A selection of coins including those bearing the name of the Roman emperor Vespasian.
The hoard of 'dupondii' and 'asses' of Vespasian from Stanwick, Northamptonshire © Richard Henry
The hoard of 'dupondii' and 'asses' of Vespasian from Stanwick, Northamptonshire © Richard Henry

Coinage and Ritual Deposition at Stanwick, Northamptonshire.

Analysis of one of the largest rural coin assemblages from Roman Britain.

In Research News 17, we described the impressive Roman sculpture from the excavations at Stanwick, Northamptonshire. The excavations also produced one of the largest assemblages of Roman coins from a rural site in Britain. The 3,730 coins have recently been re-examined by Richard Henry, building on work during the 1990s by John Davies. The condition of every coin has been evaluated, the catalogue has been updated and a Historic England Research Report assessing the assemblage will soon be available.

The 1984 - 1992 excavations

The site was excavated by teams formerly part of English Heritage (now Historic England) in advance of gravel extraction because of the importance of the site. The area is now the Stanwick Lakes nature reserve and country park, and there are lakes where the villa and temenos once stood.

The excavations were led by Dr David Neal (then a field officer with English Heritage) and extended over 30 hectares (more than 75 acres). They revealed activity from the early Iron Age to the end of the Romano-British period. The enclosures and trackways established by the first century AD formed the framework for the development of a Romano-British agricultural village set between the River Nene and the Roman road between the walled towns of Irchester and Water Newton. Complex buildings including a large aisled hall and a building group set out around a walled courtyard were constructed during the third century AD. The aisled hall was incorporated into a corridor villa during the later fourth century. There were two small Roman temples or shrines, and a Bronze Age round barrow was chosen as the site of a temenos – an enclosed ritual precinct which became a focus for coin deposition. The sequence is described in a Historic England Research Report.

Mapping deposition over time

The eminent numismatist Dr Richard Reece established a method of analysis which allows the comparison of Roman coin assemblages of varying sizes from different archaeological site. The methods are described in an article in Britannia from 1995 (Reece, R. 1995). He divided the coinage of Roman Britain into 21 ‘issue periods’ based on when they were produced, and these can be used to create date profiles of coin assemblages. We can use this form of analysis both to compare Stanwick with other sites and to trace the ebb and flow of lifeways at Stanwick.

The quality of the spatial data associated with the Stanwick coins provides an opportunity to investigate coins from several areas of this extensive site and this is described in detail in the forthcoming Historic England research report. Mapping the numismatic assemblage over time highlighted significant and prolonged deposition at the temenos from the first to third centuries AD as well as coin loss at the Roman village over a similar period of time. In the fourth century coin deposition at the temenos declines and by the late fourth century prolific coin loss occurs at the Roman villa, corresponding with the late construction of the winged corridor villa. These three areas of the site provided the bulk of the numismatic assemblage. When we compare different parts of the settlement, we can see distinct differences, with date profiles which will let us consider variations in economic activity. This also highlights those of the building groups, such as the villa, which remained in use to the end of the fourth century and probably into the fifth.

The temenos

The temenos was a ritual space, defined with a ditch, paths and walls. It enclosed the Bronze Age round barrow, but we don’t know what else was in the centre of the enclosure as the top of the barrow was removed by later agricultural activity. There could have been a temple or shrine, but we have no evidence for this.

Despite the plough damage, the excavations established the sequence of development of the temenos enclosure. The earliest evidence we have is from the first century AD when a narrow ditch was constructed around the base of the barrow and a sand and gravel path encircled the mound. During the second century, the ditch was filled and a limestone surface replaced the sand and gravel walkway. A stone pier base was set at its western side. A pit was cut through the centre of the barrow; its purpose is unknown but it may have held a central feature of some kind.

In the later second or early third century a new metalled walkway was laid, with a second pier base close to the first. These defined an entranceway, and the presence of tiles in this area suggest it was a roofed structure. A metalled road now ran west from the entrance, and probably joined a road running north from the settlement.

Further changes occurred in the later third or early fourth century when an encircling stone wall was constructed. Three interconnecting drainage channels to the east of the entranceway suggest there may have been a water feature inside the temenos. A thick layer of oyster shells spread outwards from the wall for up to ten metres, forming a glistening surface around the temenos and alongside the approach road.

The temenos declined during the second half of the fourth century. The entranceway superstructure appears to have collapsed or been demolished, and the changing pattern of coin deposition suggest the focus of activity moved from the west to the east of the enclosure. Possibly access to the temenos was now directly from the main Roman road rather than from the roadways through the settlement.

The coin finds in the temenos

In total, 772 coins were recovered from within and around the temenos, mostly from the plough soil due to agricultural activity. The majority are copper-alloy coins struck before AD 260. This is unusual as most rural sites have larger numbers of late third and fourth century coins. The quantity of coins from this feature and the quality of the spatial data allowed for detailed analysis both temporally and spatially, and we can trace the changing foci of deposition.

As at other Romano-British religious sites and temples, the coins found here were probably deliberately deposited as ritual offerings. In contrast it is likely that the majority of the coins from the villa and village were accidental losses.

