After I’d spontaneously forgotten my credit-card PIN, I decided take a couple of hours out to recharge my batteries and replace all those blown fuses. I’ve got a soft spot for the recently rebuilt Ashmolean – although there are very few rooms left that I haven’t at least passed through – so it made sense to dump my bag and coat in their free lockers and wander around their remoter, less frequented exhibits.
In the far left corner are the Ashmolean’s prehistory exhibits: suitably dark, cool and half forgotten. They proceed gradually from “real prehistory” – a global lack of written records – to that partial prehistory, when empires had already begun recording their histories, but only to cover details of their own lands and of those that fought against them. Stone age, bronze age, iron age: suitably, the story is told through material artefacts that suit each age, with parallel threads of amber, precious stones and gold. And it was gold – in the form of coins – that really surprised me.
What I hadn’t realised was that coinage appeared in Britain as early as 120-100BC. Early British coins originally had what we’d call “Celtic” designs on them, but over time they became more Roman-looking, and started to include Celtic words in Roman script, because even before conquest “Rome” had become synonymous with “authority”. A weird hybrid coin, found in Abingdon in 1900 (PDF) detailed in Latin script the name of the Celtic king Tascio, followed by the old Celtic word for “king”: “TASCIO RICON”.
Why were early British coinage practice, and eventually design, influenced by Roman coinage and trading practices? Because British tribes were already trading with the Roman empire. Suddenly Julius Caesar’s abortive “invasions” of 54 and 55 BC no longer seem as adventurous I had earlier thought: Britain was no longer any kind of terra incognita by then; Caesar was effectively “invading” ancient Rome’s regularly visited bijou Celtic knick-knack emporium.
Thinking about all this I felt like, while I still had a museum floor plan with me, I had nonetheless suddenly gone through a process of reorienting myself. There in the calm, quiet half-light, my compass spun; and somewhere deep inside, a replacement fuse clicked into place.