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Portable Antiquities Scheme volunteers from Salisbury Museum recently attended training on jettons and tokens at the Somerset Heritage Centre in Taunton.

Jettons (it comes from the French jeter – to throw or push) were a coin-like object used in the calculation of accounts in the days long, long before electronic calculators and even before the use of Arabic numerals. Adding up, using Roman numerals, was not easy and so the jettons represented hundreds, tens and units. They were easily portable, and could be used on any table top, a chequered cloth or even on the ground, to help merchants do their sums. Our language carries echoes of all of these – we speak of the counter (over which we buy our goods), the exchequer, and so on. Until recently we could go East and watch shopkeepers using an abacus in the same way….

The Romans were the first to use counters (often simply small pieces of pottery, or even pebbles) to help them do sums. The first metal ones probably date from the 12th century. They were made primarily in England, France and Nuremberg, becoming more and more decorative, usually with religious or political messages and symbols on them. When the use of Arabic numbers became more common in  and after the 17th century the use of jettons began to die out but the thin metal discs were sometimes used as small change when such coins were, from time to time, scarce. Volunteers need to learn how to establish the origin of jettons, and establish dates, from the designs on them.

Tokens were also used as small change when necessary, although originally they were simply handed over by employers in exchange fora person’s labour, and intended for use in a very limited number of inns or shops. They mostly date from the 17th century onwards. Because they were intended for use only in local establishments they rarely ‘stray’ far from home and are a fascinating contribution to local history as a result, often including the names or initials of the employer, coats of arms, information about local trades, etc.


A copper alloy halfpenny token of Robert Pittman of Meere (Mere in Wiltshire) dating to AD 1668 (or possibly 1669). ROBERT PITTMAN OF obverse depicting HIS HALFE PENNY in the centre. MEERE DRAPER 1668 reverse depicting the Drapers’ Arms in the centre. This token recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme data base by volunteer Alyson Tanner