Medieval Chinese Coin Found in England Suggests a Vast Medieval Trade Route

A recent discovery dating to the 11th century offers hints of a world that was more connected than previously thought

11th-Century Coins
A metal detectorist discovered the coin, which dates back to the Northern Song Dynasty in China. Courtesy of Hampshire Cultural Trust

For the second time in three years, an 11th-century Chinese coin has been found in England, a possible indication that medieval trade between England and the Far East was more widespread than previously thought, according to a recent blog post by Cambridge historian Caitlin Green.

As Mark Bridge writes for the Sunday Times, the Northern Song Dynasty coin was discovered with a metal detector in a field in Hampshire, England. Dated to between 1008 and 1016 A.D., the 0.98-inch copper-alloy coin was the second medieval Chinese coin found in England; the first was found across the country in 2018 in Cheshire, per the Independent’s Jon Sharman. Other Chinese currency excavated in England dates to later periods.

When documenting the 2018 discovery, researchers at the British Museum wrote that, “It is doubtful that this is a genuine medieval find (i.e. present in the country due to trade and lost accidentally) but more likely a more recent loss from a curated collection.” But with the most recent news, Green argues that the presence of two similar coins increases the likelihood of them being genuine medieval finds.

Though losses from private collections can explain unexpected archaeological discoveries, Green points to documentary evidence that an Englishman served as an envoy from the Mongol emperor Ghengis Khan in the 1240s, which could explain the presence of the Chinese coins in England. Records also indicate that a Mongol envoy visited Edward II in 1313.

Treasure hunters uncovered both 11th-century coins near areas that have produced similar medieval artifacts. The more recent coin was unearthed about 20 miles away from the only confirmed medieval Chinese pottery in England, a fragment of blue and white porcelain from a small cup or bowl, per the Times. Other nearby uncoverings included a coin of King John minted between 1205 and 1207 and two 16th-century coins. Explorers dug up the 2018 discovery in a group of 24 finds, including two Roman coins; two late medieval lead weights; and 15 post-medieval artifacts, dating to the 16th to 18th centuries, such as coins of Elizabeth I, rings, trade weights and musket balls, according to a separate 2018 blog post.

“Such a potential 13th or 14th-century context for the arrival of an 11th-century Chinese coin in Britain is not only supported by the archaeological evidence, but also by documentary sources,” said Green in the 2018 blog post. “These texts make reference to both the presence of people from Britain and Ireland in East Asia and the presence of people who have, or may have, travelled from these regions in Britain during the 13th and 14th centuries.”

According to Ancient History Encyclopedia’s Mark Cartwright, the Northern Song Dynasty controlled China from 960 to 1125 A.D. During this period, China’s economy was booming: Cities like Kaifeng became known for their printing, paper, textile and porcelain industries. These goods, and many others, were sold along the Silk Road, an ancient trade route that carried items between Roman and Chinese civilizations. The Chinese exchanged a number of artifacts, such as a 14th-century vessel known as the 'Marco Polo jar', with Europeans during the Medieval era. The coins in England were likely minted during the reign of Emperor Shenzong of Song, who ruled from 1067 to 1085 A.D. and were in circulation after the dynasty ended in the 1120s, per Green’s blog post.

Many of these coins were so well-made more than 200 years later, 88 percent of Chinese coins in circulation were produced during the Northern Song era, Ancient Origins' Nathan Falde notes. The Song Dynasty coins are among more than 47,000 archaeological discoveries made in England and Wales this year, according to a statement released by the British Museum. Their value today comes in what they tell us about the era. Coins like the ones found recently, as well as the many others recorded in the Portable Antiques Scheme, which documents archaeological finds in England, indicate the degree to which global trade had reached medieval Britain.

Officials reported that Covid-19 restrictions led to an increase in finds, with many pandemic-worn Brits seeking respite outdoors. Finds included gold coins inscribed with the initials of Henry VIII’s first three wives, rare Saxon pennies and a copper Roman furniture fitting.