Ringing the Changes: When Terminology Matters

Article excerpt

Under the old Treasure Trove laws, small, single items of precious metal were frequently dismissed by Coroners as casual losses (although they still had to be reported). This meant that numbers of small items never went to inquest, as one of the criteria for Treasure was that in all likelihood objects had been buried with the intention to recover them (the animus revertendi). This criterion was removed when the new Act was passed some five years ago. The extension of the law to cover such items has thrown up at least one problem of definition.

A later Bronze Age gold penannular ring was recently found not to be treasure at inquest, because the piece was held to be a coin. Single, stray finds of coins are not counted as treasure, whereas any ornament of precious metal at least 300 years old, small or large, is now eligible under the 1996 Treasure Act. This raises two issues. The first concerns the definition of `coin' as explained in the Code of Practice; the second is about terminology, and specifically the use of the term `ring-money' to describe such objects.

Archaeologists have commonly used `ring-money' or `tress-ring' as a form of shorthand. Others have used the terms literally, believing these objects to be either an early form of currency or hair ornaments; there is evidence for neither. The archaeology of context has been most unkind to us in their interpretation. Both usages have a long history; almost certainly, the former can be traced back to the time when somebody noticed that brass and copper manillas (FIGURE 1) looked very much like our Bronze Age penannular bracelets with expanded terminals (FIGURE 2). Manillas were used as currency in West Africa at least as long ago as the 15th century AD, and remained in use until they were banned in 1948 (Cribb 1986: figure 49).They were to become associated with the slave trade. Small ones were mass-produced in Birmingham foundries; large `king manillas' were made locally. They doubled as ornaments or currency. According to Quiggin (1949: 89), it was a shipwreck on the Irish coast in 1836 which led to comparisons being drawn between the Birmingham-made manillas which were part of its cargo and Bronze Age bracelets in Dublin Museum. Our small Bronze Age penannular rings (FIGURE 3) belong to a suite of Bronze Age gold objects, all of ornamental char acter; there is a range of differently sized rings in the ethnographic record which were used as currency. It is not difficult to imagine the adoption of a useful catch-all term such as `ring money'.


Taylor (1980: 65) refers to parallels between the small penannular rings and Egyptian wig-rings of the 18th-19th dynasties remarked upon by Hawkes, but dismisses any connection. Ridgeway (1892: 242) was keen to see these as currency. However, his book contains many highly imaginative theories.

Van Ardsell (1989: 61) erroneously includes two small Bronze Age gold rings in his Celtic coinage of Britain. …