BMCR 2018.05.14

Making a Mint: Comparative Studies in Late Iron Age Coin Mould. Archaeopress archaeology

, Making a Mint: Comparative Studies in Late Iron Age Coin Mould. Archaeopress archaeology. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2017. xii, 198. ISBN 9781784914080. £34.00.

[Table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

The archaeological record of late Iron Age Europe reveals the ubiquity of pellet moulds among settlements north of the Roman Empire.1 They are characterized as baked clay trays containing multiple rows of crudely-shaped cavities of equivalent diameter and depth. Scholarly consensus maintains that they operated in some process involving molten metal since most assemblages retain both metal residue and vitrification of the clay surface. This has led some scholars to argue that these artifacts were not used as moulds but as some form of crucible. Some rarer specimens even preserve small metal pellets fused accidentally inside the clay holes, likely due to an improper reduction phase. What remains uncertain, however, is why Iron Age societies needed to work molten metal in such a fashion. Some propose that the primary function of the clay tray moulds was to produce homogenous metal pellets for use in general metalsmithing; others suggest the clay trays were used in the production of coin blanks (flans).

Most scholarship, however, tends to offer only passing and incidental comment on their overall function, and passes over deeper issues regarding morphology and manufacture. These studies largely focus on metallurgical analyses of preserved residue to identify the metals (copper-alloy, silver, and in rare cases gold) worked within a given assemblage. Thus, most scholars view pellet moulds as a means to an end and fail to treat them as artifacts in themselves. Moreover, radical inconsistency exists within the recording practices adopted by archaeologists in their documentation of mould finds. The result is a patchwork of incongruent data insufficient to undertake even small-scale comparative study.

Mark Landon’s monograph, Making a Mint, offers not only a much-needed (re)assessment of late Iron Age pellet mould, but also provides a welcome guide for remedying their recording practice, which the author has rightly noted has been a chief reason for stagnation in the field and a continual hindrance to progress within the discipline.

His book derives from the discovery in 2006 of a large deposit (10 kg) of mould fragments along the banks of the River Rib near the late Iron Age fort complex at Braughing-Puckeridge in Hertfordshire. It was following this discovery that Landon became painfully aware of the lack of recording protocol for pellet mould, hence, he took on the task to devise one. Consequently, a major aim of this monograph is “to evolve a recording protocol for pellet mould designed to facilitate comparative work, and to address the major issues in the study of the manufacture and use of pellet mould” (p. 2). Following a brief outline of the conditions of the River Rib deposit and subsequent neighboring finds, the remainder of Landon’s first chapter provides an overview of the defining characteristics of pellet moulds and the presumed method of their use by Iron Age metalsmiths.

Landon’s second chapter presents a detailed chronological review of literature on the subject from 1959–2008. It provides a valuable survey to readers unfamiliar with existing literature and the state of the scholarship. He covers a wide bibliography, ranging from short excavation field reports to more developed analytic studies. Though his attention centers on pellet mould finds in Britain, he does provide an assessment of Tournaire et al.2 on finds from France, one of the most influential works on pellet moulds. Even so, one must wonder if 47 paragraphs are necessary to summarize an 18-page article.

His assessment of the literature is not without other problems. First, Landon seems unaware of any scholarship not produced in English, although much has been written by French and German scholars on the subject of Iron Age British coin manufacture. Second, it is difficult to justify the absence of any scholarship produced in the eight years preceding the monograph’s publication. This is an issue that extends beyond Chapter Two and affects the work as a whole. In fact, aside from one (unpublished) field report dated to 2014, the only references to anything published after 2008 are to the author’s own publications.

By contrast, the next chapter is exceptionally strong. It is here that Landon presents his efficient and resourceful classification system for pellet mould finds. He rightly stresses that the “lack of a standard procedure has been the greatest obstacle to progress in the field of pellet mould studies during the last fifty years” (p. 18). Landon has overlooked no detail in the construction of a recording protocol for pellet moulds. He has constructed a system that, if followed as prescribed, not only will provide scholars with the long-missing tool needed to address questions posed within the existing literature but also will act as a mainspring for new discoveries. Landon’s recording protocol consists of nineteen attributes. Yet, his quixotic list of 329 confusingly similar recording codes (pp. 33–34) for use in a ‘notes’ section on a recording card serve to drastically overcomplicate the recording process. However, the relevance of his system may be somewhat dated shortly after its proposition, as it remains to be seen how well it can adapt to an increasingly digital documentation environment.

