Profiles in Research: Andrei Gandila

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?

ANS, 1944.100.14818
ANS, 1944.100.14818

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.

ANS at the World's Fair of Money

ANS, 1983.156.7
ANS, 1983.156.7

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.

ANS, 2011.21.545
ANS, 2011.21.545

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.

Joe Cowell's Numismatic Welcome to New York City, 1821

Joseph Cowell (1792-1863) was a British comedian and theatrical entrepreneur who performed on both sides of the Atlantic. His memoir, Thirty Years Passed Among the Players (1844), offers a fascinating window into the nineteenth-century entertainment industry, and includes some interesting anecdotes relating to numismatics as well. Born Joseph Hawkins Witchett, he started out as a sailor before a series of mishaps and adventures led him to a life on the stage. Adopting the stage name Cowell, Joe first appeared on stage in London, where he gained renown as a comedian and became a favorite at the famed Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

This eventually brought Cowell to the attention of Stephen Price and Edmund Simpson, the lessees and managers of New York City’s Park Theatre. When it initially opened January 1798, it was simply known as “The Theatre” as it lacked any real competition. This particular building is actually well-known to numismatists as it features on the much-debated “Theatre at New York” token.


ANS, 1887.24.1
ANS, 1887.24.1

In John Kleeburg’s definitive essay on the token, he shows that it is the work of Benjamin Jacob, a Birmingham diemaker who copied the design from an illustration of the theatre under construction that was published in the 1797 edition of Longworth’s American Almanack . The theatre struggled during its early years, but eventually found its feet in the 1810s and 1820s under the able management of Simpson and Price.

1817 admission check for Park Theatre ANS, 1898.4.51

The formula that proved most successful was simply to import the best talent they could find from Britain each season, a strategy that brought the likes of James W. Wallack (1818-19), Edmund Kean (1820-21), and other stars across the Atlantic. The original Park Theatre burned to the ground in May 1820, but a new theatre financed by John Jacob Astor was constructed on the same site.

Second Park Theatre [first building to right], 1831 New York Public Library
Park Row and the Second Park Theatre [first building to right], 1831
New York Public Library
This ‘Second’ Park Theatre opened on September 1, 1821, and the star of the season was the English actor Junius Brutus Booth. The other principal import that fall was Joseph Cowell, whose initial impressions of the city and the theatre were not encouraging. On first viewing the Park, he dryly described it as “the most prison-like-looking place I had ever seen appropriated to such a purpose.” But it was his initial experience with the monetary system that really soured his welcome to the United States.

ANS, 1896.4.1
1816 silver shilling, ANS, 1896.4.1

Cowell came off the ship eager for a meal, but found that New York City in those days was not exactly accommodating for travelers. With “thirteen or fourteen English shillings” in his pockets, he roamed the streets look for a place to eat:

After wandering about I knew not whither, “oppressed with two weak evils,” fatigue and hunger, I entered what in London would be called a chandler’s shop, put some money on the counter, and inquired if they would sell me for that coin some bread and butter and a tempting red herring or two I saw in a barrel at the door.

“Why, what coin is it!” said a fellow in a red-flannel shirt and a straw hat.

“English shillings,” I replied.

“No,” said the fellow, “I know nothing about English shillings, nor English anything, nor I don’t want to.”

I thought, under all the circumstances, and from the appearance of the brute, it might be imprudent to extol or explain their value, and therefore I “cast one longing, lingering look behind” at the red herrings in the barrel, and turned the corner of the street, where I encountered two young men picking their teeth, for which I have never forgiven them.

Cowell blamed the difficulty of this encounter on the late war with England, which he believed was “still rankling the minds of the lower orders of Americans.” He then went in search of a place to exchange his shillings, eventually heading up Broadway and coming upon “a dingy-looking cellar” with a sign reading: “Exchange Office. Foreign gold and silver bought here.” Cowell depicted the scene as follows:

I descended three or four wooden steps, and handed my handful of silver to one of “God’s chosen people,” and, after its undergoing a most severe ringing and rubbing, the (I have no doubt) honest Israelite handed me three dirty, ragged one-dollar bills, which, he said, “s’help me God is petter as gould.” As all I wanted then was that they should be better than silver, my politics at that time didn’t cavil at the currency, and I hastily retraced my steps to the red-shirted herring dealer, and, placing one of the dirty scraps of paper on the counter, I exclaimed, with an air of confidence, “There, sir, will that answer your purpose?” He was nearly of the Jew’s opinion, for he declared that it was “as good as gold,” and I gave him a large order, and made my first meal in the United States seated on a barrel, in a grocery at the foot of Wall-street.