The earliest group of coins includes a hoard of copper-alloy coins of Vespasian deposited after AD 72 at the southern section of the sand and gravel walkway. They consist of three dupondii and nine asses which is equivalent to almost one silver denarius. A soldier was paid 300 denarii a year. The condition of these coins suggests they were deposited within the temenos soon after they were struck. This hoard correlates with an increase in the deposition of coins at the temenos, many of which appear to be associated with the sand and gravel walkway. Recorded as part of the hoard is a mutilated as where the reverse of the coin has been deliberately gouged. We know of mutilated coins from a number of Roman temples and sites with a focus of ritual deposition, including Hayling Island, Bath and Piercebridge.

In contrast to the hoard, most of the coins of this date found near the western side of the temenos were worn (Roman coins from this period could remain in circulation for over 100 years and become extremely worn from use). This may suggest that this area of the temenos became a focus of deposition only after the construction of the plinths. Coins were deposited at the entranceway in prolific numbers into the first half of the foutth century. These include coins (known to archaeologists as ‘Coins of British Association’) produced in Rome solely for supply in Britain. They provide some of the earliest depictions of Britannia, the personification of the Roman province of Britain.

Coin deposition at the temenos changes drastically from AD 330, probably corresponding with the demolishing of the entranceway on the western side. Coins were now deposited at the eastern side of the temenos but in ever reducing numbers. This decline in deposition is significant and contrasts with the patterns of coin loss from the village and villa. Taken with the structural evidence it suggests that the temenos declined in importance and its use decreased, although a few coins were still deposited until the end of the fourth century. As with the re-use of the monumental sculpture described in Research News 17, this may reflect changes in religious belief at Stanwick in the later fourth century.

When comparing the coin assemblage from the temenos with temples in Britain the closest parallel numismatically is the Sacred Springs at Bath, where more than 12,000 coins were deposited. The assemblage from Bath allows us to understand coin supply to Britain in the first to third centuries and indicates periods of both abundant and limited supply.

Importantly, when comparing the denominations deposited at the temenos and the Sacred Spring at Bath, we can see variations. Higher proportions of dupondii were deposited in the first century compared with Bath and asses continued to be deposited in higher proportions in the second century. Although this could indicate deliberate selection of particular denominations for deposition at the temenos, many studies have highlighted that there was geographical variation in coin supply. Therefore this is likely to show that the pool of circulating currency in Britain was far from uniform. The assemblage from Stanwick offers an opportunity to consider coin use and supply within the region in greater detail.

By the third century the supply of copper-alloy dupondii and asses to Britain had all but dried up, and they become rare on British sites. The key denomination supplied to Britain at this time was the silver denarius. Where third century dupondii occur, they are usually found on sites associated with the military campaigns of Septimius Severus (in AD 208-211) along the east coast of Britain from the Saxon Shore Fort at Reculver (Kent) to the Antonine Wall (across central Scotland). These coins occur in the temenos in higher numbers than we would expect. It is possible that the coins indicate a connection between the settlement at Stanwick and the wider military or imperial administration, a possibility that is particularly interesting in light of Martin Henig and Penny Coombe’s suggestion that sculpture excavated at Stanwick demonstrates the existence of a major shrine, indicating an official presence at the site.

Ritual and economy

At a local level we can see significant variation in coin loss between different parts of the Stanwick landscape such as the late Roman villa and the rest of village (this is described further in the Research Report assessing the coins). Through the coins we can trace the buildings where increasing coin loss probably reflects increasing in coin use and integration into the monetary economy. The assemblage from Stanwick is nationally important and presents many research opportunities to understand changes at the site and its landscape, its role in the wider economy and, as importantly, when considered with other finds assemblages it will tell us about the lives of the people who lived there.

The coin selected for deposition at the Stanwick temenos inform us not just about changes at the temenos itself, but they provide an insight into the currency pool available to this rural area of Roman Britain and so may increase understanding of its economy. Further research into the assemblage and comparison with sites along the eastern coast of Britain could also throw light on Stanwick’s possible links with the imperial administration.

About the author

Richard Henry

Researcher, University of Reading

Richard is an archaeologist with a specialism in Roman finds and numismatics who previously worked for Historic England Archaeological Projects Team. Formerly a Finds Liaison Officer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme and a Curator, he is currently researching material culture and the end of Roman Britain at the University of Reading. He has recently published 'Hoards from Wiltshire'.

Further information

The Research Report on the coins will be available to download from our reports page. Henry, R, 2021: Stanwick Quarry, Northamptonshire: Raunds Area Project: Assessment of the Iron Age and Roman Coinage from Stanwick. Historic England Research Report Series 37-2021.

The methods used to analyse the coins are described by Dr Reece in an article in Britannia from 1995: Reece, R. 1995. 'Site-finds in Roman Britain'. Britannia, 26, 179-206.

The development of the Stanwick Iron Age and Romano-British settlement is described in Crosby, V and Muldowney, L: 2013 Stanwick Quarry, Northamptonshire: Raunds Area Project: Phasing the Iron Age and Romano-British Settlements at Stanwick, Northamptonshire (excavations 1984–1992), volumes 1 and 2. English Heritage Research Department Report Series, no. 54–2011.

The sculpture from Stanwick was described in Historic England Research Issue 17 and is now published in the journal Britannia for 2021.

Coombe, P,  Hayward K and Henig M, with  Crosby, V , Lowerre, A  Neal, D and  Paynter, S: 2021 'The Sculpted and Architectural Stonework from Stanwick Roman Villa', Northamptonshire. Britannia 52.

For an introductory overview of the system of Roman coinage and examples of purchasing power in the Roman period see the Portable Antiquity Schemes online article 'What was your Roman Coin Worth'

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