In fact, Landon’s meticulous recording procedure reveals a previously unknown fact about larger pellet mould assemblages: far fewer corner or edge fragments are known than previously assumed, some of which appear to have been included in deliberate burials. Thus, what is suggested is either selective removal of these pieces or their continued use after fracture until complete exhaustion or total breakage. While Landon theorizes that the removal and (selective) deposit of corner and edge fragments may have been a part of some religious experience, he ultimately concedes that “whether the coin mould and its accompanying artefacts were offerings to propitiate these powers (i.e., the underworld gods), or the seeds of future prosperity relying on these powers for germination, we cannot say” (p. 182). It is unfortunate that the more pragmatic interpretation is not considered: the corner and edge fragments are less common in the archaeological record since they were still able to be used for metalsmithing until destroyed. This makes a great deal of sense from a manufacturing perspective, as an edge or corner portion of a broken mould assemblage will be far easier and safer for Iron Age metalsmiths to use than a standalone ‘middle’ piece as they are easier to grip from the edge.

With a recording protocol established, Landon then puts it to the test as he examines eight select assemblages from Britain for what is the first comparative study of pellet moulds. These studies, comprising chapters four through eleven, provide numerous fresh insights into a variety of aspects of mould use, manufacture, and morphology. We should be grateful that a major aim of his work is to illuminate the social and economic context of mould production, as Landon has a keen eye for previously unnoticed evidence among the archaeological material. For example, his examination of the Braughing/Puckeridge assemblage revealed a variety of impressions on the bases of many moulds, previously undetected. These markings appear to be grass seed stalks that have been preserved in the clay, presumably when the trays were set out in the sun to dry on the substrate. Landon argues that these marks suggest that the clay trays were produced in late summer or early autumn based on the state of the grass stalks at the time of their impression in the clay, though all that can be said with certainty is that late summer or early autumn is when the grass was harvested for later use in the baking process. Additionally, Landon’s argument that late summer or early autumn is to be expected from an agrarian society, as this season is when there is time available for activities not directly related to farming, is perhaps overly simplistic.

Overall, Landon’s comparative analysis of late Iron Age British pellet moulds is successful in providing compelling solutions to many existing questions in the scholarship. For instance, he convincingly demonstrates that a variety of methods were used in mould construction. Of interest is his finding that a stark divide existed between moulds produced in Britain and those from continental Europe. That British moulds appear to have had their holes made individually while some found in France used “multi-pronged dibbers” raises deeper questions that only further comparative analyses (especially with continental finds) can clarify.

Landon’s work is not without problems, as the monograph is in serious need of extensive edits and corrections that go much further than the occasional grammatical error. First, there are formatting errors that cause subsection titles to be placed in the running text in the paragraph they are intended to precede, often without spacing. Second, there are numerous punctuation errors in the footnotes. More seriously, many footnotes are unmarked, making their correspondence with the text impossible to sort out. In such cases, the footnote itself within the footer is also unnumbered: the first word of the note appears in superscript, presumably replacing the digit (e.g., footnotes 30, 34–38, and 40 [p. 24–25]).

The work contains 2 tables, 204 figures and graphs, 53 black and white photographs, 2 color photographs, and 2 appendixes. It is unfortunate that the book does not have an index.

Altogether Landon’s work is a brilliant example of archaeological scholarship, which substantially advances not only studies of pellet moulds for pre-Roman Britain, but also the state of research of late Iron Age archaeology broadly concerned. One can hope that similar comparative studies of pellet moulds found outside Britain are on the horizon.

Table of Contents

List of Figures, v–ix
Acknowledgements, xi
Chapter 1: Starting Point, 1–4
Chapter 2: The Literature, 5–17
Chapter 3: Recording Coin Mould: Aims and Methodology, 18–34
Chapter 4: The Henderson Collection (Braughing) Coin Mould Assemblage, 35–45
Chapter 5: The Ford Bridge (Braughing) Assemblage, 46–61
Chapter 6: The Puckeridge Assemblage, 62–82
Chapter 7: The Wickham Kennels Assemblage, 83–92
Chapter 8: Small Finds from Braughing/Puckeridge, 93–106
Chapter 9: The Bagendon Study Sample, 107–122
Chapter 10: Coin Mould from Old Sleaford in the British Museum, 123–133
Chapter 11: The Turners Hall Farm Assemblage, 134–147
Chapter 12: Conclusion, 148–184
Appendix: Some Experiments in the Manufacture of Coin Mould, 185–195
Appendix II: A List of British Find-Sites, 196–197
Bibliography, 198–199


1. Two terminological issues ought to be addressed at the outset of this review. First, scholars continue to debate the role of these artifacts within the Iron Age societies that created them and commonly favor the generic label of ‘pellet mould’ when referencing them. The generic use of ‘pellet mould’ by scholars on either side of the debate not only serves to acknowledge a lack of scholarly consensus with regards to their original purpose, but also acknowledges that the purpose of these artifacts was almost certainly not one-dimensional. Though Landon favors the loaded term ‘coin mould,’ the reviewer will use the conventional and customary ‘pellet mould.’ Second, Landon’s unusual preference to refer to these artifacts as ‘mould’ when both referring to their material class (like ‘ware’) and when referring to them as individual items (both singular and plural) will also not be used for this review.

2. Tournaire, J., et al. 1982. “Iron Age Coin Moulds from France.” Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 48: 417–435.