Possession through Deposition: The “ownership” of coins in contemporary British coin-trees

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In 1877, Queen Victoria toured Scotland. Whilst in the Northwest Highlands, she visited Isle Maree, a small island in Loch Maree, on which there were the remnants of a holy well said to cure insanity. Beside this well was an oak tree, studded with coins; this is the first documented example of a British coin-tree, defined simply as trees which have been embedded with coins for a variety of folkloric purposes. Although some coin-trees date to the 19th and early 20th centuries, the majority are the product of a recent resurgence, having been created in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. The ‘meaning’ behind this custom varies depending upon location and indeed individual participants; however, at the 19th-century Isle Maree coin-tree, local custom averred that inserting a coin into the tree ensured the fulfilment of a wish. Upon learning this, Queen Victoria partook in the practice, contributing a coin to the accumulation.
As travel writer Brenda Macrow observes, having visited Isle Maree nearly 80 years later, the coin which Queen Victoria contributed to the tree ‘is now without doubt as tarnished and bent as the rest – it may even be one of those which have fallen on to the ground beneath. So Time, the great leveller, treats alike the gifts of princes and paupers’ (1953: 89). Queen Victoria’s coin is indistinguishable from the rest; conducting fieldwork at the site, for example, there is no method I could employ to ascertain which of the coins she inserted.
The coin-tree is thus perceived as an accumulation of collective anonymity. Indeed, economist David Wolman asserts that ‘many people see cash’s anonymity as an almost sacred virtue’ (2012: 7). It is the very nature of coins that they cannot be traced to their previous owners. Whatever coins we have in our purses and pockets are only very temporary residents there. The owner of a coin only represents a brief, inconsequential stage in the biography of that coin and vice versa: the coin will no doubt pass in and out of the owner’s possession swiftly and casually, and once it is out of that owner’s possession, it will retain no link with them. In this sense, the coin is an alienable object.
However, Fowler recognises that the divide between alienability and inalienability can be crossed in certain circumstances, acknowledging that ‘all things are potentially inalienable to some degree’ (2004: 59, emphasis in original). This paper, focusing on the British folkloric custom of the coin-tree, contends that a coin deposited into a coin-tree makes this transition from alienable to inalienable.
Presenting contemporary case-studies, and utilising both the material evidence of the coin-trees and ethnographic data gathered at 34 sites across the British Isles, it is the aim of this paper to demonstrate that through the performance of the coin-tree custom, the coin – often viewed as an anonymous, homogenous, and alienable item – is reconstructed as an object capable of individuation and personalisation.
In some cases, the physical properties of a coin are harnessed or altered in order to foster both tangible and intangible links between depositor and deposit, from choosing coins of certain colours, denominations, years of mint, or commemorative design with personal significance, to scratching initials onto their surfaces. In vast majority of cases, however, the coins are not altered or selected for any personal reasons, and yet through the act of depositing them into a coin-tree, they are transformed from alienable, mass-produced, homogenous, semi-disposable objects to personal items boasting metonymical links with their depositors.
Although the depositor will likely walk away and never see this coin again, it is their coin now, in a way that it never was before. Prior to their encounter with the coin-tree, their possession of the coin was nugatory and purely physical. After the encounter, however, the tie between them has become metonymical; ironically, it is through relinquishing the coin that they gain any significant possession of it.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOwn and Be Owned: Archaeological approaches to the concept of possession
Place of PublicationStockholm
PublisherStockholm Studies in Archaeology
Publication statusPublished - 2015


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