Tuesday, November 24, 2020

By George - It’s a Coin! The Impact of King George on Archaeology

Archaeologists use many tools in determining the age or date for an archaeological feature (ground disturbance such as wells, privies, storage pits etc.) during the investigation of an archaeological site.  Dating methods include C-14 dates, manufacturing marks on artifacts, soil stratigraphy and typologies developed by archaeologists from assembled data and artifact analysis.  For American Colonial sites, what better resource for determining the date of a feature than a coin; unless of course they are one of the many counterfeit coins either imported or produced in the colonies.  

The early colonists arriving in North America continued to use the British currency rates of pound, shilling and pence. A shortage of small coinage in England in the 17th century saw the beginning of the use of copper coins with tinplating to replace the more costly silver coins.  Copper coins without the tin- plating were soon being produced by English tradesmen without license from Parliament. They produced coinage with their own names and markings, prompting the adoption of official copper coinage in halfpennies and farthings. King Charles II established monetary increments for coinage and the practice of portraying the monarchy on the coins, the first copper coin was issued in 1672.  The reverse side was reserved for Britannia, the symbol of British strength dating to the Roman conquest in 43 AD and the Latin name for Britain.  

King George I coin, Fort Hunter (36Da159) - (From the collections of the State Museum of Pennsylvania)

The 18th century saw the reign of George -I, II and III. King George I ruled England from 1714-1727 following the death of his mother Princess Anne. His son, George II reigned from 1727-1760; he died before the end of the Seven Years’ War or the French and Indian War as it was known in the Americas. Following the death of his grandfather, George III ruled from 1760 to 1820, a period which included the end of the Seven Years’ War, the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Official British coinage issued during this period all bore portraits of each of these men.

George II, 1729-1739 (Young face), Fort Hunter (36Da159) - (From the collections of the State Museum of Pennsylvania)

Small copper currency was in high demand in the colonies and a severe shortage of coins had led to the issuing of paper notes by individual colonies in the 18th century. This paper money was printed to finance loans and enabled commerce without a reliance on British coins but was eventually banned by Parliament. The overvaluation of British coins and the supply shortage led to a surge in the production of counterfeit coins in England.  Counterfeiters would melt the coppers and mix in other metals such as lead, tin and zinc to produce the same size coin but at a lower cost, thus making a profit. Cast counterfeit coins were so prolific in England that by 1753 it was estimated that about half the circulating copper was counterfeit. The large numbers of regal English coppers, sent legally to the colonies, were quickly followed by the counterfeit ones. Commerce was flooded with these counterfeit issues which were accepted by a generally uncritical public whose only concern was that they receive full value for their copper coinage. (Coinage of the American Confederation Period, Mossman, Philip L. Coinage of the Americas Conference at the American Numismatic Society, New York, 1995). 

Philadelphia, August 23d, 1757, Minutes of the Provincial Council

The Pennsylvania Gazette of November 1753 issued a warning regarding the influx of counterfeit English Halfpence “great quantities of which we understand are lately imported”. The copper coins of King George II were last issued in 1754, no copper coins were issued by the Royal Mint until 1770 and were George III coins at that time. This long period without new coinage meant that this earlier coinage, if discovered at an archaeological site should be well worn from heavy use. Cleaning and conservation of coins recovered at Fort Hunter during our investigations is necessary to conduct further research as to their date of issue and potential identification as counterfeit currency.  Counterfeiters were producing coins with the portraits of George facing the opposite direction, missing dates, wrong dates and of varying weights. Anti-counterfeiting laws were enacted but the abundance of counterfeit monies in circulation and being imported made it difficult to control. This continued until the American Revolution when the shortage of copper led to the melting of counterfeit coins and a devaluation of British currency. 

Counterfeit George II, 1757 Fort Morris (36Cu202) - (From the collections of the State Museum of Pennsylvania)

As indicated above, identifying these counterfeit coins could be difficult due to the “crafty” workmanship. Despite efforts to control these counterfeits, they remained in circulation for extended periods and if dates were included, they often were worn and difficult to read.   Archaeologists are dealing with coins that have been exposed to acids in the soil and other factors that impact preservation, often defying identification. In the case of the George coins research of issue dates, weight and size is crucial to identifying the real coins vs. the counterfeits.  The British Museum has assembled much of this data and, with the aid of digitization of collections, we are able to conduct comparative research. The following compiled dates reflects the range of years that the Royal Mint issued coinage for the three George’s.

                                            Halfpenny Coins

George I; issue dates

1717-1718 type 1                1719-1724 type 2

George II

1729-1739 (young face)    1740-1754 (old face)

George III


Coinage from Camp Security (36Yo46) - (From the collections of the State Museum of Pennsylvania)

The recovery of King George coins on our archeological sites include Native American village sites such as Conestoga Town (36La52) 1690-1763 , French & Indian War sites to include Fort Morris (36Cu202) and Fort Hunter (36Da159), Ephrata Cloister (36La981) a celibate community begun in 1732 and Camp Security (36Yo46) a Revolutionary War Prison Camp. These coins have all contributed to our understanding of the sites on which they were recovered and yes, even those counterfeit coins contribute to the archaeological record and reveal another facet of our past.

We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about these coins and invite you to visit some of our previous blogs which share images and information of these and other coins.



Minutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania (Colony) Provincial council. Minutes. United States: J. Severns, 1851.

Noel Hume, Ivor. A guide to artifacts of colonial America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, Incorporated, 2001.

https://coins.nd.edu/; British Coinage Circulating in the Colonies



For more information, visit PAarchaeology.state.pa.us or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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