Coins, but Make it Fashion

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A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece for Pocket Change about coins baked in bread to predict the future in the Balkans. These instances got me thinking about other ways that coins play a significant role in a different context in contemporary North Macedonia; namely, how coins are worn in clothing, often as part of women’s outfits for special occasions.

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In winter 2017, I attended a folk dance performance at the House of Culture in the town of Radoviš in southeastern Macedonia. Jasmina Ilieva danced hand-in-hand in synchronized step with a group of 17 other women, all dressed in the same traditional outfit. Braided leather shoes bounced lightly across the stage under heavy woolen socks; woven crimson patterns criss-crossed matching aprons. Some of the women wore chains of small metal disks affixed across their vests, tinkling in time to the music. Jasmina wore a similar chain, but instead of blanks, it bore two rows of silver coins, glinting in stage-light as the shifting semi-circle came to a halt.

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The coins Jasmina wore were “old silver,” she told me, Ottoman issues that circulated 150 years ago. She inherited them from her grandmother alongside the vest and apron of her outfit. Her grandmother, a woman from a village in the Lakavica valley south of Radoviš, had worn them on her wedding day. Jasmina bragged that she was the only one from her group who didn’t wear newly-bought pieces, that her outfit was the most authentic. Upon close examination, there were subtle differences in the quality, age, and even the patterns in each dancer’s clothing.

In the audience, Jasmina’s mother, Teta Lila, described to me how traditional outfits simultaneously highlighted individuality and diminished it. Elaborate embroidery advertised domestic prowess. Both the quality of materials and the quantity of the silver indicated particular access to wealth. Teta Lila explained how the clothes also marked them as a part of a collective. If, she told me, you went to the open-air bazaar in Radoviš a hundred years ago, you could look around and casually identify not only someone’s religious and ethnic background by their clothes, but even their specific village of origin. The patterned outfits the dancers wore included local variations, reflecting those historic distinctions. With some exceptions, traditional outfits in the region are preserved primarily only for performance and events, not worn in daily life.

The coins here function in a few ways. They’re percussive, contributing to the overall aural experience of the observer; they jangle rhythmically along with the cyclical music. Further, while they represent an actual facet of traditional clothing, there’s also something more to be said for their place as an authenticating feature in contemporary performance. When these outfits were worn in their original contexts, the silver implied wealth and suggested a local story of inheritance, reflecting an identity tied up in family and community. Today, they showcase a different kind of inheritance, a historical and ethnic one. As with other examples of historical reenactment, clothing as a costume for a performance of some aspect of the past, authenticates and perpetuates a construction of that past. The coins, in turn, as artifacts, authenticate the outfit. Folklore performances, common across the country and frequently sponsored by municipal governments, feature not only as a popular form of entertainment or local identification, but also aim to solidify and perpetuate notions of ethnic and national identity. Later that year, Jasmina and her group went to Istanbul, among representatives of 61 countries, to represent Macedonians at the annual International Folk Dance and Music Festival. Performances of this sort aim to secure both internal and external understandings of what comprises a particular group.

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When I talked to Jasmina about her traditional outfit, she enthusiastically elaborated on other examples of coins integrated into Macedonian clothing, mostly related to wedding dresses. She’s one of three sisters and their father has kept large gold coins for each of his daughters to wear on her wedding day. At Jasmina’s wedding, she wore a 1913 Austrian ducat with a bust of emperor Franz-Josef on the obverse; her younger sister wore a similar piece when she got married a few years later. Jasmina indicated that their oldest sister didn’t have hers yet, since she remains unmarried. Similar to this practice is how Albanian brides wear gold and gold coins as either part of a necklace or sewn into their dresses or headpieces. Albanians, who represent about a fourth of the population of North Macedonia, have a tradition that brides should wear gold not only as something of a dowry, but also as representative of these women’s historically unique power of divorce. An Albanian wife could divorce her husband in a socially-sanctioned process by keeping the gold, which exclusively belongs to her. With this to establish a separate life from a former spouse, the brides’ coins symbolize both marriage and are a gentle threat of independence in a patriarchal system.

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In these examples, coins are jewelry, they make noise, they indicate aspects of culture, including national and ethnic identity, gender expectations, and social standing. Reflecting on such moments where coins play various roles in clothes in the southern Balkans, I’m reminded again how coins are much more than just economic or political objects. Coins gave me a new lens to appreciate and analyze these practices and to think a little more critically about the work that they do in context.

