Careful observation of dies plays so important a part in the study of mediaeval coins, that a thorough understanding of the methods of the die-sinker is an important asset in the mindset of the numismatist. Owing, perhaps, to the absence of any readily accessible information many erroneous ideas on the subject are very prevalent. It may therefore become useful for coin collectors and detectorists alike to understand what the process entailed.
A common error is the supposition that dies in mediaeval times were cut directly upon a prepared piece of metal, in the same manner as a seal or intaglio. Although this method may have been employed on rare occasions, it was certainly not often resorted to. A die was usually made by the use of a number of irons or punches, each cut to the requisite shape to produce some portion of the design ; and these were punched by the die-sinker into the prepared piece of metal in such fashion as eventually to make up the complete die.
Above you can see a number of dies which were used back in the 13th and 14th century. The bottom part with the spike would have been hit into a large timber trunk for stability. In between the two parts would be a silver disc and the top part of the die would be hit hard against the bottom with a hammer. This is what gave the name to hammered coins. Occasionally the coin would become stuck to the die and this is what would be called a brockerage - brockage errors are caused when an already minted coin sticks to the coin die and impresses onto another coin.
The die it is proposed to utilise for purposes of demonstration is that of an early short-cross penny in which the design and manner of executing it are both of a most simple character. Although the king's head is frankly barbarous, and the lettering is of the most primitive description, it may safely be asserted that the methods employed in the manufacture of dies of this class were, in the main, used throughout the Saxon, Norman and Plantagenet periods. As art advanced the component parts became more numerous and elaborate. The king's crown, for instance, was no longer represented by a mere row of dots, but was gracefully and carefully shaped. That it was put in separately is often apparent from the rakish angle at which it is sometimes placed on the king's head. The hair on later coins instead of being composed of a couple of crescents is well and realistically formed, but that it also was made from separate irons is proved by certain coins of Edward I., from which the hair has been entirely omitted.
Below you may find useful what was entailed in producing a short cross die and trust that a reference to the above illustration may help to make my meaning clear. It shows an enlarged photographic reproduction of an
early short-cross penny (A), together with a drawing of the same coin showing its component parts (B). Below are also reproduced individual drawings of each of these showing the various tools used
by the die-sinker in his work.
For purposes of demonstration it is proposed to credit the diesinker with the possession of not more than twelve different irons. It is probable that he had actually rather more variety in the matter of crescents and pellets of varied size and shape, but it will be seen that even if he were reduced to a dozen simple tools, it is possible to turn out a die having all the characteristics of a short-cross coin. The twelve irons which it is proposed to allow the workman are as follows :
1. A large and straight upright, slightly tapered at either end.
2. A similar upright, but smaller.
3. A large crescent for backs of e, ct, etc.
4. A smaller crescent for hair, eyebrows, loop of R, portions of
S, etc. .
5. A large pellet.
6. A smaller pellet.
7. A still smaller pellet of irregular shape for the king's beard.
8. A thin crescent for sleeve and neck.
9. An annulet for eyes.
10. A piece for the mouth.
11. A piece for the hand.
12. A large and slightly curved iron for making the inner circle.
We will now imagine the die-sinker with such a set of irons and endeavour to follow him in his task. He would probably begin by tracing with a compass upon the face of the future clie two circles, one to represent the inner, the other the outer circle. These circles would then be definitely indicated, the former by several strokes of the large curved iron (No. 12), the latter by a series of clots, punched in close together with one of his pellet irons (No. 6). The inner circle being now ready to receive the royal effigy, the crown would be quickly produced with a row of large-sized dots (No. 5), surmounted by a group of three (No. 5) united by small strokes (No. 2), to stand for the central ornament. Two shorter curves (No. 4) would do duty for the eyebrows and again for the hair. A single stroke of the larger straight iron (No. 1), with two pellets (No. 6), to form the nostrils, would suffice for the nose, and beneath this would be placed the mouth, punched in with its own special tool (No. 10). The neck would be indicated by a blow from thethinnest curve (No. 8) at either side, and this, with two annulets for eyes (No. 9), and a sprinkling of pellets (Nos. 6 and 7) to form the beard, would complete the royal portrait. The sceptre could then be put in with three strokes of the large-sized upright (No. 1), a single pearl (No. 5), to finish its base, and four united to make the jewelled head in the same manner as the central ornament of the crown. The hand (No. 11) being put in in its proper place, two thin curves (No. 8), to indicate the sleeve would now complete the general design.
The inscription, which our artist would be careful to put in retrograde, would be produced in the following simple fashion :—
This completes the obverse die, and that for the reverse could be produced with the same implements with equal facility. It will be realised that a die of this description could be made very quickly, and when the enormous output of coins which occurred at certain periods is considered, it is evident that some other method than that of laboriously engraving each die must have been in use. There is ample evidence that the cutting of irons was a jealously guarded privilege.