There is a lot to unpack here, from the casual anti-Semitism to the larger workings of the American monetary system. The essential problem was that the United States at the time lacked the domestic sources of gold and silver necessary to produce enough coins to satisfy its growing populace. The 1820 census showed that the population was nearing ten million, but the U.S. Mint only produced two million silver coins that year in all denominations (10¢, 25¢, and 50¢) and the only gold coins minted were a quarter of a million half eagles ($5). This was obviously not anywhere near enough coinage, so the balance of circulating money consisted of Spanish silver coins and, particularly in urban contexts, paper money. The “dirty dollars” that Cowell exchanged his shillings for would have looked something like this two-dollar bank note from the Franklin Bank of New York City:

ANS, 0000.999.10106
ANS, 0000.999.10106

At the time, banks issued what was essentially their own currency, which was printed with variable quality and rather quickly became ragged as it circulated. Paper money was also easily counterfeited, and the issuing banks were themselves often suspect, making for a confusing swirl that could leave the unsophisticated bereft. Cowell’s aside that “his politics at the time didn’t cavil” at paper money suggests that he later became an advocate of “hard money” (i.e. specie), perhaps due to some bad experiences with the paper kind.

As historians like Shane White and Timothy Gilfoyle, among others, have shown, new arrivals to the city were often marks for various sorts of unscrupulous characters looking to turn a quick buck. Many of New York City’s so-called “exchange offices” existed in the grey area at the margins of the financial industry, making their money in quasi-legal lottery and stock schemes. As their name suggests, they also functioned as domestic and international currency bureaus, giving out local paper money for foreign coin or bank notes from elsewhere in the United States, at widely variable rates. Whether or not he got a fair exchange from the stereotypical Jewish money changer he encountered, Cowell ended his first day in New York City flat broke through more traditional means.

After his meal, Cowell dropped in for an unimpressed look at the evening’s entertainment at the Park Theatre. Later, he found his way to the bar and treated some new American friends to a few rounds of grog and cigars. He eventually became so incapacitated that he was robbed of all of his “moveables,” which included his “hat, cravat, watch, snuffbox, handkerchief, and the balance of the dirty dollars.” Cowell was subsequently carried down to the harbor, tossed into a row boat, and delivered to the ship he had arrived on as “a gentleman very unwell.”

Evenign Post
Evening Post, October 30, 1821

Despite Cowell’s inauspicious start, he had a very long and successful career in the United States. He made his debut at the Park Theatre on October 30, 1821, and was particularly well received for his performance as Crack in the musical The Turnpike Gate. Cowell went on to become one of the most popular stock players at the Park when the theatre was at the apogee of its profitability and influence in the 1820s. He ably managed a variety of companies and theatres around the country, and spent some time in the circus as well. Cowell married three times and many of his descendants, most notably Sam Cowell and Kate Bateman, became luminaries in Anglo-American theatre. He reprised the role of Crack for his final performance in New York City in 1863 before retiring to London. Cowell’s memoir is a wonderful read that offers a compelling look at the world of popular entertainment while also observantly noting and commenting on the particulars of everyday life in the United States.

Matthew Wittmann

Miniature Numismatic Books


According to the Miniature Book Society, only volumes no larger than three inches in height, width, or thickness may properly be classified as miniature books. The small clay tablets used in ancient Mesopotamia are but one example of the long history of writing and recording information on small objects. The usual starting point in this vein for printing history are the Muku Jo-ko Sutra, which were tiny scrolls of magical Buddhist incantations that were printed using wooden blocks and then enshrined in miniature pagodas as an act of penance by the Empress Shotoku (765-770 CE). In medieval Europe, miniature manuscripts in the form of codex books, usually of a religious nature, were common, but it was not until the advent of the printing press in the 15th century that miniature books proper appeared. The Lilly Library at the University of Indiana has a wonderfully informative online exhibition that traces the varied history of miniature books, but our concern here is of course with the numismatic dimensions of this corpus.

The Harry W. Bass Jr. Library at the American Numismatic Society has a dozen or so volumes that qualify as a miniature books. The smallest by far is by the Japanese artisan bookmaker Asao Hoshino. Measuring less than an inch square, Old Coins of the World (1977) has a black leather cover with gilt lettering and edging.

minibooksOnly 250 books were produced and you can see the number 188 embossed on the cover of the ANS copy. The bulk of the 192-page volume consists of small black and white illustrations of historical coins with captions in Japanese and English.

For reasons that are unclear to me, miniature books seem to have been particularly popular in Hungary. Two small hardbound volumes with well-struck silver plaquettes on their covers are the highlight of these Hungarian titles.


These little books were printed in 1984-85 to mark the 250th anniversary of the mining officers’ training school at Selmecbánya, and chronicle its history using medals and plaquettes associated with the school. Perhaps the most useful of the modern miniatures in terms of actual content is Történelmünk penzeken by István Gedai, which was published in Budapest in 1975 and details the numismatic collection at the Hungarian National Museum.

