The Australian Numismatic Society


By Colin G. F. Thomas

Choosing the subject of the Durotriges is perhaps a little ambitious. However, the coins of these pre-Celtic tribes do hold a certain fascination. These coins cannot be dated to any recognized time scale, at least not accurately, but a period of mid 1st Century BC to mid 1st Century AD seems to be common. Unfortunately a more defined dating period is not, at this stage, possible.
The Durotriges people are steeped in mystery even though it is known that they existed and also known where they resided. The county of Dorset in southern England and the western part of Wiltshire and eastern part of Somerset seem to have been the boundaries of these people, with their main centre situated in what is now known as Dorchester.

It is speculated that the word Durotriges is derived in part from the Latin depicting water and people – hence – people of the water or those who lived near the water.
Coins of the Durotriges have no known text on them nor do they represent figures of human beings and this makes it all the more difficult for the numismatist to identify and catalogue. One aspect however is quite common on the said coinage. A stylized disjointed horse figure usually, but not always, appears on the reverse of a great number of coins. Of course other Celtic coinage depicts such figures but the Durotrigan coinage appears to be of a cruder manufacture. Many are struck in debased silver – billon staters – but gold and silver coins do exist.

Maiden Castle, Britain’s largest hillfort, was built prior to the period of occupation of the Durotriges, but was manned by them as a major centre of activity. Today, over 2,000 years later, the fort still stands as a testament to the abilities of those people. It covers a vast area with terraced levels and moats guarding the apex of the structure. It would have been a very easy place to defend and indeed battles have been fought there.

Excavation in recent times has revealed burial sites in the vicinity where warriors had fallen in battle.

To obtain a complete story of the Durotriges people would require a great deal more study. Precious little information exists and the coinage is, arguably, the main media by which study can be undertaken. Pottery, as in Roman times, has been found and it is known that potteries had been established to the east at Porchester and the north at Ilchester but of course the main centre of pottery production was at Poole where such items are still produced today. Much investigation needs to be done but, as stated previously, the disjointed horse marks a distinctive feature of the coins relating to the Durotriges.

With this in mind, one can only speculate about the origins of the hillside horse of Uffington in Berkshire. This massive carving, similar in design to the coinage as mentioned, stretches an incredible 114 metres by 40 metres high and must have had some significance to those who painstakingly made it. Perhaps the horse was an indication that religious ceremonies had taken place.

Curiously only three references have been found relating to the Durotriges. The first was a mention made by Ptolemy the chronicler in a history written almost 200 years after the tribes ceased to exist. And also, curiously, there are two written references on Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England. It is believed that these people were mainly farmer gatherers but took up arms when the Romans invaded in 43/44 AD. Their weapons, unfortunately, could not match the might and power of the Roman war-machine. Armed with only swords, spears and sling-shots they fought a battle against the mighty ballister and many ballister-bolts have been found to suggest a decimation of the people whose weapons were inferior. After this time, it seems that the people simply no longer existed. In excavated burial sites, a strange phenomenon has been found whereby the Durotriges buried their dead in round graves. Those skeletons found, in almost all cases, were crouched in a foetal position, knees drawn up to the chin and lying on the right side. Some had weapons with them and many had the bones of animals beside the skeletons suggesting food deposited for use in the after-life. And this pre-supposes that a kind of religious background existed and that they may have believed in an after-life.

Some chroniclers have referred to these people as Celts but still others deny this appellation. The coins found, and there have been a number of caches discovered, range in weight so another aspect of identification gives the numismatist more headaches. From study of the billon coinage a range of between 3.8 grams to 5.5 grams is common. With no known written language, although I hasten to add that some have ‘OMO’ on them, it is frustrating when trying to solve the mysteries of these people. Without text we do not know the names of leaders or the chieftans who may have ruled these people. Such information is hidden from the researcher. It is known that the Durotriges inhabited hill forts, as previously stated and one such was Hod Hill where the onslaught of the Romans is clearly evident. It is imagined that the main focus of the attack was aimed at the chieftan’s round house, a structure of stone walls with thatched roof. Other members of the tribe would have lived in wooden walled structures. Many sites had many round houses within the fort boundaries, the perimeters of which were guarded by high fences of sharpened steaks driven into the ground.

What is known about these people is the fact that a mint had been established at Hengistbury Head on the southern coast. Oddly enough the word hengis is an old Saxon word for stallion. Store pits have been found cut into the chalk hillsides. These pits would have been used to stash food for the winter months. Their food consisted of various breads made from wheat or barley, dried or salted meat, including such meat as horse and even dog. Cabbage and parsnip were a common vegetable. They did have woven clothing and although no such items have been found in England there have been discoveries of ‘hanging stones’ used to stretch the fabric on the weaving frame whilst in production. Clothing from this period has, however, been discovered in Denmark and is in a remarkably good state of preservation. Iron bars were also used as currency, iron being a valuable commodity. It is assumed that these iron bars were graded by weight.

So what can we learn from studying the coins of the Durotriges  ? The images that appear on these coins must have some significance and meaning. I cannot believe that the symbols on these coins are just patterns used just because they look nice or symmetrical. They have not, I suggest, been randomly  chosen.