Seleucid Coins Online as a Clearinghouse for New Information

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As work continues apace to add monograms to the coin data presented in Seleucid Coins Online (SCO) (as well as for PELLA and PCO), it seemed worthwhile to point out a feature that is swiftly becoming one of the major benefits of SCO to students of Seleucid numismatics. Whereas in the past it has been necessary to wait for the arrival of new publications in order to learn of discoveries impacting attribution, the notes field in SCO now makes it possible to provide information on new attributions almost as soon as it becomes available.

In an article that appeared in the ANS Magazine last year (“Is there a Santa Claus? The Story of Seleucid Coins Online”), I noted that it had been possible to reattribute a tetradrachm from Antiochus Hierax (c. 242–227 BC) to Antiochus III (223–187 BC) and from the Hellespont to Phrygia based on a new die link reported by a collector—a fact included in the notes fields of the linked types, SC 860 and SC 1001. Since then, even more new evidence for reattributions has been coming to light and duly marked in the notes fields of the relevant types. In this way, researchers using SCO are instantly apprised of modifications to the attributions originally published in Seleucid Coins, A Comprehensive Catalogue in 2002 and 2008.

Figure 1.
Figure 1. SC 2122. Bronze coin of Antiochus VII Sidetes.

Numismatists interested in SC 2122, a bronze coin of Antiochus VII Sidetes (138–129 BC) featuring helmet and aphlaston types (Fig. 1), will discover in the notes field accompanying the type in SCO that in the 2019 volume of Israel Numismatic Research, D. T. Ariel presented new find evidence that strongly points to Jerusalem as the issuing mint. Based on more general provenance information, SC 2122 was described circumspectly as a “Bronze Issue of Southern Coele Syria” in Seleucid Coins, Part 2, but the large number of specimens Ariel shows to have been found in the environs of Jerusalem, now make that city the most likely mint for this issue. He further supports attribution to Jerusalem by pointing to the use of types that would be inoffensive to a Jewish audience—a feature also found on SC 2122, a type of Antiochus VII long associated with Jerusalem—and the subsequent reuse of a similar helmet type for bronze coins of the Hasmonaean High Priest John Hyrcanus I following the secession of Judaea from the Seleucid Empire (Fig. 2).

Figure 2.
Figure 2. SC1932. Bronze of Demetrius II.

SC 1932 is a bronze type struck in the first reign of Demetrius II Nicator (145–143 BC) that was only known from two examples when Seleucid Coins, Part 2, was published in 2008. One was obtained by Henri Seyrig and subsequently entered the collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Fig. 3) and the other appeared in the second Houghton collection of Seleucid coins (CSE 2, 519). The great rarity of the issue may be gauged by the fact that the Society’s own Seleucid numismatic superstar, Edward T. Newell, seems not to have owned an example. At least, if he had ever possessed one, it did not make it into the ANS collection with the rest of his vast Seleucid collection. Based primarily on the reverse type depicting Poseidon and Seyrig’s deep interest in Syria, it was suggested in Seleucid Coins that this issue was probably struck at Laodicea by the Sea. However, in light of a report by David Hendin last week of a third specimen of SC 1932 offered for sale by a dealer in Ashkelon (ancient Ascalon) raises serious doubts about the attribution to Laodicea. A rare bronze coin ostensibly from a city of the Syrian Tetrapolis seems a little out of place at a southern Israeli port city. Instead, it seems more likely that the tentative mint attribution in Seleucid Coins is incorrect and that SC 1932 was actually struck at Ascalon. This suspicion is further supported by the letters A/Σ that appear in the left field and match the first two letters in the city ethnic of Ascalon. These same letters also occur on Seleucid quasi-municipal bronze issues of Ascalon struck by Demetrius’ predecessor, Alexander I Balas (152–145 BC), and his rival, Antiochus VI Dionysus (144–c. 142 BC). With the new provenance information included in the notes, anyone researching SC 1932 will be made instantly aware of the probable reattribution.

Figure 3.
Figure 3. Bronze of Demetrius II. National Library of France.

All of this shows that over time, Seleucid Coins Online really does have the potential to become a true virtual clearinghouse for Seleucid numismatic information and the ultimate source for up-to-date attributions superseding those given in the print volumes of Seleucid Coins, A Comprehensive Catalogue.

 

 

 

The Lifetime in Circulation of Visigothic Coins

Individual coins are not very informative, but when significant numbers of coins and their find contexts can be compared, they can tell us a lot about the people who used them. Coin hoards are one of the more important sources of information for numismatists, although they can be tricky to interpret. One topic that hoards can shed some light on is how long coins remained in circulation, a question that is critical for understanding how people used coins and how many coins were in circulation for them to use.

