For the Summer issue of the ANS Magazine, curator Gilles Bransbourg contributed a story that explored an interesting numismatic dimension of New York City’s Bryant Park. At the center of this leafy refuge stands an elegant black granite fountain designed by Charles A. Platt, noted architect of the American Renaissance movement.
Like many fountains around the world, it is a magnet for people seeking good fortune, and these wishes are often attended by tossing a coin into its waters. This act is the legacy of ancient traditions observed by many different cultures around the world that center on making offerings at wells, springs, and other sources of water. Bransbourg, who specializes in Roman economic history, points to Coventina’s Well as a good example of this longer history. This shrine adjacent to Hadrian’s Wall collected the waters of a local spring, and to date over sixteen thousand coins, most presumed to have been offerings from Roman soldiers stationed nearby, have been recovered from the site.
Closer to home, the not-for-profit Bryant Park Corporation collects somewhere in the neighborhood of $3,000 worth of US coins each year out of its fountain. The resulting funds are used to support park operations. The foreign coins fished out of the fountain are much less numerous and difficult to profitably exchange. The staff were thus kind enough to share the ‘hoard’ of foreign coins that had been collected over a yearlong period for analysis. This consisted of 732 coins that originated from 76 different countries–86 if the Euro coins, which have a common reverse and a country-specific obverse, are counted separately. The overall distribution of the set organized by the total number of coins and place of origin is shown in the table below (click to enlarge).
Perhaps unsurprisingly the Eurozone (141) and the United Kingdom (123) were best represented in the hoard, but the relatively large number of coins from Russia (51) and Argentina (28) is also interesting to note. The two oldest coins found were a 1936 US cent that had somehow slipped by park staff and, more unusually, a 1936 50-centimes silver coin from French Indochina. But I don’t want to recapitulate everything for this post, and there are many more facts, figures, and suggestions about how and why these particular coins ended up in the fountain in the article, which you can read in full here.
This past week I have been working on my presentation for the upcoming International Numismatic Congress, which concerns U.S. trade dollars, the ill-fated silver coin issued in the 1870s for trans-Pacific commerce.
Although the trade dollar was the only one struck for international circulation, there were some interesting patterns dating to this period of expanding global commerce, perhaps most notably the 1874 ‘Bickford’ $10 coin. Pattern coins are produced for evaluative purposes, but are not approved for circulation. They are usually minted in small quantities to model proposed designs for the mint and government officials. This particular $10 pattern coin was suggested by the seemingly indefatigable Dana Bickford (1834-1909), a businessman and inventor who had the ear of Henry R. Linderman, the superintendent of the United States Mint.
Bickford was perhaps best known for having invented a knitting machine for home use that made it much easier to do circular work, i.e. socks, leggings, and the like. The set up also allowed for the automation of many different kinds of stitches, and it was powered by a simple hand crank. ‘Bickford’s Family Knitting Machine’ was rather expensive but seemingly successful and working devices can still be found in the present day. Unfortunately, the company lost a federal lawsuit for patent infringements in 1879 and he seems to have lost whatever fortune was made from it.
Bickford next tried to market a garden and fire pump while also continuing to create new inventions, but none of these seem to have found much success. An article in The American Machinist from 1902 described him as a “well-known inventor” who was working to secure support for a retirement home for indigent inventors in West Medford, Massachusetts. It remains unclear whether he was himself destitute or if this was just philanthropy on his part, but the home was supposed to have a laboratory where its residents could continue their work. Whatever the case, nothing seems to have come of the venture and Bickford passed away in Epping, New Hampshire on October 15, 1909.
Dana Bickford’s most notable legacy, at least for numismatists, was the idea for a coin that he proposed to Henry Linderman for the US Mint in 1874. The genesis of the pattern was detailed in the February 1876 edition of the Coin & Stamp Journal, which reprinted an article that originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on January 31 (click to enlarge).