Most of the modern American miniatures are cheaply produced novelties, but the Hillside Press of Tilton, New Hampshire, published some wonderfully-made miniature books in the 1960s and 1970s. The diminutiveIMG_117787 Colonial Coins (1974) was printed in 6 point Bulmer Roman type that was set by hand. The text by F. E. Irwin gives a very brief history of the coinage of British North America and is illustrated with well-cut engravings throughout.

For those of an antiquarian bent, the library unfortunately does not hold any older titles that qualify as miniatures, though there are a few books that do not miss by much. A quatro 1584 edition of one of the earliest and most famous numismatic books, Emblemata, et aliqvot nvmmi antiqvi operis by Johannes Sambucus, is slightly smaller than a 3″ x 5″ notecard.


It also contains some fabulous woodcuts, including one of the earliest representations of the sport of tennis. A poem alongside the illustration is addressed ‘Ad pilulam’ (‘To the tennis ball’), and characterizes it as something that young men waste their time chasing around.

Another notable title is Introductio ad historiam numismatum (1683). It was written by Charles Patin (1633-1693), a French physician and keen numismatist who was arrested in 1666 for smuggling books prohibited by the Catholic Church into Paris. IMG_117804-2Choosing exile over living out his life on a prison galley, he traveled throughout Europe, visiting coin cabinets and making a number of significant scholarly acquaintances. Patin eventual settled in Padua and published several important numismatic studies. The spine on this particular volume measures a little over five inches, and it is actually a Latin translation of the original study first printed in French in 1665.

So ends our short survey of small books, and I would remiss not to acknowledge the generosity of the late Richard B. Witschonke, who collected and donated many of these volumes to the ANS.

Matthew Wittmann

Seige of Louisbourg Medals, 1758

During the summer of 1758, British and colonial forces captured the fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, which marked a turning point in the Seven Years’ War. Louisbourg was a strategically important stronghold that provided a safe harbor for the French navy and protected access to the St. Lawrence River, which was the outlet for the Great Lakes into the Atlantic Ocean and the critical waterway connecting the colonies of New France to the outside world.

Robert de Vaugondy Nouvelle France ou le Canada, 1755 David Rumsey Historical Maps
Robert de Vaugondy, ‘Nouvelle France ou le Canada,’ 1755
David Rumsey Historical Maps

The war originated in an ongoing and complex struggle over control of the Ohio River Valley between varied local agents (colonists, soldiers, missionaries, traders, etc.) representing Britain and France and the assorted Indian tribes that either inhabited the region or exerted power there. The flashpoint occurred in the course of competing efforts to establish a fort at the so-called “Forks” where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers met. In the spring of 1754, French forces arrived at the Forks, knocked down a small British fort that had been established there, and built Fort Duquesne. In retaliation, a company of colonial militia under the command of the young Lieutenant Colonel George Washington and some Indian allies ambushed a French patrol in late May. This seemingly minor but bloody skirmish kicked off a conflict that lasted almost a decade and spanned the globe.

While the ins and outs of the war are invariably interesting, the most important thing to understand in the context of the North American theater was that things did not go particularly well for Britain and its colonial proxies during the early years of the conflict. This string of setbacks and defeats culminated in the summer of 1757 with the loss of Fort William Henry at the southern edge of Lake George and a failed expedition to capture Louisbourg. These failures led to wholesale changes in the British military leadership and saw the energetic William Pitt emerge to direct the overall war effort. Because Louisbourg played such a key role in protecting the lines of supply that sustained French forces, it became the primary target of Pitt’s ambitious strategy for the 1758 campaign in North America.

Edward Boscawen by Sir Joshua Reynolds, c. 1755. National Portrait Gallery
Edward Boscawen by Sir Joshua Reynolds, c. 1755
National Portrait Gallery

Major General Jeffrey Amherst and Admiral Edward Boscawen were placed in charge of the land and naval forces, which ultimately comprised some 14,000 soldiers and 200 ships, including twenty-three ships of the line. The prior year’s expedition failed in part because the French navy was able to concentrate enough warships at Louisbourg to make a direct assault on the fortress difficult, but by 1758 it no longer had that capability. The tightening of the blockade of French ports by the Royal Navy made resupply challenging, and the main relief fleet was destroyed at the Battle of Cartagena in February. A sally from the main French Navy port at Brest was likewise turned back in April, leaving the defenders at Louisbourg with just five ships of the line and no hope of resupply for the summer.

Despite a brief but determined resistance from entrenched defenders at Gabarus Bay, British troops were landed on June 8 and the formal siège une forme commenced. Vauban’s famed treatise De l’attaque et de la défense des places (“On the Attack and Defense of Fortified Places”) laid out a strategy for overcoming the defenses at Louisbourg that Amherst followed to the letter.

