English Coins

Project details

  • Date

     February 5, 2015

  • Task

     Study Collection

  • Category

     Exchange, Silver

  • Object number – 39-JR
  • Material – Silver
  • Place of Origin – England
  • Date – Early 17th century
  • Context – James Fort
  • Location – Archaearium
  • Category – Exchange

Since coins are among the few artifacts that are dated, they are welcome finds on archaeological sites. A coin buried with other artifacts undisturbed over the centuries sets the date after which the deposit occurred. But how much later? Some coins are in circulation a long time. A 1560 coin found at James Fort demonstrates how coins could circulate a long time during the colonial period.

This English sixpence dated 1602 is one of more than 100 coins that have been excavated from the site. Seventy-seven of the coins are English, and half of the English coins are silver and range in date from 1560 to 1685. Many of the English silver coins found at the James Fort site had been clipped to make change. This was a necessary and common practice in England because there was a chronic shortage of money in low denominations, making small monetary transactions harder. Clipping pieces off of coins was an easy way to make change because, unlike today, the intrinsic value of the metal was equal to the worth of the coin. For example, a halfgroat, worth 2 pence, has been halved into a penny piece; a threehalfpence has been halved to make a coin worth ¾ of a penny; and a shilling, normally worth 12 pence, has been cut into a wedge worth only about 1½ pence.

English coins were made in only gold or silver until 1613, when James I granted a patent to Lord Harrington to produce copper royal farthings. Coated with tin to look like silver, the so-called Harrington farthing was not worth the copper used to produce it and was rejected by people in England. So far 25 of these coins have been found at Jamestown. The patent for the copper farthing passed to the Duke of Lennox, and the coins continued to be made in the reign of Charles I. These coins brought enormous profits to the patent holders but were so unpopular with the general public that Parliament discontinued them in 1644. In 1636 a rose replaced the crowned harp on the farthing. Four “rose farthings” have been uncovered at the site.

Coins from Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy, and Livonia (present day Latvia) have also been found at Jamestown. European coins were acceptable currency because they were worth the weight of the gold or silver used to make them.