Cartridges as Coins: Ethiopia, 1928

This is the fourth in a series of guest posts by students attending the Eric P. Newman Graduate Seminar in Numismatics.

1930.5.6.bottomTucked away among a host of oddities and commodity currencies in the “traditional” cabinet at the ANS are two corroding gun cartridges, with jackets intact and presumably filled with powder. The bullets are 9mm and were produced in France, as indicated by the stamp S. F. M. (Société Française des Munitions) on the bottom of the casing. They served as ammunition for the Fusil Gras, a popular and fast-firing French service rifle that was manufactured in volume during the late nineteenth century.


The cartridges were donated to the Society in 1930 by Gordon MacCreagh (1886-1953), a Scottish pulp-fiction author and adventurer. Born in Perth, Indiana, MacCreagh’s adventuring life began after an academic fencing duel with a fellow student at Heidelberg University. Under the false impression that he had killed his opponent, he fled to India. MacCreagh served in World War I, and traveled to South America in 1922, but it was not until 1927 that he made his first trip to the African continent.

This expedition to Ethiopia was sponsored by the American pulp magazine Adventure and its ostensible purpose was to find the legendary Ark of the Covenant. MacCreagh spent most of the year fruitlessly searching, though he did gain an audience with Haile Selassie I (then Ras Teferi Mekonnen), who had recently been granted the title of negus (king) of Shoa by the Empress Zewditu. After his return, MacCreagh published an account of the expedition as the The Last of Free Africa (1928). It was also at this time that he made a donation to the ANS that included the cartridges, two blocks of salt (amole), and an assortment of coins that he picked up in Ethiopia.

ANS, 1930.5.10
ANS, 1930.5.10

The cartridges and amole were examples of then popular forms of commodity currency in Ethiopia. The history of firearms there began with the introduction of matchlock muskets in the 16th century by Portuguese mercenaries, who were hired by the beleaguered Christian Ethiopian monarchy as auxiliary forces in their fight against Muslim invaders. Firearms were not a common sight until the 19th century when French and Italian suppliers sold arms and ammunition to an Ethiopian monarchy looking to modernize its antiquated military systems.

Pitt Rivers Museum
Pitt Rivers Museum

By the first Italo-Ethiopian War (1895-96), the quality of armaments had been improved by European arms dealers, but not by much. Emperor Menelik II accommodated the hodgepodge of armaments in his army by dividing his men into 3 groups based on their rate of fire: those with muzzle-loaded guns (neftenya | fusiliers), those armed with flintlock rifles (temenja yaji | “one who bears a musket”) and those who carried breech-loaded rifles (snayder yaji | “one who bears a Snayder”). Snayder became the colloquial word for breech-loading rifles with the arrival of the .557 Snider-Enfield, which was used by British forces in Ethiopia at the Battle of Magdala in 1868.

ANS, 130.5.6
ANS, 130.5.6

By the time that Gordon MacCreagh arrived in Ethiopia, most Ethiopian infantrymen were using the by then very obsolete French Fusil Gras rifles. As with all relatively scarce goods in the mostly unregulated Ethiopian market, bullets soon became a commodity currency, and bullets bearing the S.F.M. stamp were highly sought after. When making his donation, MacCreagh mentioned that a single bullet was equivalent to 1/5th of a Maria Theresa thaler, the thaler still being a popular currency in that part of Africa. However, its value seems to have collapsed in relatively short order as arms and ammunition flooded into the country during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-1941). within 10 years its value as a commodity seems to have collapsed. At the time that ANS curator Howland Wood published The Coinage of Ethiopia (1937), he observed that a single thaler could then fetch between 10-20 S.F.M. rounds.

Felege-Selam Yirga

Denari Provisini of the Roman Commune

This is the third in a series of guest posts by students attending the Eric P. Newman Graduate Seminar in Numismatics.

The denaro provisino was one of the most widespread issues in Central Italy during the Late Middle Ages. Minted by Rome between 1186 and 1398, these small silver coins were characterized by a comb surmounted by an ‘S’ and symbols on the obverse. The reverse featured a cross surrounded by symbols in combinations that varied over time. Since the provisino is one of the very few informative artifacts from the Roman Middle, and they give us a better understanding of the economic history of Rome in this period.


