• mast-step;
  • coin;
  • Roman;
  • shipwreck;
  • votive


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The ‘meaning’ of mast-step coins
  4. Mast-step coins as foundation coins
  5. Conclusion
  6. Acknowledgments
  7. References

The archaeological evidence of more than a dozen ancient shipwrecks indicates that the tradition of placing a coin inside the mast-step of a ship's hold probably originated with the Romans. The mast-step coin phenomenon, which persisted through the Middle Ages and continues in various forms today, has often been characterized according to the modern concept of ‘luck’. The custom was, however, not one of an exclusively maritime nature; rather, it was ultimately derived from a long-standing religious tradition that can be traced back to the consecration of the earliest Greek temples.

© 2007 The Author

More than four decades ago, archaeologist Peter Marsden (1965) addressed the ancient practice of placing a coin under the foot of the mast inside the socket of a ship's mast-step, a large wooden block installed atop the keel and floor timbers, near the centre of a vessel (Fig. 1). Marsden, who was then engaged in the publication of the Blackfriars ship from the River Thames in London, equated the ancient phenomenon of the mast-step coin to the modern tradition of the ‘luck coin’ still prevalent in shipyards around the world. His survey of London shipwrights confirmed that the use of ‘luck coins’ was alive and well in Britain during the early-20th century, and Edoardo Riccardi has observed that the same custom was practised in the shipyards of Bodrum, Turkey as recently as 1982 (1993: 205). The discovery of mast-step coins in association with numerous medieval and post-medieval shipwrecks suggests that the interment of a coin in the hold, either in the mast-step mortise or along the keel, ranks among the longest-lived of ancient maritime customs.1


Figure 1. A reconstruction of the interior of the Roman ship from Madrague de Giens, showing the mast-step. (By permission of Centre Camille Jullian, CNRS-Université de Provence)

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The mast-step coin recovered from the Blackfriars ship in 1962 is an Imperial bronze as (Fig. 2), which represented the base monetary unit of ancient Rome, and consequently ranked among the lowest denominations of Roman coinage. Issued during the reign of the emperor Domitian in AD 88 or 89, it features a portrait of the emperor on the obverse and an image of the goddess Fortuna, holding a steering-oar, on the reverse (Fig. 3). Marsden (1994: 49) theorized that the Blackfriars coin ‘had presumably been chosen for its appropriate reverse type in the hope that it would bring good fortune to the ship’, though it is worth noting that Fortuna was a standard member of the Roman pantheon and a particularly popular element of Imperial numismatic iconography, often invoked to protect the emperor on his return to Rome, whether from over sea (the goddess accompanied by a steering-oar) or by land (with the wheel, placed either beside the goddess or beneath her throne). Thus, while the assimilation of the goddess Fortuna with the modern concept of Lady Luck is both fitting and compelling (Göttlicher, 1981), a survey of the archaeological and literary evidence suggests that the deliberate deposition of a coin in a ship's mast-step represents one small aspect of a widespread and very ancient cultural tradition dating back at least to the consecration of the earliest Greek temples.


Figure 2. The mast-step coin from the Blackfriars Ship, in situ. (By permission of the Museum of London Archaeology Service)

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Figure 3. Close-up of the mast-step coin, reverse side up, from the Blackfriars Ship. (By permission of the Museum of London Archaeology Service)

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To date, mast-step coins have been found in more than a dozen ancient shipwrecks, from the 2nd century BC to the 4th century AD (Table 1). The chronological and geographical span represented by the existing corpus suggests that this ancient tradition expanded and travelled with the Romans. The Blackfriars ship is an important illustration of such cultural diffusion, inasmuch as the vessel belongs to a distinctly non-Mediterranean, and probably Celtic, tradition of naval construction (Marsden, 1967: 34–5; Steffy, 1994: 76–7). On many wrecks (Titan, Cavaliere, Diano Marina, Madrague de Giens), the bronze coins were so corroded as to be illegible, but where they survive, a legible mast-step coin provides an important terminus post quem for the shipwreck, particularly in the absence of securely-datable artefacts. Published here for the first time is the mast-step coin from the Roman shipwreck at Cap del Volt, Spain (Fig. 4), now housed in the Centre d’Arqueologia Subaquàtica de Catalunya in Girona. Though much eroded, the reverse of this coin shares distinct similarities with a type minted at nearby Saguntum, which features a helmeted horseman carrying a spear, and a five-pointed star in the field above (Fig. 5).4

