin name of the City of Lincoln: CIVITAS LINCOLONIAE abbreviated to CIVITAS LINCOL'
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