The design of the provisino was based on the type minted in Provins for the Counts of Champagne (NE France), which was known as denier provinois.  The wool comb on the reverse of this denier showed a wool comb, a reference to one of the main industries in Provins. It was circulating widely in Central Italy by the mid-12th century and the Roman mint simply copied it because it was an established type.

Pilgrims arriving in Rome for the first Jubilee in 1300, Archivio de Stato
Pilgrims arriving in Rome for the first Jubilee in 1300,
Archivio de Stato

Although the Roman provisino never changed its basic type, the shape of the comb and other elements changed over the years. These changes in design allow us to reconstruct a relative chronology for the issue. The ANS collection holds two examples of provisini. The first  was minted between the very last years of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th century. This dating of the coin comes courtesy of metallurgical analysis carried out by Angelo Finetti in the Istituto di Scienza della Terra of Perugia University in 2000. Many examples of the type were also found in excavations conducted by the École Française de Rome at the fortified settlement of Caprignano (Casperia, prov. Rieti) in strata immediately antedating the destruction of the place in 1307.

ANS, 1939.156.5
ANS, 1939.156.5

In this period the obverse of the provisino showed a wool comb surmounted by an ‘S’, a clear reference to the Roman Senate, between a star and crescent. The legend reads +SENAT’P.Q.R. (Senat[us] P[opolus]q[ue] R[omanus]). The reverse has the legend +ROMA.CAPVD.M’ (Roma Capud M[undi]) with a cross surrounded by symbols. Three variants have been recognized, based around the different symbols in the quarters around the cross:

  • Cross with two pellets in the 1st and 4th quarters
  • Cross with misshapened omega and star in 2nd and 3rd quarters
  • Plain cross

The coin above is of the second variant. The metrological evidence indicates that these were struck in large quantities over a relatively short period of time. The most likely occasion was the First Jubilee of 1300, which was accompanied by a massive building program. This, together with the presence of numerous pilgrims and others into Rome, would certainly have created a great need for petty cash. While these coins are hardly attractive to modern eyes, they offer a window into a forgotten era of the history of Rome.

For more examples of provisini held by Italian museums, see the online database of the Capitoline Museum.

Mariele Valci

Minting Multiculturalism in Alexander's Wake

This is the second in a series of guest posts by students attending the Eric P. Newman Graduate Seminar in Numismatics.

In 334 BCE, Alexander the Great crossed from Europe into Asia Minor and began his conquest of the Achaemenid Empire. Centered in Persia, it was the largest empire the world had yet seen, stretching from from Egypt and Bulgaria in the west to Pakistan and Western China in the east. Founded by Cyrus the Great in 559 BCE, the expansive empire was thought to have ruled over half of the world’s population at its height. The Achaemenid Empire is perhaps best known today for the series of wars it fought with the Greek city states, most notably Athens and Sparta. Although the Achaemenid kings were unsuccessful in their attempts to invade Greece proper, they did control a large Greek population living in modern day Turkey, and the repeated Persian invasions inflicted heavy losses on the Greeks.

Achaemenid Empire
Achaemenid Empire

The Persians thus loomed in Greek minds as their powerful enemy, and one which Alexander was determined to crush as his armies began their march into Achaemenid territory. Classical sources cite revenge as one of Alexander’s goals, and, whether or not this was true, his forces swiftly conquered Asia Minor, the Levant, and Egypt. The Persian king  Darius III massed his forces at Gaugamela, near present-day Mosul in Iraq, but suffered a devastating defeat owing to Alexander’s superior soldiers and tactics.


