All posts by Austin Andrews

A Sketch of A Sketch

In late June 2021, Heidi Wastweet led a stellar Long Table discussion about her work as a medallic artist and sculptor. She drew her material primarily from a popular lecture she delivered in 2019 at the Shanghai Coin Design Forum, but adapted the program to the conversational nature of the Long Table. One of her slides led me on a pleasant jaunt of numismatic research, following a line of inquiry about a particular medal’s design. 

After Wastweet’s presentation on the art and processes behind medal design and production, she facilitated a thought-provoking conversation for more than half of our numismatic lunch hour. She covered the unique parameters necessitated by the medallic form, reflecting on how artists navigate the tensions between intuition and intention when incorporating elements of design. The whole conversation was a lively one and, for me, one of the most resonant moments was when Dr. Ira Rezak reflected on how harmonious design is often a product of cultural context as much as anything else: beauty is in the eye of the beholder, yes, but the beholder has eyes and tastes derived from broader cultural expectations and aesthetic environments. 

When reviewing other artists’ use of some of the design elements she discussed, Wastweet presented some interesting examples of various medals and medallic designs. Among these included a sketch of an unrealized medal by the American medalist Donald De Lue. This sketch features a male nude squatting low above the capital of an Ionic column. His left fingers clutch a thin pillar while he works with a stylus in his right hand. The prominent arc of the figure’s back and his general titanic proportions take up much of the medal’s foreground. Above, four horses gallop through the heavens towards a radiate sun. In the design’s exergue, three acorns on an oak branch settle under the lettering: PARVA NE PEREANT. Many of us in attendance at the Long Table immediately recognized the Latin phrase, acorns, and oak leaves from the motto and seal of the American Numismatic Society. The image came from a 2020 Doyle auction listed as the third item in lot 30, along with four other Donald De Lue sketches. The description included the motto and its translation, “Let Not the Little Things Perish”, without noting any association with the ANS. 

I was curious to know if this sketch was a proposition for a new membership medal or if it might have been conceived as one of the several award medals given by the ANS, such as the obverse of the J. Sanford Saltus Award seen above. The latter came to mind because the Saltus Award bears thematic resemblance to the sketch. Both feature a nearly-seated nude holding a stylus and both incorporate the Society’s motto and the oak leaves of the ANS seal under a groundline. The ANS has bestowed this medal on artists since 1919 in recognition of “signal achievement” in medallic art and the ANS honored De Lue himself with the Award in 1967.

After inspecting the Doyle auction, I found the above De Lue sketch of the same design from a 2018 Jackson’s International Auction. This Modern & Vintage Masters auction lists Lot 57 as “Three Preparatory Drawings / Donald De Lue”. There are some subtle differences in this sketch from the previous one: the lack of the Ionic capital, the inclusion of an extra toe in the balancing left foot, and the awkward left hand which grips the pillar as if with a broken wrist of a too-long arm. These factors and the overall sketched quality of the drawing indicate it as an obvious earlier version of the design. The auction house described the sketch as an “Art Deco circular drawing inscribed PARVA NE PEREANT, […] 12 inches in diameter,” again, without any reference information indicating that this was a design for the ANS or naming its purpose. It was gifted “To Karen Tortorella / My Friend and Fellow-Artist / With Warmest regards / From Donald De Lue / Sculptor / 1978″. The year listed, 1978, gave me somewhere to start. 

Now that I had a rough date for the design—or, at least, a terminus post quem—I went to Scott Miller’s Medallic Art of the American Numismatic Society. Here, Miller notes that the “need for a new member’s medal became apparent by the 1960s as existing stocks of the [Gutzon] Borglum Medal were exhausted” (Miller 2015.27, above). He further explains that, a “competition was held, with Frank Eliscu declared the winner.” The winning Eliscu design would become the third membership medal of the Society (Miller 2015.53, below; Miller, p. 138), after the Borglum and earlier George Hampden Lovett designs. Miller, unsurprisingly, was also in attendance at the Long Table. 

