|O: Diademed bust right, with cross in front.||R: Coiled wolf with curled tongue facing right.|
|Silver sceat of series K, London (?), c. 710-20.|
Their name derives from Old English sceatt meaning 'wealth, money, coin', which has been applied to these coins since the seventeenth century, based on interpretations of the law-code of King Æthelberht of Kent and Mercian law (see Bosworth & Toller, An Old English Dictionary). It is likely, however, that the coins were more often known to contemporaries as pennies (Old English peningas), much like later Anglo-Saxon silver coins. They are very diverse, organised into over a hundred numbered types derived from the British Museum Catalogue of the 1890s, and by broader alphabetical classifications laid out by Stuart Rigold in the 1970s.
The huge volume of finds made in the last thirty years using metal detectors has radically altered understanding of this coinage, and while it is now clear that these coins were in everyday use across eastern and southern England in the early eighth century, it is also apparent that the current organisation is in considerable need of adjustment.
Legends and iconography
|O: +ALDFRIDVS around central annulet.||R: Left-facing quadruped.|
|Silver sceat of Aldfrith of Northumbria, 685-704.|
Sceattas rarely carry legends of any kind, though a small number do name the mint of London and others carry short runic legends such as 'Aethiliraed' and 'Efe', which probably refer to moneyers rather than kings. One series, U, has been linked to King Aethelbald of Mercia (716-57) on the basis of its iconography, though this attribution is tenuous and recent research suggests it is very unlikely. It has also been suggested on the basis of the iconography of certain sceattas that they were issued by ecclesiastical authorities, such as bishops or abbots. Minting may not have been a strictly urban or secular prerogative, and coins were used for many payments and purposes beyond pure commercial buying and selling.
|O: Facing bust with beard and cross on either side.||R: Right-facing curled 'dragon'.|
|Silver sceat of series X, Ribe, Denmark, c. 710-20.|
Associating sceattas with particular mints or kingdoms is very difficult, and must be based primarily upon study of find-spots. Most have been found by metal detector since the 1970s. In this way it has been possible to attribute some types with considerable confidence, such as series H with Wessex and in particular Southampton, and series S with the Kingdom of Essex. In Denmark, series X has been plausibly associated with the early trading centre at Ribe.
The chronology of the sceattas is also very hard to unravel. Some of the earliest series use the same designs as pale gold thrymsas (Latin 'tremissis', one third of a gold solidus) and by analogy with coins from the better-understood Frankish material can be dated to the 680s. It is known that sceattas were minted in the Frisian town of Dorestad (just south of Utrecht in the Netherlands); they were a commonly circulating currency in the Frankish realm until the monetary reform of Pepin the Short (institution of Ver in 755).
The thirty or forty years after 680 saw the production and circulation of the 'primary series' of sceattas, which were generally of good metal quality and weight (c. 1–1.3 grams). They were largely minted in Kent and the Thames Estuary, though a few were produced in Northumbria bearing the name of King Aldfrith (685–704). The 'secondary series', struck from c. 710 to c. 750, saw a massive expansion of minting all over southern and eastern England to every major Anglo-Saxon kingdom: one or more types can be attributed with more or less confidence to Wessex, Mercia, Sussex, Essex, Kent, Northumbria and East Anglia.
There was much copying and debasement, and weight could fluctuate considerably (c. 0.8–1.3 grams). There are relatively few hoards from this period with which to construct even a relative chronology, and any new discovery could radically alter our current understanding. The end of the sceattas is especially difficult to pinpoint, and it is likely that there was a period of some decades in the middle of the eighth century when very few if any coins were being produced in England.
Although sceattas present many problems of organisation, attribution and dating, they also carry a breathtaking variety of designs bespeaking extensive Celtic, classical and Germanic influences. These designs include human figures, animals, birds, crosses, plants and monsters, all of which have been recently elucidated by Dr. Anna Gannon in her erudite The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage. Tony Abramson's illustrated guide is a visual route to proper identification specifically for non-experts. In September 2006, this guide was qualified as 'recent'.
- Blackburn, M. A. S., and P. Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, vol. 1: The Early Middle Ages (5th-10th centuries) (Cambridge, 1986)
- Gannon, Anna, The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage: Sixth to Eighth Centuries (Oxford, 2003)
- Metcalf, D. M., Thrymsas and Sceattas in the Ashmolean Museum, 3 vols. (London, 1993–4)
- Rigold, S., 'The Principal series of English sceattas', The British Numismatic Journal 47 (1977), 21–30
- Abramson, A. I. J., Sceattas, An Illustrated Guide, (Great Dunham, 2006)
- Studies in Early Medieval Coinage vol. 1, edited by Tony Abramson, Boydell Press, Woodbridge, UK, 2008
- Abramson, A. I. J., Sceatta List', 2012
- Abramson, A. I. J., 'Anglo-Saxon Counterfeits', 2012
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