J. Rocque, A Set of Plans and Forts in America (1765)
from J. Rocque, ‘A Set of Plans and Forts in America,’ 1765

The illustration above shows the impressive landward defenses and bastions of the fortress, as well as the network of trenches dug by its attackers. The comparatively vulnerable fortifications facing the harbor were buttressed by the French warships, which rode at anchor just offshore and prevented Admiral Boscawen’s fleet from forcing an entrance into the harbor. Still, with any kind of relief made impossible by the Royal Navy, it was only a matter of time before the fortress fell. The British soldiers set to work digging, slowly hauled their cannon forward, and soon began shelling the French into submission. By July 6, the attackers were within 600 yards of the walls and red hot cannon shots were raining on the city. Six-weeks of constant shelling, mounting casualties, and frequent fires taxed Louisbourg’s defenders to the breaking point. Boscawen’s marines delivered the coup de grâce on July 25, sneaking into the harbor under the cover of fog and burning or capturing the remaining French warships.

The Burning of the 'Prudent' and the Taking of the 'Bienfaisant' in Louisbourg Harbour, 1758
The Burning of the ‘Prudent’ and the Taking of the ‘Bienfaisant’ in Louisbourg Harbour, 1758
Toronto Public Library

With the city now surrounded and the shelling set to intensify, the chevalier de Drucour surrendered Louisbourg the next day. Although generous terms might have been expected given the precepts of contemporary warfare and the vigorous defense mounted, Amherst was unforgiving. Honors were denied to the garrison, and all who bore arms were made prisoners of war and transported to England. The entire civilian population of Cape Breton was deported back to France and many of the Indians allied with the French, primarily Micmacs and Abenakis, were slaughtered by British soldiers and American rangers in revenge for the massacre that followed the surrender of Fort William Henry in 1757.

ANS, 2006.33.5
ANS, 2006.33.5

The Siege of Louisbourg was a brutal and decisive victory that paved the way for the successful invasion of Canada and the larger Annus Mirabalis of 1759 that left France and its allies reeling. Its capture and the humiliating terms of the defeat were quickly commemorated in medallic form. At least in terms of the numismatic legacy of the siege, it was Boscawen, not Amherst, who figures much more prominently, despite the latter’s ostensibly more significant role in the fall of the fortress. In C. Wyllys Betts’ catalog of American colonial medals, Boscawen is listed as gracing eight of the twelve Louisbourg medals. The medal above depicts and celebrates the moment of French capitulation, and its obverse features a bust wreathed with the legend: TO BRAVE ADM. BOSCAWEN

ANS, 1964.254.2
ANS, 1964.254.2

A number of medals feature the same rather crudely executed bust of Boscawen on the obverse. The most interesting of the varied reverses depicts the scene in Louisbourg harbor on July 26, 1758. By far the most notable and elaborate medal in the series was one Boscawen commissioned from the distinguished medallist Thomas Pingo (1692-1776).

ANS, 1966.9.1
ANS, 1966.9.1

The medal was struck in gold, silver, and copper. The ANS holds examples of each, but the gold specimen (ex-Norweb) is the prize as it is supposed to have been Boscawen’s own, with the few other gold medals having been awarded to trusted officers. It is a masterpiece of medallic propaganda that depicts a prostrate female figure in the foreground seemingly being crushed by a globe and forlornly pointing at a falling fleur-de-lis. Standing triumphantly above her are a soldier and a sailor with the legend PARITER IN BELLA (“equally brave in war”) stretching between them. Above, Fame holds a laurel wreath in one hand and blows on a trumpet, announcing the British victory to the world. 1966.9.1.rev.noscale

The reverse shows the events of July 25, when Boscawen’s sailors burned the Prudent and stole the Bienfaisant in a daring raid. This well-engraved scene shows the ships of the Royal Navy preparing to enter the harbor in the background while a British battery shells the fortified town in the foreground. One of the remarkable details is the dotted line of a cannon shot that tracks across the face of the medal from the lower left corner to the ball just bellow the V in the date (click to enlarge). As the plethora of Louisbourg medals held by the ANS suggests, it marked a significant turning point in the Seven Years’ War.

British engineers  systemically destroyed Louisbourg’s fortifications after the battle, but a garrison was maintained at the site until 1768. history2The present-day town of Louisbourg is located on the north side of the harbor, some distance away from the original fortress to its southwest. The historical town and fortress was the subject of a fascinating government-sponsored research and reconstruction project in the 1960s and 1970s. The site today stands as a wonderful example of effective cultural and heritage work, and it is well worth a visit if you are in the area.

Those wishing to learn more about the history of Louisbourg and the larger conflict in which it played such a pivotal role are in luck! Christopher Moore’s masterful Louisbourg Portraits (1982) follows the varied experiences of an accused thief, a young bride, and a Swiss mercenary, among others, to give readers a vivid impression of what life was like in the eighteenth-century French outpost. Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War (2000) focuses on the participation and perspective of British North American colonists in the conflict and highlights how the legacy of the war led to the Revolution. It is quite simply one of the best history books published in recent years.