Table 1. Known shipwrecks with mast-step coins, sorted chronologically by wreck date
ShipwreckWreck dateCoin(s)Coin dateObverseReverseReference
Chrétienne A (FRA)150–100 BC(1) bronze of Punic Pantelleria217–50 BC Female Egyptian headPhoenician legend in wreathDumas, 1964: 121; pl. 52
Spargi (ITA)120–100 BC(1) unknownUnknownUnknownUnknownParker, 1992: 410
Cavaliere (FRA)c.100 BC(3) bronzeUnknownIllegibleIllegibleCharlin et al., 1978: 45
Madrague de Giens (FRA)70–50 BC(1) bronze asc.187–155 BCIllegibleIllegibleTchernia et al., 1978: 16
Planier A (FRA)c.50 BC(1) of Cese, Iberia150–100 BCMale head with cornucopiaHorseman with palm leaf and CE-SE legendParker, 1992: 313; Liou and Rouquette, 1983: no. 324
Titan (FRA)50–45 BC(1) semi-uncial bronze asafter 89 BCIllegibleShip's prow facing rightGianfrotta and Pomey, 1981: 233; see note [2]
Cap del Volt (ESP)10 BC–AD 5(1) bronze of Saguntum (?)UnknownIllegibleHorseman with spearParker, 1992: 102–3
Diano Marina (ITA)AD 50(1) bronze (as?)UnknownIllegibleIllegiblePallares, 1996: 136
Blackfriars (GBR)AD 88–89(1) bronze as of DomitianAD 88–89Head of DomitianFortuna with steering oarMarsden, 1967: 36–7
Calanque de l’Ane I (FRA)AD 81–120(1) bronze sestertius of DomitianAD 81–96UnknownUnknownXiménès and Moerman, 1994: 109
Pointe de la Luque A (FRA)c.AD 150(2) of Hadrian (?)UnknownIllegibleIllegibleLiou, 1975: 581
Grado (ITA)c.AD 150(1) bronze (?)UnknownUnknownUnknownSee note [3]
Port Vendres A (FRA)c.AD 400(1) of ConstantineAD 307–315Head of ConstantineGenius of Roman PeopleChevalier, 1968

Figure 4. The reverse of the mast-step coin from the Cap del Volt shipwreck. (By permission of the Centre d’Arqueologia Subaquàtica de Catalunya, Girona, Spain)

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Figure 5. A coin of Saguntum (Spain), which may belong to the same reverse type as the mast-step coin from Cap del Volt. (© The Trustees of The British Museum)

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The Chrétienne A and Port Vendres A shipwrecks, which presently represent the chronological confines of the mast-step coin tradition among the Romans, postdate their mast-step coins by some 75 or 80 years, which may be an approximate indication of the age of the vessel(s), if we assume that the mast-step coin was deposited when a ship was constructed and was a relatively recent issue at the time (cf. the modern custom described by Marsden 1965: 33). But in the case of the Blackfriars ship, dendrochronological study of 11 planks indicates that the timber was felled within decades of the ship's sinking in the mid-2nd century AD, suggesting that the ship had been built relatively recently, and the much-worn coin was already old at the time it was interred in the mast-step (Marsden, 1994: 80). And yet the presence of a mast-step coin which is significantly older than the ship itself is not unusual, inasmuch as archaeological evidence indicates that Roman silver coinage often stayed in circulation for more than a century, while ‘bronze coins had potentially longer lives because, despite heavy wear, they did not disappear into the melting pots with each re-coinage’ (Harl, 1996: 257). Such, at least, is suggested by the excavators of the 1st-century-AD Port-Vendres B wreck, in which a 1st-century-BC Iberian bronze coin was found outside the mast-step; they conclude that the scarcity of small bronze coins in Spain and Gaul before the Julio-Claudian era meant that such issues were often kept in circulation for a longer period (Colls et al., 1977: 123). Thus one must guard against the tendency to assume that all mast-step coins were selected for the appropriateness of their reverse type; some may well have been chosen on the basis of availability rather than suitability.

