With its range of hawk-headed and half-mummified deities, the Egyptian pantheon has inspired devotion and intrigue for millennia. Egyptians were drawing, painting, and carving images of their gods well before the first pharaohs, over five thousand years ago. While coined money was not a regular part of the Egyptian economy until the third century BCE, Egyptian religious symbols featured on even the earliest coins. The gods of Egypt and their associated iconographies continued to be seen on the coins of Hellenistic kingdoms and throughout the Roman empire, until as late as the fourth century CE.
The Egyptian god Khepri, for instance, features on some of the earliest coinage, albeit in an indirect way. Khepri is represented as a scarab, or dung beetle. The ancients projected the image of this dung-rolling insect onto the heavens and imagined Khepri as a divine beetle pushing the orb of the sun across the daytime sky. Amulets, seals, and signet rings were therefore often made in the shape of scarabs, sanctified by this holy conveyor of the sun (fig. 1).
The significance and popularity of scarab amulets across the Mediterranean were such that the Lydians and Ionian Greeks in the archaic period (7th–5th centuries BCE) were familiar with both genuine Egyptian scarabs and Egyptianizing “imitations” (Hogarth, p. 205-207). The scarab form translated naturally to the novel medium of coinage and scarabs are found on the obverses of several types of early electrum coins. These include a 1/48 stater in the collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (fig. 2) and a larger denomination now at the British Museum (fig. 3).
With the spread of Alexander the Great’s empire into Egypt and subsequent Ptolemic rulership, Egyptian religious symbols began to appear on Hellenistic royal coin issues. A ram’s head wearing a headdress is featured on gold staters and silver tetradrachms minted at Memphis, Price type numbers 3963 and 3964, respectively. A beautiful example of one of these staters in the collection of the ANS was discovered in a hoard outside of Plovdiv, Bulgaria, far from its origins in Egypt (fig. 4).
The ram symbol is either Amun-Re, a principal sun god, or Khnum, a ram-headed creator and protector god, seen here in objects now at the Brooklyn Museum (fig. 5) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (fig. 6).
The headdress with corkscrew ram’s horns, a double feather, and central sun disk are common attributes of several gods, including the composite god Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, who had an important cult at Memphis (fig. 7). The headdress evoked divine kingship and pharaonic authority and Hellenistic kings sought to imbue themselves with this kind of power. Much later, an image of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris holding a scepter is shown on Roman Hadrianic coinage, perhaps invoking a similar claim to a divine right to rule (fig. 8).
Religious practices around the Mediterranean were dynamic. They reacted to and reflected shifting political realities. Different gods worshipped in different polities were occasionally equated and then worshiped as a unit. This process of merging—called syncretism—gave Egyptian gods new, multivalent qualities.
The gods Isis and Osiris are prime examples of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman religious syncretism. Egyptian mythology had it that Osiris was a primordial pharaoh who had been murdered and dismembered by his jealous brother. His wife, Isis, reassembled his body parts, which had been strewn along the Nile, and revived him. Thereafter, Osiris ruled over the underworld as king, further informing why Ptah-Sokar-Osiris is shown partially mummified on the coin above (fig. 8). After Isis resurrected Osiris, they had a son called Horus. After challenging his fratricidal uncle, Horus became the god of the living pharaoh and a sky god, usually shown as a hawk-headed man. These stories tied Osiris to kingship and death, and Isis to magic and motherhood.
When merged with Greco-Roman deities, Osiris and Isis became stock representatives of a host of “Egyptian” concepts: healing, mystical language, the afterlife, astrology, and the Nile, among others. The god Sarapis—a unique amalgam of Osiris, Greek Zeus and Hades, and a number of Egyptian solar deities—was consistently depicted on Roman coins (fig. 9). A bust of Serapis features on the reverse of a bronze AE2 of Constantine (fig. 10), a continuation of the same reverse type issued under Maximinus Daia at Alexandria (fig. 11). The related cults of Isis and Serapis became so popular that temples were dedicated to them on the Campus Martius in Rome.
Instead of his avian iteration, Horus is often shown on Roman coins in his incarnation as a human child, a figure called Harpocrates. Harpocrates, as a god of children and secrecy, is shown making a shushing gesture on the reverse of a coin of Antoninus Pius (fig. 12). Isis holds Harpocrates on denarii of Septimius Severus (fig. 13) and they stand flanking two busts of other Egyptian divinities in bronze drachms of Trajan (fig 14).
Another Egyptian god of death showcased on Roman coins was the psychopomp Anubis. Anubis, who was shown in Egyptian art as a jackal-headed god, led the souls of the dead through the underworld and was invoked during the ritual preparation of physical bodies for burial. He is shown on a bronze AE4 of Constantine (fig. 15).