The summary version is that Bickford was traveling through Europe in 1873 and experienced all the “difficulties and inconveniences” that accompanied exchanging for and understanding the “money current” in each of the countries that he visited. (That part of the story checks out as Bickford lodged an application with the Department of State for a passport in February 1873). The idea he hit upon while traveling was for a coin that would have its exact composition on its face, as well as its value in terms of each of the major commercial currencies. Bickford called at the mint in Philadelphia when he returned, and Linderman thought enough of the idea that dies were prepared and a pattern was struck. The ANS holds a copper specimen (Judd-1374), but it was also struck in aluminum, nickel, and gold.
Bickford’s proposed system of international coinage would allow countries to display their own particular design on the obverse (hence the Liberty Head), but required that the fineness, weight, and exchange value of the coin be expressed on the reverse. Although struck in copper, this was supposed to be a $10 gold coin or Eagle with a weight of 16.72 grams. The indication that it was .900 fine meant that it contained 15.046 grams or .48375 troy ounces of pure gold. Six cartouches circle the reverse with the value of the coin in US dollars ($10), British pounds (£2.1.1), German marks (41.99), Danish kroner (37.31), Dutch gulden (20.73), and French francs (51.81). The UBIQUE inscription stands for ‘ubiquitous,’ implying that the coin was good everywhere.
Although this was likely an impossible scheme to implement in practical terms, the coin was an intriguing idea in theory. Beginning with the formation of the Latin Monetary Union in 1865, there were a series of international monetary conferences and related efforts to create a more uniform and stable global currency system. The big problem for Bickford’s proposed coinage was that although the price of gold was relatively steady, not all nations were on a gold standard. A drop in the price of silver during the 1870s destabilized the currencies of those countries on a silver or bimetallic standard by dramatically shifting the gold price of silver. This in turn led to fluctuations in exchange rates that would have been impossible to keep up with in terms of minting and circulating coins.
The article, though, rather optimistically expressed the hope that the coin would be adopted by Congress and issued prior to the opening of the Centennial Exposition in May 1876, but of course this never happened despite the wide support that was implied. Perhaps the most interesting part of the article was its ending, which praised Linderman’s “superior judgement” for “ordering the sample coins.” The illustrations show a 1876 $10 coin modeled after the earlier 1874 pattern, and a silver half dollar with an 1876 date and an interesting new scalloped design for its reverse. Neither of these coins is known to exist but it seems likely that they were struck.
Despite the fact that Bickford’s patterns were never put into production, he could not seem to let the idea go. In 1897, he issued a series of bimetallic “Republican International Dollars” in the same vein as the earlier pattern coins, with exchange rates for the Russian rouble and Japanese Yen helpfully added. Although this particular specimen was a model made with brass and aluminum, the intention was that the actual dollars would contain gold and silver.
Bickford rather optimistically expressed the hope, which is inscribed on the obverse, that “This Combination Coin Will When Adopted be Good in All Nations / Heal All Differences Between Gold & Silver Men / and Fully Settle All Financial Questions.”
One of the more fascinating documents among the Society’s collections is a so-called ‘letters patent’ dated July 10, 1786, which granted Joshua Mersereau title to fifty-nine hundred acres of land that now comprises an area around the town of Wells, New York. A letters patent was a legal instrument that functioned as both a public record and personal certificate of a given order, which in this case was a land deed. In line with its official and public purpose, a large pendent seal was affixed by the Governor’s office, which was vested with the authority to press the parchment-encased wax seals of the State of New York that validated documents. These documents were important because ownership of what were then considered the “wild lands” of New York north of Albany was clouded by decades of malfeasance by land speculators and contestations from the mix of Indians and illicit settlers who actually inhabited the land.
