Getting Started with Celtic Coins

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Getting Started with Celtic Coins
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Some Celtic Coins and their Prototypes

Celtic coins are some of the most beautiful and mysterious coins from ancient times. They are harder to engage with than Roman or Greek coins so are ignored by most ancient coin collectors. For those who learn how to collect them, this lack of demand means you can pick up extremely rare coins for much less than equivalent Roman or Greek coins.

This article takes you through everything you need to know to get started with Celtic coins. It starts with a quick introduction to the Celts themselves, because the coins make more sense if you understand the people who made them. It also covers some basics about the coins that are useful to know before we get to the coins themselves.

About the Celts

The Celts were a group of people that occupied a large portion of Europe near the end of the Iron Age. At their maximum geographical extent in the 2nd century BC, the Celtic world stretched from the British Isles in the west to present day Turkey and Georgia in the east; from central Europe in the north to the Alps, Northern Italy, and Northern Spain in the south. The Celts never formed an empire or even a nation. Instead, they lived in tribes that shared a common language, traditions and beliefs.

The main Celtic regions in Europe. The hatched area of Britain didn’t mint coins. Colchis is an oddity – it’s never mentioned in the context of the Celts except in auctions. This is probably because some coins originally thought to have been minted by the Celts in Transylvania are now thought to have come from the Colchis area. They are included in this article because 1) they are nice coins that will sometimes turn up when you are looking for Celtic coins, and 2) they might actually be Celtic coins

The Celts were late-comers to coin productions. By the start of the 4th century BC, as a result of trade, mercenary pay and spoils of war, Greek coins had spread throughout the Celtic world. They weren’t really used as day-to-day money because the Celts operated a barter economy, but they were a convenient way of storing wealth (much more convenient than cattle, which was the traditional way of storing wealth). It wasn’t until around 250 BC that the continental Celts started minting their own coins, which were heavily based on the Greek coins they were used to. This was probably due to the loss of mercenary income caused by Rome’s activities in the Mediterranean. Minting coins accelerated when Rome started attacking the Celts and they needed easily transportable wealth to pay for their own warriors. The local coinages continued until the Celts were all finally defeated by Rome. For continental Celts, the last truly Celtic coins were minted around 50 BC. The British Celts were even later to coin production, starting around 100 BC with the last coins minted around 60 AD.

The Celts didn’t leave any written records, so what we know about them is from their artefacts, coins, and what the Romans and Greeks wrote about them. As a result, our knowledge about the Celts is incomplete. We know the names of some of the tribes that existed, but not all of them. We know the broad territories of those tribes, but not the exact boundaries. We don’t know what their coins were called, what they were worth, or what the images on them mean.

Although the Celts shared a language and belief system, those who did mint coins didn’t have a common currency and didn’t mint at the same time. For example, the Cisalpine Celts stopped minting coins around 100 years before the British Celts even started. The Celtic tribes started by copying Greek coins (we’ll discuss these more later), but modified them in different ways, leading to radically different coins styles.

As a result, treating the Celts as one to discuss their coins is a bit like treating British, American, Canadian and Australian coins as one, just because these nations share a language and common heritage. They are just too different to be treated as one topic. However, we’ll try our best. There are some things we can say about Celtic coins in general, and we’ll cover these in the next sections.

Were All Celtic Coins Made by the Celts?

Let’s get this one out of the way early on. No, they weren’t.

Sorry.

There are two reasons why non-Celtic coins are sold as Celtic. Firstly, we don’t really know where some coins were actually minted, only where they were found. For many coins, that isn’t a problem. For example, if you find hundreds of stylistically similar coins scattered around the middle of Gaul, it’s probably safe to say they were minted by the Celts in Gaul. The problem comes in with coins found in small numbers at the edges of the Celtic world. Were they made by the Celts where they were dropped, or made by neighbouring non-Celts for trade? We can’t always answer that.

The second reason is a mix of laziness and cynical marketing. Reid Goldsborough said it best:

“…It’s simply easier to describe all the people of the European interior of this period as Celtic rather than to distinguish among the Celts and the Thracians, Ligurians, Venetians, Aquitanians, and so on. Some of this may be due to ignorance. And some may result from wanting to latch on to the romance and marketability of Celtic coins — many people today in the U.S. and Europe feel an ancestral affinity to the ancient Celts. Celtic coins are simply sexier, and more saleable, than Thracian coins. (Some eBay dealers seem to attribute any coin as “Celtic” that’s struck poorly or heavily worn.)”

