The lead tokens of Roman Britain
Roman tokens found in Britain have previously received very little study. Discerning what form they take is key to understanding their purpose. To date the possibilities to be explored include a set of tokens bearing similarity to those from Rome, and leaden coin copies.
One form of token has been found primarily on the Thames foreshore by metal detectorists, as well as in East Anglia. They are not, however, particularly prevalent. In appearance they depict imagery similar to that found on coins. Deities feature heavily, while animals, busts and letters are also present. A variety of objects are also depicted, such as modii (a dry measure for products such as corn), palm fronds and boats. The imagery is, however, incredibly varied (plates of images from Rostovtzeff’s publication can be found here.
It is evident that those found here in Britain have parallels elsewhere in the Roman Empire. For example, one token found on the Thames foreshore depicts a corn modius between two stars on one side (see above left) and a goddess on the other (probably Fides carrying a plate of fruits and corn ears, see above right). Parallels to this are housed in museums in France and Rome, as is the case with other tokens found in Britain. This therefore implies that these tokens are not native solely to Britain, and are more likely to have arrived here from elsewhere, or form a part of an object type recognised and used by Rome.
Another form the tokens may take is that of leaden coin copies (see below left). A few are recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database, and it is possible that rather than trying to imitate coinage (lead after all is heavier than copper alloy and would have perhaps been obviously unauthentic when exchanging hands), they instead represent a token value. Some of the tokens on the PAS database are from Piercebridge (see below right), an assemblage which is believed to have had ritualistic significance due to its deposition over time in a river. This perhaps adds credence to the possibility that these copies had a function beyond merely being forgeries, especially as some have been folded or squeezed, thereby implying a votive significance. Tokens also form part of votive assemblages in Italy, for example in the river Garigliano.
One reason for the paucity of tokens discovered in Britain could be that they are not recognised as such. When lead corrodes it often forms a protective and stable layer, but this obscures surface detail, thereby resulting in an undiagnostic lead disc. So far, the majority of the known tokens have been discovered by metal detectorists, rather than through excavation (the exception is a token found in the drains of the baths at Caerleon). If more tokens come to light perhaps their findspots and distribution will help to illuminate their purpose.
Rostowzew, M. (1903). Tesserarum urbis romae et suburbi. St. Petersburg. https://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/383971 (YORYM-AF42B3) https://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/100215 (NCL-125BD7)