There was no doubt that the De Lue sketches were from a submission proposed for this contest. I turned to the ANS Archives to learn more. The files of ANS curator Jeremiah D. Brady in the ANS Archives include the related material for the competition commissioned by the ANS Council, including notes and correspondence of the artists, judges, and other related parties. Corresponding with Director Leslie Elam, De Lue accepted an invitation in a letter dated Feb. 22, 1977, writing:

Dear Mr. Elam, 

Thank you for the invitation to compete for the Societies [sic] Members Medal. As per my telephone conversation with you, I will enter the competition. When you have the information I would be interested in knowing who the other competitors are. 

Sincerely, 

Donald De Lue

In addition to De Lue and Eliscu, artists Karen Worth, Gifford Proctor, and Thomas Lo Medico competed. Among T. James Luce, Julius Lauth, Thomas Wilfred, Robert Weinman, Marc Salton, and Jeremiah Brady, Dr. Ira Rezak also served on the jury for the medal competition.

These ANS Archive files also confirmed that the design from the De Lue sketch was, in fact, a medalist making a medal, a particularly fitting image for the topic of Wastweet’s Long Table. In a 1977 COINage article, “Contest for a Medal: Five Top Sculptors and Their Designs for a Major Numismatic Showpiece”, David L. Ganz explained the background for the competition and enumerated the designs these five artists submitted. Included was a final rendering of the De Lue design in the top left, as well as four additional De Lue proposals. In total, he offered two space-age designs as obverses and three ancient medalists as reverses. The article even describes his artistic vision for the reverse that initially piqued my interest. De Lue envisioned the ancient medalist moved to creation after attending a horse race, pausing to sculpt at a Greek temple undergoing construction. Seeing these alternative reverse designs reminded me of another Due Lue design from the 2018 Jackson International auction gifted to Karen Tortorella, a sketch of a medal for Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina. 

While the curvature of the central seated figure’s spine and the shading of the musculature of the abdomen closely resemble the sketch for the ANS medal, the modeling of the seated figure clearly derives from one of the other submissions for the ANS medal competition. Note the submission on the upper right of the COINage scan. The figure was kept more or less the same, given a fuller beard, and his stylus and medal reimagined as a contemplative pose. The winged spirit of medallic inspiration crowning the medalist with a laurel became a spangled muse inspiring the pensive sculptor-philosopher. Unlike the ANS design; however, an altered version of this design did come to fruition. With a few adjustments between sketch and final form, such as the removal of the winged horse in the muse’s left hand and the leaf from the exergue, an example of this Brookgreen Garden medal is housed in the Society’s collection, ANS 1980.157.1.

Seeing this medal in the ANS collection brought the story around full-circle. A nature haven for sculptures and sculptors alike, Brookgreen Gardens was founded by early twentieth century benefactors of the ANS, Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington. Not only that, but Heidi Wastweet herself has trained medalists as a teaching artist at Brookgreen Gardens for years—and also produced a medal for the institution in 2017, one which she showcased during her Long Table (2017 Brookgreen Medal)

During this jaunt, I learned more about some of the processes that went into producing these medals, as well as how different institutions like the ANS and Brookgreen Gardens have gone about commissioning works through the years. Heidi Wastweet’s Long Table discussion, along with those recently hosted by Eugene Daub and Mashiko, was a fantastic glimpse into artistic perspectives on numismatic topics and I’m looking forward to more to come. For me, the best sorts of programs are ones like these, where further inquiry emerges and the conversation continues. 

Managing the Collection: An Interview with Dr. Elena Stolyarik

Dr. Elena Stolyarik, Collections Manager at the American Numismatic Society, has held nearly every single one of the Society’s over 800,000 objects. As a critical member of the curatorial staff, the Collections Manager diligently maintains the Society’s vast, encyclopedic holdings of coins and currency, medals and money—all behind the scenes. Dr. Stolyarik’s background in museological, archaeological, and numismatic methods gives her a unique perspective on the purpose and function of the ANS. Prior to coming to the ANS in 1994, she led the Numismatic Department at the Odessa Archaeological Museum, excavated at Tyras on the Black Sea, and was a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. In an interview at the Society’s headquarters in New York City, Dr. Stolyarik and Assistant Director Austin Goodwin Andrews discussed her work and the particularities of the Society and its holdings.

Austin Goodwin Andrews: What is the role of the Collections Manager at a research institution like the ANS, where object care and curation are so intermingled? 

