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Iron Currency Bars in Britain

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 May 2014

Derek Allen
Strand End, Grove Park Road, Chiswick, London W.4


This study of iron currency bars began as a note, prepared at the request of the late Professor Sir Ian Richmond, for inclusion in his publication of the British Museum excavations at Hod Hill. It was intended to accompany a similar account of the Celtic coins found at Hod Hill, for which he had previously asked. Hod Hill is the only site where coins and bars have been found in comparable numbers. However, as one thing led to another, the original note grew out of scale for a contribution to an excavation report; hence this separate paper. A summary will be included in Mr J. W. Brailsford's volume on Hod Hill.

The term ‘iron currency bar’ has long been in use to describe certain elongated iron objects found in late iron age sites in Britain. The earliest records are of a hoard found at Meon Hill, Warwickshire, in 1824. Bars became well known after the discovery of an important hoard at Salmonsbury, Gloucestershire, in 1860. The first serious study was made by Charles Roach Smith, when in 1864 he published an earlier hoard of bars from Hod Hill. The classical account of them was given by Reginald Smith in 1905 and developed in a number of subsequent articles, which have been the basis of nearly all that has been written since. It is the theories of Reginald Smith which require reconsideration today.

Between 1,100 and 1,500 iron bars relevant to this study have been found at more than 20 sites in Britain. Whether they are all iron currency bars depends on the definition of currency bar adopted. The first task was to trace as many bars as possible; I have found examples in more than 30 collections and there are, no doubt, more which I have failed to find. What has come to light, however, summarized in the Appendix, has been enough to show that the surviving material needs to be analyzed on fresh lines.

Research Article
Copyright © The Prehistoric Society 1968

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page 307 note 1 Gentleman's Magazine, XCIV (Sept. 1824), 262Google Scholar.

page 307 note 2 Proc. Soc. Ant., 2nd Ser. I (1860), 233–4Google Scholar.

page 307 note 3 Smith, C. Roach, Collectanea Antiqua, VI, 56Google Scholar.

page 307 note 4 Smith, Reginald, Proc. Soc. Ant., 2nd Ser. XX (1905), 178195Google Scholar; XXII (1908), 342–3; XXVII (1915), 69–76; Arch. J. LXIX (1912), 421–7Google Scholar; Antiquity, VII (1933), 61–72, 210Google Scholar.

page 307 note 5 For instance, Fox, C., Antiquity, XIV (1940), 427–33Google Scholar; Wheeler, R. E. M., Maiden Castle, 1943, 383–5Google Scholar; Tylecote, R. F., Metallurgy in Archaeology, 1962, 206–11, 345–7Google Scholar.

page 307 note 6 The Appendix contains the sources I have consulted for each find spot. For the sake of brevity I have not repeated these references to support statements in the text, unless there is a special reason to do so.

page 310 note 1 While this article was in the press, another isolated bar was found in 1967, during Mr D. W. Harding's excavations for the Reading Museum and Art Gallary, at Blewburton Camp, Berkshire.

page 310 note 2 Tylecote, op. cit., 176–8, fig. 43, tab. 63.

page 310 note 3 Tylecote, op. cit., 209–11; contrast Fox, C., Pattern and Purpose, 1958, 52–4Google Scholar.

page 311 note 1 Mr L. V. Grinsell has reported a flat iron object with the edges folded over at one end, 1⅞ inches long and ⅜ inch wide, which was found during 1966 at the Iron Age hill-fort of Stokeleigh Camp near Bristol, under excavation by the Bristol University Speleological Society.

page 314 note 1 Isaiah II, 4Google Scholar; Micah IV, 3Google Scholar; cf. Joel III, 10Google Scholar.

