A coin that was deliberately placed under the main mast of HMS Victory has been discovered during conservation work by the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN). The ship, which is dry-docked in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, is best known as Admiral Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), but the coin is thought to date to 1894, raising questions about the tradition of using coins in this way.
The copper-alloy coin was found by the NMRN’s Head of Conservation, Diana Davis, in the upper layer of a metal shim wedged between the mast and its base plate. Diana told CA that, while the coin was corroded, she was able to distinguish ‘F-A-R-T-H-’, indicating the coin was a farthing. Following cleaning, a lighthouse could also be seen to the left of Britannia on the reverse. ‘The lighthouse detail disappears from the 1895 and later farthings, so it is likely the coin dates to 1894, chosen to mark the date of the mast’s insertion,’ explained Rosemary Thornber, HMS Victory’s Principal Heritage Advisor.
Similarly located coins have been found in Roman shipwrecks, though perhaps with a different purpose. Former City of London Archaeologist Dr Peter Marsden discovered a bronze coin in the mast-step socket of the 2nd-century AD Blackfriars ship in 1962 (see CA 333). Peter told CA that the coin, minted in Rome in AD 88 or 89, ‘was very worn’ and that it was found ‘in a little recess, with the reverse uppermost, with the figure of Fortuna holding a rudder.’ Fortuna was the Roman goddess of luck, so Peter interpreted this coin as being intended ‘to wish the vessel good luck on its voyages’.
Over a dozen Roman ‘mast-step’ coins have been catalogued in The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology by Dr Deborah Carlson, Associate Professor in Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University and President of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology. Deborah told CA that the Roman custom of placing coins in mast-steps appears to be ‘a maritime application of a much broader and longer religious tradition’ stretching back at least to ancient Greece. ‘I think we can tie [this custom] to what are called “foundation coins”,’ she said. These were placed in the foundations of Greek temples to consecrate them, and the phenomenon expanded into domestic contexts under the Romans, who brought cult practices ‘into the house,’ Deborah said. ‘A ship, really, for a sailor, was like a home at sea, so he was consecrating his home,’ she explained, adding that the custom probably ‘meant different things to different cultures at different times.’
The ‘1894’ farthing differs from ancient examples in that it post-dates the construction of the ship on which it was found. ‘Mostly, the coins we find in ancient shipwrecks are earlier than the wreck itself,’ Deborah said. The suggested year of issue in fact corresponds with the year Victory inherited metal masts from decommissioned frigate HMS Shah. These ‘last remaining pieces’ of that vessel are considered ‘the only surviving iron masts of the 19th century still in use’, Rosemary said. So the farthing was perhaps used as a ‘time-marker’, Diana said, because whoever inserted it ‘will have had a sense of the historical significance of putting those masts in.’ The coin is on display in HMS Victory: The Nation’s Flagship, opposite the ship.