Matthew Wittmann

Odd Bronzes of the Georgian Golden Age

***This is a follow-up to Summer Seminar scholar Lara Fabian’s earlier post about the fascinating history of coinage from the Caucasus in the ANS collection.

During the late 11th and 12th centuries, the mountainous South Caucasus kingdom of Georgia flourished. It strategically exploited its position on the edge of the declining Byzantine and Seljuk empires, and succeeded in extending its sphere of influence from the northern coast of Anatolia all the way to the Caspian Sea.

A remarkable series of rulers from the Bagrationi dynasty oversaw this, including Georgi III (1156-1184) and his daughter, Tamar the Great (1184-1213)– a Queen who was addressed as “King” (მეფე mep’e). Stories about this Georgian Golden Age became central to the identity of medieval and modern Georgia as seen in the works of the Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli and the Russian Mikhail Lermontov. Even today, a portrait of Tamar Mepe graces the Georgian 50 lari note.

Georgian 50 lari note with Queen Tamar
Georgian 50 lari note with Queen Tamar

Amid the expansion of the Georgian kingdom and its cultural flowering, this period also produced some of the strangest and most fantastical coinage ever minted in the region. All coinage from this period was bronze (because of the ‘silver famine’ in the Middle East). While some pieces were struck on regular round planchets, others clearly were not– like this coin of Queen Tamar herself (ANS 1917.216.683).

ANS 1917.216.683
ANS 1917.216.683
Tamar's Monogram
Tamar’s Monogram

It is a so-called ‘irregular bronze.’ On the obverse, the central image is Queen Tamar’s monogram within a wreath. Surrounding this is a marginal legend written in the Georgian Asomtavruli script. Although not preserved fully here, it is possible to reconstruct it as: ႵႱႾႪႨႧႠ ႶႧႠ ႨႵႬႠ ႽႣႠႨ ႥႺႾႪႱႨ ႠႫႱ ႵႰႩႬႱ [–], In the name of God, this silver piece was struck in k’oronikon [–] . (The date is missing on this piece). Particularly interesting here is the specific mention of silver when, of course, the piece was bronze. This is repeated across all the irregular Bagrationi bronzes.

On the reverse is an extended 5 line Arabic legend in the center, reading:

الملكة المعظمة
جلال الدنيا والدين
تامار بنت كيوركى
ظهير المسيح
اعز الله انصار
The great Queen
Glory of the World and Faith
Tamar daughter of Giorgi
Champion of the Messiah
May God increase [her] victories

With a marginal legend of:

ضاعف الله جلالها ومدّ ظلالها وايد اقبالها

May God increase her glory and lengthen her shadow and strengthen her beneficence! (Lang and Dundua)

This piece also features two countermarks, which were very common on these irregular bronzes. One is unique to Tamar’s bronzes, while the other is the cypher of Tamar’s daughter, Queen Rusudan (Pakhomov, p. 124).

ANS 1922.193.1
ANS 1922.193.1

Above is another of Tamar’s bronzes (ANS 1922.193.1), which has the same legend but a different of Queen Rusudan’s cyphers. This piece can be dated to k’oronikon 430 (=1210 CE), by the letters ჃႪ just before the cross on the obverse (Lang). Although the irregular coppers are often simply irregular blobs, some of them, like this suspiciously bird-shaped one, seem to play off of forms from nature.

ANS 1917.216.687
ANS 1917.216.687

This is clearer in the fish-shaped planchets best known from the reign of Giorgi IV Lasha (1213-23) (ANS 1917.216.687). This particular ANS example is, according to Lang, likely an overstrike of a bronze of Giorgi IV Lasha from the reign of Queen Rusudan (1223-45).

ANS 1959.165.106
ANS 1959.165.106

Finally, there are the pieces of even more irregular form, like this coin of Giorgi IV Lasha (ANS 1959.165.106), which is recognizable by the bit of its two line obverse legend that is not off-flan:

Giorgi, son
of Tamar

Within a few short decades of the minting of this coin, Georgia would become embroiled in conflicts with Mongol invaders, from which it suffered greatly. As strange and unassuming as these blobs of bronze are, they participated in a true high point of Georgia’s early history.

