A Chinese coin issued during the Middle Ages has been discovered – somewhat unexpectedly – in the United Kingdom. It’s unclear how this medieval Chinese relic ended up in southern England, but it could hint that centuries-old links between Europe and China were much more extensive than previously thought.
The 25-millimeter (0.98-inch) copper-alloy coin is from the Song dynasty and was first issued between 1008 to 1016 CE under the Dazhong Xiangfu reign of Emperor Zhenzong, although it likely stayed in circulation for centuries after. Inscribed on just one side, the circular coin features a square hole in the middle, which allowed the coins to be stringed together.
Most unusually, it was unearthed at Buriton in Hampshire, around 14 kilometers (9 miles) from the southern coast of the UK. It’s not totally clear whether the coin was dropped by a modern collector or medieval rambler. However, some historians have some well-founded suspicions that the coin was most likely dropped at some point during the Middle Ages.
For one, the coin was discovered in a field that was full of Medieval artifacts, including a coin of King John minted at London in 1205–7, a cut farthing coin dating between 1180 to 1247, fragments of medieval or early post-medieval vessels, and two 16th century coins. Furthermore, archeologists have previously discovered another Northern Song dynasty coin in England. The newly discovered coin was also found in the same area as the only confirmed medieval imported Chinese pottery from the 14th century.
Since it's relatively close to the coast, it's not a stretch of the imagination to believe this area had some tight ties to global shipping routes. It’s also noteworthy that Chinese artifacts have been found across much of the world, namely along the coastlines of India, the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa, and the Mediterranean.
There’s evidence of Europe and China mingling much further back than this, however. For example, it’s common knowledge that wealthy Romans enjoyed silk from the Han Empire of China. The famous Silk Road was also a network of trade routes that linked goods, ideas, and pathogens between Southern Europe and East Asia, via South Asia, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula, and East Africa.
While the discovery of this Medieval Chinese token in the UK is not a totally unexpected find, it brings a very personal touch to our understanding of human history. Who would have thought this humble coin would be smelted in the middle of China, be passed between sailors from across the world, and end up in the fields of southern England.