Following the French and Indian War, there was a speculative land rush to secure title to areas located east of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which attempted to restrict settlement beyond the Appalachian Mountains. As the map indicates, the vast swath of country northwest of Albany was deemed English by dubious virtue of the Nanfan Treaty (1701). The map above refers to this area as ‘Coughsaghrage’ or the ‘Beaver Hunting Country’ of the Iroquois, but this did not stop the colonial administration from selling off large tracts of land to connected insiders. If you click to enlarge the map above you will be able to see the names of assorted colonial officials and merchants, most prominently Sir William Johnson, inscribed within the lands they held title to. The red arrow points to the approximate position of the nine square mile area just to the east of the Sacadanga River that Mersereau acquired, which was itself a tiny fraction of the infamous Totten and Crossfield Purchase.
Joseph Totten and Stephen Crossfield were shipwrights in New York who served as proxies for a massive deal in 1771 for over one million acres of land. Precisely who was behind the deal remains a mystery, but it was consummated with much fanfare at Johnson Hall in July 1771 in the presence of Governor William Tryon and the principal Mohawk chiefs. At that time £1100 was paid to dispose of Indian claims, but it remained for the Totten and Crossfield concern to pay the requisite fees (and bribes) to the Crown to actually acquire title to the land. Obvious land grabs such as this rankled many and when the constitution for the State of the New York was formulated amidst the Revolution in 1777, it contained an article (XXXVII) that explicitly invalidated the “frauds too often practiced” against Indians in contracts and invested the legislature of the State with the authority to validate purchases.
In practice this meant little as men of power and means were simply able to bend the New York legislature to their will. The Congress of the Confederation attempted to prohibit the ongoing violation of aboriginal title by the states in 1783, but the State of New York simply ignored the requirements. Indeed, it is hardly surprising to note that Joshua Mersereau (1733-1804), who was a lawyer and prominent patriot who had served as Quartermaster-General of the Continental Army, was also a member of the legislature in 1786. Mersereau lived in Otsego County, which is some distance from the land that was purchased, which suggests that this was simply a speculative venture in an area that was only just being settled.
The letters patent is a large (17″ x 12″) piece of parchment and printed form that was subsequently filled out with the necessary details using pen and ink. The bottom edge was folded back over so that the ribbon attached firmly to the document, where it was also signed by Governor Geo. Clinton. The seal itself was just a piece of beeswax that was covered with parchment and then embossed with a brass matrix using a hand press. The result was a seal of rather simplistic design measuring 3 1/2″ in diameter and about 1/2″ thick. The seal was devised by committee and codified in Chapter 112 of the Laws of 1778 as:
A rising sun; motto, Excelsior ; legend, The Great Seal of the State of New York. On the reverse a rock in the ocean ; legend Frustra.
The reverse is presumed to have been an allusion to the fact that the State of New York was standing firm as it was besieged by the British in 1777-78. The seal aptly demonstrates how the rebellious Americans aspired to create a new and ‘loftier’ way forward, hence the ‘excelsior’ motto. But they also continued many British traditions as the state seal was in effect simply a replacement for the Crown Seal of a now-discredited king.
The practice of using a seal or emblem to create an impression that validated a document or the contents of some container extends into antiquity. The study of such seals as a source of historical information is known as sigillography. The ANS holds a wide array of seals, which due to some linguistic imprecision, refers to both the device used to make an impression and to the impression thus made. Pendent seals came into vogue in the West during the eighteenth century, but prior to that a range of device were used across different cultures, from signet rings to cylinder seals.
One of our largest collections of materials in this vein are scarab seals. This specimen is a Phoenician one dating to roughly the 5th century BCE. Amulets and seals in the form of scarab beetles were popular in Ancient Egypt, and this device reflects something of the cross-cultural influences that the broad maritime commercial trading network maintained by the Phoenicians in the Eastern Mediterranean allowed for. There is a tripartite division to the matrix with eagles above and below a line of letters from the famed Phoenician alphabet, from which modern Arabic script derives. The design has been incised on the flat face of a small piece of marble so that it creates a reverse impression in relief on whatever material was being imprinted.
This post marks my first foray into sigillography and one that I hope has illuminated something of the legal, symbolic, and political process by which land was acquired and disposed of in the colony-cum-state of New York. I have also included a full transcription of the document below the fold with the printed sections in bold and the handwritten passages in italics.
In 1923, Dr. Richard Ehrenfeld of Vienna wrote to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to announce that he had in his possession the oldest bank note in existence, a one kwan (or guan) issue of the Ming dynasty from about the year 1375, discovered in 1888 during the demolition of an old house in Beijing and acquired by his father, paper money collector Adolf Ehrenfeld. Richard had inherited the note and, suspecting that “European collectors or Museums nowadays have not the money to acquire so valuable an object,” he turned to America instead, looking to part with it “should a price approximate to the value of the note be offered me,” a figure he put at about fifty thousand dollars (roughly one million dollars today).
The Met passed Ehrenfeld’s letter on to the ANS, which left curator Howland Wood to deliver the bad news. His father’s note was not worth fifty thousand dollars. It was worth five dollars. Wood knew this because he had sold fourteen of them himself for that price. There were many others in New York alone, Wood told him, including several in the collections of the ANS.
The problem for Mr. Ehrenfeld, as Wood explained, was that his treasured item was not as rare as it once had been. In 1900, some European soldiers, who had been sent to China to restore peace during the Boxer Rebellion but who were instead ransacking the imperial Summer Palace, discovered a large quantity of these notes under an overturned statue of Buddha. (An entire bale of one kwan Ming dynasty notes would be discovered in 1936, hidden in an old wall outside of Beijing.) Ehrenfeld was right about one thing. Well, almost: with very few exceptions, these are the oldest examples of paper money known to have survived.
The Chinese not only invented paper, they invented paper money during the reign of emperor Chen Tsung (998-1022 AD). Examples predating the Ming notes are rarely encountered and are limited to fragments, modern facsimiles made from brass plates recovered in excavations, and a few notes reportedly held in museums. In 1988, Bank Note Reporter announced the discovery of two notes dating from 1265, one at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg and the other illustrated in a book published by the Inner Mongolia Numismatic Research Institute. These notes date from the period just before the arrival of Marco Polo at the court of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. Polo was fascinated by the “coinage of this paper-money,” describing it as a kind of alchemy, mulberry bark transformed into paper having the same value as gold and silver.
Of course it doesn’t matter that no one then or now would pay fifty thousand dollars for Ehrenfeld’s note. It is a great thrill just to be able to hold one of these historical artifacts.
The first thing you notice is the size (22.5 cm x 33.5 cm), which is close to a standard sheet of U.S. office paper. The mulberry paper is thick and textured with the characters and symbols printed in black and then overprinted with vermilion seals, which are only faintly visible in the photo above. At the center of this “Great Ming General Circulation Treasure Note” is a pictorial presentation of the denomination in the form of ten strings of 100 cash (= 1000 cash = 1 kwan). Those able to read the inscriptions can tell you that the issuers were not content with a simple “In God We Trust.” Instead they made sure to include a warning to those thinking about making unauthorized copies. It reads, in part, “the counterfeiter shall summarily be decapitated.” Although Howland Wood did not purchase Ehrenfeld’s note, the ANS at present has five examples of this historical Chinese paper money.
For more, see the highly informative “Ancient Chinese Cash Notes – The World’s First Paper Money,” part 1 and part 2, by John Sandrock at the Currency Collector website.
The 26th volume of theAmerican Journal of Numismatics is now in print. Subscribers should have already received their copies, but they are also available for purchase by individuals and libraries.
The first essay by Jonathan Kagan, “Notes on the Coinage of Mende,” examines the numismatic legacy of this important Greek city on the Chalcidic peninsula. Kagan’s piece ends with a consideration of the iconography of the bird found on many of the coins. Although traditionally described as a crow, some possible alternatives are proposed.
Evangeline Markou, Andreas Charalambous, and Vasiliki Kassianidou next offer a detailed chemical analysis of classical age Cypriot gold coins. The data derived from using an Innov-x Delta Engery-Dispersive XRF analyzer (pXRF) on 48 gold coins showed that the percentage of gold varied between 88.4% and 99.7%, which leads them to some interesting conclusions about the economic history of ancient Cyprus.
In “The Last Seleucids in Phoenicia: Juggling Civic and Royal Identity,” Panagiotis P. Iossif proposes that Phoenician cities were not as autonomous within the Seleucid kingdom as previously thought and suggests that coinage issued in this period was a form of annual tax payment to their Hellenistic rulers.
Elizabeth Wolfram Thill‘s contribution examines an innovative coin type that appeared during Trajan’ reign (AD 98-117). The article details fourteen new types of group scenes, i.e. ones that feature multi-figure action, and emphasizes how this reflected a connection between the emperor and the ‘common man.’ The relationship between the coins and monumental reliefs is also considered, and Thill suggests that it indicates that there was a remarkably integrated artistic climate during this period.
A die study of silver coinage of Cilician Aegeae during the reign of Hadrian (AD 117-38) by Florian Haymann shows that it was much more abundant than has been supposed, and leads him to argue that this was a kind of imperial beneficium by Hadrian, who took a special interest in the region.
Articles by Jack Nurpetlian and Dario Calomino also look at different aspects of coinage in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. Working with limited data, Nurpetlian was able to construct a useful die link diagram and employs statistical analysis to offer insights into the production of silver tetradrachms under Caracalla (AD 213-217), primarily minted in Damascus. Calomino’s contribution is a fascinating study of bilingual (Latin and Greek) coins of Severus Alexander (AD 222-235).
Saúl Roll-Vélez’s detailed analysis of antoniniani (left) issued immediately prior to and during the Diocletian reform of the coinage that began in AD 293 corrects some problems in the relevant RIC volume. Roll-Vélez argues that the CONCORDIA MILITVM antoniniani might have been minted as forerunners of the reform and reflected the larger drive towards standardization.
Daniela Williams and Antonino Crisà each provide studies of coin hoards; one found in Rome’s historical port of Ostia and the other unearthed near Palermo. Williams details a set of fifty-one bronze coins found dated to the mid-fourth century while Crisà focuses on the 1869 discovery of a terracotta vase full of silver coins near Cerda, of which forty-nine were recovered. Both articles bring a wealth of archival material to bear in contextualizing and understanding the respective coins in question.
Michael Fedorov’s contribution to the volume looks at early mediaeval Chachian coins and offers a new classification schema for the tamgha type.
Last but not least, François de Callataÿ answers a question that we have all been wondering about: “How poor are current bibliometrics in the humanities?” Naturally taking numismatic literature as his point of departure, Callataÿ shows how existing search engines and digital indexes fail to capture much of what has been and is being produced by numismatic scholars. The article points to both the massive amount of numismatic research being published and some of the attendant problems in getting that material properly indexed by the powers that be.
With close to a million objects in the American Numismatic Society’s collections, the curatorial team occasionally comes across items that are mysteries to us. This series will feature some of these objects in the hopes that the collective wisdom of our readers can help us to identify and learn more about them.
This rather strange looking metallic object is 28mm in diameter and is rather hefty for its size, weighing 20.7 grams. The obverse features a raised face that I think looks like a monkey. The face is in extreme relief raising 5 mm out from the 3 mm thick planchet. The reverse is plain except for some striations visible on the edges. If you have an idea of what this might be, leave us a comment below. And if you are a new reader, we have solved some mysteries, but others are still unresolved!
Have an idea about what this might be? Let us know in the comments or send us an email.
One of the volumes that the curatorial staff often consults is a folio-sized hardbound ledger that records the first half-century of acquisitions and accessions by the American Numismatic Society. The title page of the volume has a hand-written note indicating that it was presented to the organization, “while yet in its infancy,” by William Leggett Bramhall in December 1858. The American Numismatic Society originated out of an informal meeting held on March 15, 1858 at 121 Essex Street in New York City, which was then the home of a young coin enthusiast named Augustus B. Sage (1842-1874).
A constitution and by-laws were subsequently formulated and then adopted by the fourteen assembled members at the first official meeting of the Society on April 6. The ANS was one of many learned societies that formed in the nineteenth century and its library and collection quickly became an important repository of numismatic knowledge and objects.
Over its five hundred pages, the accession ledger details the growth of the collection from the time of the founding of the Society in 1858 through December 1904. As indicated, the ledger was not given to the ANS until December 1858, but it records donations going back to April 1858 when the Society was founded. All of these early entries are in the hand of Edward Groh (1837-1905), a founding member who first became curator in 1859, so we presume he simply transcribed this information from an earlier set of records when he assumed the position. The ledger starts with a listing for a lot of fifty-two coins and tokens donated by Sage.
The first item accessioned into the ANS collection was an 1825 ‘Classic Head’ half cent.
For those not familiar with how museums and libraries manage their collections, the object number typically begins with the year that a given item was acquired and then a number is assigned for that lot or accession within the year, hence 1858.1 (year.accession) for Sage’s donation, 1858.2 for the subsequent donation by Edward Groh, etc. Finally, each specific item is given a number when it is cataloged, the result of which is a unique number identifying the object.
A ‘Hard Times token’ in Sage’s donation thus has the same numbers to start, but an object number that is particular to it:
This 1837 token was issued by Henry Crossman, who was a manufacturer of umbrellas with a shop on Chatham Street, which is now known as Park Row.
Beyond the U.S. coins and tokens in Sage’s initial donation to the Society were a mixed bag of foreign coins. Perhaps the most interesting of these was a counterfeit 1832 eight reales minted in Mexico. Through the 1850s by far the most common coins used as hand-to-hand currency in the United States were Spanish silver coins minted in the Americas. Indeed, it was not until the Coinage Act of 1857 repealed earlier acts “authorizing the currency of foreign gold or silver coins” that Spanish coins began to be pushed out of circulation in the United States. This counterfeit Mexican dollar indirectly reflects the ready availability of Spanish coin and the polyglot monetary system of the antebellum United States that created such problems for ordinary people and opportunities for counterfeiters.
The Society’s inaugural accession ledger is an invaluable resource, one that allows us to reconstruct the history of the collection in considerable detail. The final entry in this first ledger was recorded on January 14, 1904, and it was not a coin, but a decoration. Richard W. L’Hommedieu was a prominent Brooklyn attorney and Republican politician who fought for the Union in the Civil War with the 139th New York Infantry Regiment. He was wounded at the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm in 1864 and remained active in a variety of veteran’s organizations, one of which issued this insignia to its members.
The system of using pen and paper to document accessions to the Society’s collections continued all the way into the early 1980s when a computer database replaced the ledgers. And while nearly all of our curatorial work these days is done in digital form, the ledger serves as a reminder of our Victorian roots.
The unaccountable lack of decent internet access at the annual World’s Fair of Money has prevented us from posting more this week, but as we wrap things up here, I did want to highlight one particularly spectacular piece of Chicagoiana. This is a copper electrotype of a very large (114 mm) medal that was designed by Fritz Koenig and struck by the Nürnberg firm Ludwig Christoph Lauer. The die is supposed to have broken after just a few medals were stuck and it is not listed in Nathan Eglit’s catalogue of Columbiana.
The obverse depicts a reclining female figure we suppose represents America (Columbia?) holding a U.S. shield. A heraldic eagle flies above, and behind is the famed Administration Building, which exemplified the neoclassical style of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. By far the more impressive side of the medal is the reverse, which depicts a bird’s-eye view of the grounds. The Rand McNally publishing company of Chicago printed a popular view of the same, although differences with Koenig’s design suggest that he copied from a different source.
Whatever the case, it is a truly fine example of craftsmanship. Of course the intricate high-relief design is likely what led to the breakdown in production, but if you click to enlarge the image below, you will be able to see its outstanding detail.
And with that, we’ll just say thank you to everyone who stopped by the American Numismatic Society’s table in Chicago!
I would also like to thank the Numismatic Literary Guild for giving Pocket Change its annual award for “Best Blog.” It is a heartening award for this relatively new endeavor and we look forward to expanding and improving our content moving forward.
For the past month, Andrei Gandila, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, has been at the ANS working on a project that examines the coinage of Byzantium. He was kind enough to sit for a short interview about his work, and what follows is a lightly edited transcript of our talk.
To start off, maybe you can just tell me a bit about what you have been doing at the ANS these past few weeks?
I am working on a new book project about the circulation of early Byzantine coins [Money in a Pre-Modern Economy: Coin Circulation in the Eastern Mediterranean, c. 500-650]. This is not my first time at the ANS. I was a student at the summer seminar in 2009 and I came back in 2010 to do some research for my dissertation [“Marginal Money: Cultural Encounters on Byzantium’s Northern Frontier”]. This new project actually started in the summer seminar when I was looking at the circulation of early Byzantine coins in the eastern provinces, which turned into an article that was published in the American Journal of Numismatics. There were three things that I noticed that I think are important. The first thing was that numismatists of the early Byzantine period were concentrating on particular places such as the Balkans, Palestine, Syria, and Italy–but I realized that there were so many finds published in the past three decades that we could begin to look at a bigger picture. So that is what I did in the massive AJN article, which is the foundation for this new book.
That article looked at circulation in the “eastern provinces,” what does that correspond to in modern-day geography?
I would say the Balkans plus Asia Minor and parts of the Middle East–modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. It’s a big project obviously, but there seems to be an opportunity because many numismatists are so regional in their approach. The other thing, and this is where I want to connect with historians and work on Mediterranean networks of exchange and communication in late antiquity, is that much of that literature avoids talking about coins. Numismatic evidence in this context is often poorly understood and rarely used, and so my intention is to bring coins into this discussion. My hope is that this will help our understanding of the period. Archaeologists have been looking at the distribution of pottery, but in my opinion coins are much more powerful than ceramics. It is not just that they can be dated, but it tells something about the economy and the movement of coins and people. And you know where coins are produced, which is not always true for ceramics. One of my main goals here at the ANS has been to finish up this article, which is also going to be a basis for a chapter in the book, that looks at coins minted in the West–Italy and North Africa–found in the East–the Balkans, Asia Minor, and the Black Sea region in the sixth century.
So around the time of Justinian’s reign?
Yes, Justinian is a very important part of the story. He was a very ambitious Emperor; he had this dream of recreating the old Roman world, which meant reconquering the West and he was partially successful in this. He reopened mints at Carthage, Ravenna, Rome, and probably in Sicily as well, and all of this coinage circulated eastward with finds as far as Georgia. My goal in this article then is to find explanations–how did they circulate this far and why? Why didn’t they just stay near where they were minted? So I am looking at economic interpretations, archaeological interpretations, and the political and military situation. Justinian was waging war on several fronts at the same time and troops and coins were moving around because of that. Obviously there are limitations to this as a lot of coin collections, in Turkey for instance, have not been published.
Anyways, the third reason I am doing this book is that there has been a long debate about the nature of ancient coinages. Numismatists and economic historians have been reluctant to draw parallels with modern monetary systems, but the question is whether there is any token coinage in the 6th century. Is there anything that is pre-modern? How modern was early Byzantine coinage?
