PELLA: Coins of the Kings of Macedonia

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The American Numismatic Society has launched a digital project that promises to be an important new research tool in ancient Greek numismatics. PELLA: Coins of the Kings of Macedonia is a comprehensive and accessible online catalogue of the coinage produced by the kings of the Macedonian Argead dynasty from 700 to 310 BC. In its current version, PELLA uses the numbering and typology system developed by Martin Price of the British Museum to catalogue individual coin types with additions that greatly enhance its usefulness as an online resource. So, for example, here is a silver tetradrachm struck under the authority of Alexander the Great that is classified as a Price 4.

ANS, 1908.229.1
ANS, 1908.229.1

If you follow this link to the search results, you will be presented with a typological description and all examples of that type from participating institutions. In this case there are 45 objects from the ANS and the Münzkabinett Berlin, which are accompanied by a useful visualization of the geographic and historical context of the coins in the form of a map delineating mints and find spots with a sliding timeline underneath.

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 10.57.50 PM

Below this, all of the coin specimens are detailed and usually pictured, making comparative study relatively simple. Perhaps the most useful tool for researchers can be found in the Quantitative Analysis subsection at the bottom of the page. Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 4.42.34 PMIt calculates and lists the average axis, diameter, and weight of all the examples for the Price 4 specimens, allowing for straightforward analysis of variations within a given type.

One of the other noteworthy features is that the platforms allows for searching based on the symbols common to this coinage. Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 1.49.17 PMIn the Browse menu, you will find that there are a variety of options for customizing a search along the left hand side of the page. Under the Symbol menu, there are boxes arranged by location which have lists and checkboxes which allow for searching either particular symbols or locations. Although the precise terminology used to describe the various symbols is a work-in-progress, the feature will make it much easier for researchers to investigate this oft-debated subject.

If all of that is not enough, perhaps the neatest feature of the website centers on the way it allows users to Visualize Queries. This gives you the ability to construct a search and query the database with the results displayed as a graph or chart. Below is one that I created which shows the weight of the tetradrachm in ten-year intervals from 340 BC to 140 BC. Notwithstanding what seems to be some bad data in the one outlier decade, what you can see is a slow decline in the weight of the tetradrachm over two centuries.

chart (1)As a linked data platform, PELLA connects to the relevant pages in the online collection databases of the contributing institutions, which presently includes the ANS, the British Museum, and the Münzkabinett Berlin. The catalogue also shares data with the Inventory of Greek Coin Hoards Online, and further links will be created as the project expands. All of this is made possible by stable numismatic identifiers and linked open data methodologies established by the Nomisma.org project.

Architecture on Roman Coinage

ElkinsJacketThe American Numismatic Society is pleased to announce the publication of Monuments in Miniature: Architecture on Roman Coinage, a new book by Nathan T. Elkins that recasts the scholarship on this popular subject. Rather than focusing on the iconography, Elkins’ study seeks to contextualize these coins and understand the broader social and cultural context that informed these architectural representations. Although the emphasis is on Roman coinage, earlier Greek types are also featured for comparative analysis, including this sixth century BC silver stater of Zancle that shows harbor buildings on a sandbar encircling a dolphin.

ANS, 1957.752.592
ANS, 1957.752.592

In the Persian empire, city walls were a traditional symbol of power that were often represented on the coinage produced by the satrapies of Cilicia and Phoenicia. A particularly fine example of this tradition is this mid-fourth century BC tetradrachm of Tarsus, which depicts a lion attacking a bull above two rows of turreted walls.

ANS, 1947.81.4
ANS, 1947.81.4

The volume features over two hundred images and provides a comprehensive catalogue of Roman architectural coin types organized into Early, Late, and Provincial sections. I don’t want to step on Elkins’ detailed analyses here, but I do want to highlight one of the more spectacular coins, a cistophorus of Augustus from the mint at Pergamon that depicts the Temple of Mars Ultor on the Capitoline Hill in Rome.

ANS, 1937.158.454
ANS, 1937.158.454

As Elkins indicates, this particular representation likely bore no resemblance to the actual structure, which some historians argue was never actually built. Still, it is a lovely example of numismatic art (and architecture)!

For those looking to learn more about this fascinating topic, a PDF of the introduction is available to peruse here. To purchase, head over the ANS store.