Source: Odd Bronzes of the Golden Age | Barbarus hic ego sum

Whistler's Peacocks

James McNeil Whistler Arrangement Musée d'Orsay
James McNeil Whistler
Arrangement in Grey and Black, no. 1
Oil on canvas, 1871
Musée d’Orsay

Whistler’s Mother. There are few works like it, artist and subject fixed in the public’s mind through repetition in the popular culture: advertisements, cartoons, dorm room posters. Think Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and Michelangelo’s David. Dali’s melting watches and Warhol’s soup cans. I think it is safe to say, though, that the general public probably knows very little about Whistler compared to these other artists. How many could even come up with his first name? (James, though his bohemian friends in the Latin Quarter called him Jimmy!). While his most famous painting may be stark and somber, Whistler’s life had all the color, passion, and tempestuousness we expect from our artists. You could call him American, but by the age of nine he had already left the United States, going first to Russia and later to Paris and London, where he made his reputation. He returned to the United States briefly at seventeen for a failed stint at West Point. With a greater interest in drinking and carousing than studying, he accumulated demerits for lateness, card playing, wearing his hair long, and laughing at inappropriate times. This and a flunked chemistry exam led to his expulsion in 1854, despite appeals to the academy’s superintendent, Robert E. Lee, who in the past had been willing to forgive his transgressions.

James McNeil Whistler Symphony in White, No. 1 Oil on canvas, 1861-62 National Gallery of Art
James McNeil Whistler
Symphony in White, No. 1
Oil on canvas, 1861-62
National Gallery of Art

Whistler began giving his works musical titles in the 1860s. The first was Symphony in White, no. 1, a portrait of a young woman in full figure with a white dress against a white background. He also became known for his “nocturnes,” hazy meditations on nighttime scenes that had to be painted from memory in the next day’s light. The official title given to the portait that came to be known as Whistler’s Mother was Arrangement in Grey and Black, no. 1. The painting was purchased by the French state in 1891 and can now be found at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

I came across Victor David Brenner’s 1905 medal of Whistler while researching an article on the collector Robert Eidlitz, its original owner.

ANS, 1940.100.32
ANS, 1940.100.32

The portrait is one of Brenner’s best, nicely capturing, in the words of cataloger Glenn Smedley, “the vainglorious, belligerent egotist who bickered with critics and writers.” The legend on the reverse, “Messieurs les Ennemis!,” was fitting for an artist who called his autobiographical book The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1904), which documented his interpersonal battles that played out in the press, including a libel suit against the critic John Ruskin.


And what about that peacock? A common enough Victorian motif, its relation to Whistler would have been instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the goings-on in the art world at the time. It relates to a commission he received in 1876 to complete the decorative work on a dining room in shipping magnate Frederick Leyland’s London home. Whistler threw himself into the job, obliterating much of the work that had been accomplished already, replacing it with golden plumage patterns and two large gold and blue peacocks.

Smithsonian Institution
Smithsonian Institution

His patron balked at paying for the unrequested additional work, so Whistler doubled down, covering more of the work in blue paint and adding a twelve-foot allegorical mural portraying two more peacocks, one representing Leyland in full rage—his greed manifested by the coins adorning its body and at its feet—the other himself striking a dignified pose.

Smithsonian Institution
Smithsonian Institution

So how did it turn out? If you are in Washington, D.C., you can see for yourself. The Peacock Room was acquired by the Smithsonian and has been open to the public since 1923 in the Freer Gallery of Art, which is, appropriately enough, free!

For more on Whistler and the Peacock Room see Daniel E. Sutherland, Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake (2014); Stanley Weintraub, Whistler: A Biography (1974); and Ed Rochette, “Artist’s Sarcasm Captured in ‘The Fighting Peacocks,’” Numismatic News (August 4, 1987).

David Hill

Admit One: Sprague & Blodgett's Georgia Minstrels

One of the most popular and complicated cultural forms that enlivened popular entertainment in the nineteenth-century United States was the minstrel show.

University of Virginia
University of Virginia

While musicologist Dale Cockrell has usefully detailed the longer historical trajectory of blackface performance in the United States, the immediate origins of the minstrel show rested on the spectacular success of Thomas Dartmouth Rice’s performance of “Jump Jim Crow” in the late 1820s and 1830s. This was a ribald song-and-dance routine that Rice, a white actor, performed dressed as a ‘black’ man in tattered clothes with his face blackened with burnt cork. His success opened the floodgates of blackface entertainment as white performers and musicians all over the country began ‘blacking up.’ By the 1840s, groups like the Virginia Minstrels and Ethiopian Serenaders were offering full evenings of entertainment know as minstrel shows that featured a mix of songs, dances, and skits.

Blackface minstrelsy was the most popular form of entertainment in the United States during the mid-nineteenth century, but the racial elements that it embodied and transgressed have made it a source of continuing controversy. Many early scholars looked at the minstrel show as an honest representation of black folk culture, which was a perspective that echoed the claims of contemporaries. Other scholars have argued that the minstrel show was a caricature of black life that effectively denigrated blacks and legitimized white supremacy. Part of the problem with trying to understand minstrelsy is that it proved so durable over time, and found such a broad audience, that it makes any overarching interpretations about its meaning problematic.

