Tag Archives: Italy

Mysteries from the Vault: A Roman Lead Token from Hispania Baetica

Fig. 1: New York, Richard B. Witschonke Collection. Ex CNG MBS 67, 22 September 2004, lot. 1073. Casariego 1987, p. 26, no. 3.
Fig. 1: New York, Richard B. Witschonke Collection. Ex CNG MBS 67, 22 September 2004, lot. 1073. Casariego 1987, p. 26, no. 3.

The dating, function, and iconography of Roman lead tokens from Spain have been objects of speculation among scholars for decades. Several of these tokens, with weights ranging from 4–400 grams, have been found in the Spanish region of Cordova, once part of the Hispania Baetica, an area known in Roman times for silver mines. Spanish silver mines were one of the most important sources of silver bullion for Rome, and the connected smelting activities took place on such a huge scale that the lead pollution generated by them is still traceable in the Greenland ice core. At the same time, Baetica was also an important producer of olive oil, traded all over the Mediterranean Sea. Spanish lead tokens then, made out of a by-product of silver smelting but possibly also connected to agriculture, represent a useful yet poorly understood tool to understand the economic organization of this province.

Fig. 2: Another token from the series de las minas with the man with the “shovel.” New York, Richard B. Witschonke Collection. Ex CNG 31, 9 September 1994, lot 1857 Casariego 1987, p. 26, no. 1.
Fig. 2: Another token from the series de las minas with the man with the “shovel.” New York, Richard B. Witschonke Collection. Ex CNG 31, 9 September 1994, lot 1857 Casariego 1987, p. 26, no. 1.

The Richard B. Witschonke Collection at the ANS includes 16 specimens of these tokens, nine of which remain unpublished. One of them (fig. 1) is a unique piece, part of lot of 10 Spanish lead tokens offered for sale in CNG MBS 67 on September 22, 2004 (lot nos. 1070–1079). The CNG catalogue offers the following description:

Obv. Nude male walking left, carrying bell(?) and shovel over his shoulder; P · S across field; all within wreath. Rev. Harrow (or miner’s axe?). Weight: 166.78 g

Fig. 3: Tokens from the series de las minas with P · S and man with the “shovel.” Casariego 1987, p. 26, nos. 1–3.
Fig. 3: Tokens from the series de las minas with P · S and man with the “shovel.” Casariego 1987, p. 26, nos. 1–3.

The identity of the man represented on the obverse, together with the function of the objects he is carrying, is a mystery. Is he a miner, carrying a shovel? This is the interpretation offered by F. Casariego, G. Cores, and F. Pliego, who first published this piece in their catalogue of Iberian lead tokens from Roman times. They classified this piece as part of the series de las minas (“mines series”), conventionally related to the Roman mining operations in Baetica. These mine tokens (figs. 2, 3, 4) are usually characterized by the presence of a man with a “shovel” (a conventional term; it is unclear what this is).

Fig. 4: Other tokens from the series de las minas. Casariego 1987, p. 27, nos. 4–7.
Fig. 4: Other tokens from the series de las minas. Casariego 1987, p. 27, nos. 4–7.

This representation closely resembles the miners portrayed on the Linares bas-relief (fig. 5). Moreover, some tokens of the series de las minas were found in the Roman mines of El Maderero (fig. 6) and of Posadas (fig. 7), both in the Baetican district of Cordova. The archaeological context suggests a dating in the first century BC for these tokens. According to this interpretation, these tokens may have served as a ‘company coinage’ for these mines, a practice well attested in modern times. This token and the others of the “mines series” would therefore be one of the first instances of this use of tokens.

Fig. 5: The Linares bas-relief.
Fig. 5: The Linares bas-relief. Image: Asociación Colectivo Proyecto Arrayanes.

However, some elements in the iconography of the token represented in fig. 1 do not seem to match this interpretation. The bell carried by the man with the “shovel” and the arrow on the reverse need to find an explanation. A possible solution for this enigma does not come from Spain, but from Central Italy.

Fig. 6: A specimen of the token type found in the mine of El Maderero. New York, Richard B. Witschonke Collection. Ex CNG MBS 67, 22 September 2004, lot. 1073. Casariego 1987, p.32, no. 25. Arévalo González 1996, p. 53.
Fig. 6: A specimen of the token type found in the mine of El Maderero. New York, Richard B. Witschonke Collection. Ex CNG MBS 67, 22 September 2004, lot. 1073. Casariego 1987, p.32, no. 25. Arévalo González 1996, p. 53.
Fig. 7: A specimen of the token type found in the mine of Posadas. Casariego 1987, p. 27, no. 7, Arévalo González 1996, pp. 65–66.
Fig. 7: A specimen of the token type found in the mine of Posadas. Casariego 1987, p. 27, no. 7, Arévalo González 1996, pp. 65–66.

In a series of articles, C. Stannard showed the certain iconographical relationship between lead tokens from Baetica and local bronzes from Central Italy. The motif of the man with the “shovel” is attested in the area of Minturnae, Naples, and Pompeii, where no connection to mining activities can be made (fig. 8). The man with the “shovel” was probably not a miner, after all. As represented in fig. 4, the most frequent iconography of this figure is a walking man, either naked or wearing a short tunic, carrying the “shovel.” In the Italian material, he often also carries an askos, an oil or wine jar; in the Baetican, a bell (as in the case of the token in fig. 1). Could the man with the “shovel” be a farmer? The farming context could help explaining the presence of a harrow on the reverse of our token. Moreover, M. P. García-Bellido argues that the letters P · S, appearing on the token at ANS and on other ones of the same series, could be interpreted as P(ublica) S(ocietas), a State-owned enterprise exploiting oil-production in Baetica. According to this second interpretation then, the tokens of the series de las minas were used as a “company coinage” in an agricultural context, not in a mining one.

Fig. 8: The man with the “shovel” on the local bronzes of central Italy. Stannard 2005, p. 50.
Fig. 8: The man with the “shovel” on the local bronzes of central Italy. Stannard 2005, p. 50.

The iconographical similarities between Baetican tokens and Italian bronzes bear testimony to the active commercial relationships between Italy and Baetica in the Age of High Empire (first–second centuries AD), especially wine and oil trade. Mount Testaccio in Rome, an artificial mound composed almost entirely of testae, fragments of broken oil and wine amphorae dating from the first– third centuries AD (figs. 10, 11) bears testimony to the enormous scale of this trade. While researching Mount Testaccio’s amphora stamps, B. Mora Serrano (fig. 9) noticed the correspondence between the names appearing on some tokens of the series de las minas and the ones on amphora stamps from Testaccio. He therefore argued that at least some of the Iberian lead tokens of the series de las minas are connected to the transport of the Spanish olive oil to Rome. It follows that the man with the “shovel” on the unique piece of the Richard Witschonke Collection would not be an Iberian miner, but rather an Italo-Baetican farmer, probably occupied in producing wine and oil to export to Italy.

Fig. 9: Examples of correspondence of names appearing on tokens from Baetica and amphora stamps. Morra Serrano 2004, p. 529, fig. 2.
Fig. 9: Examples of correspondence of names appearing on tokens from Baetica and amphora stamps. Morra Serrano 2004, p. 529, fig. 2.

However, neither the presence of a bell nor the generously ithyphallic representations (cf. fig. 4) of the man with the “shovel” are addressed by this interpretation. C. Stannard argues that these elements could be explained if these figures were mimes. The Roman mime differed from Greek Comedy in that actors did not wear masks, as in the images on the Iberian lead. According to Stannard’s hypothesis, the man with the “shovel” represents a mime, a decorative element on tokens that were used as a “company coinage” in the context of an Italo-Baetican oil-trade enterprise.

Fig. 10: Aerial view of the Mount Testaccio in Rome. Image: CNN.
Fig. 10: Aerial view of the Mount Testaccio in Rome. Image: CNN.

In sum, the identity of the man with the “shovel” on the token presented in fig. 1 raises historical and iconographic questions that show the strength of the commercial and cultural interconnections within the Roman world. Were the tokens of the series de las minas really connected to mining activities, as their findspots seem to suggest? Or were they connected to the trade of Spanish oil, as B. Mora Serrano posits? The debate is still open.

Fig. 11: Mount Testaccio in Rome. Image: Michael Ezban.
Fig. 11: Mount Testaccio in Rome. Image: Michael Ezban.

Two elements still need further interpretation:

  • Even if not univocally linked to mines, some tokens of the series de las minas did circulate in mining areas. It is therefore not possible to entirely dismiss the “mining” interpretation.
  • The findspots of some tokens of the series de las minas show that these kind of tokens were already circulating during the first century BC, so they could not be directly linked to the Spanish oil trade of the first and second centuries AD.

Not all the questions are solved, then. The mystery of “our” man with the “shovel” is still intact.

New hypotheses on the iconography and the function of the man with the “shovel” and the function of the fascinating Spanish lead tokens will be formulated at the interdisciplinary conference “Tokens: Culture, Connections, Communities” at Warwick University (June 8–10, 2017), where all the published and unpublished lead tokens from the Richard W. Collection will be presented.

Italian Emergency Money of the 1970s

This guest post by our curatorial intern Taylor Hartley describes one of the projects she has been helping us with over the past several months.

Since last November I have been working on a project here at the ANS to catalogue a group of Italian miniassegni from the late 1970s that was donated by our late benefactor Sidney W. Harl in 2001. Miniassegni or “mini-checks” are coupons or promissory notes made to replace small-denomination coins during a shortage of 50 and 100 lira coins, which were the approximate equivalent of American nickels and dimes.

The shortage of 50 and 100 lira coins lasted from 1975 to 1979. Its causes are famously mythologized. Some said the coins were used as buttons in Japan, others that the shortage was caused by trade union strikes. In his book Europe, Europe, Hans Magnus Enzensberger suggests that it was actually caused because the Italian government abandoned their plans for a new mint and the old one simply could not produce enough coins to meet demand.

