Symbolism on Coins

Posted on Friday, July 10, 2015 by The Royal Mint Museum

electrotype: Kenya 250 Shillings, 1966

electrotype: Kenya 250 shillings
Have you ever wondered who decides what image will appear on a coin and why it has been chosen? Recently the Royal Mint gave the Nation a chance to suggest a design for the new one pound coin.

We were inundated with patriotic designs incorporating the emblems of Wales, Scotland, England and Ireland. The designs were symbolic of what invokes the idea of Great Britain, for example The Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben), bulldogs and cups of tea. However, here at the Royal Mint we also mint coins for many other nations and their symbolism may not be as familiar to us.

Whilst working on the Inventory Project we were intrigued by the design on the reverse of the Kenyan 1966 250 shilling coin (Fig. 1). Why is the father of the Kenyan Nation a rooster holding an axe? What does it represent? Why is it important? How do we find this out? Answering these questions took us on a journey to a significant event in Kenya’s history and gave us an enhanced appreciation for the imagery on coins.

At the Royal Mint Museum, we are encouraged to ask questions, research and expand our knowledge within the field of numismatics, and we are fortunate to have an extensive archive and library of supporting information.

We found that the Rooster appears on the coat of arms of Kenya. Before this however, the rooster was originally the symbol of the Kenyan African Union party led by Mzee Jamo Kenyatta, who helped Kenya achieve independence on 12 December 1963.

Kenya coat of arms
Kenya coat of arms

As part of the move towards independence, a new coat of arms was adopted with a shield bearing the colours of the national flag; the black symbolising Kenya’s people, green representing the country’s agriculture, red representing the struggle for independence and at the centre a white rooster holding an axe.

Further research taught us that, according to African tradition, the rooster denotes a new and prosperous life. It is believed that as the rooster is the only domestic animal that announces the dawn of a new day and is one of the few animals that seldom moves backwards - a fitting symbol for a new independent Kenya. Furthermore, the axe is a symbol of power, portraying authority, success and the will to work. The Father of the Nation refers, of course, not to the rooster itself but to the First President of Kenya Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, whose portrait appears on the obverse of the coin.

When we first saw the imagery on this coin its significance was lost on us. Through research, we learnt that this one coin symbolised hope, new beginnings, hard work and independence for the people of Kenya.

Welcome to the Royal Mint Museum Blog. Here you’ll get to meet the faces behind the Museum and find out how our hard-working team cares for this exceptional and varied collection. You’ll find entries on our favourite objects, how we’re looking after the objects, and the work being done to interpret and research the collection. You may also from time to time get a sneak preview of exciting projects and future exhibitions.

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