In principle, the two sides of a coin are coequal. However, descriptions of coins inevitably place one side before the other, because language—whether spoken or written—has a one-dimensional flow in time. Numismatists often use this directionality to attribute some sort of priority to the obverse, the side that is described first.
Many—probably most—coins do not have any inherent directionality in the images or legends on their two sides. There may be some difference in the perceived importance or generality of their information, but each side may convey its information independently of the other. Thus, arbitrary conventions exist for defining obverse and reverse, so that numismatists can decide which side gets described first. For ancient Greek coins, the obverse is the side bearing the impression of the anvil die. For Islamic coins, the obverse is the side bearing the Islamic statement of faith. For Chinese coins of the Qing dynasty, the obverse is the side with text in the Chinese language.
For some coins, however, there is an inherent directionality to the relationship of the two sides, so that an arbitrary convention is not needed. This is mostly provided by the aforementioned directional flow of language.
In ancient coins this is rare. To the extent that it occurs, it mostly takes the form of informational hierarchy, where a statement on the first side of the coin provides necessary context for understanding the statement on the second. Thus, for example, the statement “P M Tr P Cos III” (a list of titles: pontifex maximus with tribunician power, consul three times) on a coin of Hadrian can only be understood as following the statement of Hadrian’s name on the other side, making the former side necessarily the reverse and the latter side the obverse.
In medieval and early modern Europe, however, there are coins with legends that necessarily form a single grammatical unit spanning the two sides of the coin. As early as the sixth century there are coins where the legend forms a single syntactic unit as seen either from use of noun cases or, as seen here, a subject-verb-object sentence structure: “Rex Liuvigildus / cum D[e]o opt[i]nuit Spali” (King Leovigild with God took Ispali).
Later in the Middle Ages, the long lists of titles belonging to many rulers meant that even in abbreviated form, they needed both sides of the coin to convey just to describe themselves. On this Castilian coin, the two sides obviously form a single grammatical constituent: “F(erdinandus) Rex Castelle / et Legionis” (Ferdinand king of Castile and León). The “et Legionis” necessarily follows the “Rex Castelle”.
This trend became particularly pronounced in the early modern period, when even picking a few of the most relevant titles held by a ruler would amount to a long string of text. On a coin from Flanders in the Spanish Netherlands, for example, the brief and selective legend reads Carol(us) II D(ei) G(ratia) Hisp(aniarum) et Indiar(um) Rex / Arch(idux) Aus(triae) Dux Burg(undiae) C(omes) Fl(andriae) (Charles II, by grace of God king of the Spains and the Indies, archduke of Austria, duke of Burgundy, count of Flanders). Even heavily abbreviated, it takes up the legend space on both sides of the coin.
For coins like these, the directionality is inherent in the design of the coin. Regardless of which side was struck with which die, regardless of which side has a picture of a person on it, the side where the legend starts is inherently prior to the side where the legend ends. In this case, unlike others, no arbitrary convention is needed to identify obverse and reverse.
It is well known that numismatics is closely connected with history, archaeology, art history, and economics. However, coins can be used as evidence in many other areas as well. One of them is linguistics.
For some ancient languages, like the Iberian language of eastern Spain, coins represent a substantial (though not necessarily very informative) proportion of the surviving textual evidence.
A coin of Saiti (modern Xàtiva in eastern Spain) with legend in Iberian (ANS 2013.65.12). Coins provided important evidence for the decipherment of the Iberian writing system.
Occasionally, coins can even shed light on languages that are better documented. Although languages are constantly changing, standard literary forms are often much slower to change and do not necessarily reflect ordinary speech patterns.
Like other texts of official nature, coin legends also tend to reflect literary standards rather than current spoken language. However, coin legends are not always composed by individuals with a literary education, and in times of rapid linguistic change they can sometimes reveal developments that are obscured in other kinds of texts.
One example is the coins of Visigothic Spain. They were made at a time when the spoken Latin of the Roman Empire was evolving into the Romance languages. And they were also made at a time when training in the norms of classical Latin was decreasing; although literary figures like Isidore of Seville still wrote classical Latin, such skills were becoming rare.
Classical Latin had an elaborate system of noun cases, meaning that nouns took slightly different forms depending on their functional relationship to the main verb of the sentence. Latin had five main cases: nominative for the subject of the sentence, accusative (direct object), genitive (possessive), dative (indirect object), and ablative (for adverbial functions). There were also two functions with poorly differentiated forms: the vocative (for direct address) and locative (for specifying location).
However, this system disappeared during the early Middle Ages. By the time the earliest known Old Spanish texts were written in the late tenth century, the language had no noun cases at all (although pronouns still had cases, like in modern English). Thus, linguists have looked at earlier inscriptions to find information on when and how the change happened.
One hypothesis is that there was a transitional period in which some of the case distinctions had broken down but two or maybe three noun cases were still used. In a different Romance-language area, this can be seen in medieval Old French, which retained a two-case (nominative case for the subject and oblique case for everything else) system. As it happens, Visigothic coins provide some of the best evidence for such a transitional period in Spain.
From the last years of Leovigild (569–586) until the last Visigothic coins around 714, the predominant structure of Visigothic coin legends was to place the name and title of the king on the obverse, and on the reverse a laudatory adjective for the king plus the name of the mint.
