From Julius Caesar to Boadicea: a century of Icenian coins

Iron Age coins are not just currency: they are miniature works of art. Carly Hilts visited the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to see a new special display exploring the imagery of the Iceni.

The Iceni – inhabitants of Iron Age East Anglia – are best known for the ill-fated uprising against Roman occupation that was led by their queen, Boudica (also known as Boadicea), c.AD 60/61. Really, though, they should be renowned for their creative powers just as much as for their destruction of three Roman towns: in particular, the enigmatic artistry of their coins, which developed a distinctive repertoire of motifs depicting stylised birds and beasts – wolves, sinuous horses, bristling boars – as well as human faces hidden amid complex abstract patterns.

Icenian coins are known for their intricate imagery. This silver unit, c.AD 25, depicts a torc and a boar on the obverse, and a prancing horse on the reverse.

Despite their aesthetic appeal, coins are often studied separately from the rest of Iron Age art and material culture, and it is to bring them back into this wider context that Dr Courtney Nimura has curated a new special display in the Ashmolean Museum’s Money Gallery. Supported by a public engagement grant from the University of Oxford, From Julius Caesar to Boadicea: a century of Icenian coins showcases highlights from a 1,085-strong collection recently donated by Dr John Talbot, a leading expert on coins of the Iceni (see CA 341 for more on his research). It represents an important addition to this field of study – and a timely one, being acquired during the centenary year of the Heberden Coin Room, the coin department of the Ashmolean. The coins on show are strikingly small, and each is paired with an Iron Age artefact reflecting an element of its intricate design.

Take, for example, the silver ‘Boar Horse’ unit. Dating to c.AD 15-25, it is stamped with a highly stylised boar, which is complemented by a figurine of the same animal that was found on the Gower Peninsula. Meanwhile, a silver ‘Ale Scala’ unit (c.AD 25), depicting another boar and a torc, is shown alongside an electrum neck-ring from Ulceby in Lincolnshire, while coins bearing horse motifs are placed next to a piece of highly decorative riding equipment. These pairings not only help to make sense of the miniature motifs, but also place the coins firmly within the embrace of Iron Age art. The inclusion of the Wittenham sword (120 BC-AD 43), with its iron blade enclosed in a bronze scabbard adorned with La Tène-style decoration, adds to this picture of aesthetic ideas expanding across diverse object types.

Another silver unit, c.30 BC, showing a human head with distinctive locks of hair; when the coin is rotated, the front lock forms a second eye, revealing a hidden face.

The display also highlights how cutting-edge technology – including ultra high-resolution photography and Reflectance Transformation Imaging – is helping us to understand this imagery in ever-greater detail. Peter Walters, in the University of Oxford’s Department of Engineering Science, has used laser scans and 3D printing to create three replica coins, ten times enlarged, so that visitors can pore over their designs more easily. One has been mounted at an angle to reveal an Iron Age optical illusion in its imagery: when the original coin is turned in your hands, a ‘hidden’ face emerges. Like these hidden features, thanks to this innovative display, the Iceni’s artistic imagination – and the ingenuity with which it was expressed – becomes perfectly clear.

Further information
From Julius Caesar to Boadicea: a century of Icenian coins runs until 2 October 2022. Entry to the Ashmolean Museum (and the special display) is free. For more details, see www.ashmolean.org/event/from-julius-caesar-to-boadicea.

The Talbot collection will be published on the Heberden Coin Room’s website (https://hcr.ashmus.ox.ac.uk), with links to the recently launched Iron Age Coins in Britain and Celtic Coin Index Digital websites (see CA 386 for more on these).
All images: Ian R Cartwright, Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford.