Category Archives: Islamic

Cash and Carry

Figure 1. Chinese spade money, c. 770–475 BC.
Figure 1. Chinese spade money, c. 770–475 BC (ANS 1937.179.14763).

The American Numismatic Society cabinet contains a remarkable collection of Chinese coins and currency ranging from early bronze spade money (Fig. 1) and so-called “ant-nose” coins derived from cowrie shells down to more recent issues of the People’s Republic of China. Within this long parade of money, a watershed moment took place in the late third century BC when Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China (220–210 BC), introduced a new cast bronze coinage to be used throughout his empire. The coins, known in Chinese by their denomination ban liang (“half tael”), were circular in shape, like the contemporary coins of Greece and Rome, but included a square central hole that permitted them to be strung on cords for easy storage and transportation in an age before pockets (Fig. 2). Over the centuries the basic form of the ban liang was used and reused for new imperial coinages of different names and denominations like the wu zhu (“five-zhu”) and tong bao (“circulating currency”). As European trade with China expanded in the Far East in the seventeenth century, such coins came to be known in English as cash—a term derived from kaasu or kasa, South Indian (Dravidian) words for “money” often referring to a coin of small denomination.

Figure 2. Han Dynasty bronze ban liang, 206–126 BC.
Figure 2. Han Dynasty bronze ban liang, 206–126 BC (ANS 1937.179.30060).

While cash coins are interesting in their own right, not only in their role as currency, but also in Chinese tradition as talismans for the living, medicine for the sick, and assistance for the spirits of the dead. They are also remarkable as part of a growing corpus of Eastern coins brought to the shores of the United States and Canada early in the histories of these countries, largely unnoticed by the numismatic community. There is always something exciting about a coin discovered in a wrong or unexpected place. When this happens there is almost invariably a good story that goes with it.

Chinese cash coins have been recovered from Indigenous archaeological sites of the maritime fur trade period (1778–1850) along the northwestern coast of North America stretching from Alaska through British Columbia and into the contiguous states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. The coins were already being traded to Indigenous peoples of British Columbia by the late 18th century, as indicated by a meeting between the Spanish explorer Jacinto Camaño Moraleja and the important Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) chief Taglas Cania in 1792. On this occasion, Taglas Cania is reported to have arrived at the meeting wearing his finest apparel, which included a coat and trousers adorned with cash coins similar to the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty tong bao depicted below (Fig. 3). These were attached to his clothing like buttons, but seem to have been intended to announce the presence of their wearer by the pleasant tinkling sound they made when they struck against each other as he moved. The coins and their sound enhanced the status of the wearer, visually illustrating the chief’s important trade connections and providing him with his own theme music on occasions of significance. It has been claimed that the Tlingit peoples of Alaska sewed numerous cash coins to leather coats and vests not only as status symbols, but to serve as body armor in their conflicts with other tribes and Russian traders in 1802 and 1804. However, the military aspect of such clothing has been disputed, with some recent commentators arguing that it was primarily used as ceremonial garb. A number of Tlingit cash-encrusted jackets and vests can still be seen in public collections such as those of the American Museum of Natural History and the Canadian War Museum.

Figure 3. Qing Dynasty bronze tong bao. Tainan mint, 1736–1796.
Figure 3. Qing Dynasty bronze tong bao. Tainan mint, 1736–1796 (ANS 1986.40.503).

It is unclear exactly how long before the arrival of Caamaño the Indigenous peoples of the north west coast of North America developed their taste for Chinese cash, but 1788 seems most likely. In the spring of this year, the English captain John Meares sailed from the Chinese port of Guangzhou (Canton) with a complement of Chinese crewmen, and reached Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. There he established a post for trade with the indigenous Nuu-chah-nulth peoples despite lacking permission from the East India Company to do so. It has been suggested that Meares’ Chinese crewmen may have begun trading cash coins to the Nuu-chah-nulth when they discovered the attraction of Indigenous peoples to articles made from copper—copper and brass pots had long been staples of European trade with the First Nations of North America—and that this chance trade became regularized in subsequent visits by English traders. On the other hand, it is just as possible that Meares purposely included cash coins in his cargo when he sailed out of Guangzhou in 1788 with the intention of trading them to Aboriginal peoples as trinkets in return for much more valuable seal skins.

Figure 4. Portrait of a Wishram (a Columbia River people of Oregon) bride wearing headdress decorated with Qing Dynasty tong bao. Photographed by Edward Curtis, c. 1910.
Figure 4. Portrait of a Wishram (a Columbia River people of Oregon) bride wearing headdress decorated with Qing Dynasty tong bao. Photographed by Edward Curtis, c. 1910.

Chinese cash coins remained a popular item of clothing decoration among the Indigenous peoples of the north western North America into the 20th century (Fig. 4), although by this time the supply brought by maritime fur traders was supplemented by coins carried by the large numbers of Chinese immigrants who came to work on the great transcontinental railways built in the United States and Canada in the 1860s and 1880s, respectively. Cash coins seem to have been preferred for adornment in part because they came ready for stringing and because they were obtained fairly easily. With a value equal to about one tenth of a U.S. cent, Chinese cash had virtually no use as money in North America. Nevertheless, when cash coins were not available, other coins, like U.S. dimes and half dimes (Fig. 5), were pierced by for the same decorative purpose.

Figure 5. United States silver half dime. Philadelphia mint, 1838.
Figure 5. United States silver half dime. Philadelphia mint, 1838 (ANS 1931.109.26).

It is worth noting that the custom of wearing coins as clothing adornment connects the Indigenous peoples of northwestern Canada and the United States not only to the Far East through their use of Chinese cash, but indirectly also to the Middle East. There many Islamic cultures had a tradition of piercing coins to be worn as part of a bride’s costume (most typically her headdress) on her wedding day. The ANS collection includes hundreds of examples of coins that have been pierced, some of which almost certainly received their holes in this wedding context (Fig. 6). It is from this custom that the term sequin (an English corruption of zecchino, the Italian name for the famous Venetian gold ducat and its imitations) enters modern parlance as the small, shiny disk-like decorations most frequently found sewn on to certain kinds of glamorous women’s apparel.

Figure 6. Pierced Safavid gold ashrafi of Shah ‘Abbas III. Mashhad mint, 1735/6.
Figure 6. Pierced Safavid gold ashrafi of Shah ‘Abbas III. Mashhad mint, 1735/6 (ANS 1922.216.979).

Coins found outside of their expected areas of circulation and put to unexpected uses are always a source of great interest. The case of Chinese cash in northwestern coastal North America is no exception, as the coins document the long-distance maritime trade between European traders operating from Chinese ports and Indigenous peoples and highlight the cross-cultural uses of coins as part of clothing. The modern states of Canada and the United States have prided themselves on being cultural mosaics and melting pots, respectively. The more attention paid to foreign money found in North America reveals these terms to be relevant just as much to coins as to people.


A New Lecture Series: “Money Talks: Numismatic Conversations”


The ANS curators and fellows are pleased to announce a new lecture series, “Money Talks: Numismatic Conversations.” In this monthly interactive lecture series, appropriate for all levels of coin collectors and enthusiasts, attendees will view relevant coins, banknotes, or medals while learning about the broader world of numismatics. Light meals will be served, and Q&A sessions will follow. To ensure these events are as accessible as possible to all, most will take place on Saturdays at the ANS headquarters in New York City. On a few occasions, these Numismatic Conversations will take place at other venues.

During Saturday Numismatic Conversations at the ANS, the Society will be open from 12:00 noon to 4:00 pm, so you have the opportunity to view items in our collections or library.

When taking place at the ANS, the fee will be $20 for ANS members, $50 for non-members. Pricing for other venues will be determined.

The series kicked off at the ANS on February 11 with lectures by Peter van Alfen, Gilles Bransbourg, and Ute Wartenberg on “The Origins of Money.” This lecture  considered the beginnings of money and its various guises including cut silver in the ancient Near East, early electrum coinage of Asia Minor, early bronze objects, bars and heavy coins in Italy and the spread of cowries in the Indian Ocean area, Eastern Africa and South Asia, including China.

Next Lecture: March 11

The next lecture in the series will be on Saturday, March 11, at the ANS at 1:00 pm, by Vivek Gupta, “The Beginnings of Islamic Coinage.” This talk will introduce members to the beginnings of Islamic coinage in the seventh century and its vast trajectories within the Arab lands and beyond. It will begin with an in-depth survey of its Byzantine and Sasanian precedents and will provide a basic outline of “Arab-Sasanian” and “Arab-Byzantine” types. Members will also learn about the styles of Arabic calligraphy that were used on early Islamic coins. Members will be able to view and handle fine examples of the ANS’s Islamic holdings with Assistant Curator, Vivek Gupta.

Lunch will be served at 1:00 pm, followed by the lecture at 2:00 pm, and Q&A at 3:00 pm. The ANS will remain open from 12 noon until 4:00 pm. RSVPCatherine DiTuri, (212) 571-4470 #117

Highlights of upcoming lectures (full brochure to follow):

Saturday, May 6

Gilles Bransbourg, “Signs of Inflation.”

Dr. Bransbourg will look at how inflation translates into coinage debasement and banknotes bearing large denominations, from ancient Rome to modern Zimbabwe.

Saturday, May 6, 2017, at 1:00 pm. American Numismatic Society. Lunch served at 1:00 pm, followed by the lecture at 2:00 pm, Q&A at 3:00 pm. The ANS will remain open from 12 noon until 4:00 pm.

David Hendin, “Ancient Jewish Coinage.”

Mr. Hendin will discuss the origins and production of ancient Jewish Coinage from the Persian era until the time of the revolts against Rome.

Date: TBA. Venue: American Numismatic Society.

Alan Roche, “The Art of Photographing Coins.”

Mr. Roche will consider the various aspects involved in the production of high resolution images of coins and banknotes. A hands-on photographic demonstration will be included.

Date: TBA. American Numismatic Society.

Mark Tomasko, “Representations on US Banknotes.”

Date: TBA. American Numismatic Society.

Jonathan Kagan, “Numismatic Book Collecting.”

Mr. Kagan will talk on collecting early books, particularly those with a focus on numismatics.

Date: TBA. Venue: American Numismatic Society.

Speakers: TBA “Wine and Money.”

In this lecture we will consider the strong relationships between coinage, banknotes, and wine throughout history and cultures.

Date and Venue: TBA.

Please mark your calendars and plan on joining us for these informal programs in a relaxed and social environment.

Reserve your spot!

For further information, please contact:

Catherine DiTuri, (212) 571-4470 #117

Gilles Bransbourg, (212) 571-4470 #156


Husam al-Din Timurtash. ANS 1917.215.1394

One of the really wonderful things about numismatic study is the way that coin types frequently look back to what came before. People are naturally conservative about the appearance of their money and find it easier to put faith in the value of coins that have the backing of tradition and public sentiment as well as of the issuing authority. Thus throughout the history of coinage, old typological friends, some of whom may have seemed long lost have had an uncanny way of coming back, sometimes even after very long intervals.

ANS 1967.143.1
Najam al-Din Alpi. ANS 1967.143.1

For centuries after the death of Alexander the Great, kings and cities copied his widely circulating tetradrachms with the types of Herakles’s head and seated Zeus. So closely were the types associated with Alexander, that the image of Herakles soon became treated as his portrait in the guise of Herakles and continued in use long into the time of the Roman Empire. From time to time Roman emperors explicitly restored old and trusted denarius types while some of the towers depicted on Medieval deniers may ultimately take their inspiration from the ubiquitous “camp gate” types of the late Roman Empire. Somewhat more recently, the laureate head and seated female figure on the state coppers of Connecticut struck from 1786 to 1788 are suspiciously similar to the portraits of King George II and III and seated Britannia reverse of the well-recognized British halfpenny.

Antiochus VII Sidetes. ANS 1944.100.76618
Antiochus VII Sidetes. ANS 1944.100.76618

Perhaps to be counted among the most remarkable of these reuses and resurrections of earlier types are the copper dirhams struck by the Turkoman rulers of northern Mesopotamia in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries AD. Despite the general tendency to avoid figural types on Islamic coins for reasons of religion, the Turkoman coins are rife with images—many of which seem to be modeled on ancient coin types.

ANS 1917.215.968
Nur al-Din Muhammad. ANS 1917.215.968

One might argue (and I would) that two of the most interesting Turkoman types based on ancient models are the bronze dirhams struck by the Artuqid Turkoman dynasties of Mardin and Hisn Khayfa which take the royal portraits of Seleucid tetradrachms as their prototypes. At Mardin, the coins of Husam al-Din Timurtash (AH 516–547/AD 1122–1152) and his son Najam al-Din Alpi (AH 547–572/AD 1152–1176) take the portrait issues of Antiochus VII Sidetes (138–129 BC) as their model while at Hisn Khayfa, the coins of Nur al-Din Muhammad (AH 571–581/AD 1175–1185) seem to look to tetradrachms of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (176–165 BC) or Antiochus V Eupator (164–162 BC).

Antiochus IV Epiphanes. ANS 1944.100.75243

Exactly why these Seleucid types (and other ancient types) were resurrected under these Artuqid Turkoman rulers remains rather mysterious. As the Seleucid presence had disappeared from Mesopotamia already in 130 BC (coincidentally with the death of Antiochus VII) and the Turkomans employed a wide variety of ancient coin motifs, the answer cannot have been to illustrate continuity with the past (except in the very broadest of terms) and thereby express legitimacy. Indeed, the portrait of Antiochus VII was doubled for another issue of Najam al-Din Alpi. This double portrait has been interpreted as a representation of the astrological sign Gemini, which would then clearly indicate that the image of Antiochus VII was not used by the die engravers under Alpi and Timurtash because they knew who he was or the ancient kingdom that he represented, but merely because his appearance was suitable to their own numismatic purposes and they had one of his coins ready at hand as a model. The coins of antiquity came out of the ground in the farmers’ fields and building projects of the Middle East just as easily in the 12th century AD as they do today.

ANS 1961.179.86
Antiochus V Eupator. ANS 1961.179.86

The Artuqid coins with Seleucid prototypes are an interesting example of the direct impact that ancient coins could have on much later coinages—even those of rulers who were not direct heirs of the Greco-Roman cultural tradition. At the same time, they are also a remarkable footnote in the early history of Seleucid numismatic study. As late as the 1790s the Antiochus VII type of Husam al-Din Timurtash was still occasionally included in European collections and antiquarian numismatic works dealing with the Seleucids out of ignorance that the reverse legend was Arabic and significantly postdated the end of the Seleucid dynasty in 63 BC, let alone the reign of the king depicted on the obverse.