When the shortage of small-denomination coins began in 1975, vendors started by giving small items instead of change. Candy, grapes, stamps, phone tokens, and even chicken livers were given to customers when there was no way to make change. One café owner in Rome wrote handwritten notes for his customers as credit for their next order.

After the shortage stretched on for a while, stores began to issue little coupons or checks of their own that ranged from 50 to 350 lire. Then banks started issuing miniassegni that could be collected and then exchanged for larger bills.

2001.34.83.obv

The ANS collection mostly consists of the notes issued by banks, but they also have a number of “buoni d’acquisto,” the notes issued by shops. My favorite of these is one issued in 1976 by a stamp and coin shop in Moncalieri.

2001.34.152.obv

The miniassegni were almost instantly adored by collectors. During the shortage many catalogues were published to help collectors and to assign value to the rare ones.

miniassegni-catalogues

At one point, coin dealers in Italy were selling more miniassegni than Roman coins. They even gained some popularity in the United States. Boys’ Life Magazine published a letter about them in their coin and stamp collecting section in March 1978. Collecting miniassegni was something of a craze, like tulips or Beanie Babies were in their time.

I can see why they were so popular. Their endless variety and bright colors make them intriguing and highly collectible. Some just look like small bank checks, but others, like these designed by the paper shop of Guerzoni Livio were colorful and beautiful.

guerzoni-collage

Still more have a homemade charm to them, like this small one from La Spezia.

2001.34.14.obv

Some had local monuments on them, like the Navina Arch in Moncalieri. The miniassegni from the Bank of Sicily even hearken back to Sicily’s rich numismatic history with a picture of the famous coin of Arethusa surrounded by dolphins.

2001.34.278.obv

2001.34.278.rev

They are as friendly and fun as Monopoly money, but they were accepted as cash.

After their initial popularity during the coin shortage, the demand for miniassegni as collectibles dropped off. Their values dropped quickly after life returned to normal and there was once again enough change to go around. But they deserve some attention. I have had so much fun learning about the miniassegni through the process of cataloguing this collection. They are memories of an interesting period of recent Italian history when no one had change to spare, and everyone collected and spent little colorful slips of paper instead.

—Taylor Hartley

Denari Provisini of the Roman Commune

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

The denaro provisino was one of the most widespread issues in Central Italy during the Late Middle Ages. Minted by Rome between 1186 and 1398, these small silver coins were characterized by a comb surmounted by an ‘S’ and symbols on the obverse. The reverse featured a cross surrounded by symbols in combinations that varied over time. Since the provisino is one of the very few informative artifacts from the Roman Middle, and they give us a better understanding of the economic history of Rome in this period.

Wikipedia

The design of the provisino was based on the type minted in Provins for the Counts of Champagne (NE France), which was known as denier provinois.  The wool comb on the reverse of this denier showed a wool comb, a reference to one of the main industries in Provins. It was circulating widely in Central Italy by the mid-12th century and the Roman mint simply copied it because it was an established type.

Pilgrims arriving in Rome for the first Jubilee in 1300, Archivio de Stato
Pilgrims arriving in Rome for the first Jubilee in 1300,
Archivio de Stato

Although the Roman provisino never changed its basic type, the shape of the comb and other elements changed over the years. These changes in design allow us to reconstruct a relative chronology for the issue. The ANS collection holds two examples of provisini. The first  was minted between the very last years of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th century. This dating of the coin comes courtesy of metallurgical analysis carried out by Angelo Finetti in the Istituto di Scienza della Terra of Perugia University in 2000. Many examples of the type were also found in excavations conducted by the École Française de Rome at the fortified settlement of Caprignano (Casperia, prov. Rieti) in strata immediately antedating the destruction of the place in 1307.

ANS, 1939.156.5
ANS, 1939.156.5

In this period the obverse of the provisino showed a wool comb surmounted by an ‘S’, a clear reference to the Roman Senate, between a star and crescent. The legend reads +SENAT’P.Q.R. (Senat[us] P[opolus]q[ue] R[omanus]). The reverse has the legend +ROMA.CAPVD.M’ (Roma Capud M[undi]) with a cross surrounded by symbols. Three variants have been recognized, based around the different symbols in the quarters around the cross:

  • Cross with two pellets in the 1st and 4th quarters
  • Cross with misshapened omega and star in 2nd and 3rd quarters
  • Plain cross

The coin above is of the second variant. The metrological evidence indicates that these were struck in large quantities over a relatively short period of time. The most likely occasion was the First Jubilee of 1300, which was accompanied by a massive building program. This, together with the presence of numerous pilgrims and others into Rome, would certainly have created a great need for petty cash. While these coins are hardly attractive to modern eyes, they offer a window into a forgotten era of the history of Rome.

For more examples of provisini held by Italian museums, see the online database of the Capitoline Museum.

Mariele Valci