The ‘meaning’ of mast-step coins

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The ‘meaning’ of mast-step coins
  4. Mast-step coins as foundation coins
  5. Conclusion
  6. Acknowledgments
  7. References

Modern attempts to interpret the ‘meaning’ behind mast-step coins have often approached the subject as an exclusively maritime phenomenon. Few researchers are aware that there exists a compelling corpus of contemporary numismatic material from terrestrial excavations which provides important parallels for understanding the motivation behind the tradition of mast-step coins. By turning our attention away from the rather clichéd modern convention of the luck-coin, and toward earlier archaeological and literary evidence for the deliberate deposition of ‘foundation coins’ within and beneath architectural features such as plastered walls and mosaic floors, we may come closer to understanding the inspirational context for the use of mast-step coins in the ancient world.

Michael Donderer (1984) provides the only thorough treatment of the Roman tradition of foundation coins, with a comprehensive catalogue of coins found beneath mosaic pavements and floors from 72 sites in 15 modern countries. The earliest example, from Ostia, dates from the first half of the 3rd century BC, but Donderer's data point to a marked increase in the frequency of domestic foundation-coin deposits during the 4th century AD. In addition, he cites 11 reports of coins within wall-plaster, and several unusual and intriguing illustrations of the foundation-coin tradition. One of these is a coin of Domitian discovered inside the bronze door of the Roman Senate House (Curia) during its relocation to St John the Lateran in 1660. Another is the recovery of a bronze coin from the interior of a statue of Hercules at Rome. In addition to these examples, I can add a sestertius of Claudius, ‘perfectly preserved and scarcely used’, excavated from the bottom of a cistern in the Roman forum at Valeria, Spain (pers. comm. Angel Fuentes, Depart. of Archaeology, University of Madrid; the reverse features a female personification of Spes Augusta (Augustan Hope), a type thought to have been issued after the birth of Britannicus in 41 AD), and a coin of Tiberius inside an iron shoe capping the foot of an oak piling from the Kupa River in Croatia (Roman Pannonia).5

The terrestrial tradition of foundation coins has been often marginalized by archaeologists, and the reason for their indifference seems to stem from the fact that it is difficult, and in some cases impossible, to distinguish between a coin which was intentionally deposited as a votive, and one that was simply lost. This is particularly true for coins retrieved from the substrata of building foundations, where small objects like coins have the capacity to slip undetected through the interstices of large stones. Indeed, the recipe outlined by Vitruvius (de Architectura VII.1.3) for a sound rubble foundation stipulates that gangs of men compress fist-sized stones with wooden stamps; a vigorous process that could have resulted in the occasional loss of small items like coins. However, he makes no provision for the inclusion of a foundation coin in the construction process. Of course, coins found loose in the hold of a ship are an equally ambiguous and expectedly frequent occurrence (Riccardi, 1993; Beckmann, 1998). But the survival of coins deposited in discrete, sealed contexts such as mast-steps, pavements, and doors, is now sufficiently well-documented to demonstrate that these coins reflect a deliberate and widespread custom in the Roman world, and one that was appropriate for a variety of venues, either domestic, civic, sacred, or nautical.

According to Donderer (1984: 181), foundation coins functioned as miniature sacrifices, offered in recognition of successful construction or as a request for divine protection in the future, or both. The ancient practice of depositing a coin, figurine, curse tablet, or other implement of magic was one means of accessing the spirits of the underworld, who were capable of carrying out supernatural deeds.6 In many of the domestic deposits cited by Donderer, the precise provenance of the coin was not recorded or is unknown, but the available evidence suggests a preference for doorways, where, like crossroads, such chthonic spirits were believed to congregate.7