He is holding a caduceus—a symbol of Hermes, a psychopomp from the Greek tradition—and a sacred rattle from Egyptian rituals, called a sistrum. While the instrument was originally tied to the Egyptian fertility goddess Hathor, Hathor was frequently assimilated to Isis, even in Egypt (fig. 16). Ultimately, sistra became catch-all visual cues for the land of Egypt itself and a symbol of the personification of Egypt, Aegyptos. Aegyptos is shown resembling Isis on a denarius of Hadrian, reclined and shaking a sistrum (fig. 17).
The thousand years of Egyptian religious imagery on coins continued an already thousands-of-years old artistic tradition. Over the centuries, these symbols bore various meanings for different communities at different times. They were used by issuing authorities to display piety and power, as well as to simply reflect popular forms. From Khepri to Isis to Aegyptos herself, there is a lot more to learn about Egypt’s myths and symbols and how they were engaged with at different points in antiquity. The gods of Egypt, on these coins and elsewhere, continue to raise interesting and important questions about how symbolism and syncretism function in religion and in art.
The scholarship of Dr. Nathan T. Elkins sits squarely at the intersection of art history, archaeology, and numismatics. Dr. Elkins teaches, researches, and writes actively in these subject areas, specializing in Roman imperial coinages. Recently appointed to direct the Allbritton Art Institute at Baylor University, Dr. Elkins is also a Fellow of the American Numismatic Society and edits the ancient section of the American Journal of Numismatics. In a remote interview, Dr. Elkins and curatorial assistant Austin Goodwin Andrews discussed the dynamic relationship between the fields of archaeology and numismatics.
Austin Goodwin Andrews: The aim of archaeology is to reconstruct aspects of the human past through analysis of material culture. What are some roles that ancient coins play in this process?
Nathan Elkins: Ancient coins are critical objects in the archaeology of the Mediterranean world; virtually any site will produce a number of coins. At most excavations of towns and villages, coins will be among the most commonly found man-made objects after ceramic finds. As such, ancient coins are one of the primary chronological indicators for a site and its development through time.
In addition to questions of dating, coins provide insights into economic conditions and patterns of coin circulation, the movement of populations, and so on. Study of where coins are found can also tell us about “audience targeting” in the Roman Empire, as we know that there was a differentiated supply of imperial coins to different parts of the empire and that it seems the Roman state sometimes targeted certain populations with the coins bearing relevant visual themes. For example, soldiers were sometimes specifically supplied with coins with martial imagery.
Study of coins from archaeological contexts also can tell us about how images on coins were personalized by certain individuals, such as the use of coins emphasizing Aeternitas (Eternity) in graves or a coin with Fortuna placed under the mast step of a ship. Ancient coins with known findspots greatly enhance and inform our understanding of the ancient world in myriad ways.
AGA: Over the years, you’ve been involved in a number of excavation projects. As part of a team of specialists on an archaeological excavation, what does a numismatist do?
NE: The primary job of a numismatist on an excavation is to identify, study, and ultimately publish the coins from an excavation. Numismatists often also clean and conserve the coins after they are excavated, but sometimes this requires another specialist, especially at sites where the soil is more corrosive to metal objects. I’ve never been able to do much cleaning of coin finds, since I’ve worked in Israel and Jordan where our coins have always required specialist intervention to clean them.
Once the coins are cleaned, the numismatist’s first task is to identify the coin finds as far as possible and to keep a catalog. Sometimes, coins can be fully identifiable, described, and given a very specific date, but often they are only partially attributable to the reign of a specific emperor. If nothing can be read on a coin, I can usually ascribe it to a century or part of a century based on the size, weight, and fabric of the coin. It’s important to collaborate with other specialists on site, as coins excavated from critical contexts, such as beneath the floors of buildings or in foundation trenches, will be very important in establishing the site’s chronologies, in conjunction with the ceramic finds.
After the coins are identified, I study finds from sites in the region to compare circulation patterns and look for anomalies. One of the exciting things I noticed about the coin finds from the late Roman fort at Yotvata was that we had a significant number of fourth-century coins from western European mints from before ca. 324 CE, but after that time they were almost exclusively from the nearby mints of Antioch and Alexandria, which would also have been the expected pattern for the pre-324 CE coins. I found a similar phenomenon in the circulation patterns of coins at other sites in the region, and especially at other military installations. One possibility for this phenomenon is that it represents an influx of western soldiers (and their money) after Constantine declared war on Licinius and moved eastward, and perhaps also the settlement of those soldiers at military installations along the eastern border after Licinius’s defeat. Such coins from excavations are the only evidence that points to the potential demographic shift.