Elena Stolyarik: First of all, it means that you are a part of the professional team of one of the oldest museums and research institutions in the United States. The Society has been dedicated to researching numismatic objects and popularizing the field of numismatics since it was founded in 1858. Over the past 163 years, the Society obtained the objects in its collection from a range of sources, including from generous donations, bequests, and purchases. These and any new acquisitions should be properly maintained, preserved, and archived according to established museum practices and procedures. As the Collections Manager, I have several obligations. I register and manage documentation for all new museum objects, including accessioning and deaccessioning, cataloging, inventories, and other records. All of us in the curatorial department share responsibilities. We work as a team to ensure the collection is well cared for, documented, and made accessible to the public and for research. Because every one of us can replace each other when necessary, these are our mutual jobs.

AGA: I enjoy reading your column in the ANS Magazine with highlights of recent acquisitions. Before you write these, I know a lot of work goes into processing objects and accessioning them to be part of the Society’s collection, officially. What does the process of accessioning look like at the ANS?

ES: To accession objects, I prepare a list of gifts or purchases for the Trustees to approve. After approval, I register them, assign a group number, and then catalogue each object individually. We have a computer program set up with the correct fields. I indicate what we received and from whom we received. I write a short description and give each item its unique accession number. The curators also assign accession numbers, but I often accession Greek, Roman, and Byzantine coins and for the Medals Department.

Before we accession objects, we need to be sure that they have a proper provenance, especially for ancient and medieval coins. We need to confirm that an object was not stolen from an excavation or taken illegally out of another country; we need to be sure that nobody will claim that this is their property. After accessioning, I give materials to our exceptional photographer, Alan Roche, and I write about a few examples for the magazine. When Alan is done with photographing, we insert them into the appropriate trays in our vault. When someone visits for research or a curator needs to find something, we need to know exactly where everything sits. Objects are grouped by periods, mints, or another system. If we have twenty coins from Roman Alexandria from the second or third centuries, they need to be inserted with the other coins from this mint, according to chronology. On the back of the box, we indicate who made the donation. 

Before our move to digitizing the collection, this process was done on a card the same way books are processed in a library. Now, I register and catalogue on our computer program and this creates an electronic record. We also make records of what we’ve cataloged available publicly with high-resolution images through our online collections database, MANTIS. After that, we have another back-up record: I put all of this information in our huge accession book.

AGA: You’re also involved with exhibitions and oversee all of the loans we make to other institutions. While the ANS regularly loans objects to major museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York or the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, we have loans to much smaller organizations, too, like the Bechtler House in rural North Carolina. What are some interesting examples of loans you’ve helped arrange? 

ES: This is also my job: to keep track of loans, to process new loans, to renew loans, for sending insurance and loan agreements. Along with the curatorial staff, I provide consultation services, help with selections and installations of our objects, and serve as courier to the borrowing institutions to accompany our loans. Today, we have over 380 objects on view in permanent, temporary, and traveling exhibitions. We don’t have space for a big exposition here at the ANS, but we maintain our own Exhibition Hall with several cases on display to introduce our visitors to the history of numismatics. At the end of the year, the curatorial staff organizes a display with new annual acquisitions.

When we had the original screw-press for the gold Bechtler dollars in a popular exhibit at the Federal Reserve, someone visiting from the Bechtler House saw it there and coordinated requesting the loan. This unique artifact became the centerpiece in their exhibition at the historic home of Christopher Bechtler in Rutherfordton, North Carolina. This is very important because, year after year, people can now visit this house and they can see real history: not only the coins, but they can see how these coins were produced.

We had another interesting experience participating in an unusual exhibit organized by BVLGARI, known for its glamorous luxury products. This show, which was organized at their flagship store on Fifth Avenue, connected ancient Rome and the luxury brand since it was founded in Rome in 1884. It provided an opportunity to display some extraordinary objects from the ANS Roman Department, including a portrait coin of Julius Caesar and a remarkable example of a silver tetradrachm of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, among others.

We have objects at some of the best museums in the US and abroad. The Met often has objects from the ANS for temporary exhibits—such as their successful World between Empires exhibit about art and identity in the ancient Middle East—but they also prominently display our numismatic objects in their permanent exhibits.

