An Out of Place Chinese Coin Prompts Wonder: Did Medieval Asia and Britain Interact?
Britain’s antiquities experts have written it off as a loss from a curate collection; but the presence of a Chinese Northern Song dynasty (960 - 1127 AD) coin unearthed in Cheshire, England does have people wondering about the links between Medieval Asia and the UK.
This is the first known example of a Chinese coin from that period discovered in England, according to News.com.au. University of Cambridge archaeologist Dr. Caitlin Green writes the Northern Song dynasty piece is one of 40 individual Chinese coins and one hoard that are recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme. But this one stands out because it is only one of 11 from the Medieval period – the other 146 Chinese coins were minted between the mid 17th to early 20th centuries.
Coins of China (Song through Qing dynasties), Japan and Korea. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Dr. Green writes other random artifacts were found near the coin, but “none of these other finds appear especially 'suspicious' or exotic.” They include: two Roman coins, weights from the Medieval and post-Medieval period, two pieces of Medieval copper-alloy casting waste, and some artifacts dating to the 16th – 18th centuries such as coins of Elizabeth I, rings, trade weights, and musket balls. “All told, the post-Roman finds from the site suggest relatively unremarkable activity on the site from c. 1300 to c. 1750, with nothing else found that might hint at a deliberate exotic deposition or loss from a curated collection”, Dr. Green explains .
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The Portable Antiquities Scheme has described the worn coin as a cast copper alloy piece minted during the Xining reign (1068 -1077 AD.) They declare “It is doubtful that this is a genuine medieval find (i.e. present in the country due to trade and lost accidentally) but more likely a more recent loss from an curated collection.”
But Dr. Green wonders if there can’t be a slight chance of the coin having arrived in another way. She worries the ‘loss from a curated collection’ explanation for unusual discoveries is overused,
“although the possibility of a loss from a curated collection certainly cannot be discounted, it can be perhaps overused as an explanation for 'surprising' finds—as Martin Biddle has observed , 'the proverbial absent-minded college don or cathedral canon, dropping items of his collection here, there and everywhere... has never seemed a very convincing character', and in recent years the hyper-scepticism over finds of at least some exotic coins in Britain has abated somewhat.”
The Chinese coin found in Cheshire. (Portable Antiquities Scheme/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
Thus, Dr. Green decided to find out “whether it is at all possible that such a coin might have arrived in Britain during the medieval era, and […] review the evidence for contacts between East Asia and Britain in that period whatever our conclusion on this coin may be.”
The evidence she found mostly comes from texts, but there is sufficient quantity that it is worth considering Medieval Asian-British interaction. Dr. Green provides a series of literary examples. One of a few detailed on her website is an account of a Flemish Franciscan missionary and explorer named William of Rubruck (who died circa 1293) encountering an Englishman named Basil while Rubruck visited Mongolia in 1254 AD. Basil told Rubruck he was living at Karakorum, (near Kharkhorin, Mongolia) the Mongol Empire capital, from 1235-1260.
Detail of Andrea di Bonaiuto's fresco 'The Way of Salvation/The Church Militant and the Church Triumphant', c. 1365–1368. The figures at the center are identified by Jacques Paviot as an English knight of the Garter talking to a Mongol. ( Public Domain )
Apart from accounts of British people going to Asia, Dr. Green also provides evidence of Mongol diplomatic contacts with England in the 13th century. One written example comes from Guy Foulques — future Pope Clement IV- complaining of “unidentified Mongol envoys ('Tartars') actually crossing the Channel to visit England in 1264” while Foulques was still waiting for his own permission to cross.
Furthermore, it has been found that Edward II sent a letter to the Emperor of China on May 22, 1313 asking for his help and protection for the bishop William of Villeneuve. Of course, other Europeans were also in China from the late 13th century onwards, such as Marco Polo and Peter of Lucalongo as well as Genoese and Venetian merchants.
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The tombstone of Katerina Ilioni, daughter of the Genoese merchant Domenico Ilioni, dated to 1342 and found at Yangzhou, China. ( Public Domain )
Finally, Dr. Green notes that that English coins from the late Medieval period have also been found in Vietnam.
Although many of the dates in the literary evidence come later than the coin, it is worth mentioning that so many coins were minted in the Song dynasty that they were still in circulation for centuries later. The ‘loss from a curated collection’ explanation may or may not fit this case.
The Chinese coin was returned to the finder after the Portable Antiquities Scheme analysis.
Top Image: The worn cast copper alloy Chinese coin, from the Northern Song dynasty (960 AD to 1127 AD), minted during the Xining reign between 1068 and 1077 AD, and found in Britain. Source: