Coins as archaeological artefacts

Roman coins are numismatic objects that have much to tell us about the economic and political histories of the Roman world. Site-finds (ie, archaeologically recovered coins), however, tell different stories too and if we are to ‘capitalise on and extract maximum value’ from these objects, the reporting of Roman coinage should follow the same principles and processes as other archaeological finds (eg, pottery and registered finds).

Most archaeological coin reports treat site-finds squarely as numismatic objects rather than excavated artefacts. Roman coins are listed and summarised on tables and graphs according to the dates when they were struck, without consideration of the length of time they might have been in circulation before being deposited. They are also almost always interpreted as monetary objects that together are thought to reflect a settlement’s economic fortunes. Although there are a few notable exceptions to this picture, particularly for sites known to have been places of religious significance (eg, Walker 1988; Eckardt and Walton 2021), the analytical methodologies in use today have not altered significantly since the 1970s and 1980s.

It remains the case that coins invariably are divorced from their stratigraphic origins in the majority of reports and publications describing excavations of Romano-British sites and, consequently, from the other artefacts with which they might have been found. Beyond providing absolute dates for a site’s chronological sequence, coin reports tend to have little to add to the broader understanding of excavated Romano-British settlements and the lives of their inhabitants.

To achieve a more universal approach to the study of site-finds therefore requires bringing together numismatic and archaeological knowledge and understanding. A better appreciation of the archaeological contexts that produce Roman coins is an obvious starting point; a coin dropped during a commercial transaction in a shop or at a market stall, for example, became an archaeological artefact in different circumstances to a coin recovered from a pit filled with domestic rubbish, or a coin placed in a grave.

Understanding site formation processes and archaeological stratigraphy is vitally important in the study of site-finds. Roman coins were cultural as well as monetary objects that had histories after the moment when they were struck and issued into circulation. Object (or artefact) biography is one approach to exploring these important archaeological themes, which can be envisaged as consisting of the following connected episodes in a coin’s use-life:

  1. production
  2. supply
  3. use/circulation/reuse
  4. loss/disposal
  5. discovery
  6. archaeological / museum artefact


  • Eckardt, H and Walton, P, 2021 Bridge over Troubled Water: The Roman Finds from the River Tees at Piercebridge in Context. London: Roman Society Publications
  • Walker, D R, 1988 Roman Coins from the Sacred Spring at Bath. Oxford: Oxford University Committee for Archaeology