Darius fled west into the mountains, leaving one of his chief courtiers, Mazday (also known as Mazaeus or Mazaios), in charge of the city of Babylon. When Alexander’s army arrived at the gates, Mazday immediately surrendered the city and ceded control of the the strategically important region around Babylon to the Greeks. But Mazday did not simply surrender because he feared Alexander and his army, he was also motivated by self-interest. Alexander made Mazday satrap (or governor) of Babylon, which suggests he might have struck a deal to surrender the city. This position gave him responsibility for producing coinage:

ANS, 1944.100.72088
ANS, 1944.100.72088

This is a silver stater that weighs 17 grams, which is fairly heavy for an ancient silver coin, and it was minted in Bablyon under Mazday’s authority (331-328 BCE). On the obverse, the Semitic god Baal, who was worshipped throughout the Middle East, sits enthroned with a scepter in hand. Although mostly illegible, an Aramaic inscription on the right side of the obverse reads, “Baaltars,” a local variant of the god. This image of Baal later came to represent Zeus for coins minted throughout Alexander’s territory, as both were the chief gods of their respective pantheons. The reverse shows a lion, a popular image for millenia in the Middle East, and an Aramaic inscription reading Mazday.

The coin shows something of the cross-cultural influences that followed Alexander’s conquests . The Aramaic language, along with the iconography of Baal and the lion, is deeply Middle Eastern, yet Baal’s image eventually transmorgified into Zeus. The coin was minted at a Greek, rather than Persic, weight standard, and Greek inscription later displaced the Aramaic script. The coin can be viewed as a material symbol of the melding of Greek and Middle Eastern culture in the Hellenistic period.

Rhyne King

Trajan's Triumph

This is the first in a series of guest posts by students attending the Eric P. Newman Graduate Seminar in Numismatics.

From 101 to 106 CE, the Roman Emperor Caesar Traianus Divi Nervae Filius Augustus Germanicus Dacicus, more commonly known as the emperor Trajan, waged back to back wars in the ancient territory of Dacia, a region covering modern Romania, Moldova, and surrounding area. Trajan’s victory in these wars was a source of prestige and provided the Roman Empire with a supply of wealth in the form of imported slaves and newly accessible gold mines.

Trajan decreed one hundred and twenty-three days of celebration following the final conquest of Dacia and its conversion into a province. In the years that followed, the benefits of these campaigns reached Rome in the form of plunder brought back by the returning army. Precious metal objects were paraded in triumphant processions through the city before they were melted down and minted into imperial denarii. The coins from this period, which were produced in a variety of types and variations,  commemorated the victory and celebrated the might of Rome.

ANS, 1956.127.1592
ANS, 1956.127.1592

This silver denarius has a typical obverse showing Trajan’s portrait, identifying him by name (IMP TRAIANO), including his titles denoting his military victories in Germany and Dacia, and recording the year it was struck in the form of the number of his consulships. The reverse shows Nike, the goddess of victory, inscribing DACICA on a shield, which hangs on a palm tree (yet another symbol of victory). The legend S P Q R OPTIMO PRINCIPI indicated that the coin was struck at the behest of the Senate and the Roman people for Trajan.


Like many Roman coins, the imagery and meanings duplicate and reinforce each other, presenting Rome as an invincible force almost predestined to add territory and expand. These images, together with the legend, follow patterns of inscriptions and iconography that were utilized in the construction of his forum and the famous Trajan’s column, which celebrated the discipline and strength of the Roman legions. The free-standing column wreathed in an elegant spiral bas relief was  completed in 113 CE and is about 100 feet in height. It’s dedication reads:

The Senate and people of Rome to the Emperor Caesar Nerva Trajan Augustus, son of Nerva of blessed memory, conqueror in Germany and Dacia, High Priest, vested with the tribunician power 17 times, proclaimed Imperator 6 times, elected consul 6 times, Father of the Nation: as an illustration of the height which this hill and place attained, now removed for such great works as these.

Interestingly, both the coin and the inscription on the column recognize the agency of the Roman Senate and people (Senatus Populusque Romanus), and acclaim their triumph alongside that of Trajan’s. As with other Roman emperors, the right to strike coinage was one that was technically granted by the Senate as representatives of the people. Moreover, the erection of the column, though organized by Trajan and his favored architect, Apollodorus of Damascus, was technically a Senatorial project, not an imperial one. The coin was struck five years after the wars, but predated the completion of the column and thus helped to keep the memory of the Dacian Wars alive until the grand monuments could be completed.

