Archeologists in Cupids unearth possible oldest English coin in North America

·3 min read
This Henry VII
This Henry VII
Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC
Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC

Excitement is brewing after an extraordinary new find at the Cupids Cove Plantation Provincial Historic Site in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Archaeologists unearthed a rare pure silver coin at the excavation site during a dig this season — one that's possibly the oldest English coin in North America, according to those close to the project.

"It was minted in Canterbury sometime between 1493 and 1499," said William Gilbert, the archaeologist who discovered the historic site in 1995 and continues to lead the dig as the site supervisor.

"It's the oldest English coin that anyone knows of, that I'm aware of. Certainly if anyone knows of an older English coin I'd like to hear about it."

Gilbert says Paul Berry, former curator of the Bank of Canada's Currency Museum, consulted with them to identify the coin as a Henry VII "half groat," or two-penny piece.

Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC
Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC

In 2001, an Elizabethan coin, dated 1560-1561, was excavated on the same site. At that time, that coin was considered the oldest English coin ever found in Canada. However, this newly discovered coin is about 60 years older and would have been in circulation for at least 111 years before being lost.

Gilbert believes it must have crossed the Atlantic Ocean with one of the early colonists who came to the New World with John Guy, a merchant from Bristol, in 1610.

Guy established and fortified a settlement in Cupids, where Gilbert's team is now digging in the northeast end of a 120 foot by 90 foot structure colonists had built.

"We've exposed posts for what [Guy] called a flanker, which is basically a bastion that extended beyond the corner of the enclosure. It would have had a cannon mounted on it and it overlooked the harbour," Gilbert said.

Government of Newfoundland and Labrador
Government of Newfoundland and Labrador

Gilbert said the coin was found about four feet east of the wall, outside the structure, and four feet south of the flanker.

He said mystery will always remain around exactly who dropped the coin or when it was lost.

"My best guess is that it was probably dropped by either John Guy or one of the early colonists when they were building the wall and building the flanker in the fall of 1610," Gilbert speculated. "That's what I think is most likely."

But the coin does have further significance. Gilbert said it's surprising that a coin of its age would have ended up in Cupids, the oldest English colony in Canada.

"That's also the age of John Cabot, right? So that coin was minted around the time John Cabot arrived in England in 1495," Gilbert said.

"It's during the period that Cabot would have been active in England and setting out on his early explorations of the new world."

To date, about 170,000 artifacts have been pulled from the ground at the historic site in Cupids, Gilbert said, adding the coin is likely the most significant find, so far. The next step is to determine how to display the coin, which Gilbert said he's hoping will take place some time next year.

Chris O'Neill Yates/CBC
Chris O'Neill Yates/CBC

He said some artifacts are notable because they give important information about a site, the age and what a certain building may have been used for, but he says finds such as the coin spark the imagination.

"It's just really exciting. It gives you a real connection with not just the colony itself, the 1610 colony, but way back into the age of discovery," he said.

"It gives us the opportunity to not only talk about the colony, but that early period, the Cabot period, the early voyages to the new world and tie them all together."

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