It was relatively common practice to cut coinage down to make small change in the 17th, 18th, and even 19th centuries, and archaeologists at Jamestown have recovered several cut coins. Finding cut coins can be frustrating, especially when, as in this fragment, most of the legend, the date, and much of the imagery are missing. If we look closely, however, several clues helped identify this coin.
On the obverse, the back of a man’s head wearing a laurel wreath and an ear indicates that the bust is facing right. A Roman numeral “I” followed by a dot is all that remains of a legend that once encircled the bust. Uncut, the legend included the name of the King depicted and its production date.
The reverse depicts a partial image of a royal crown surmounting a coat of arms. A dot is all that remains of the legend. If the coin were complete, it would include the coin’s denomination, a mint mark indicating its place of manufacture, the mark of the assayer who checked its purity and weight, and the name of the country.
And finally, the edge of the coin is decorated with a design of circles and rectangles, which was produced as it was milled. In addition to being simply decorative, this design was an anti-counterfeiting measure and an attempt to control how the coin was cut.
These characteristics indicate that this coin fragment is a cut piece of a Spanish eight reale, also called a piece of eight! Its size is another clue to its identification, for if it were complete, it would have been large – about an inch and a half in diameter. The eight reale is the largest silver coin that the Spanish produced. Milled eight reales weighed just over 27 grams; this cut fragment weighs just over three grams. Thus, it is roughly 1/8 of the total weight of an eight reale.
The bust is most likely King Carlos III or IV. Bust-style milled reales were only produced from 1772-1825, and the Roman numeral “I” on the obverse could be the last digit of “III” for Carlos III, or “IIII” – the numerals used for Carlos IV on coinage. Although we can’t be sure, in comparing this coin with intact examples, it is likely a Carlos IIII eight reale minted in Mexico City around 1790.
A total of 10 smaller denomination reales have been found at Jamestown, including a Philip IV cob half-reale and a Philip V milled two-reale. This is the only eight reale that Jamestown Rediscovery has recovered.
Spanish reales were legal tender in the United States until they were banned by the U.S. Coinage Act of 1857, long after the establishment of the U.S. Mint in 1792. Spanish coins were popular among many international coins circulating during the United States’ early years, valued because of their standard silver content. When the Coinage Act of 1792 was passed, Congress even based the denominational breakdown of new U.S. coins on the system established by the Spanish. Although this coin dates only about 100 years after the capital moved away from Jamestown, someone who lived or worked nearby likely came to the Island as an early visitor to see the spot where even then, events that occurred here may have seemed like far-off history. By accidentally dropping this coin, that early visitor became part of the history of Jamestown themselves!