page 314 note 2 I have omitted a tapering wedge-shaped iron bar found in a hoard of metal work at Lesser Garth, Pentyrch, Glamorganshire, during 1965, of which Dr H. N. Savory has kindly given me particulars. It is 14 inches long, 1⅛ × 1⅞ inches across, and weighs 50 ozs. It is generally similar to the iron wedges in the well known votive hoard from Tiefenau, near Berne, in Switzerland, two of which are in the British Museum, 12½ and 11 inches long respectively. The Tiefenau hoard consisted mainly of weapons, harness, chariot parts and implements, and the wedges no doubt fall into the same class; but it is of interest that the deposit also contained at least 7 late coins of Massillia, silver and bronze, and 8 Gaulish potin coins, mostly of a Swiss type (Blanchet, A., Traité des Mon. Gaul., 513Google Scholar). The hoard seems to be connected with an oppidum abandoned in 58 B.C., which brings the objects (including the coins) into the same chronological focus as the currency bars. (de Bonstetten, G., Notice sur les Armes et Chariots de Guerre découverts à Tiefenau, 1852Google Scholar; Tschumi, , Jahrb. Hist. Mus. Berne, 1929, 131 f.Google Scholar; Ber. Röm. Germ. Kom., 19621963, 107 f.Google Scholar; etc.). The Lesser Garth hoard is to be published by Dr Savory in Arch. Camb.

I have also omitted the iron object from Read's Cavern, near Bristol, which has been published as an iron currency bar, but is certainly not one; Proc. Univ. of Bristol Speleological Soc., 1, 3 (19211922) 141Google Scholar, pl. XXV, 7.

page 315 note 1 Gotze, A., ‘Die “Schwurschwerte” der Wartburg—Taleae Ferreae’, Mannus VI, Ergänzungsband (1928), 138144Google Scholar; Schulz, W., Vot- und Frühgeschichte Mitteldeutschlands, 1939, 158–9Google Scholar; Weiershausen, P., Mannus Buch, vol. 65 (1939), 200, 203–9Google Scholar, fig. 64, 68–70; ib.Taleae Ferreae, Mannus, XXXIV (1942), 85–9; Hofmeister, H., ‘Römische Pflugscharen?Germania, I (1917), 42–3Google Scholar; Hachmann, R., Kossack, G. und Kuhn, H., Völker zwischen Germanen und Kelten, 1962, 34–35, 95Google Scholar, fig. 2. (Two of the Wartburg bars are 19th century concoctions to support an 11th century Germanic myth, for which 13 buried ‘oath’ swords were needed as against the 11 ancient bars found.)

page 315 note 2 There are two distinct sizes of German bar, as the following summary of dimensions shows: Larger bars (pinching at or above the widest point)

(i) Wartburg: 11 genuine bars; intact bars 84–97 centimetres, 33–38¼ inches; width at widest point 4·4–6·0 centimetres, 1¾–2¼ inches, weights 500–750 grams, 17½–26½ oz.

(ii) Mergelgruben: 6 bars; some damage, but originally about 95–100 centimetres, 38–39½ inches; width at widest point 5·0–5·3 centimetres, 1⅞–2⅛ inches; weight, excluding the most damaged, 615 to 725 grams or 21½–25 ounces.

(iii) Kalteiche: 5 bars, all incomplete; surviving length some 35 centimetres or 14 inches, but clearly originally of the same general dimensions as the Wichdorf bars; width 5–6 centimetres, 1⅞–2¼ inches.

For the date and context of (iv) see Röm. Germ. Kom., Germanische Denkmaler der Frühzeit, II Die Chatten, Band I, Mattium (1930)Google Scholar. Similarly for (iii) see Behagel, H., Die Eisenzeit im Raume des Rechtsrheinischen Schiefergebirges (1949)Google Scholar, fig. 39.

Smaller Bars (pinching well above the widest point).

(iv) Wichdorf: 6 complete bars; 55–60 centimetres or 20–23 inches long; width at widest point 4–5 centimetres, 1⅝–1⅞ inches; weight after cleaning 180–190 grams or nearly 7 ounces, but weight previously given as 300 grams or 10½ ounces.

page 315 note 3 Hoard of 10 ploushshares, with coulters and other forms of farm implement, from Gettenäu, Ober-Hessen; Anthes, E., Jahresbericht der Denkmal-pflege in Grossherzogtum Hessen Darmstadt, 19101913 (1914) 50Google Scholar, pl. 4; Ber. Röm. Ger. Kom., VII, 1912 (1915), 157–8Google Scholar, pl. 78; Germania, I (1917), 4243Google Scholar.

