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The Maine Penny: A Coin Mystery from History

The Maine Penny: A Coin Mystery from History

Do you know about the Maine penny? Also known as the Goddard coin, the Maine penny isn’t a penny like the Lincoln Wheat cent but a very old coin that dates to the time of the Norwegian king, Olaf Kyrre, who reigned as King Olaf III between 1067-1093. One of the silver coins minted to honor his reign somehow found its way to the Goddard site on Naskeag Point in Maine almost a thousand years ago. It was discovered in 1957 along with some worked copper, pottery remnants, and other evidence of human habitation.

The Goddard site has been dated by archeologists to 1180-1235, and historians believe the people who lived there were the ancestors of today’s Penobscot Indians. That means that this coin may have been used as metal currency in America some 500 years before the next New England silver coins, including the Pinetree shilling, were minted. What was going on that this coin could have been left behind there?

In the early medieval period, the Northern Hemisphere was warmer than it was later on or even now, and the Vikings were very active in exploring, attacking, and settling all over northern Europe, as far north as Iceland. They ventured to Greenland and then North America where they colonized a part of Newfoundland at L'Anse aux Meadows in about 1000 A.D. Archaeological evidence there shows they were working with iron there; they built a smithy with a forge and an iron slag. The Goddard site in Maine dates to approximately two centuries later, and that Norwegian silver coin was minted sometime in the interim.

We know that the New England Indian tribes did not use metal coins as currency prior to European settlement. They traded wampum with the English colonists because metal coins were scarce. Given this, there are at least two explanations for how the Maine coin came to be at the Goddard site:

 

  1. This site, located on the northern coast across from what is now Nova Scotia, was part of an early shipping route. The Viking coin eventually circulated via their explorations and found its way into the hands of these Penobscot ancestors as a matter of native trade channels. The Vikings may have left North America by the time these Indians used the coin, but as we know, coins preserve history better than most human artifacts. The Maine State Museum, where it is now housed, describes the Maine penny as "the only pre-Columbian Norse artifact generally regarded as genuine found within the United States.”

  2. The Maine coin was somehow planted or found its way to that site by other means, fair or foul. While the coin itself has been authenticated, its importance to human history and pre-Columbian exploration is not as clear. The American Numismatic Society stated that "There is no reliable confirmation on the documentation of the Goddard coin, and much circumstantial evidence suggests that someone was deliberately trying to manipulate or obfuscate the situation. The Norse coin from Maine should probably be considered a hoax."

 

Coin fakes are a serious problem, so all collectors should beware of coin deals that seem too good to be true no matter how recent the coin. Developing good relationships with trusted people in the coin collecting community is crucial. Having said that, there are many seemingly fantastical stories about coins that have survived nearly every disaster known to man or ravage of time to tell the story of people who’ve come before us.. The Maine coin may be one of those times.

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