Amazing Artefacts: King Eadberht’s Last Silver Sceat

Minted over 1,200 years ago, this heavily worn silver coin featuring a fantastical, four-legged beast was found at the site of Lindisfarne’s first Anglo-Saxon monastery.

In 2016, DigVentures began the first full-blown search for the famous monastery founded by King Oswald of Northumbria in AD635. With the help of our crowdfunders, we uncovered the first signs of a cemetery associated with the monastery, the outlines of several early medieval buildings and a number of definitively Anglo-Saxon artefacts. This silver coin is one of them, and it reveals a rather more bloodthirsty side to Lindisfarne’s story.

On one side, it features a fantastical, four-legged beast. On the other, the name ‘Eadbertus’ circles a small central cross.

King Eadberht became king in AD737, after his cousin Ceolwulf abdicated from the Northumbrian throne and took sanctuary at the very monastery we are looking for.

But Eadberht himself had a rather less friendly relationship with Lindisfarne. Without getting into the nitty-gritty of a rivalry that has its origins in a Game of Thrones style family feud, Eadberht ended up taking Cynewulf (the then bishop of Lindisfarne) hostage at Bamburgh Castle, just across the water, and besieged Offa, son of Aldfrith, in the chapel until he was dragged from sanctuary, almost dead from hunger.

Eadberht was a warrior king with imperial ambition. But it has also been said that he brought a new period of prosperity to the kingdom. And yes, you’ve guessed it, one of the things that is said to be an indication of this was the revival of a substantial and impressive silver coinage, whose designs were described as ‘ahead of its age in finesse’.

But it’s not just their design that’s remarkable, the quality of the silver is too.

A similar class F silver sceat, found in East Riding of Yorkshire and recorded by Portable Antiquities Scheme. Record ID: YORYM-9B1B52

Elsewhere in the country, the availability of silver was dropping, and coins like this were increasingly hard to come by; it was only in Eadberht’s Northumbria that coins of this purity were still being minted.

Only one more of Eadberht’s silver sceats (this time a Class A) has ever been found on the island. The rest of the early Medieval coins that have turned up were found during excavations on the north side of the island. All of them date to the mid 9th century, about a hundred years later, and all of them, with one very rare exception (a broad flan silver penny of Æthelred of Wessex) were copper-based stycas.

With help from Dr John Naylor, the coin was identified as a Class F issue of Eadberht’s coinage dating to the middle decades of the 8th century.

Clearly, we archaeologists love a good coin, and not just because they’re shiny. In fact, their greatest value comes from their ability to tell us when a layer was formed, and thereby when all the activity leading to the build up of all the detritus in that layer occurred.

Sort of. Of course, coins often stay in circulation long after they were first minted, and this one does look reasonably worn. Just imagine how many hands it must have passed through, how many exchanges it must have been involved in, and how many purses it must have been held by before it finally fell out the pocket of one last careless owner. Could it even have been one of the men who had besieged Offa in the chapel? Just imagine!

But perhaps the most important thing of all about this little silver coin is the fact that it was unearthed not by one of our professional archaeologists, but by Ruth – one of the many brilliant people who decided to crowdfund the excavation and become a DigVenturer. You can see the official record here, and the exact layer she found it in here.

With the team now getting preparations underway for a second season of excavation on the island, it might be time for you to start thinking about making plans to join us this year…

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Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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