AGA: I recently heard archaeologists characterized as uninterested and unknowledgeable about ancient coins. From my coursework and fieldwork in archaeology, hearing this was jarring to me and felt deeply untrue; I think, for instance, about how everything completely stops on a dig when even the dinkiest bronze is uncovered. How should we respond to that line of thinking?
NE: Such a statement is, indeed, an absolute falsehood and woefully uninformed. As archaeologists, we view every find from an excavation as significant and record everything in great detail; every object is potentially critical. I am a specialist in the study of ancient coins and an archaeologist by training. While I might not have the deep knowledge of the ceramics or zooarchaeological finds from the sites I work at, I understand that the work of the specialists on these materials, and the work of the other specialists on other materials, is deeply significant; we all contribute important pieces to the puzzle to reconstruct the past.
I’ll spend hours, off and on, trying to pull an identification from a single coin from a critical context; that coin might have no value in the modern trade because of how badly it is preserved, but it has great intellectual value and is essential to piecing together the past at an ancient site.
It’s hard to say how to respond to such comments, because those who propagate them have their own agenda at play; those minds are closed. Publication is a necessity, as is popular outreach and education, to show how invaluable and central ancient coins are to archaeology and at specific excavations. Such outreach should also promote awareness and ethical sensitivity towards the treatment of ancient coins and other ancient objects. Context provides so much more depth and dimension to all ancient objects, but not just the objects; the contexts tell us about the site, the people, the history, and how objects were used.
AGA: Globally, many active excavation sites ceased fieldwork this year due to the ongoing pandemic. Do you imagine this leading to increased unauthorized excavation and looting?
NE: I have no firsthand knowledge of this, but it is a concern. I read an article in Forbes, “Smugglers are Using Coronavirus Lockdowns to Loot Artifacts,” which indicated that there was an increase in looting and the marketing of looted artifacts on online forums after the lockdowns. This appears to make sense, for many archaeological sites were left without guards during the shutdowns. The potential, long-term economic effects are also a concern, if guards are laid off and if governments reduce funds to spend on site protections. There is also the added possibility that job loss might drive some people to seek profits in criminal activities, such as looting and antiquities trafficking.
AGA: There is something fundamentally alluring about the prospect of holding “history” in your hands. Coins represent that tangibility of the past for many people, numismatists and archaeologists alike. There’s a tension here, however, in that so much information is tied to artifacts in context. What is lost when artifacts lack context?
NE: You are absolutely right. Coins are magnificent objects. They often bear the portrait of a certain ruler and we can frequently associate them with specific events and vibrant periods of history. When holding an ancient coin, you think not only about the imagery on it and what it meant in the social and political contexts at the time it was struck, but you also think about the lives of those who handled them thousands of years ago, who they were, and what they thought about those images on the coins that are so intriguing—but foreign—to us today. I understand the allure.
The answer to those questions we like to speculate about when holding a coin can only be answered by attention to context. Archaeology tells us where the coins were found, who used them, when, and in what contexts. I mentioned in an answer to a previous question that the Romans had a penchant for personalizing the imagery they saw on coins, as with the find of a coin showing Fortuna from a mast step of ship or the selection of coins bearing Aeternitas (Eternity), or other such themes, for deposition in graves.
One very important discovery that comes to mind regards a loculus containing the burial of a Christian child in one of the catacombs in Rome. Pressed into the mortar around the grave were fourth-century CE coins bearing the youthful visage of the Deified Romulus, the son of Maxentius. Evidently, the parents of the deceased child were not concerned about the pagan connotations of the imagery on the coins, but appropriated the coins for private use because of the boy’s young age and the coins’ connection with the death of a child taken too soon. There’s a sentimentality to it. We have a record of the emotional resonance that the use of these coins represented to the parents who lost a child.
AGA: You have written quite a bit about images of monumental structures on ancient Roman coins. This is a unique and almost “meta” approach. You’ve taken the question of “what can we learn about ancient built environments,” one typical of archaeology, but pursued it through the lens of coins. Could you explain this approach further?
NE: The traditional approach to the representation of buildings on Roman coins has been to use the images as evidence for the reconstruction of ancient monuments. This is, of course, an approach fraught with a number of methodological problems. I thought it might be more productive and valuable to look at the images not from the modernizing perspective of our interest in ancient monuments but rather to ask the question of what images of monuments meant to the Romans. This meant asking questions like why the Romans were the first ancient civilization that habitually represented the built environment on their coins, relating the representations to other visual media, and looking at trends in representations through time. I also examined—to what degree I could—the geographical distribution of such representations across the empire, according to archaeological finds, and attempted to quantify the images. I found these ways of looking at things to be very fruitful and informative on many levels.
