This Spanish reale, found by Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists in May 2017, is one of only three pillar and wave type Spanish reales in the collection. It was minted in 1664 near the end of King Philip IV’s reign (1621-1665). Because the coin was found in soils on the interior of today’s Memorial Church, the coin may have fallen out of a church-goer’s pocket as they attended services in Jamestown’s brick church. Perhaps it was intended as a tithe. Or, the coin may have been a casualty of the 1676 events of Bacon’s Rebellion, when Jamestown’s brick church was burned.
On the obverse side, there is a central Jerusalem cross with a castle or rampant lion in each quadrant. The P on the outside of the cross denotes the Potosí, Bolivia mint and the E identifies the assayer, Antonio de Erqueta, whose job it was to test the coins to ensure they were standardized for circulation. There would have also been a denomination at the top of the cross, but it is too worn to see.
The coin derives its name from the image on the reverse, which depicts the two Pillars of Hercules with four upward cresting waves symbolizing the Atlantic Ocean underneath. The inscription that appears is the Latin PLVS VLTRA translating to “farther beyond”, reminding the holder that there is more to explore across the Atlantic Ocean. At the top of the pillars should be additional mint, denomination, and assayer’s marks, but it is stamped off center and too worn towards the outer margin markings.
Mint, assayer, and denomination markings appeared on both sides of the coin because by the 1640s the quality of Spanish silver reales was notably low, causing the Spanish monarchy to conduct an investigation into the South American mints. The investigation discovered that the Potosí mint was producing fraudulent currency, a revelation now known as the Great Potosí Mint Fraud of 1649. Investigators determined that Potosí reales, decreed by the King to contain 93% silver, were comprised of only 75% silver. This discovery led to the executions of multiple mint workers, silver merchants, and the Spanish leader of Potosí. The fraud led to a global panic with all of Spain’s trade partners and the discreditation of Spanish currency in Europe for a time. Eventually this scandal led to the redesign of all Spanish currency produced in the Americas, and in the 1650s the pillar and wave reale of this design began to be minted.
The direction of the waves on the reverse side provides a clue to the location where some silver reales were produced. Upward cresting waves, like the ones seen on this reale can be associated with mints in multiple Central and South American mints. However, another silver reale in the Jamestown collection includes waves that crest downwards (see image below). The downward cresting waves are associated with only the Lima, Peru mint. Only two of the three pillar and wave type reales are pictured because the third is very worn and not much information can be discerned from it.