Library of Congress

One particularly difficult thing for many people to understand is how and why African-American performers began to appear in minstrel shows in the decades after the Civil War. The reasons were of course manifold and complex, but essentially there was an opportunity because minstrel shows were a form of entertainment that already featured ‘black’ performers. African-Americans were able to capitalize on white fascination with black life by playing up their novelty as “genuine Negroes” and offering ostensibly authentic performances of plantation life in contrast to the “counterfeits” of white minstrels.  Because of its association with the South and slavery, the moniker “Georgia” came to signify that a minstrel troupe was made up of African-American performers. The formula proved strikingly successful, and by the 1870s there were a number of black minstrel troupes touring the United States, despite what was often an acrimonious relationship with the white theatrical establishment.

New York Clipper
New York Clipper

It was in this context that the Sprague & Blodgett’s Georgia Minstrels known to numismatists came about. Z. W. Sprague was a longtime manager of white minstrel troupes associated with the city of Chicago. Wash Blodgett was an agent for assorted traveling entertainers, most notably working for the magician and ventriloquist DeCastro. During the summer of 1876, Sprague took out an ad in the New York Clipper, the semi-official organ of the American show trade, looking for black performers. Although listed as co-proprietors, it seems that Sprague financed and organized the troupe while Blodgett was the agent who actually traveled with it. The manager of this initial iteration of Sprague & Blodgett’s Georgia Minstrels was the notable African-American performer Charles B. Hicks.

ANS, 1949.22.1

Hicks had been one of the originators of African-American minstrelsy and was able to put an impressive array of talent together for the ongoing tour. In late December, the troupe took out an advertisement in the New York Clipper that trumpeted its success and reproduced fawning press notices.

Clip-12-7-76Although Hicks soon left the troupe, many of the most celebrated black entertainers of that era, including James Bland and Sam Lucas, performed with Sprague’s show. Sprague’s association with Blodgett was likewise short-lived, and by June 1878 the latter’s name was dropped from the advertising. The countermarked coins associated with Sprague & Blodgett were thus produced sometime between the fall of 1876 and the spring of 1878. 1949.22.1.revIn Gregory Brunk’s comprehensive catalog of countermarked American currency, he lists ten specimens of the countermark on Liberty Seated half dollars, with a date range from 1862 to 1877. The ANS specimen is an 1877 half dollar minted in Carson City, Nevada.

It is not clear precisely how these countermarked coins were used. While they obviously served as a kind of admission check for the show, the denomination of the host coin was actually the same price (50¢) as a ticket for the performance. In this context it seems likely that they were distributed by an agent of the Georgia Minstrels to get favorable publicity from the press or to ensure the goodwill of the local community by giving away some free ‘tickets’ to the show. Although a few circus countermarks are known, this seems to have been the only minstrel troupe to use them.

Sprague sold out his interest in the Georgia Minstrels to Richards & Pringle in 1880, but the show continued under that title into the twentieth century. Over time, black performers undermined and eventually exploded many of the impoverished white-controlled representations of African-Americans that minstrelsy had introduced into American culture. This countermarked coin is a material reminder of the complex legacy of the minstrel show, and the dynamic but often painful interactions between white and black Americans that have animated U.S. popular culture.

The best history of the minstrel show in the United States is Robert Toll’s Blacking Up (1974), but perhaps the most compelling work on the subject is W. T. Lhamon’s Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop (2000). On African-American minstrelsy, see Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff’s Out of Sight : The Rise of African-American Popular Music (2009).

Matthew Wittmann

Bastille Day, Lafayette, and Numismatics

Happy Bastille Day! The ANS was energized a week or so ago by the arrival of the Hermione, a replica of the ship that brought the Marquis de Lafayette back to these shores in 1780 with the news that desperately needed military and financial support from the French government was on its way to the rebellious colonists.

L'Hermione arrives in NYC, © Alan Roche
L’Hermione arrives in NYC, © Alan Roche

The travels of the Hermione along the Eastern seaboard have been accompanied by commemorations and exhibitions devoted to the entwined histories of France and the United States. Although I have not yet had the chance to view the exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, I was able to attend the opening of the Boston Athenæum’s wonderful Lafayette: An American Icon, which runs through September 27.

Marquis de Lafayette, 1825. Oil on canvas by Rembrandt Peale. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Marquis de Lafayette by Rembrandt Peale, 1825. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Curator David Dearinger has assembled a fabulous collection of materials that celebrate the role that the Marquis de Lafayette played in the founding of the United States. The checklist seems to have every important portrait of Lafayette in a wide variety of media, including sculptures by Jean-Antoine Houdon and Paul Wayland Bartlett, paintings by Rembrandt Peale (left) and Jean-Baptiste Le Paon, and a number of drawings and prints. This ample visual material is supplemented by contemporary documents and manuscripts, and the whole is neatly displayed in the Norma Jean Calderwood Gallery.

