Metal Detectorist Discovers Ultra-Rare Chinese Coin in England
An English metal detectorist hunting for treasure in Hampshire recently unearthed something rare and startling. While scouring a field near the bucolic village of Buriton, where medieval artifacts have been found in the past, the detectorist dug up a small round object decorated with Chinese figures on one side. After careful analysis, experts were able to verify that the object was in fact a thousand-year-old rare Chinese coin, likely manufactured in that Far Eastern country sometime between 1008 and 1016.
An Ultra-Rare Chinese Coin
The small one-inch (25 millimeter) copper-alloy coin was issued during a time when China was ruled by the fabled Northern Song dynasty. Coins were manufactured in impressive abundance by Northern Song emperors, and these hardy metal trade chips remained in circulation well into the 14th century.
The ultra-rare Chinese coin discovered in Hampshire in England. ( Portable Antiquities Scheme /CC BY 2.0)
In the 13th and 14th centuries pottery imported from China was prized and sought after in elite circles in England, and researchers believe the coin likely reached the nation’s shores during this period. The coin itself would have been valued as a collectible and not as a medium of exchange.
Chinese coins have been found in the United Kingdom before. But most date to the 17th century when trade between Europe and the Far East was far more well-established. Only one other Chinese coin has been unearthed that dates to the turn of the second millennium; that one was discovered in Cheshire in 2018 and was manufactured approximately 60 years later than the Hampshire coin.
The Chinese coin found in Cheshire in 2018. (Portable Antiquities Scheme/ CC BY SA 4.0)
The Trading Legacy of the Northern Song Dynasty
The Song Dynasty ruled China for 319 years (from 960 AD to 1279 AD). The kingdom enjoyed nearly total hegemony in the region during the Northern Song era, which lasted from 960 until the last Northern Song emperor lost control of the northern half of China to a rival dynasty in 1127. A smaller Southern Song kingdom persisted for another 152 years, but the Dynasty’s most glorious days were clearly behind it at this point.
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Northern Song leaders encouraged innovation and modernization. Moveable type, the magnetic compass, and gunpowder were all invented or perfected in China at this time, and the minting of coinage was dramatically increased to help expand and develop regional trade. The coins produced by Northern Song metal workers were durable and well-made, so much so that by the 14th century 88 percent of the Chinese coins in circulation in China and around the world could be traced to the Northern Song era.
Diagram of a Ming dynasty mariner's compass. (Public Domain)
While only two of these coins have been found in England, larger numbers have been found elsewhere. Chinese coins made in the 11th century have been found in East Africa, near Persian Gulf ports, along the coast of the Arabia, in India, and in Sri Lanka. One was even found in the interior of Europe, in Bulgaria.
Based on these discoveries, it is possible to trace the theoretical trade network that apparently connected medieval England with China. Pottery traders from China would have completed the long trek moving back and forth between sea to land, circumnavigating the Indian peninsula, sailing up the Red Sea, tramping across Egypt to the shores of the Mediterranean, guiding their ships to the Italian peninsula, marching northward through the interior of Europe, crossing the treacherous waters of the English Channel, and finally ending their epic months-long journey by beaching on the southern coast of the British Isles.
Chinese shops and stalls with parasols and thatched roofs, lined against the riverfront, close-up detail from a long handscroll painting by Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145). (Public Domain)
In fact, the site where the coin was found in Hampshire is only nine miles (14.48 kilometers) from the Southern coast of England. This location is highly suggestive, and in more ways than one.
“Interestingly, this find was also made only around 20 miles away from the only confirmed medieval imported Chinese pottery from England, a shard of blue and white porcelain from a small cup or bowl that was found in a late 14th century context at Lower Brook Street, Winchester,” noted Cambridge University historian Dr. Caitlin Green in a blog post about the Hampshire discovery.
Occasionally, ancient coins are dropped accidentally or on purpose by collectors, which can create “false positives” that distort the historical record. But such a scenario isn’t considered likely in this case, for reasons explained by Dr. Green, “The fact that we now have two, rather than one, 11th-century Northern Song dynasty coins from England, both recovered from what seem to be medieval to early modern sites, adds weight to the case for considering them genuinely ancient losses.”
Example of a Post Medieval pottery sherd from a Chinese porcelain bowl (18th century) discovered in England. ( Portable Antiquities Scheme /CC BY SA 4.0)
Changing Historical Profiles in an Interconnected World
The rare Chinese Coin from Hampshire has been registered with the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), which catalogs significant archaeological and historical discoveries made by amateur explorers.
“By working with detectorists and recovering their finds, [the PAS has] massively improved our understanding of the past and particularly imported coinage,” Dr. Green told the MailOnline. “The scheme has, for example, revealed that many more early medieval Byzantine and Islamic coins reached Britain than was previously understood, and that these can no longer be all dismissed as modern losses as has sometimes been the case in the past.”
A copper alloy Byzantine coin, attributed to Romanus III (1028-1034 AD) or Michael IV (1034-1041 AD), possibly dating to c. 1030-1042 AD. This coin was discovered in Ormesby, England. ( Portable Antiquities Scheme /CC BY 2.0)
As new historical and archaeological studies reveal more extensive and active trading links than were previously known to exist, it is becoming clear that the world’s economy has been globalized in one form or another for a long time. Ancient peoples were mobile and their most intrepid adventurers were constantly in search of wealth, knowledge, and excitement. The vast distances that separate Earth’s continents and islands were not daunting enough to keep the bold and the curious confined to their own shores.
By Nathan Falde