Alternatively, it has been suggested that the use of small-denomination bronzes as mast-step coins is allied with the ancient custom of placing such coins in the grave (Lovette, 1939: 49; King, 2006: 39). In the ancient world, coins are often found, either alone or in groups, in association with both cremations and inhumations; where a skeleton is preserved, the coin(s) may be placed in the mouth, in one hand, near the head, or loose in the grave (Kurtz and Boardman, 1971: 211; Stevens, 1991). Greek and Roman authors describe the burial coin as a token to be paid in the afterlife to the ferryman Charon, who was responsible for transporting dead souls across the river Acheron and into Hades (Aristophanes, Frogs, 140–41; Juvenal, Satires, 3.265–8; Apuleius, Metamorphoses, 6.18.4–5). The passage required payment in the smallest denomination of Greek bronze coinage, the obol. But it is difficult to imagine that those largely-inaccessible coins sealed beneath a mosaic pavement or under a ship's mast functioned in the same capacity; indeed, the idea of crewmen struggling frantically to free the mast of a sinking ship in order to retrieve the mast-step coin is impractical, if not illogical.8 Rather, ancient authors suggest that the greatest injustice suffered by a sailor who died at sea was to remain unburied (Simonides, 23; Horace, Odes, 1.28), while archaeology has shown that the tradition of ‘Charon's obol’ was by no means universal.9

Mast-step coins as foundation coins

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The ‘meaning’ of mast-step coins
  4. Mast-step coins as foundation coins
  5. Conclusion
  6. Acknowledgments
  7. References

Roman authors make no reference to the domestic use of foundation coins, though an interesting and relevant account exists in Tacitus’ description of the re-dedication of Rome's newly-restored chief temple, the Capitolium, on 21 June AD 70, following the civil unrest and political uncertainty of the Year of the Four Emperors (AD 68/9): Passimque iniectae fundamentis argenti aurique stipes et metallorum primitiae, nullis fornacibus victae, sed ut gignuntur: praedixere haruspices ne temeraretur opus saxo aurove in aliud destinato. (Offerings of gold and silver and virgin ores, never smelted in any furnace, but still in their natural state, were cast into the foundations. The soothsayers had previously decreed that no stone or gold which had been intended for any other purpose should desecrate the structure).10 For Tacitus, the refounding of the Capitolium symbolized a critical departure from the political tumult of the previous decades; an attitude echoed in a contemporaneous account by the biographer Suetonius (Vespasian 8.5). A recent assessment of both passages observes that the restoration constitutes ‘the first major religious act that is not juxtaposed with indications of hypocrisy or corruption in either text’ (Davies, 2004: 209). The offering of uncoined bullion specified by Tacitus, as part of the religious pageantry surrounding the re-dedication of Rome's oldest and most important temple, may constitute a departure from the conventional offering of coins, or metals intended for another purpose.

The central role played by foundation metals, or foundation coins, in the consecration of a religious structure underscores their historical importance both for the ancients and for us. Foundation coins have been discovered at the Greek sanctuaries of female deities at Perachora, Priene, and Ephesus (Burkert, 1992: 54)11, which is home to the Artemision, one of Asia Minor's oldest and most magnificent marble temples. Ranked among the seven wonders of the ancient world, it was constructed under the patronage of King Croesus of Lydia in the mid-6th century BC. Excavation of the temple's foundations by British archaeologists in 1904–05 brought to light the remains of earlier strata, variously dated between the late-8th and early-6th century BC. Finds from the earliest levels, which lay beneath foundation stones of green schist and atop virgin sand, include almost 100 primitive coins of electrum, a natural alloy of gold and silver (Jacobsthal, 1951). Many of these 93 proto-coins were found scattered among the foundations, but 19 examples were found together in a small ceramic pot, representing three distinct types: crude metallic dumps resembling ‘little ingots or rude weights’; those with a striated, prepared surface; and punched ingots, with a goat or rooster motif on the obverse and one or more square incuse marks on the reverse (Robinson, 1951). The electrum coins from the Artemision, which represent the earliest known examples of identifiable coinage, thus hail from a decidedly votive, religious context.12

Interestingly, it seems to have been the Romans who moved foundations coins out of this specifically religious context and into a secular one, by adapting the ritual for use in Roman homes, public works, and ships. This adaptation is, I think, part of a larger process of religious privatization, as witnessed by the domestic worship of the lares, a group of uniquely Roman gods that represent the protective ancestral spirits of the household (North, 2000: 14–15, observes that ‘one consequence of the strange development of Roman religion is that it placed all its emphasis not on the gods or myths, still less on the meaning of religious actions, but purely on rituals and their accurate repetition’). For the Romans, to a far greater extent than the Greeks before them, the household or domus functioned as a place of private worship: ‘If the pax deorum, the religious basis that protected Rome, could be seen to be safeguarded publicly in the sacrifices at the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, it was daily tended by the worship of the household deities in the family lararia. The temple of Vesta, at the heart of the Forum, which contained the eternal flame of the city, was nothing but a magnification of the hearth fire that kept every Roman domus alive’ (Hales, 2003: 18).

The excavation of Roman homes across the Mediterranean has yielded numerous archaeological examples of the lararium, a shrine where family members prayed and offered sacrifices to the lares (Orr, 1978; Clarke, 1991: 9). Of the many offerings made in honour of the lares, Varro recounts how a young wife, upon entering her husband's home, places an as, which she has carried on her foot, on the altar of the familial Lares (Nonius Marcellus 12.531); perhaps a similar ceremony sanctified the occupation of a newly-built ship? To this end, it is useful to note that the lares, who occupy the very heart of Roman domestic religion, also existed in various specialized forms and inhabited numerous venues: ‘private fields and the ager Romanus, roads and crossroads, houses, districts, the city … the battlefield in time of war, even the sea as it concerns the seafarer—all have their Lar or Lares’ (Dumézil, 1970: 341).13


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The ‘meaning’ of mast-step coins
  4. Mast-step coins as foundation coins
  5. Conclusion
  6. Acknowledgments
  7. References

The evidence afforded by more than four decades of nautical archaeology suggests that the mast-step coin tradition was an exclusively Roman phenomenon, first appearing in the 2nd century BC, not long after the Romans began minting coins (Crawford, 1976). The custom was, however, not one of an exclusively maritime nature; rather, it was ultimately derived from a long-standing religious tradition that can be traced back to the consecration of the earliest Greek temples. This tradition continued during the Roman era, as evidenced by Tacitus’ description of the consecration of the Capitolium in AD 70, but it appears to have been concurrently domesticated or secularized for use in homes, ships, and civic buildings. For these reasons, it is, I think, misleading to describe mast-step votives as ‘luck coins’. Such a description diminishes the significance of what in ancient times a deeply-rooted religious ritual, framing it instead in less powerful, and less relevant, modern terminology. Though the specific use of mast-step coins is unattested in the ancient literature, their survival in at least 13 ancient shipwrecks provides us a valuable glimpse into the ritualistic customs with which ancient shipwrights and sailors sanctified their vessels as homes at sea.

  • 1

    Adams and Black (2004: 245–7, figs 16, 17) illustrate a Portuguese silver coin minted during the reign of Alphonso III (1248–1279) from the mast-step of a medieval wreck at St. Peter Port in Guernsey (Channel Islands). Crumlin-Pedersen (1979: 25) references the discovery of two coins from the Gdansk region in the Baltic, found in the mast-step of a 14th-century cog at Vejby, Denmark. A more recent find is that of a French silver coin, struck between 1440 and 1456, found embedded in a forward portion of the keel from a 15th-century ship at Newport, Wales. Henningsen (1965) details at least a dozen examples of the custom in ships and shipwrecks of the 16th to 20th centuries, and an unconfirmed report of a Roman coin in the mast-step of a dugout discovered in 19th-century Penzance, Cornwall, appeared in the Mariner's Mirror (1920: 222).

  • 2

    Early reports on the Titan wreck (Benoit, 1958; Tailliez, 1960; Tailliez, 1961; Tailliez, 1965) mention the discovery of two bronze coins, but give no indication that either came from the ship's mast-step.

  • 3

    Beltrame kindly informs me that a concretion found in the mast-step proved to be empty when x-rayed, making it impossible to state with certainty that the object was in fact a coin. A Table comparable to the one provided here appears in Beltrame (2002: 71).

  • 4

    Xavier Nieto-Prieto, who generously provided images of the mast-step coin from Cap del Volt, reports that the coin appears to be of silver-plated bronze.

