The many treasures of the American Numismatic Society’s archives include not only the Society’s own history and papers documenting the activities of many of its former staff and officers. There are also resources for researchers, many of which document the activities of numismatic collectors or dealers, but some of which are of scholarly interest. The Allan Evans papers are an example of a research resource of great interest to numismatists, even though it is not the work of a numismatist.
In the late 1930s, the Mediaeval Academy of America sponsored a research project to be carried out at Harvard University by Allan Evans, assisted by Florence Edler de Roover. The project was to compile evidence on the relative values of late medieval coins from primary sources of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, to provide a guide for historians seeking to understand monetary transactions in the documents of that period.
The researchers gathered material about the alloys, weights, and values of coins from merchant manuals, arithmetic textbooks, and other sources, assembling 35-mm film images and photostats of their sources. The core of the collection consists of excerpts from around 50 manuscript sources, together with extensive notes on coinage systems and monetary systems. The primary focus of the source material is Italy, especially Florence, but because of the wide-ranging connections of Florentine businesses such as the Medici family, the coins discussed range over most of Europe. Evans and Edler prepared most of a manuscript on the topic, but in 1940 the work came to a halt when Evans was recruited by the State Department as an intelligence analyst.
In 1951, after Evans had decided not to return to academia, he turned over the materials to Edler, whose husband Raymond de Roover made use of them in his work. After Raymond de Roover died in 1972, Florence Edler de Roover turned over the materials to Robert Lopez for the Mediaeval Academy. Concluding that the project could not be published as is, but that the work should be made available to interested scholars, Lopez and Paul Meyvaert offered all the materials from the project to the ANS in 1976. Some additional material that Evans had sent to David Herlihy was given to the ANS by Reinhold Mueller in 1985.
Peter Spufford published a description of this collection and its history in his essay “Late Medieval Merchants Notebooks”, published in the book Kaufmannsbücher un Handelspraktiken vom Spätmittelalter bis zum beginnenden 20. Jahrhundert (Franz Steiner Verlag, 2002). The collection attracts occasional visitors, but Spufford’s hope that the project could be completed and published in some form turned out to be over-optimistic. Given the advance of scholarship on related topics since the 1930s, the original concept is by now obsolete, although the source materials remain as relevant and useful as always.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Still more have a homemade charm to them, like this small one from La Spezia.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.