Do the marks on these coins represent a counting mechanism or the recording of some event or do they reflect a division of the year or the seasons? Does the disjointed horse depict a deity, something to be revered or worshipped? Could the button forms show a harvest where harvest might refer to wealth? And the ears of wheat may count for a healthy cache of food, again meaning wealth. This, of course, is just speculation but it is interesting to imagine that the meaning of the symbols on these coins stand for something vital to the people who produced them. Could these people have copied signs from the night sky and what value was put on these coins one might inquire.

Photo Courtesy of Brian Beresford of the Havering Numismatic Society, England

 Photo Courtesy of Mike R.Vosper
(a) The standard “staff or crook” divides the “wheat ears”.
 Photo Courtesy of Mike R. Vosper
(b) The text OMO can be clearly seen in this example.
Photo Courtesy of Mike R. Vosper.

The 3 coin photographs above were taken by Mike Vosper in England. He has studied over 1,300 of these Durotriges coins and has listed quite a number of them including their various weights etc., (a) (b) and (c) are just three of the coins studied by Mike and catalogued by him.

As previously stated, to fully understand the Durotriges people more study needs to be undertaken. Precious little information is evident and the coinage, as in many cases throughout history, could be a major factor in delving into the lives of these people. It is known that apart from a mint established at Hengistbury Head, a well established trading centre existed. Merchandise arriving from Europe by boat supplied various commodities not available locally. It was by no means a one way trade as pottery, mentioned previously, could be exchanged for items needed. To date, and I stand to be corrected on this statement, no Durotrigan coinage has been found outside the immediate area occupied by these people. There are, to date, no reports of this distinctive coinage having been found in Europe. Did money exchange hands for these commodities or was barter the media used in transactions ? It would appear that the said coinage remained in England and was used purely in the Dorset area. And this is rather surprising considering that the Uffington horse, earlier mentioned, could have been the inspiration for the disjointed horse design on coinage. Certainly the effigy carved on the hillside in Berkshire was done long before the Durotriges established themselves in the Dorset area. Speculatively, was this horse seen by these people and copied on to the coinage and who were the mint masters of the time ? The coinage leaves us with more questions than answers.

The Uffington Horse in Berkshire

This picture was taken c 1938 and the figure has undergone certain chnages since that date

Hill Forts      Maiden Castle      Hod Hill          Poundbury      Rawlsbury
Eggardon        Spetisbury         Abbotsbury          Badbury      Pilsdon Pen
Banbury      South Cadbury      Hambledon Hill   Battlesbury

Note:- The main horde of coins found were discovered at Badbury, Hod Hill, Maiden Castle and south of the city of DForchester, and on the Isle of Weight.  Over 800 coins were unearthed at Badbury

Unearthed Artifacts       Ballister Bolts      Pottery      Coins      Iron bar currency    Sling Shot Stones   Evidence of post holes      Round House evidence      Skeletons - Male, female & Children      Stag Antler Tools      Weaving Stone Weights      Brooches
Weapons      Animal Bones

It is perhaps sad that bodies of these people, other than skelatal remains that is, have not been unearthed.  How much more would researchers have learned had figures similar to those of Tollund Fen Man, Grauballe Man, Lindow Man or Elling Woman  been discovered. These bodies were well preserved and date back to the time of the Durotriges people. Carbon dating has placed these incredible finds between the years 290BCE and 119CE, the precise time span pre-mentioned. Re-construction of facial features of some of these bodies has created for the historian and student alike a focal point by which real interaction between the past and present can intermingle. To understand that these people actually walked this earth over 2000 years ago is a sobering thought and the Durotriges people are no exception to this scientific observation. What was it like to live in those times ? How did they feel about one another ? What was their everyday lives like, what were their worries and issues of the day ? How did they interact with neighbouring tribes ? Was health an issue and at what age was it considered to be old ? Certainly those skeletons that have been found were not old by today’s standards, arguably 35 to 40 years at most when in the 21st century one can expect to double that figure.

Names have come from history, from Greece, Rome, Egypt, Europe and Saxon England but frustration exists when none such has emerged from the Durotriges people, it seems that a dark veil has descended on this period. The remaining coinage places these people in a period which is still, to this day, as previously said, bathed somewhat in mystery and speculation but nonetheless numismatists can gain comfort from the fact that the said coinage is there for future study and maybe one day someone will break the code which is evident on the coinage.

References :-

The Search for the Durotriges” by Martin Papworth

‘Romantic Britain’ by Tom Stephenson

‘The Celts’ by Peter Berresford-Ellis

‘Written in Bones’ edited by Paul Bahn

‘The Celts – History and Treasures of an Ancient Civilization’ text by Daniele Vitali

‘Swanage and South Dorset Illustrated Guide Book’ 1933/34

‘Britain BC’ by Francis Pryor

‘Seahenge’ by Francis Pryor

‘The Practical Archaeologist’ by Jane McIntosh

‘Coins of the England and the United Kingdom’ by Spink

‘The Coins of Great Britain and Ireland’ by Thorburn & Grueber (1905)

BBC – DVD production ‘In Search of Myths and Heroes’ presented by Michael Wood

My sincere thanks to my good friend Brian Beresford and to Mike Vosper.

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13th June 2012