by Peter van Alfen, Ethan Gruber, Andrew Meadows, Simon Glenn, Gunnar Dumke
The American Numismatic Society (ANS) is pleased to announce that the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has awarded the Society a $150,000 grant for the two-year joint ANS-Oxford University OXUS-INDUS project. The award comes through the New Directions in Digital Scholarship in Cultural Institutions program that partners the NEH with the United Kingdom’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) intended to fund trans-Atlantic co-operative projects. At the ANS, Dr. Peter van Alfen and Ethan Gruber will be working with their partners Prof. Andrew Meadows and Dr. Simon Glenn at Oxford University, who are funded by the AHRC, along with Dr. Gunnar Dumke at Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg in Germany, to create a new online typology and research tool for ancient Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek coinage.
Ancient coins provide a wealth of information about the societies that produced them. The economic function of coinage requires no more than a simple indication of authority and denomination, yet since antiquity producers have sought to adorn their coins with complex imagery and inscriptions. The images chosen to appear on coins can tell us much about cultural identity and self-representation, the languages and scripts selected for their inscriptions can indicate an intended audience, the places they are found reveal patterns of circulation and movements of peoples. Their varying weights, and estimates of the numbers of coins produced, may inform us of the economic situation, while understanding the control marks that appear on them can tell us about their system of production. Crucially, the coins struck under particular rulers may be the only surviving evidence of their existence. This is the case for many of the rulers of the Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek kingdoms, which existed between c. 250 BCE and the beginning of the first century CE and covered areas of modern Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and India. Formed in the wake of Alexander the Great’s incursion into the region, these kingdoms remain some of the least understood and most understudied political and social entities of the ancient world. Indeed, only eight of these kings are known from literary, epigraphic, and archaeological sources, while over 40 can be identified on coins alone, an astonishing disparity in source material that underscores the importance of the numismatic evidence for our understanding of these early rulers and their interactions with those they ruled.
Tens of thousands of these coins exist today, dispersed in collections, both public and private, across the globe, not just in Europe, the UK and US, but, rather importantly, in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India as well. With standard reference works out of print and only existing in French and English, it is difficult for scholars and those working in cultural institutions holding these coins to engage with the material at a number of different levels, including not just basic cataloguing but advanced research too. Lacking, in many cases, basic and accurate typological information describing where, when, and who produced the coins, the potential of these collections to serve as historical resources remains currently locked. The OXUS-INDUS project aims to resolve current catalogue and collection accessibility problems by providing a multilingual, freely accessible, and technologically sophisticated Linked Open Data web-based portal that will offer a new, up-to-date typology of the coins, taking into account the many new variations and newly-proposed rulers since the last standard reference work was published 30 years ago by Osmond Bopearachchi. This new tool will also allow access to the images and data of thousands of coins, initially incorporating the major collections of the ANS, Ashmolean Museum, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Leeds University Library, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, and, more critically, the State Bank of Pakistan. Many of these collections were assembled and had reached their current composition by the mid-20th century, meaning that new varieties, which have appeared in recent years are not present. Some of these collections already have an online presence and linkable data on individual coins; some, however, do not, notably those collections located outside of Europe and the US. For this reason, as part of the project, the open source Numishare project platform will be adapted to allow the inclusion of coins from a variety of sources regardless of their current digitized state. The digital format and Numishare architecture for the OXUS-INDUS project has already been successfully deployed in existing and widely used numismatic resources including the NEH-funded Online Coins of the Roman Empire and Hellenistic Royal Coinages at the ANS and the AHRC-funded OPAL and ARCH projects in Oxford. It will also be deployed in the new, ERC-funded CHANGE project.
Besides offering a much-needed tool for understanding Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek coinage at a basic level, we anticipate the OXUS-INDUS resource will also be used to advance new research agendas. In recent years, for example, scholarship on the archaeology and history of the Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek kingdoms has moved away from a polarized view of ‘Greek’ and ‘non-Greek’ influences to one of cultural hybridity. Numismatic scholarship has generally remained focused on political history, with attempts to link the coins to the very few historical events known from literary sources. The subject is thus long overdue for a decolonizing approach, moving away from the systems created in the 19th century by historians from a European colonial background and returning to the evidence of the coins themselves. The new overview created by the OXUS-INDUS project will allow a reappraisal of the numismatic evidence for the kingdoms in the light of these new approaches and provide a framework for studying and analyzing the coins, which does not rely on knowledge of detailed and technical numismatic arguments. The Linked Open Data approach taken will also be fully extensible in the future to include other coinages from the region, and from different periods.