From the realistic to the abstract, we take a look at how to decipher the imagery on our collection of Celtic gold coins.
We’re planning on reopening our museum doors on Tuesday 18th May, and we’re kicking things off with a treasure of an exhibition! The Celtic Kimbolton coin hoard was discovered by a metal detectorist in 2010, and our museum is now the honoured custodian of this stunning collection or Iron Age currency. Minted around 2,000 years ago by the Corieltauvi tribe (whose territory lay north of St Neots, stretching from Hull in Lincolnshire and across to Leicester), the coins mostly date from 100BCE – 40CE, during the period of the Roman conquest of Britain.
Imagery on the coins
The designs on the Kimbolton coins are fantastically abstract, but we know that they’re based on a particular coin issued by the Greek king, Philip II of Macedon, who ruled 369 – 336 BCE. On one side, this coin featured the head of the god Apollo, adorned with a laurel wreath headpiece, and on the other, a chariot pulled by horses. Though the Celts worshipped different gods to the Greeks, the imagery on the coins held significance to them within their own religion and customs. So, enacting the age-old theory of “if it aint broke, don’t fit it”, the Celts adopted this imagery as the foundation for their own currency.
At first, the Celtic coins were often direct copies of the Greek coins, maintaining the realistic imagery. However, over time the designs began to morph, becoming highly abstract as the Celts made the images their own. By the time the Corieltauvi tribe had redesigned their coins, they were a long way away from the originals!
Unless you know what you’re supposed to be looking at when you study the Kimbolton coins, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the designs were simply a mixture of shapes and pleasing patterns. BUT there’s more to them than meets the eye, and you might be surprise to learn that they do still depict the same images as the Greek coin above! Don’t believe us? Let’s take a closer look…
Deciphering the Celtic coins
Of the two sides of the coins, the horses and chariots are perhaps the easiest to visualise. The horses are constructed by a series of lunate (or crescent) shapes and a triangular head, which has been deciphered as both a harness or even a nose-bag. The chariot often remains solely in the form of a singular spoked or rosetted wheel, which, in Celtic mythology, had links to the sky or solar deities. The Celts worshipped the sun and often used the symbol of a wheel to represent the sun gods or solar calendar in their art. This deeper meaning attached to the wheel could be why it survives as the only original part of the Greek chariot.
The horse was also worshipped by the Celts and was very important in their society. It was used by elite warriors to ride into battle and as a status symbol by those who could afford to own one. Their appearance on the coins alongside pelleted or rosetted ‘sun wheel’ symbols are thought to be a reference to the god Belenos, a solar deity who was thought to ride the sun across the sky in a chariot in Celtic mythology.
And what about Apollo?
Turning our attention to the other side of the coin, and what remains of Apollo is, err, slightly more difficult to make out! Now, all that’s left is a pattern of abstract dots and shapes representing his hair, face and laurel wreath. This can be hard to see on first appearance, but if we compare the coins with the earlier, more realistic representations, we can see which stylistic elements have been kept to symbolise key features, like his locks of hair, for example.
On the Kimbolton coins, the remains of the laurel wreath look rather like stylised depictions of ears of wheat, and may have been intended to represent the grain grown by local Celtic tribes and then traded with the Roman world – a source of great wealth and prestige for tribal leaders.
Tribute to the gods?
But why more focus on religious imagery on the coins rather than, say, the heads of tribal leaders? Well, it’s long been speculated, that as well as currency, coins were used as offerings to the Celtic gods, and often buried in the ground like the Kimbolton hoard. Offerings may have been more common in times of conflict as pleas for peace and stability, so could it be that the hoard was buried as an offering for protection against the Roman invasion? Or were they simply buried for safe keeping? Sadly we’ll never know, but it’s tempting to guess nonetheless!