Most notably in the context of this blog is that the exhibition includes several items on loan from the American Numismatic Society. Given the predilection for medal-making in the United States and France, it should hardly be surprising that so many medals celebrating the achievements of Lafayette, his good friend George Washington, and the cause of liberty more generally were struck. Among these was a bronze plaque by Henry Augustus Lukeman (1872-1935), which is modeled on Daniel Chester French’s sculpture in Prospect Park…which was in turn modeled on the Le Paon painting on view in the exhibition.

ANS, 1940.100.50
ANS, 1940.100.50

Numismatic representations of Lafayette were not of course limited to medals. According to John Muscalus’ Index of State Bank Notes that Illustrate Characters and Events (1938), Lafayette was second only to Washington and Franklin as a personage on early American paper money.

ANS, 1945.42.273

The figure of Lafayette at right was engraved by Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) after a famous 1819 portrait by Ary Scheffer for an obsolete note issued by the Chemical Bank of New York in the 1830s.

ANS, 1906.98.4
ANS, 1906.98.4

Lafayette even  at one point made an appearance on circulating US federal currency. What has come to be known as the Lafayette dollar was minted in 1899 to finance a gift by the United States to France for the Paris Exposition of 1900. The fifty thousand coins were all minted in a single day, December 14, 1899, and it was the first coin to depict an American citizen–George Washington. These “commemoratives” were sold for $2 each to raise funds, the end result of which was a statue of Lafayette by Paul Bartlett that now stands in the Parisian park Cours-la-Reine.

My favorite Lafayette-related object in the ANS collection, which is also part of the Athenæum’s exhibition, is an 1823 large cent that has been overstruck with dies representing George Washington and General Lafayette.

ANS, 1944.56.1

The 1824 date on Lafayette’s counterstamp indicates that it was made to commemorate his 1824-25 return tour of the United States, which saw him honored wherever he visited. The celebrations that have greeted the Hermione this summer suggest that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Matthew Wittmann

Diplomacy and Display in Commagenian Coinage

This is the sixth in a series of guest posts by students attending the Eric P. Newman Graduate Seminar in Numismatics.

During the late 2nd century BCE, the region of Commagene, located in south-central Anatolia, became an independent kingdom during a period of high geopolitical tensions. By the first century BCE, the Seleucid Empire was waning, the Romans and Parthians were actively working to consolidate their own empires, and the Armenian kingdom continued to expand its territory under the leadership of Tigranes the Great. While these major powers dominated the political and physical landscape, Commagene was the setting for cross-cultural interaction brought about by trade and military activity. Commagene’s multifaceted political and cultural position is particularly evident in the bronze coinage of Mithradates I Callinicus (r. 96-70 BCE), who ruled the area under the sovereignty of Tigranes.


What does the numismatic record tell us about how the Commagenian dynasts saw themselves in relation to the other assorted regional powers? The American Numismatic Society possesses four examples of coins issued under Mithradates, but one in particular is unique:

ANS, 1944.100.65150
ANS, 1944.100.65150

This coin is a rare type with an image of an eagle with a palm leaf under its wings on the obverse, instead of the more typical profile of a diademed king. A caduceus, a rod with intertwining snakes that is associated with the Greek god of commerce Hermes, is represented on the reverse, accompanied by the inscription ‘BASILEWS MITHRADATOU KALLINIKOU (‘of the king Mithradates Callinicus’).

The depiction of animals instead of rulers was common in the Greek world, where the eagle usually referenced Zeus. Yet if we consider the imagery of the eagle and palm branch on Mithradates’ coins within the context of first century Anatolia, the imagery may also express political alliance or allegiance to Tigranes. Specifically, the eagle commonly appears as an emblem of kingship in Tigranes’ coinage. In the example below, two eagles flank a rosette on his crown.

ANS, 1944.100.62299
ANS, 1944.100.62299

The eagle and palm branch on Mithradates’ coinage may thus be read as a conscious appropriation of kingship imagery that was associated with the dominant power in the region. It was a political act that acknowledged Armenian sovereignty on the one hand, and the Commagenian right to rule on the other. Moreover, the difference in the inscriptions on each coin is striking, and contributes to the present interpretation. While Mithradates carefully refers to himself as basilews or ‘king,’ Tigranes calls himself basilews basilewn or the ‘king of all kings.’ Understood in this context, coinage illuminates negotiations of political identity and expressions of kingship in antiquity.


The legacy of Mithradates’ imagery and the impact of Armenian expressions are also manifest in later numismatic and sculptural projects. For instance, Antiochus I Theoshierothesion (sacred tomb) at Mount Nemrud is an innovative fusion of various aesthetic and symbolic traditions, displaying the self-consciousness of the Commagenian dynasts in relation to past and contemporaneous power relations.

For more information on the Commagenian kingdom, see this recent volume edited by Herman Brijder.

Patricia Kim

A blog of the American Numismatic Society