Review: Guide for Coins Commonly Found at Anatolian Excavations

Kenneth W. Harl, Guide for Coins Commonly Found at Anatolian Excavations: Byzantine (A.D. 498-1282). Ancient Numismatics Series 7. Istanbul: Archaeology and Art Publications, 2001. 48 pp. b/w illus. ISBN 975-6561-01-7. $12.00. Turkish translations by Burçak Delikan are also available from the publisher.

In these two Guides, based on introductory lectures given to student excavators at the site of Metropolis in western Turkey, Kenneth Harl provides a valuable tool that has long been needed by both site directors and the graduate students who do most of the coin identification and cataloguing work for their sites. In a great number of cases, the latter are specialists in other areas of archaeology and have little or no numismatic background. On occasion, the coins found in the course of excavation may represent the first direct exposure to ancient coinage for such inexperienced field numismatists. However, they may now take some comfort from the information collected together in Harl’s introductory Guides.

Despite the Roman Provincial bronze issue of Caracalla depicted on the cover of the Roman Guide, the subject of this book is actually Roman Imperial coinage from the introduction of the antoninianus denomination to the abolition of the late Roman denominational system under Anastasius I. The Byzantine Guide carries on with the coinage of the Anastasian reforms and concludes with the billon aspra trachea of the Nicean Empire. In both works the greatest emphasis is placed on the low value coins that appear most frequently as finds on archeological sites. Roman AE 4s or Byzantine folles were often dropped by their owners in antiquity and never recovered because of their low value. Much more effort would have been expended to retrieve similarly lost gold solidi, nomismata, and hyperpyra, because of their high value. Thus these coins are rarely uncovered in the course of excavation outside of hoard contexts. An introduction is provided for each of the main Roman and Byzantine denominations, including their distinguishing features (i.e., radiate vs. laureate portraits, AE sizes, value mark, etc.) and historical context. However, a few additional sentences describing the phenomenon of barbarous radiates might have been warranted in the Roman Guide, particularly for those unfamiliar with this class of coin. They are dismissed primarily as a feature of western Roman sites, with some examples also appearing in Anatolia, giving the impression that archaeologists in Turkey should not expect to see much of them. However, Gallo-Roman imitations do appear, and the CONSECRATIO types of Claudius II Gothicus are not uncommon (See for example, D.J. MacDonald, “Aphrodisias and Currency in the East, A.D. 259-305,” AJA 78 (1974), pp. 279-286, and T.V. Buttrey, A. Johnston, K.M. MacKenzie and M.L. Bates, Greek, Roman, and Islamic Coins from Sardis (Cambridge, 1981), pp. 93-94). A fuller description is provided for the similarly imitative Arab-Byzantine coinage of the seventh century AD, although excavators in western and central Turkey are likely to deal with many more barbarous radiates than Arab-Byzantine issues.

Along with the helpful introductions appear a variety of lists and charts that will be indispensable to new field numismatists. These provide key information on such important topics as the meaning of mintmarks used by the Roman and Byzantine empires, how to read Byzantine regnal years, and how to differentiate between late Roman AE sizes. Harl also gives lists of common obverse legends for both series that can be valuable in piecing together the identity of badly worn coins in the field. These lists can be supplemented by the thorough inscriptional indices of major catalogues like RIC and Dumbarton Oaks. It may also be worth noting that several websites now offer search engines for partially preserved Roman obverse inscriptions. The search engine at is currently the most complete that this reviewer has seen on the internet. Commercial software for partial legend searches is also available. Such tools can be a great time saver when one is dealing with large quantities of heavily damaged Roman material.

Line drawings are provided in order to acquaint students with some of the basic coin designs, and to give them a feel for Roman and Byzantine coinage. However, the drawings should not be used for anything but the most basic of identifications. The plates of the major catalogues must be used for specific and detailed identification.

One feature of the books that will be especially useful for those unfamiliar with the study of ancient coins is the presentation of the bibliography. Not only are the major references and background articles listed, as one would expect, but they are keyed to particular chapters of the text for easy reference. For example, RIC IV and V, and other works relating to the identification and study of antoniniani are provided at the end of the chapter in which Harl describes this denomination. Likewise, Dumbarton Oaks III, parts 1 and 2 and related material appear at the end of the chapter on the miliaresia and folles of the Isaurian, Amorian and Macedonian dynasties. By breaking up the bibliography between chapters in this manner, the author makes it easier for the numismatic neophyte to find the works required to make a competent coin identification in the field.

The bibliographies go well beyond the basic reference material likely to be found in most site libraries, including an assortment of articles that have appeared in various numismatic and archaeological journals. Thus, unless one’s “dig house” happens to have a good run of the American Journal of Numismatics, the Numismatic Chronicle, etc., the most efficient use of the Guides would be to issue them to students in the months before departure to the excavation site, thereby allowing them to look up the articles and benefit from their contents. Having some numismatic background before arrival at the site also prepares students to wade right into the excavated material upon arrival at the site, which is often a necessity thanks to backlogs of coins from previous seasons.

Although the bibliographies are excellent for those new to the enterprise of identifying Roman and Byzantine coins in the field, there are two additional works that should probably be added both to the lists and to the collections of “dig house” numismatic references. For late Roman coinage, G. Bruck, Die spätrömische Kupferprägung (Graz, 1961), is indispensable with its thorough illustration of all major types and inscriptional variants. This work is especially helpful when dealing with poorly preserved specimens, as often happens on archaeological sites. Thanks to the illustrations it is often possible to identify a heavily damaged coin through a small fragment of the preserved type. For Byzantine bronzes, Speedy Identification of Early Denominationally Marked Byzantine Bronzes (Tehachapi, CA, 1990), privately produced by the author, C.D. Clark, is also useful for making initial identifications of folles and their fractions. These kinds of books allow the inexperienced field numismatist to get some idea of what material he or she is dealing with, before moving on to the RICs and Dumbarton Oaks for detailed identification.

In a perfect world, where no one is constrained by concerns of time or budget, one might recommend that prospective field numismatists from North American institutions receive advance training by attending the ANS Summer Seminar. However, until the day comes when this would be practical, Kenneth Harl has provided excavation directors and their field numismatists with a solid introduction to the material that they can expect to uncover on sites in Turkey. We look forward to the future volumes in the series dealing with Greek coinage and hoards.

—Oliver D. Hoover