I take a loose approach to attribution. If it’s sold as Celtic, it’s probably covered here (except for the Celtiberians who lived in Spain, the silver coins of Cisalpine Gaul, or the silver coins of Southern Gaul. I’ll try and include them at some point).

What Denominations Did They Use?

Celtic coins come in a variety of denominations but we don’t know what they were called by the Celts. For convenience, we just use the names of the coins that they copied. The most commonly encountered denominations vary by area and depend on who those Celts had contact with. We’ll cover some of the actual coins copied by the Celts later, but for now, the basic denominations were staters (gold) and tetradrachms (silver), and their fractions. Other denominations, such as Obols (silver) and Denarii (silver) were also occasionally used. Bronze coins are generally called Potins after the metal alloy used to make them, or Bronze Units.

The following coins are shown actual size (on a 92 PPI monitor):

Tetradrachm24mm
19.32g
Photo Copyright Classical Numismatic Group, LLC
Drachm19mm
3.13g
Photo Copyright Classical Numismatic Group, LLC
Stater18.5mm
5.82g
Photo Copyright Comptoir des Monnaies
Potin18 mm
3.27g
Photo Copyright Classical Numismatic Group, LLC
Silver Unit13.5mm
0.92g
Photo Copyright Classical Numismatic Group, LLC
1/3 stater12mm
2.78g
Photo Copyright Leu Numismatik AG
1/4 stater11.5mm
1.39g
Photo Copyright Classical Numismatic Group, LLC
1/8 stater8mm
1.03g
Photo Copyright Classical Numismatic Group, LLC
Minim8mm
0.23g
Photo Copyright Classical Numismatic Group, LLC
1/24 stater7mm
0.35g
Photo Copyright Leu Numismatik AG

Notes:

  1. The sizes and weights in the table are for those particular coins. The actual denominations have ranges for both diameter and weight, and those ranges changed based on time and mint location
  2. The coins look much better in real life because they don’t lose detail to screen resolution. That said, a magnifying glass is useful to have for the smaller denominations

What Metals Did They Use?

The Celts made coins from gold, silver and bronze, but seldomly from all three at the same time. Gold and silver have a marked north/south divide, with northern Celts preferring gold, and southern Celts preferring silver. It is thought that this is because the northern Celts used the coins for high value payments (such as mercenary pay) while the southern Celts used the coins for trade with the Mediterranean countries, who all used silver. It is only with Roman expansion that silver (based on Roman coins) started to appear in the northern areas.

Approximate Gold vs. Silver divide. Colchis is being awkward

Bronze coins, which could be cast or struck, seem to have been used for smaller transactions such as daily living expenses.

Gold coins were gold in colour, but were actually made from three-way alloys of gold, silver and copper. The Celts were experts in mixing these alloys so that the cost of materials could be reduced to deal with inflation without noticeably changing the colour of the coin.

 

Do We Know Who Made Them?

Assigning Celtic coins to tribes and mints can be extremely difficult. The very earliest coins, those copying the Greek prototypes, copied the legends and mint marks directly which tells us nothing about who made the copy. Over time, the legends and mint marks became corrupted as they were turned into general design features.

Coins without any text on them are known as “unscribed” and are assigned to a tribe based on either the geographical spread of the find spots, or stylistic similarities to coins already assigned to a tribe. This is of course error prone because we don’t know all of the tribes that existed, where the tribal boundaries were, or if coins were made by tribe “A” for use in trade with tribe “B” (in which case, the style would be similar to tribe B’s and the find spots would be in tribe B’s territory).

One further point to note is that there was no concept of a state or authority with overarching rule even within a tribe (at least when unscribed coins were minted). Tribes could be loose associations of smaller autonomous groups, each of which might mint their own coins. Parallel to this, anyone with the resources and the need could mint their own coins, so assigning an unscribed coin to an entire tribe may be incorrect.

Later Celtic coins did start to feature the names of kings on them, although the historic record doesn’t always tell us who they were kings of. Some kings, such as King Sam of Kent are only known because of their coins.

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