Iron Age and Roman Coins from Wales

Peter Guest, Nick Wells, 2007

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School Of History and Archaeology (Archaeology Section)
Cardiff University
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Peter Guest, Nick Wells (2007) Iron Age and Roman Coins from Wales [data-set]. York: Archaeology Data Service [distributor]


Coins are one of the most important categories of artefact to survive from the ancient world. These small round metal objects contain a wealth of information about the societies that produced, used and lost them, and coins, particularly Roman coins, have been the focus of numismatic, historical and archaeological study for many years. Coins, individually and collectively, are used to date archaeological material (excavated stratigraphy as well as other categories of artefacts), while coinage in general has long been recognised as a principal source of evidence for the so-called 'economy' of the Roman Empire.

In recent decades archaeologists have developed techniques for the analysis of coins as archaeological artefacts and the work of Casey, Reece and Robertson, among others, revolutionised how coins from settlements and hoards were studied. This sub-discipline, sometimes termed 'applied numismatics', remains popular today and coins are now more integrated into the archaeology of late prehistoric and Roman Britain than ever before. Despite these advances, in other areas, such as economic history for example, the study of coinage has yet to fulfil its obvious potential. Identifying patterns of money supply in the Roman Empire should be a cornerstone of any attempt to analyse the economy of the Roman state, since coins are one of the few tangible remnants of the policies pursued by the imperial treasury. It has been recognised for some time that Roman coinage could be used to discuss the production of coins at the imperial mints and their supply to different parts of the empire, yet modern economic histories of the Roman world rarely use the numismatic evidence, relying instead on literary, epigraphic and papyrological material. Therefore, economic studies of the Roman world continue to neglect potentially one of the most useful sources of evidence and, unless this trend is reversed, it is unlikely that we shall have a complete or accurate understanding of how the Roman Empire functioned as an economic system.

One of the main obstacles to achieving an even greater understanding of ancient coins as economic and cultural artefacts is the partial (and probably biased) nature of the samples available for study. Our knowledge of the coins from Britain is patchy at best and, consequently, there is much to do before we can be satisfied that our interpretations are based on a reliable, let alone representative, body of evidence. It is also the case that the nature of coin reports and lists published in the past creates difficulties for those who need to interrogate large quantities of coin data. Where this information exists it is found almost exclusively in the numerous, but scattered, publications of coin finds, while there is no standard format for coin reports and, unfortunately, the level of published detail is often highly variable. In order to overcome these problems and realise the potential of ancient coins as historical and archaeological artefacts, it is essential that the complete and accurate record of coins found in places such as Britain is brought together and made available for research and interpretation.

Wales has an enviable tradition of reporting discoveries of ancient coins, either as finds such as hoards and excavated assemblages or in regional surveys. Several nineteenth century pioneers of historical research in Wales took care to collect and record the Roman coins that came to their attention. Of these, John Edward Lee is perhaps the most well known today and the coins he saw and described were crucial in his identification and discussion of the Second Augustan Legion's permanent fortress at Caerleon. In the 1920s R.E.M. Wheeler published the first modern surveys of Roman coin hoards from Wales, while his successor as Keeper of Archaeology at the National Museum of Wales, V.E. Nash-Williams, continued the tradition of prompt reporting of coin finds until the 1950s. Since then George Boon and Edward Besly of the National Museum of Wales have published many dozens of coin finds and their work has done a great deal to bring the numismatic evidence from Wales to the wider world. From the 1970s there has been a very significant increase in the number of coins recovered during the controlled excavation of Roman period sites in Wales and archaeologists have become increasingly involved in the identification and interpretation of such site-find assemblages. Until the 1980s, however, all surveys of coin finds from Wales were either limited to a particular type of find (usually hoards) or geographical region (most commonly north or south Wales) and it was not until 1983 that the first survey of Roman coins from the whole of Wales was published. However, several large coin hoards and numerous excavated assemblages of site-finds have been found and published in the last two decades and the situation has changed dramatically since the 1980s.