When you look at a Justinian follis, for example, you get a lot of modern looking bureaucratic information, much more than you would expect from a coin from the 6th century. On the obverse you have the Emperor and his legend, and on the reverse the large M indicates the face value–it is the Greek numeral of forty. And then you have the mint mark, which is for Constantinople, and the workshop number, in this case three. It also gives the exact date, year twelve (XII) of Justinian’s rule, which is AD 538-539. So this is a very bureaucratic and standardized way of displaying information on a coin, which is something that you see on any coin you handle today.
Right, so your interpretation suggests that because these coins look modern, they might have also been used in different ways than people have assumed.
Yes. This is arguably the most bureaucratic ancient coinage and part of my research is to find out exactly what the purpose of these coins was. Was it about the weight? Was it about the face value? A combination of the two? This is a big question that we simply don’t yet have an answer for. The weight standard is very inconsistent and that is a problem. The traditional interpretation of course has been that the value of coins are tied to their weight and metal–gold, silver, copper. That was certainly true for gold, but not so much for the copper. This follis of Justinian is by far the heaviest Byzantine coin ever minted, but there are hoards with coins of the same value that weigh half as much that are found mixed together with Justinian’s coinage. They clearly circulated together! How do you reconcile that unless it was all about face value? Unless there was some sort of common agreement that we are going to value and use these as an M, a piece of forty, and not based on the weight, then the system could not work. So there was some kind of token or fiduciary value behind these that we don’t yet understand. And this is something very modern.
How did you get interested in numismatics in the first place?
After my first year at the University of Bucharest, I went on a dig at Capidava on the Lower Danube and we found this metal thing that I had no idea what it was. It was a very rough uneven shape, but I cleaned it and the details came through. It was actually a late 6th century coin of the Emperor Maurice. I spent hours trying to figure out what it was, and when I eventually discovered it was a Byzantine coin, I was just fascinated. I was a history major at the time and I just combined my interest in history with my interest in coins, and it has developed into a career. It really all goes back to that first coin.
To see more about Andrei’s forthcoming and ongoing numismatic research, check out his webpage.
The American Numismatic Society will be at this week’s World’s Fair of Money in Chicago. If you have an inquiry or a comment, would like to purchase some of our new publications, or need to renew or have questions about membership, please stop by to see us. Curator of American coins and currency Matthew Wittmann, membership associate Catherine DiTuri, and a team of able volunteers will be at our table so please stop by and say hello.
Matt will be posting occasional updates from the convention floor, so please remember that you can follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
The pin above is from the 1933 World’s Fair celebrating Chicago’s centennial. Its rather grand theme was “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Adapts.” One of the more unusual legacies of the fair was Benito Mussolini’s gift of a 2nd-century column from the ruins of Ostia Antica, ancient Rome’s historical harbor. It was removed from a portico near the Porta Marina and shipped to Chicago, where it was unveiled in front of the Italian pavillion to much fanfare. The column was part and parcel of a fascist propaganda effort that also saw a squadron of Italian sea-planes commanded by Italo Balbo visit the shores of Lake Michigan. The column stands today just to the east of Soldier Field in Burnham Park.
One of the neat numismatic connections in the ANS collections to the ancient harbor is a series of sestertii issued during the reign of Emperor Nero (54-68 AD). The reverse of these coins depict a bird’s-eye view of Ostia harbor.
Ostia (a derivation of “os,” Latin for mouth) was located on the south bank of the Tiber River, which flowed into the Mediterranean about 25 km southwest of Rome proper. The reverse depicts a busy port, and amidst the ships is a statute of Neptune set on pharos. In the foreground is the reclining figure of Tiber.
Hope to see you in Chicago!
Update: The American Numismatic Society table is number 1512, and here is the map. We are located next to Harlan J. Berk, and they actually have a sestertius with this Ostia reverse if you want to see one firsthand.