To me, one of the big takeaways was how insignificant architectural representation was in the grand scheme of things, if images on Roman coins communicated ideas and messages. During the heyday of architectural representation on the imperial coinage, the Flavian and Trajanic periods, coins bearing monuments accounted for just a few percent of what was in circulation, according to site finds and hoards, and yet the representation of the built environment on Roman coins is one of the more popular topics in the study of Roman coin iconography. What this discovery—informed by archaeology—indicates to me is the need to stay grounded and the need to be aware that our own modern interests can artificially inflate an issue or phenomenon in the past. Images bearing personifications of imperial ideals were produced in much more significant numbers and, as such, were the more important communicators, even though such images do not receive as much popular interest today. Until recently, academics have also taken more interest in rarer types instead of studying these more common and generic images that communicated powerful concepts about the rulers that produced them.
AGA: I know that you’re coordinating with the ANS to give one of our monthly Money Talks soon. What can folks expect for that?
NE: After writing about monuments on Roman coins, my second book was on the coinage of the Roman emperor Nerva, from 96 to 98 CE. There is some unusual interest in Diana/Artemis on his coins, specifically denarii that show Diana as huntress and cistophori, struck in Rome (but consigned to the province of Asia for circulation), which show the Temple of Artemis at Perge. Although I devoted several pages to this subject in my book, and rehearsed various interpretations, there was no definitive explanation for the types. But now I think I have figured it out!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Austin Goodwin Andrews is a curatorial assistant in the Ancient Greek Coins Department of the American Numismatic Society. Before joining the ANS, he taught in the Republic of Macedonia through the US Peace Corps. With a background in classical archaeology, Austin is currently supporting the NEH-funded Hellenistic Royal Coinages project.
For two years, I lived in what’s now North Macedonia. While teaching English in a rural village, I took part in a few traditions that included coins baked in bread as a method of folk divination.
Living with a host family, I had the unique opportunity to celebrate holidays domestically. My favorite among them was Christmas Eve, observed by Orthodox Christians on January 6, with a large meatless dinner at home, the last meal of the pre-Christmas fasting period (Fig. 1). A sort of feast within a fast, the table is set with rice-packed cabbage rolls, elaborate pastries, stew, and a loaf of bread, the pogača.
The eldest man initiates the meal, breaking the bread and offering a hunk for everyone in the household, listing each member. Whoever discovers a coin in their piece is blessed with wealth, health, and happiness for the year. Comparable customs play out around the Balkans and elsewhere. A well-known tradition, analogous and related to the Christmas Eve pogača, is that of king cake in French- and Spanish-speaking regions on Catholic Epiphany—also on January 6. King cakes, however, have infant figurines baked into them instead of coins.
In a town near where I lived, another American I knew who was staying with a host family was the luckiest at their table. The retiree she lived with would always put old Yugoslav coins in their pogača. The coin she found was much like the 1988 Yugoslav Dinara in the ANS collection. My host grandma used what was on hand from general circulation, such as a Macedonian 50 denari coin with the iconic face of St. Michael or a 10 denari with the peacock mosaic from Stobi.
Originally, the coin itself was both prize and predictor of future prosperity. Now, the coin is usually a low denomination and the lucky person is gifted a more substantial present, often cash. A student of mine even received one hundred euros one year, an enormously handsome sum for a seven-year-old. A point of conversation for weeks later among friends and colleagues is “to whom the coin fell” in your given household.
In another coin-related tradition, I took a more active role. On the Thursday before a wedding, it’s common for the respective families of the bride and groom to host celebrations to begin the matrimonial festivities. While attending one such bridal celebration, I engaged in a fertility ritual.
Kneeling to a low wooden table, I poured in the wet ingredients for soda bread while two friends of the bride poured in the flour and other dry ingredients. We took turns kneading the dough—as representative male and female actors—and added a coin to the mix. The friends whitened the face of the bride with flour and then washed their hands into a basin. The bride drank three times from the starchy water and, while the bread baked, beans were served so that she might bear as many children as the beans (!).
When the circular loaf cooled after baking, I stood on one side of the doorway and the young women stood on the other, while the bride squatted between us. We broke the bread in half over her head and everyone gathered to receive a piece, noting if it came from my side or the women’s side of the doorway. After an attendee found the coin, it was announced that the bride would have a baby boy, the coin foretelling the gender of the couple’s first child. A single brass denar with a sheep dog had been on my side of the bread.
In these traditions, coins prophesy good luck as symbols of abundance. Similar traditions around the globe showcase points of commonality and particularity in cultures across time and place. For both the Christmas Eve and prenuptial celebrations, coins have personal and cultural significance far beyond just their political and economic implications. Although I never had a coin in my piece of the pogača, I was all the richer not only learning about the traditions, but also getting the chance to participate in them as well.