The objectives of Iron Age & Roman Coins from Wales are to encourage the investigation of coin supply and use in Wales during the later Prehistoric and Roman periods by producing and publishing a detailed corpus of all Iron Age and Roman coins from Wales. Achieving these objectives required the recording onto a database of all known ancient coins from Wales recovered as coin hoards, excavated site-finds or causal finds (for instance, coins discovered by metal detector, field walking and reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme). This task involved locating and collecting descriptions of coin finds in published monographs, reports and articles, as well as from unpublished sources, particularly the records of the National Museum of Wales, the four regional Sites and Monuments Records (SMRs), and the Portable Antiquities Scheme's database. The quality of the information relating to coins finds from Wales varied greatly, from publications of large assemblages containing full numismatic identifications and descriptions of the circumstances of their discoveries, to tantalizingly references to unidentified quantities of Roman coins found in uncertain locations. Iron Age & Roman Coins from Wales is intended to present a comprehensive and reliable sample of ancient coins from Wales and every effort has been made to record as much information as possible. Almost 700 references were consulted during the project's year and, although some coins inevitably will have escaped the net, this corpus is as representative of the vast body of coins recovered from Wales as it is possible to achieve.

Ancient coins have been found in many different ways and from a variety of contexts. At least 217 coin hoards have been recovered from Wales, each containing between two and several thousand coins of all metals and denominations. Hoards are often found held in ceramic vessels, although in many instances a hoard has been recognised only from the concentration of coins within a relatively small part of an archaeological feature such as a ditch or pit. In the past hoards were most frequently found during ploughing or construction work, though in recent years the majority of new coins hoards (as well as many non-hoard assemblages) have been discovered by metal detectorists.

Coins discovered during an archaeological excavation are known as site finds and Iron Age and Roman coins have been recovered at 81 late prehistoric and Roman period settlements excavated by archaeologists in Wales. In Britain the techniques of scientific excavation, as opposed to simply digging, were first developed during the later part of the nineteenth century and since that time archaeologists from museums, universities and excavation units have recorded the remains of a variety of Roman sites. These investigations ranged from small-scale test trenches and watching briefs to extensive open area excavations that took place over many months, and the number of coins recovered varies from one to hundreds. In Wales archaeologists have spent a great deal of time and effort investigating the archaeology of the Roman army and to date 56 excavations have been undertaken on 23 auxiliary forts and legionary fortresses (over one quarter of excavated sites). Together these have produced half of the Roman coins excavated from Wales (3,742), a proportion that rises to almost two-thirds when excavations of the civilian vici and canabae around these military encampments are taken into account. A further 2,260 coins have been recovered during 32 excavations at the three urban sites at Caerwent, Carmarthen and Cowbridge. The civitas capital at Caerwent has produced by far the largest assemblage of site finds from Wales (2,015 coins in total, while Caerleon has produced 1,455 coins). Therefore, nine out of ten Roman coins from settlements in Wales have come from excavations at forts and vici, fortresses and canabae, or towns and our knowledge of coin circulation at this time is obviously and heavily biased towards the Roman end of the archaeological spectrum. This trend is changing, however, and commercial archaeology is revealing a greater number of non-military and non-urban sites across Wales, though these almost always produce much smaller quantities of coins.

The Iron Age & Roman Coins from Wales website is accompanied by a volume of the same title (Guest, P. and Wells, N. 2007 Iron Age & Roman Coins from Wales. Wetteren: Collection Moneta, 66). This volume contains a corpus of all ancient coin finds from Wales, including summaries of the coins from each assemblage and indexes of finds, and copies can be obtained directly from the publishers

As was stated earlier, the objective of Iron Age & Roman Coins from Wales is to encourage the investigation of the supply and use of coins in Wales during the later Prehistoric and Roman periods. It is hoped that making this comprehensive database available in print as well as online through the AHDS Archaeology website will encourage people with different interests and from a variety of backgrounds to use the coin evidence from Wales to explore these and other research questions.