page 316 note 1 For plough-shares found in Britain see: Payne, F. G., ‘The Plough in Ancient Britain’, Arch. J., CIV (1947), esp. p. 89Google Scholar, fig. 1, and annex, and The British Plough’, Agric. Hist. Review, V (1957), 7484Google Scholar; Curwen, E. C., Plough and Pasture, The Early History of Farming, 1946, 2nd Ed. 1953Google Scholar; Manning, W. H., ‘The Plough in Roman Britain’, J.R.S., LIV (1964) 5465Google Scholar; Aberg, A., ‘The Early Plough in Europe’, Gwerin, I (1956) 171–81Google Scholar; Déchélette, J., Manuel, II (1914), 1379–81Google Scholar, figs. 610–12.

page 316 note 2 Déchelette, op. cit., II 1412–7, fig. 633; Revue Numismatique 1911 (i), pp. 159Google Scholar; Collection Millon, p. 228, pl. XLI. It does not, however seem at all certain that the iron bars found in the Somme-Bionne burial, preserved in the British Museum, were, as Déchélette suggests, spits.

page 317 note 1 There is no good account of the saumons d'épée, which have no better claim than British iron currency bars to be sword moods. Some find spots are shown in Hachmann, R., Kossack, G. and Kuhn, H., Völker zwischen Germanen und Kelten, 1962, 33Google Scholar, fig. 2. Examples of finds are: Vouga, P., La Tène, 1923, 29–30, 119Google Scholar, pl. XLIX, 1–4, at least 16 found at La Tène, not all together; Schönberger, H., ‘Die Spät Latènezeit in der Wetterau’, Bericht der Saalburgmuseums, XI (1952), 43, 101Google Scholar, pl. XVIII. 25, 31 c, a hoard of five and a single find from Bad Nauheim; Proc. Soc. Ant., VIII (18801881), 314–8Google Scholar; XX (1905), 180–1, a hoard from Limmat, near Zurich, mixed with double pyramid ingots. The La Tène bars weighed between 615 and 810 grams, average 700 grams (21¾ to 24¾ ounces). The length of intact bars appears to be between 35 and 40 centimetres (14 to 16 inches), the breadth at the flattened end 5 centimetres (2 inches). About a third of the length is taken by the rod-like handle.

Resembling those from Nauheim are five bars found lying one upon the other in a star-shaped arrangement in the dwelling cave of Trou de l'Ambre at Wérimont, Eprave, Namur: de Laet, S. J. and Glasberger, W., De Voorgeschiedenis der Lage Landen, 1959, 191Google Scholar (not illustrated). Length 433–472, width 41–43, thickness 3–5 millimetres, weight 228–267 grams (say 17½–18½ × 1⅝–2 inches, 7¾–9½ ounces). Information kindly provided by Dr M. E. Mariën of Brussels.

page 317 note 2 The most recent collection of findspots is by Kleeman, O., Radeker, W. and Naumann, F. K. in Archiv f.d. Eisenhüttenwesen, XXXII (1961) 581–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar; this provides the basis for the excellent distribution map in Piggott, S., Ancient Europe, 1965, 246Google Scholar, fig. 138; see also Giot, P. R. and Mazeas, G., Mem. Soc. d'Emulation des Côtes du Nord (1962), 17Google Scholar. Findspots had previously been collected in Kossina, G., Mannus, VII (1915), 117–24Google Scholar; XI–XII (1919–20), 413. Other records in Christ, K., Antike Münzfunde Sudwestdeutschlands, 1960, I, 53Google Scholar, map VII; Fundberichte in Schwaben, VIII (19331935), 9192Google Scholar; Sprawosdania (1953), 48, 65Google Scholar, etc.; Ebert, , Real-lexicon der Vorgeschichte, III (1925), 63Google Scholar, s.v. Eisenbarre; Déchélette, op. cit. II, 347, fig. 226; Proc. Soc. Ant., VIII (18801881) 314–18Google Scholar; XX (1905), 180–1.