  • 5

    According to Andrej Gaspari of the University of Ljubljana, the coin was found in the shoe of piling no. 153, extracted for dendrochronological sampling. I extend my thanks to Peter Kuniholm, Director of the Aegean Dendrochronology Project at Cornell University, for informing me about this unique find.

  • 6

    Gager (1992: 18) notes that magical papyri and lead curse tablets were routinely deposited in rivers, streams, and at sea, as illustrated by the accumulation of thousands of votive coins in the river Liris near Minturnae, Italy (Metcalf, 1974; Houghtalin, 1984). Katzev (2005: 79) mentions the discovery of a folded lead sheet tucked inside a lead envelope and nailed to a timber inside the hold of the Hellenistic ship wrecked off the coast of Kyrenia, Cyprus.

  • 7

    Graf (1997: 171) observes that ‘to deposit a figurine under the doorstep is a way of making certain that the victim will, sooner or later, get into contact with it’.

  • 8

    Though there exists little hard data for the height and weight of ancient masts, an interesting recent discovery from Olbia, Sardinia is a 7.6-m-long lower section of a mast, dated by associated finds to the third quarter of the 1st century AD (Riccardi, 2002). The diameter of the Olbia mast, at 42 cm, is almost twice that of the mast-foot recovered from the Dramont E wreck (Santamaria, 1995: 164–71), suggesting to Riccardi (2002: 269) that the mast from Olbia was probably a fixed type between 12 and 15 m tall.

  • 9

    The archaeological evidence from ancient burials offers some conspicuous variations on the literary theme of Charon's obol, including the use of coins as jewellery, and the presence of a lone silver (or gold) coin alongside over a hundred bronze issues in the same grave (a gratuity?, as suggested by Robinson 1942: 205). That the tradition continued into the Byzantine era is evidenced by two 9th-century graves at Aphrodisias, Turkey, each containing a skeleton holding a single Byzantine follis in one hand (pers. comm. numismatist Oliver Hoover).

  • 10

    Historiae 4.53. Scholarly disagreement about the translation of argenti aurique stipes et metallorum primitiae stems from the meaning of stipes and the author's use of both -que and et. Heubner (1976: 127–8) is right, I think, in maintaining that stipes is ‘geprägte Geldmünzen’ and that the et clearly differentiates stipes from their forerunner, primitiae metallorum.

  • 11

    The allied phenomenon of the foundation deposit, not under consideration in this paper, can be traced back to the pre-monetary societies of Minoan Crete, Assyria, and Achaemenid Persia.

  • 12

    The exact date of the Artemision coins has been a subject of much debate but is variously placed within the 7th century BC (Robinson, 1951: 164–5; Kagan, 1982; Price, 1983; Karweise, 1991). Of course, the discovery also begets broader questions about the motive(s) behind and purpose(s) of coining bullion in Archaic Greece, which are outside the scope of this paper but have been addressed most recently by Kurke (1999) and Kim (2001).

  • 13

    Ancient sources (Livy, 40.52.4; Macrobius, 1.10.10) and religious calendars record the dedication, in 179 BC, of a temple to the lares permarini, the protectors of sailors and those who travelled by sea. For the location of the temple in the Campus Martius, see Zevi (1997).


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The ‘meaning’ of mast-step coins
  4. Mast-step coins as foundation coins
  5. Conclusion
  6. Acknowledgments
  7. References

This paper grew out of a graduate seminar in Greek and Roman Numismatics taught by Professor John Kroll at the University of Texas at Austin. Since that time, it has benefited from the insights of numerous colleagues, including Elizabeth Greene, Peter Kuniholm, Xavier Nieto, Irena Radić, Richard Steffy (whose fondness for the subject is epitomized by his coining of the phrase ‘riggy bank’), Ken Trethewey, and Cynthia Werner. I also thank the Glasscock Centre for Humanities Research at Texas A&M University for inviting me to share this paper as part of a faculty colloquium, which resulted in several key improvements.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The ‘meaning’ of mast-step coins
  4. Mast-step coins as foundation coins
  5. Conclusion
  6. Acknowledgments
  7. References
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