by Katherine Clements
One coin marks the first to go
A second bodes the fall
The third will seal a sinner’s fate
The Devil take them all…
So recites Mercy Booth, the protagonist of my latest novel, recalling an old folkloric rhyme, remembered from her childhood.
The ancient coins she refers to, with their ominous associations, are a fiction – I created the rhyme, just as I created the story behind it – but they are inspired by a real archaeological artefact: The Silsden Hoard.
Fans of the (highly recommended) TV show Detectorists will know that the holy grail of metal detecting is the discovery of gold. In 1998 keen detectorist Jeff Walbank hit the jackpot, uncovering 27 gold coins at Silsden near Keighley in West Yorkshire.
These Iron Age coins, known as staters, were not common currency. European in origin, the first British coins were minted in bronze about 100BC, and in silver and gold from about 50BC. It’s thought that they were not used to purchase goods, but were given out by tribal leaders, perhaps in recognition of kinship or military service – a kind of medal or status symbol. What’s so unusual about this particular hoard is that the Brigantes, the tribe that controlled the West Yorkshire area at this time, never made their own coins. Production was mostly limited to the tribes further south; the coins found at Silsden almost all come from the Thames area, a territory governed by the Catuvellauni. Most were issued by the powerful leader Cunobelinus who ruled from about 10 to 40AD and was dubbed ‘King of the Britons’ by Roman historian Suetonius.
Only two other similar hoards have ever been found in Yorkshire, almost a hundred miles away at Beverley and Walkington, so how did these coins end up at Silsden? Archaeologists’ best guess is that they were left behind by refugees fleeing the Roman invasion of 43AD. As the Romans advanced north, it’s possible that people sought protection from the Brigantes; the Brigantian territory, which extended over most of northern England, was the last to fall. They were not defeated until the AD70s and even then maintained a resistance movement that was never fully subdued.
The Silsden Hoard was declared as treasure and now resides in Castle Cliffe Museum, close to where it was found. This museum is a little gem, full of fascinating local artifacts of the sort that would be overlooked by a bigger, richer institution. The coins are presented in a simple display case, with sparse information. Something about their humble appearance is at odds with the troubled times they represent. I was intrigued.
In The Coffin Path, Mercy describes the coins thus: ‘Each is small, about the size of a buttercup head, decorated with strange patterns and the crude impression of a horned beast – perhaps a stag, or something more sinister.’
Here they are:
The coins are not worth an awful lot of money – you can buy similar on auction sites for a few hundred pounds, with rare examples reaching the thousands – but they are quite beautiful and very evocative, and the mystery of why they were left behind remains unsolved.
What happened at Silsden? Were these valuables buried in haste as Roman soldiers approached? Were they abandoned as people fled in fear? Or was it an attempt to secure their wealth as they prepared to stand and fight? And what became of their owners? Why did they never return? These are the questions that feed a novel.
Intrigued? – You can buy The Coffin Path Here