page 318 note 1 More than 100 hoards of bog-iron ingots are recorded from Norway and Sweden. The two largest are from Kjøstad, Løyten (573) and Skjerden, Stange (531), both in Hedmark. A hoard of 131 from Ullern, near Oslo, in 1947 were found in two piles stacked in a triangular arrangement; (Viking, XIII (1949), 2530Google Scholar). A hoard of 54 from Hov, Stange, have a flattened shoulder with a hole for suspension from a wooden pole; they were found under a stone block; (Viking, loc. cit.). Others have a hooked top for the same purpose. For finds from Sweden see John Nihlén, Studier rörande äldre svensk järntill verkning med särskildhänsyn till Småland, Jernkontorets Berghistoriska Skriftserie Nr. 2, 83–126; also, Rolf Falk-Muus, Osmundsvekten, Dr Carl Sahlin i aerbødighet til 70-årsdagen, 138–171. In Z Otchtani Wiekow, Poznan, XXIX (1963) pt. 1, 4549Google Scholar, Dr Piaskowski mentions a hoard from Morawach, Hradoka, Czechoslovakia, containing pierced bars in four sizes. Dr Zabinski studies another hoard, from Zawady Lanckoronskej, Poland, and attempts, against many odds, to relate the weights to silver values of daily food rations (Acta Archaeologica Carpathica, VII (1965), 145–9Google Scholar). There does not seem to be agreement as to the date of these finds, though evidently they are much later than the iron currency bars.

page 319 note 1 I am grateful to Dr R. M. Ogilvie for help over the text of this passage. The following notes on points regarding the text which have been at issue, are derived from what Dr Ogilvie has written to me:

(i) aut aere. This was deleted by Vielhaber and Mommsen as a gloss from aere utuntur importato below, not on numismatic grounds or as a gloss on aureo. The shape of the phrase and the word order (cf. VI, 13,2) support their inclusion. But the passage would be more intelligible archaeologically if they could be omitted.

(ii) taleis. The main mss. tradition has aliis which is meaningless, but two mss. (L and N) ‘corrected’ this to anulis. Early editors had to face aliis and emend. The editio princeps of 1469 chose anulis, which appears in all early editions. Faernus, before 1600, had conjectured laminis (contracted form l ā ī i s). Scaliger, 1606, conjectured taleis. Subsequent editors chose between taleis and laminis, with laminis in the ascendant in the 18th century. But Memel's 19th century discovery of two further mss. (T and V) with the reading taleis confirmed Scaliger's conjecture. Praestat lectio difficilior!

(iii) pro nummo. These words are omitted from the manuscripts of one of the two main traditions (β). But they make good Latin and good archaeological sense and would be a very improbable gloss or interpolation. In view of this, it seems that the text is probably more securely established than is usually suggested in archaeological contexts.

page 320 note 1 Tylecote, op. cit., 208, fig. 50, with 345–7, Table F. This presentation is useful and convincing, so far as it goes, but it is not in all respects accurate. Certain bars are included which are certainly not currency bars, for instance those from Waylands Smithy, now known to be medieval, and certain ploughshares from Hunsbury. The Littleton bar is not of the weight indicated, the source chosen having mixed grains and grammes. The numbers included from Hod Hill and Salmonsbury overweight the average. Nevertheless, the general conclusion is without doubt right.

page 323 note 1 An account of Durotrigan coins, originally requested by the late Sir Ian Richmond, will appear as an appendix to the report on the British Museum excavations at Hod Hill, now in preparation by Mr J. W. Brailsford. The main evidence for the date of the silver staters comes from the Le Catillon hoard. The evidence of Claudian date for the struck bronze staters is derived from several excavation contexts, including Maiden Castle, Waddon Camp, Camerton and Bagendon. The Romsey hoard contained very degraded specimens of the struck bronze stater, together with Roman coins down to 86 A.D.

page 323 note 2 The coin, not previously identified, is in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Farnham, no. 15. It is an excellent example of de la Tour XIII, 4552, Blanchet, fig. 165, a rarity even in France.