Matthew Wittmann

The Talented Mr. Wood

Wood 07-00002
American Numismatic Society

Howland Wood: long-time ANS curator, Oriental coin authority, Huntington Award winner, and…illustrator? I must admit, I didn’t know about that last one—that is, until one day recently when looking into the controversy surrounding Victor David Brenner’s initials on the Lincoln Cent. I was reading a Numismatist article on the topic and was surprised to discover that the satirical drawing accompanying it, a depiction of a towering schoolmarm scolding the engraver for his audacity, was by Wood. Wood - VDB

 

The tone was in keeping with the one drawing of his I was aware of, a cartoon skewering the big names of the numismatic world that was found in his personal papers and written about some years ago in ANS Magazine. His other illustrations and devices for the Numismatist were not comical at all. Wood was identified as the “Staff Illustrator” for the magazine in 1909, and his contributions were part of an overall redesign of the magazine. By 1910, fewer and fewer of them appear, and they seem to be gone completely by 1911. As you can see by the slideshow below, Wood was a quite a talented illustrator.

Wood’s work in this area really should not have come as such a surprise. He was at that time working for a photoengraving firm in Boston—though as a salesman—a job he held for over a decade before becoming ANS curator. Several of the illustrations are engravings from photographs. His aptitude for art was not a quality hidden from his colleagues. In his eulogy for Wood, Edward Newell remarked on his “artistic sense [that] rendered him one of the finest and most successful arrangers of coin displays that I have ever been privileged to know.”

David Hill

Mexican-American 'Dollar,' circa 1877

A few weeks back the ANS put together a display for the U.S.-Mexican Numismatic Association that included some of the highlights of our collection of Mexican coins and currency. Among the most remarked upon pieces was a rather unusual Mexican-American ‘dollar,’ which in actuality consists of an 1874 Republic of Mexico 8 reales, an 1850s-era US half dime, and a circa 1875 US dime. As you can hopefully make out in the photo below, a copper rivet was driven through the three coins to join them together.

ANS, 1922.54.13
ANS, 1922.54.13

Explaining exactly why someone would do this is a rather complicated story. Let us begin with the Mexican coin, which was struck at the Guanajuato mint in 1874 and is of the traditional “Cap & Rays” design. During these years the Republic of Mexico was attempting to transition to a decimal-based monetary system centered on the peso, but the older Spanish real denominations proved so durable that they continued to be produced alongside the decimal currency. But what mattered in this case was not really the denomination, but the silver content of the coin. Generally speaking, countries at the time wanted the commodity value of their currency to be roughly equal to its nominal value. With the discovery and exploitation of vast silver deposits in the American West during the 1860s and 1870s, the price of silver declined as the supply increased. As the amount of silver used in particular coins stayed the same, their commodity value correspondingly decreased. A Mexican 8 reales, for example, contained around 377 grains of pure silver, and during the first half of the nineteenth century when the price of silver was stable, its commodity and nominal value corresponded, i.e. it was worth about $1 US as both circulating currency and as silver bullion. As the increasing abundance in the 1870s drove down the price of sliver, the value of the Mexican 8 reales as silver bullion depreciated to where it became worth significantly less than a US dollar. The reason that this was significant was because the Mexican 8 reales and peso were freely circulating in the southwestern United States during the 1870s, as there was a general want for silver coinage in the region.

ANS, 1922.54.13
ANS, 1922.54.13

As the price of silver declined, people soon discovered that their “Mexican dollars” that had been circulating at par with the US dollar were now only being redeemed by banks for around 85 cents. Whoever made this unusual coin came up with a novel solution to the problem. Hammering a dime (10¢) and half dime (5¢) together with the Mexican coin brought the value of the amalgamated piece to  one US dollar.

It is unclear how common this rather strange solution to the unstable currency situation was. At least one other specimen of similar vintage is known to us, via a 1905 inquiry to the Numismatist.Numismatist-1908-MexDollar A dealer named B. P. Wright included the illustration at left in a letter soliciting information about this unusual specimen. In this case the ‘host’ coin was an 1844 Mexican 8 reales, but the method and orientation of the attached American coins suggests it was made by the same person. Editor George F. Heath responded to the inquiry as follows:

During this time (1871-79 ) we resided in the great southhwest. For a period of about fifteen years silver had been driven from circulation and was rarely seen, paper currency having almost entirely taken its place. Long about 1877 the banks in the section began the importation of Mexican dollars in great quantities which were eagerly taken up into circulation at par, but in the course of a couple of years silver had so fluctuated in value that the banks would only redeem them at eighty five cents. This was the condition of things in 1879. It must have been between 1877 and 1879 that the brilliant idea presented itself to the author of this combination of combining these coins in a substantial and permanent way. But it could not have been long after ere the piece which was partly bullion became entirely so, and became a fit subject for the curio portion of the numismatic cabinet.

If you have seen a similar piece, please do let us know!

Matthew Wittmann