I can think of many other interesting examples. The Jefferson Foundation at Monticello has displayed our silver Thomas Jefferson Indian Peace Medal since 1992 and War and Peace in Miniature: Medals from the American Numismatic Society was recently on temporary display at the Education Center at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. For several years, an exhibition organized by the American Museum of Natural History, called GOLD, traveled with over 70 gold coins from our collections and the Israel Museum presented a temporary exhibit with our material dedicated to the extraordinary discovery of Herod’s tomb at Herodium. The Block Museum of Art organized a traveling exhibit, Caravans of Gold, about cultural and economic exchanges across the Sahara Desert in the medieval period. This show was exhibited at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto and then traveled to the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, where it will be on view until February 2022. All of these loans make our collection even more accessible to people around the world. Coins and medals and other objects from the ANS enrich exhibitions with sometimes very different topics.

AGA: This year has seen a lot of important discourse around how we collectively acknowledge and commemorate aspects of the past. Unlike memorial statues or public plaques, the money and medals in the ANS collection are contextualized, studied, and criticized without necessarily glorifying what they represent. How can the collection be a tool for education and deeper inquiry into these subjects? 

ES: It’s why museums are so important. Each museum aims to preserve knowledge for many generations—information which should be accessible not for one year or two years, but it should be for a thousand years. For me, it’s about the preservation of historical sources. This is our mission and it’s an educational mission. We preserve to teach. 

To examine an idea, you should use as many different sources as you can, to understand it. For history, this can include different literary sources, archaeological sources, and also numismatics. You can look at ancient coins, like the coins of Lysimachus or Ptolemy, and you can see faces. This is astonishing because you can see what they really looked like or how they wanted to be seen from thousands of years ago. I believe numismatics is a valuable kind of evidence for history and for teaching about the past. The Virginia Museum of History and Culture displayed the Society’s Butler silver medal of the Army of the James, which was given to Black soldiers in the Civil War, who were integral in winning the war and abolishing slavery in United States. It might be surprising, but this is why it’s important to see and learn the stories from these objects. 

Along with written historical sources, epigraphic, archaeological, and numismatic sources are a materialization of the past. I still believe that you cannot remove from history difficult events, that you cannot erase the past. You can only learn from it. Coins and other artifacts show us how the world really was in a particular time and place, what was valued and who was in power. Coins are not just dead objects. They can talk, if you listen—if you really want to listen. This is ultimately the purpose of our collection, to allow for this kind of careful study.

AGA: Over the years, you have supported many scholars and researchers as they access the collection to conduct their research. From your perspective, what are the most studied areas of the collection and which could use more attention? 

ES: The current most popular areas for study at the ANS are ancient numismatics, medals, and US material. A lot of people—especially from universities—visit to research ancient material because it’s the basis of their thesis or part of some study. The medieval and Islamic collections are less studied, but that, I think, is due to colleges not offering as many courses in the same way. Classes on the ancient Mediterranean exist and classes on the ancient Roman economy exist, but there are fewer programs in medieval studies like this. We have a brilliant curator of our Medieval Department, David Yoon, who is a well-educated historian, archaeologist, and numismatist. He’s currently leading our new project to digitize the medieval collection, which will put more images and updated information on our database. David does a lot to popularize this area of study and this project will open new opportunities for new research.

Because we are in the United States, there are many people interested in American history—and the ANS’s collection includes a large number of items in the US portion of the Medals Department and in the American Coins Department. On the other hand, if you look at our Summer Seminar, it’s less common for graduate students to come and research US material, even though there are many people interested in American numismatics. Right now, it’s wonderful for us to have someone who is so knowledgeable like Jesse Kraft, who is the Assistant Curator of American Numismatics. I see big potential for our new curatorial staff like him and Lucia Carbone, the Assistant Curator of Roman Coins, who is very hard-working and energetic.

Our chief curator, Peter van Alfen, is also great because he understands people, as a colleague and as an educator. His expertise in the Greek Department and passion for medallic art continues to drive the traditional areas of study at the ANS, while he also spearheads many of our recent innovations and digital efforts. All of our curators are very educated and professional; they conduct their own research and enjoy supporting other scholars and institutions for their research, too. We have very enthusiastic people here at the ANS. Along with our collection, this is our great strength.

The Making of a Numismatic Short Film

At our 2021 Gala, the American Numismatic Society premiered a new short film by Pascal Perich, The ANS: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. In just under seven minutes, the film traces 162 years of notable people and pivotal moments in the Society’s history, as narrated by the first curator in its professional staff, Agnes Baldwin Brett (1876–1955). Throughout the film, Baldwin Brett wanders around our contemporary headquarters as a sort of benevolent ghost.

