The question of the symbolism on early silver pennies, Sceattas, of Anglo-Saxon Britain has come up recently on NUMISM-L. The following is an attempt to explain my opinion of the representations on these fascinating coins.

The question being debated is the origin of the 'Porcupine' or 'Degraded Bust' abstraction found on many British and Continental pennies of this period (ca 600-700 CE). The standard opinion is that they represent porcupines or birds. I would like to suggest they can also represent stylized boars.

I would suggest that the origin of this abstraction begins with the realistic images of Juno Sospita on Roman Republican coins. She was a protecting deity of women.

Juno Sospita on the obverse of a denarius of L. Papius Celsus, ca. 45 BCE, shows the head of the deity wearing a goat-skin.
Make a jump in time, place and culture to the Celtic tribe of the Eceni who occupied much of what would become East Anglia in Anglo-Saxon times. This famous coin, VA-794, has been thought to have been minted by Queen Boudicca to pay her troops for her rebellion against the Romans in 60 CE. Stylistically, however the coin is probable much earlier, 30 BCE or so. It has been suggested that the image was abstracted from the head of Juno Sospita (see VA, p. 213) and the the head dress that of a boar rather than a goat (see Rudd, List 40 #15, this coin)

That boars were sacred to the Celts can be seen from their common occurrence on coins and artifacts from both the Continent and from Britain. Only the horse is seen more frequently.

Using a series of boar reverses on British Celtic coins, one can see how they became abstracted.

VA-1960 VA-855-5 VA-659-3 VA1242-1
The common feature of all these coins are the spiky bristles that are seen so well on the "Boudicca" headdress above. During abstraction the body becomes simpler, more angular, until it is represented by a triangle with a dot for an eye and various devices representing the legs and tail. It would seen that the essence of the Boar was their bristles.

Some 600 to 700 years later the 'Porcupine' series was produced, probably Frisian, but found in large numbers in Britain, including East Anglia, the prior home of the Eceni.

I would suggest that there is a relationship between these images and the abstract Celtic boars. Look and see!

North and others call these the Degraded Bust series, which includes not only the 'porcupines' but 'birds' and other 'weird animals', all presumably abstracted from headdresses worn on more realistic busts. Examples can be seen below:

The top row shows busts in varies degrees of abstraction that appear to be wearing a headdress composed of spines, variously described as quills or feathers (S783/784). The bottom row shows more abstract animal figures, with a birdlike figure on the left and what is usually called a porcupine on the right. (All ex Wm. L. Subjack collection, Italo Vecchi, auction 11, 5th June 1998)

The question is does this image represent a porcupine or a boar or perhaps some other animal like a wolf or bird?

I would suggest that it can represent all of these at once. The point I would like to make, and I think it an important point, is that there are symbolic and historical relationships among these Sceattas and images on coins separated by time, space and culture.

Please email for comments, criticisms, etc