Recycled Byzantine silver drove Europe’s 7th century revival

Before France dominated European coin production under Charlemagne, the richest members of the continent’s Middle Age societies were likely melting down valuable Byzantine artefacts for legal tender.

In an analysis performed by British and Dutch researchers, published today in the journal Antiquity, a collection of ancient coins used throughout north-western Europe at least 1,200 years ago was found to be made of recycled Byzantine silver. It’s a finding they say shines a light on 7th-century trade and geopolitics.

The origin of the metal stocks was achieved through a lead isotope analysis of the coins from England, the Netherlands and parts of France. Coins minted using silver from Melle, north of Bordeaux, have previously been evaluated, but the new research sought to trace the composition of these particular pennies held by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The coins were minted from 660-750CE.

The ratios of silver to other trace elements provided the first clues about the origin of around half the coins from England, Francia (modern-day France) and Frisia (modern-day Netherlands and northwest Germany).

The composition of these coins more closely matches Byzantine metal – rather than Roman silver – suggesting trade routes between northwest Europe and the Byzantine Empire were underway well beforehand, despite what previous researchers had described as a ‘low point’ in trade.

“Elites in England and Francia were almost certainly sitting on this silver already,” says study co-author, Cambridge University professor of early medieval English History Rory Naismith. “We have very famous examples of this, the silver bowls discovered at Sutton Hoo and the ornate silver objects in the Staffordshire Hoard.

“This was such an exciting discovery. I proposed Byzantine origins a decade ago but couldn’t prove it. Now we have the first archaeometric confirmation that Byzantine silver was the dominant source behind the great seventh-century surge in minting and trade around the North Sea.”

That Sutton Hoo collection weighs about 10kg, which if melted down could produce 10,000 small pennies like those analysed in this study, according to Cambridge University.

Scanned image of ancient coins.
A selection of the Fitzwilliam Museum coins which were studied © The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge. Credit: Supplied.

Study co-author Jane Kershaw, an Oxford University archaeologist specialising in silver economies in northwest Europe, expects the rise of these coins in the mid-to-late 7th century would have been in response to major societal changes.

“These beautiful prestige [Byzantine] objects would only have been melted down when a king or lord urgently needed lots of cash. Something big would have been happening, a big social change,” Kershaw says.

“This was ‘quantitative easing,’ elites were liquidating resources and pouring more and more money into circulation. It would have had a big impact on people’s lives. There would have been more thinking about money and more activity with money involving a far larger portion of society than before.”

Shift in silver origins shows European power dynamics

While the composition of the 29 coins from 660-750CE was suggestive of Byzantine silver, the origin of another 20 coins minted over the next 70 years suggests the introduction of a new ‘silver stock’ – most likely, the researchers suggest, from the Melle mine in France.

Naismith says this sudden spike in silver from Melle points to the rise of Frankish power under the Carolingian dynasty from the mid-8th century, marked most notably by the rule of Charlemagne. His ascendency is credited with the spread of Melle silver throughout the region of north-western Europe investigated as part of the study.

“England appears to have been in receipt of Melle-like silver, initially refining it with English lead,” they note. “The spread of Melle silver should be read as the result of a conscious administrative decision, which has significant implications for understanding of how silver was distributed within the Carolingian Empire.”

This played out, Naismith says, in the relationship between Charlemagne and the King of Mercia (the Anglian state in the modern-day English midlands), King Offa.

“There was a lot of communication and tension between Charlemagne and Offa,” says Naismith. “Offa wasn’t in the same league, his kingdom was much smaller, he had less power over it, and he certainly didn’t have as much silver. But he remained one of Europe’s most powerful figures who was outside of Charlemagne’s control. So, they maintained a pretence of equality. Our findings add to a dynamic that England and France have had for a very long time.”

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