She reflects on the origins of the ANS as a small group of enthusiasts, its expansion during her life in the early twentieth century, and our development into the renowned collection, library, publisher, and member organization that we are today.

Pascal Perich—the photographer-videographer who created the film—brought unique vision and perspective to the project. He was, in fact, tasked with the concept on wildly short notice. After several successive plans fell through unexpectedly, the team responsible for producing entertainment for the gala and a new video introducing the ANS was at a loss. A month before the scheduled premiere, our Executive Director, Dr. Gilles Bransbourg, went home, desperate, and mentioned our troubles to his wife. Olivia Bransbourg, an entrepreneur well-connected to a network of creatives across the globe, immediately thought of a solution. One can imagine Olivia calmly shrugging and saying, certainly this is a job for Pascal, the artist. Olivia saved the day and Pascal delivered, even beyond what we expected.

Examples of Pascal’s creative work can be viewed on his website and, as can be seen from this selection, his typical photography and film projects focus primarily on portraiture. In my view, Pascal accomplished a vivid double portrait with The ANS: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, of Agnes Baldwin Brett as an individual and of the Society as an organization. Arriving at the ANS with fresh eyes and an insatiable curiosity, Pascal was clearly in awe of the range of material he encountered as he toured the facilities. Seeing the library, archives, and collection for the first time, like many of us, he was drawn into the people and stories behind each object. 

What struck me in the process of the production of the film was how each person involved found personal connection in the stories being told. Emily Eagen—the voice actress who narrates as Baldwin Brett—is a noted whistler and expressed wonder at the depths of seemingly niche communities. “Somehow,” she told me, “We manage to find each other.” Pascal and Arina Voronova, the actress who portrays Baldwin Brett, are both photographers and loved seeing Baldwin Brett’s fascinating archival photographs. Many of these have been digitized and are available online. One particularly salient image of Baldwin Brett features in the film. She poses, shawled, with her camera on the deck of the S.S. Palatia, a rare moment of the photographer captured on the other side of the lens.  

I also noticed a parallel between Baldwin Brett and our chief curator, Dr. Peter van Alfen, as he showed our guests around the ANS. Dr. van Alfen is not only Baldwin Brett’s direct successor as the primary caretaker of the ANS’s Greek collection, but they share other similarities. Like Baldwin Brett, who most famously published The Catalogue of Greek Coins for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Dr. van Alfen is a scholar of ancient Greek coinages. Along with his extensive research in ancient numismatics, Dr. van Alfen writes actively on more recent medallic art and, also like Baldwin Brett, has published the catalogues of medallic art exhibitions.

Another parallel is a bit more buried but bears mentioning. Baldwin Brett narrates in the film that “while women have long played an important role in our organization, I am proud to know that we have recently elected our very first woman President.” Baldwin Brett and Dr. Ute Wartenberg, the former Executive Director and current President of the ANS, also have important commonalities beyond that they represent important firsts in the organization’s history. In fact, in White Gold: Studies in Early Electrum Coinage, Dr. Wartenberg draws directly on Baldwin Brett’s publications for her article “Was there an Ionian Revolt Coinage? Monetary Patterns in the Late Archaic Periods.” Notably, Dr. Wartenberg cites The Electrum Coinage of Lampsakos and “The Electrum and Silver Coinage of Chios” in her die study to corroborate and correct Baldwin Brett’s claims with a more robust set of data.

Image result for agnes baldwin and ernst babelon

Beyond these plutarchan parallels, there are a few fantastic but subtle artistic choices folded into the film worth highlighting. At its start and close, Baldwin Brett is surrounded with genuine realia and relevant objects from her life. “The more authentic, the better,” Pascal gleefully insisted. The books on her desk are Baldwin Brett’s own publications and books from her personal library—as well as photographs, correspondence, and other ephemera now housed in the John W. Adams Rare Book Room of the ANS Archives. Above her right shoulder is a painting of a very mustached Ernest Babelon, the noted French numismatist and honorary member of the Society who regularly visited the old ANS New York headquarters at Audubon Terrace. To put his status in context, he was listed in Society proceedings in 1917 alongside the Director of the US Mint and several kings and princes as one of only eighteen honorary members of the ANS.  Ultimately, the whole set was designed in homage to a photo of Babelon and Baldwin Brett, the painting of Babelon standing in for his somber visage. 

