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A Roman-Egyptian coin from Little Cawthorpe

By Alex Keyes

Roman CoinHow and why did a coin from the Roman province of Egypt come to be found near a spring in Little Cawthorpe? The coin in question is a tetradrachm, minted in Alexandria during the eleventh year of the reign of Emperor Diocletian, a date which corresponds to the years 294-295 AD on our calendar. The coin’s obverse depicts a left facing bust of Diocletian himself, wearing a laurel wreath and surrounded by his name and titles in Greek, while the reverse shows the standing figure of Elpis, the personification of hope in ancient Greek religion.

Roman CoinCoins are one of the most commonly found items from the Roman period in Lincolnshire. This is due to the fact that individual coins were easy to lose, while coins in large numbers were often buried for protection and not subsequently reclaimed. In 1953 for example, over 20,000 silver and copper coins dating from between 253-275 AD were uncovered in the village of Riby. What makes our coin unusual however is that it originated in Egypt, a province that was not only at the other end of the empire to Britain, but also one that had its own coinage which could not be spent elsewhere. The Emperor depicted on our coin, Diocletian, would eventually do away with this practise and from 297 AD onwards the whole Roman Empire would use the same monetary system.

Coins from Roman Egypt are found surprisingly often in England. The portable antiquities scheme database has nineteen Egyptian tetradrachms from the reign of Diocletian on record, including a very similar example found in the village of Metheringham. Dr Adam Daubney suggests that the aforementioned coin may in fact be a lost souvenir brought back by soldier from the Lincolnshire regiment, however the existence of our coin, as well as the others on the database, lend plausibility to the notion that it was in fact a genuine Roman loss.

The museum’s coin probably travelled to Britain in the pocket of a trader or soldier. It may have come directly from Alexandria or passed through many hands along the way. Why it ended up in Little Cawthorpe is another story.

Little Cawthorpe was probably an important religious site from the stone-age into the iron-age. The village has seven springs which today form a large pond, however within living memory the individual springs could each be seen. The springs were likely considered sacred to the Romano-British goddess Alauna, whose shrines were often rededicated to the Christian Saint Helena following the adoption of Christianity throughout the Roman world. Today St Helen’s Church overlooks the springs and may occupy the former site of the Roman shrine. Another example of a Roman sacred spring being rededicated to Helena is Louth’s St Helen’s well, probably also originally associated with Alauna.

Our coin was almost certainly a religious offering. The practise of throwing a coin into water and making a wish is certainly not new. Thousands of coins have been recovered from the famous hot springs at Bath, and around the country Roman coins are commonly discovered in springs and wells. Other items often found include polished axe heads, bladed weapons and jewellery. Perhaps the coin’s original owner believed that an offering from faraway Egypt would be pleasing to Alauna, or maybe she/he was hoping for the intercession of Elpis, the personification of hope depicted on the coin’s reverse.

Whether their wish was granted by Alauna we will never know, however the offering they left around 1700 years ago testifies to the extraordinary links between the regions of the Roman Empire and reveals a little about the lives and beliefs of the people living within it.

The Little Cawthorpe Tetradrachm can be seen in the Roman cabinet in Louth Museum’s Ludalinks gallery.

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© Alex Keyes 2016

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