Jane Sancinito

ISIS, Numismatics, and Conflict Antiquities

In preparing a session on cultural property issues for the Eric P. Newman Graduate Seminar, I was reading more of the news about the systematical looting of Syria. The debate about how the sale of antiquities, including coins, helps to fund ISIS has been hotly contested, but images such as the aerial views of the ancient site of Dura-Europos are just too depressing for words.

Palmyra Gate, Wikipedia
Palmyra Gate of Dura-Europos via Wikipedia

What I had missed until I read Sam Hardy’s blog on conflict antiquities is the discovery of a numismatic book among an unlikely assortment of weapons and somehow academic-looking publications. The photograph below was one taken of materials confiscated by the Kurdish People’s Defence Unit after a battle with Turkish Islamic State fighters.

‘New documents unravel ISIS-Turkish state cooperation’ (c) Mehmet Nuri Ekinci, Ajansa Nûçeyan a Firatê (ANF), 3rd June 2015
‘New documents unravel ISIS-Turkish state cooperation’
(c) Mehmet Nuri Ekinci, Ajansa Nûçeyan a Firatê (ANF), 3rd June 2015

An open page shows what numismatists and archaeologists identified immediately as a group of various Persian and Phoenician coins, with some text below. I knew right away that I had seen this page some time in the past, and after a few minutes I was able to decipher the title of the article, ”La Syrie sous la domination achéménide” by Maurice Sartre. A Google search quickly confirmed that this was published in the volume Archéologie et Histoire de la Syrie II, edited by Winfried Orthmann and Jean-Marie Dentzer and published in 1989. Here is the entry for the book in the ANS Library Catalogue, and upon arriving at the ANS this morning, I was able to confirm the identification:

American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society

Towards the end of the book, there is a map of archaeological sites of Hawran, an area in southwestern Syria:

American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society

The confiscated book is missing the first pages, its dark-green hard cover, and very last page (p. 591). The page with the text and images of coins in the Syrian photograph is page 17. Incidentally, the first volume of Archéologie et Histoire de la Syrie was published in 2013.

There is indeed a personal connection of mine to the book. Winfried Orthmann was professor of Near Eastern Archaeology at Saarbrücken University, where I attended his lectures as an undergraduate. And the book was published and printed in my hometown Saarbrücken.

IMG_116018Now how this very scholarly book on archaeology of Syria ends up in the hands of ISIS fighters is an interesting question. I, for one, have never underestimated the often erudite knowledge people who are involved in looting ancient sites in the Mediterranean. For people interested in a general overview of coins from Syria, this book is indeed helpful. Articles by Christian Augé on “La monnaie en Syrie à l’époque hellénistique et romaine” (pp. 149–190, with four plates illustrating 71 coins) and by Cécile Morrisson (who won the ANS Huntington Medal in 1995) on “La monnaie en Syrie byzantine” provide excellent and well-illustrated introductions to the coins of this region. Her article gives a considerable amount of detailed scholarly information on site finds of coins in Syria.

So this is an extremely unlikely find—a scholarly, not exactly inexpensive, and heavy—book on the archaeology of Syria in the hands of ISIS fighters. If anyone doubts the multifaceted connections between looted antiquities and war in Syria, this discovery has to make one wonder.

Ute Wartenberg


Ar-Raqqah Museum

After my last post identifying the Archéologie et Histoire de la Syrie (1989) as the volume confiscated from ISIS fighters, Professor Winfried Orthmann, one of the editors of this German collection of essays on the archaeology of Syria, sent me an email. He informed me that he had sent a copy of the book to the director of antiquities at the Ar-Raqqah Museum. It is also possible that the had an additional copy of the book. Raqqa, a city in the Euphrates River in the northern region of Syria, has been a stronghold of ISIS for a while, and the looting of its museum has been widely online (see, for example, this and this). In any event, it is certainly possible that this relatively rare academic volume seen in the photos was one of the copies from the Ar-Raqqah Museum.