In her review of significant scholars and donors associated with the ANS, Baldwin Brett remarks that Edward Newell’s “diligent scholarship transformed our Society” as she displays his book, The Coinages of Demetrius Poliorcetes, with her own ex-libris pasted in the front cover. This reminds me of her own diligent and transformative scholarship. Baldwin Brett was the second individual to ever receive the prestigious Archer M. Huntington Medal Award for numismatic research; she was also the second American to receive the Medal of the Royal Numismatic Society—Newell being the first in both cases. You can learn more about Agnes Baldwin Brett in her entry in ARCHER, the online archives of the ANS, and in this wonderful Spring 2005 article from the ANS Magazine, written by Aviva Gray. 

The past is caught up in the present in delicate and direct ways. Forgive me if I veer too far into the poetic, but, watching the film, I never imagined Agnes Baldwin Brett as haunting the space, but instead as more of a visitation—or bibliographic citation, even—as a blur of memory and presence, knowledge and acknowledgement. In the film’s conclusion, Pascal used an image of Baldwin Brett sitting in a votive niche above the sanctuary of Aphrodite near Eleusis. Her eyes are closed and it’s hard to not think of her as looking transcendent, fixed in a locus of margin-less time.

You can watch the full film, The ANS: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, above or directly on the ANS YouTube channel.

Images of Egyptian Gods on Coins

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).

Figure 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).

Figure 2
Figure 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). 

Figure 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).

Figure 5
Figure 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).

Figure 7
Figure 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.

Figure 9
Figure 10
Figure 11

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).

Figure 12
Figure 13
Figure 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).

Figure 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).

Figure 16
Figure 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.

Contextualizing Coins: An Interview with Dr. Nathan T. Elkins

elkins

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.

Figure 1. Archaeology is necessarily collaborative and excavation teams include specialists in ancient coins, glass, ceramics, paleobotany, and other specialties. Pictured here is Area 3000 of the Huqoq Excavation Project, where Dr. Elkins is the site’s numismatist. Photo courtesy of Jim Haberman.
Figure 1. Archaeology is necessarily collaborative and excavation teams include specialists in ancient coins, glass, ceramics, paleobotany, and other specialties. Pictured here is Area 3000 of the Huqoq Excavation Project, where Dr. Elkins is the site’s numismatist. Photo courtesy of Jim Haberman.

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.

Figure 2. Dr. Elkins examines a recently-excavated coin. Excavations often establish labs on site or nearby for find registration, cleaning, processing, and preliminary analysis. Photo courtesy of Jim Haberman.
Figure 2. Dr. Elkins examines a recently-excavated coin. Excavations often establish labs on site or nearby for find registration, cleaning, processing, and preliminary analysis. Photo courtesy of Jim Haberman.

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.

Figure 3. Detailed documentation during excavation and subsequently publishing are integral components to archaeological research. Photo courtesy of Jim Haberman.
Figure 3. Detailed documentation during excavation and subsequently publishing are integral components to archaeological research. Photo courtesy of Jim Haberman.

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.

Figure 4. While artifacts from the same context are documented collectively, coins are uniquely documented in situ during stratigraphic excavations, such as this example from the Roman fort at Yotvata. Photo courtesy of Jim Haberman.
Figure 4. While artifacts from the same context are documented collectively, coins are uniquely documented in situ during stratigraphic excavations, such as this example from the Roman fort at Yotvata. Photo courtesy of Jim Haberman.

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.

Figure 5. Monuments in Miniature: Architecture on Roman Coinage (Numismatic Studies 29), was published by the ANS in 2015.

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!

 

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.

Coin Predictions in the Balkans

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.

Figure 1. My hosts—Baba Limonka and Dedo Stojan—on Badnik, Macedonian Christmas Eve.
Figure 1. My hosts—Baba Limonka and Dedo Stojan—on Badnik, Macedonian Christmas Eve.

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.

Figure 2. 1 Macedonian denar with Šarplaninac dog on the reverse.
Figure 2. 1 Macedonian denar with Šarplaninac dog on the reverse.

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.