The economy of the Visigothic kingdom in early medieval Spain, Portugal, and France (late fifth to early eighth centuries) is poorly documented in textual sources, so archaeological evidence (including coin finds) is essential. There was a substantial gold coinage, clearly under royal regulation from the late sixth to early eighth centuries, but how these coins were used within the economy remains a matter of debate. Looking at the relative ages of the coins found together in hoards is one clue.

This coin of Sisenand (631–636) was one of the latest coins included in the La Capilla hoard, which was buried in the mid-630s. It shows hardly any wear from circulation. ANS 2016.29.86.
This coin of Sisenand (631–636) was one of the latest coins included in the La Capilla hoard, which was buried in the mid-630s. It shows hardly any wear from circulation. ANS 2016.29.86.

Coin hoards can be formed in many ways. They may contain a group of coins representing what was in circulation at the time. However, they may reflect some unrepresentative selection process, such as a packet of newly minted coins just paid out by the government, or a group of better-quality coins picked from circulation to be saved. Thus, it is important to look at the structure of hoards before leaping to conclusions.

As it happens, most Visigothic coin hoards show a profile suggesting that they were drawn from general circulation. Normally the coins span a range of twenty or thirty years, but the majority of them come from the two reigns closest to the closing of the hoard, with the numbers from earlier reigns diminishing rapidly. Sometimes a hoard contains an outlier or two, older coins that somehow re-entered circulation, much like the occasional wheat-ear cent or buffalo nickel that turns up in circulation in the United States today. But overall, the statistical pattern is quite consistent.

From this evidence, we can conclude that Visigothic coins circulated for a limited span of time, perhaps around ten years on average, with most coins having left circulation before they were twenty years old. However, coins seem mostly to have left circulation gradually, perhaps to be melted down for other uses or for striking new coins; there is only evidence for one wholesale withdrawal and replacement of coins. Near the beginning of the Visigothic regal coinage, in the early 580s, it appears that all earlier coins were removed from circulation as part of a reform of coinage standards.

There was one other significant coinage reform during the period in question, around the early 650s. No withdrawal of coinage at that time is visible in the evidence, but unfortunately there is no hoard from the 660s, when it would have been most visible. The evidence does make clear, however, that the continual reductions in weight and fineness that were occurring at most other times were not associated with large-scale withdrawal and replacement of coins.

A tendency for older coins with higher gold content to be removed from circulation, as predicted by Gresham’s Law, is likely to be an important contributing reason for the relatively short lifespan of Visigothic coins, but it is also clear that coins of significantly different fineness could and did circulate together.

This coin of Reccared I (586–601) may be the oldest known coin from the La Capilla hoard. It contained about 20% more gold than the latest coins in the hoard, those of Sisenand (631–636). However, it has only limited wear from circulation, suggesting that it was not in active use most of the time during the four decades or so between minting and burial. ANS 2015.48.46.
This coin of Reccared I (586–601) may be the oldest known coin from the La Capilla hoard. It contained about 20% more gold than the latest coins in the hoard, those of Sisenand (631–636). However, it has only limited wear from circulation, suggesting that it was not in active use most of the time during the four decades or so between minting and burial. ANS 2015.48.46.

In summary, a brief look at one aspect of Visigothic coin hoards has told us some very useful things about the monetary system. The hoards show that coins could circulate for decades, even as standards of weight and fineness changed, unless there was a complete replacement of the coinage. However, they also show that coins had a relatively short lifetime in circulation, compared to some coinages in other times and places. Most likely older coins were frequently picked out of circulation and melted down due to their higher gold content, keeping the circulating population relatively young.

List of hoards with 20 or more recorded Visigothic regal coins, with median (50th percentile) and 95th percentile dates:

  • Mérida (20 coins, ca. 582?): all 20 coins from Leovigild, Cross-on-Steps series (ca. 581–584?).
  • La Capilla (ca. 1000 coins of which 765 recorded, ca. 631–636): median Suinthila (621–631), 95th percentile Sisebut (610–ca. 620).
  • Vega Baja de Toledo (31 coins, ca. 636–639): median Sisenand (631–636), 95th percentile Suinthila (621–631).
  • Córdoba (46 coins, ca. 642): median Chintila (636–639), 95th percentile Suinthila (621–631).
  • La Grassa (ca. 800 coins of which 175 recorded, ca. 653): median Tulga (639–642), 95th percentile Sisebut (610–ca. 620).
  • Zaragoza (35 coins, ca. 695–702): median Egica sole reign (687–ca. 695), 95th percentile Reccesuinth (653–672).
  • Abusejo (111 coins, ca. 702–710): median Egica and Wittiza (ca. 695–702), 95th percentile Wamba (672–680).

Also, note the very large Fuentes de Andalucia hoard (ca. 4000 coins, ca. 625), which was not recorded, but a large majority of the coins were apparently from Suinthila (621–631) and Sisebut (610–ca. 620). For more details on these hoards, see R. Pliego, La moneda visigoda (Seville: University of Seville, 2009), ch. 9.

Roman Imperial Coinage and OCRE

Roman Imperial Coinage (RIC) is the definitive corpus of coins issued under the Roman Empire. This 10-volume typology spans 460 years of Roman minting (from 31 BCE–491 CE), and its publication was itself a monumental undertaking. Begun in 1923 with a volume covering Augustus to Vitellius, the corpus was completed in 1994, ending with the emperor Zeno.

But numismatic knowledge is never crystallized. Spink releases updated volumes as necessary to reflect current research and progression in the field. In 2019, Spink released their latest addition to the RIC corpus. This updated version of RIC covers the Hadrian section of Volume II. It includes new finds, corrects old errors, and provides more detailed dating.

In response, the American Numismatic Society is updating its Online Coins of the Roman Empire (OCRE) digital corpus to reflect the new edition. This searchable database provides access to the valuable typologies published by Spink, and assembles more than 130,000 examples from the ANS collection, the Münzkabinett of the State Museum of Berlin, the British Museum, and 40 additional museums and archaeological databases. The OCRE project began in 2011 and was assisted by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The platform acts as an accessible catalog and a search tool for scholars and collectors alike.

OCRE provides more than easily accessible data: its digital nature creates a new analytical tool for researchers. The platform offers numerous options to refine searches, deepening user customization and allowing for more nuanced inquiry. The abundant samples of coinage types—drawing from three of the largest numismatic collections worldwide—create an unparalleled opportunity for die studies. OCRE’s high-resolution images make die studies easier on the eyes and permits study to occur remotely. The current OCRE update supports the ANS’ goal to offer the most contemporary resources available for numismatic study.

In addition to this digital initiative, the ANS is incorporating the updated numbering system into its own collections database. Each of the ANS’ 1,600 Hadrianic coins will be renumbered according to the new volume. The original volume’s classification system grouped similar coins together under a single number, making extensive use of subtypes (Hadrian 101a–c, for example, are identical except for slight obverse bust variations). The 2019 update moves away from subtypes and assigns each variation its own unique number. In addition, the new volume distinguishes obverse bust types with more granularity and assigns separate numbers for each bust variation. The ANS is editing its database, Mantis, to reflect this simplification of the typology.

To realize this important update, the ANS has hired a temporary assistant to incorporate the volume into OCRE and renumber their Hadrian collection. If you are an OCRE user, patron of numismatics, or passionate about digital accessibility, please consider donating to our GoFundMe page in support of this initiative.

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CoinHoards.org Launched

igch-bannerThe American Numismatic Society is pleased to announce the launch of CoinHoards, a new web-based, linked open data tool for research in ancient Greek numismatics and ancient economies.

Coin Hoards is a component of the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded Hellenistic Royal Coinages project developed by the American Numismatic Society (ANS). An innovative research resource, CoinHoards provides primary data and other information on 2,387 hoards of coins produced by Greeks and other non-Roman peoples in the Mediterranean and adjacent regions between ca. 650 and 30 BCE. In addition to a basic description, users will find on the page devoted to each hoard mapping tools for the findspot and mint(s) where the coins found in the hoard were produced, bibliographical references, and a list of the hoard contents. These tools will allow users to compare and contrast circulation patterns of coinage in various parts of the Mediterranean world over time. Where possible, each type of coin listed is linked to a typological description, such as those found on PELLA, Seleucid Coins Online, and Ptolemaic Coins Online. Additional links are provided where possible to relevant resources associated with the hoard, which might include the MANTIS record of individual coins from the hoard held in the ANS collection, ANS publications, the notebooks of Edward T. Newell, and associated correspondence, notes, and archival material.

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The current version of CoinHoards is based on the print publication Inventory of Greek Coin Hoards, edited by Margaret Thompson, Otto Mørkholm, and Colin Kraay, published in 1973 by the ANS for the International Numismatic Commission. Future versions of CoinHoards will incorporate material from the print publications Coin Hoards, vols. 1–10, published by the Royal Numismatic Society, and more recently by both the Royal Numismatic Society and the ANS.

The launch of CoinHoards is a remarkable step forward in our ability to trace circulation patterns of ancient coinage and thereby gain greater insight into patterns of trade and other types of economic interaction. This new website allows users to conduct in-depth research on scores of related hoards and their contents in just a few minutes, saving hours or even days of research time.

For more information on the technical side of how CoinHoards was assembled, see the ANS’s Director of Data Science Ethan Gruber’s Numishare blog.