This coin of Sisenand (631–636) from Medina Sidonia has his name SISENANDVS and title REX (king, using the cross at 12:00 as both starting punctuation and the final X in REX) on the obverse; the reverse has the king’s epithet PIVS (the pious, or holy) and the mint ASIDONA.
The name, title, and laudatory epithet for the king are all in the nominative case, as would be normal in Classical Latin. The name of the mint, however, takes a different form. Functionally, it would make sense for it to be a Latin ablative (“from …”) or locative (“at …”), but on Visigothic coins the form does not correspond to a single Latin case.
The spelling of the place names is decidedly non-Classical, and they are also clearly not in the nominative case, where this can be determined. For example, the Latin name of Medina Sidonia was Asido in the nominative, Asidonem in the accusative, Asidone in the ablative. However, the final -m of the accusative case had been a silent letter for centuries, and as Classical literary education faded, so did knowledge of when to write the silent -m.
Most of the place names could equally well be a Latin ablative or else a Latin accusative where the silent -m has been omitted. Some place names, however, are plural in form, and those would be easily distinguishable in Classical form. Some of them are clearly accusative in form; others appear to be ablative in form.
This coin of Suinthila (621–631) has the mint name NANDOLAS, which would appear to be a local tribal name in the accusative plural.
This coin of Witteric (603–610) has the mint name GEORRES, which is the name of a local tribe in the ablative plural. In Classical Latin the tribe was called the Gigurri in the nominative or Gigurris in the ablative, but the spelling on the coin reflects the likely seventh-century pronunciation.
The indifferent use of accusative or ablative forms for what would previously have been an ablative/locative function suggests that by that time the accusative and ablative cases (and possibly others) had merged together into an oblique (or objective) case. In other words, the coins provide evidence that is otherwise mostly absent for a transitional stage in the loss of the Latin case system as the spoken language evolved toward what is now Spanish.
Further reading: For more on this topic, see P. A. Gaeng, A Study of Nominal Inflection in Latin Inscriptions (Chapel Hill: Department of Romance Studies, University of North Carolina, 1977); and J. A. Correa Rodríguez, “El latín de las monedas visigodas,” in Latin vulgaire – Latin tardif VII, ed. C. Arias Abellán (Seville: Universidad de Sevilla, 2006), 219–41.
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.
Last week, the ANS was visited by Dr. Chad Leahy, an Assistant Professor of Spanish and Early Modern Cultural Studies in the Department of Languages & Literatures at the University of Denver. Chad was kind enough to sit for a short interview about his work, and what follows is a lightly edited transcript of our talk.
What brings you to the ANS today?
I am working on a book project right now about the representation of Jerusalem in early modern Spanish culture and how the politics and interests of Spain in the Holy Land were refracted in art and literature. I also am finishing up an article on the place of coins in a particular episode of Don Quixote that deals with the expulsion of the Moriscos. In the 16th Century, ‘Morisco’ was a term used to refer to the descendants of Muslim people in Iberia, who were expelled from Spain in 1609-1614. Moriscos were officially converts to Christianity, but most of them only nominally so. One of the characters in the novel, Ricote, was a Morisco who was expelled but then sneaks back to recover some buried treasure. The buried treasure of Ricote has been studied a lot from an economic angle, but I am looking at what happens when we read the coins as objects–looking at the marks and inscriptions on them to see the propagandistic messages that were circulating at the time. The discourses used to justify the expulsion were connected to Crusade propaganda and ideas about Spanish national identity, and these same messages are communicated through those coins. So there’s an interesting ironic tension between the character’s own biography and the coins he is coming back to recover. The thing that got Ricote expelled in the first place is stamped on his coins.
And were there some coins that you saw today that you found particularly interesting or enlivening?
Until now, the pieces that I have seen are things you find on Google images or coins published in books. I haven’t had the opportunity to examine any pieces in person and its hard to know without doing so what is real and what is being misrepresented or poorly described.
In Don Quixote, Ricote has all different kinds of money. Most of his money is in the form of escudos and initially I was just surprised by how small escudos are. The expulsion of the Moriscos happened under the reign of Philip III (1598-1621) and the ANS has an escudo from that period and also a gold Portuguese cruzado from a little bit earlier.
Both pieces are really fascinating. In the heraldry of the period there is a particular kind of cross called the cross potent that was a mark of the crown of Naples, which was in turn connected to both the crown of Jerusalem and the crown of Aragon through marriage and conquest. The cross potent came to represent the Kingdom of Jerusalem. These coins have crosses potent on them and the reason why this is significant in the period as it relates to propaganda and the expulsion is that this particular kind of cross gestures to Crusader propaganda and the idea of universal battle against Islam. It embodies the idea that Spain is destined to reconquer Jerusalem. These kinds of ideas were used to justify the expulsion of the Moriscos in 1609 and this is a connection I want to highlight.
One surprise today was that the cruzado (left) had a potent cross on it too [centered above the coat of arms]. I did not know that Portugal had crosses potent on any of their coins and they appear to have them in the 16th century on a good number of their cruzados.
And finally what are your future plans for this work?
This is going to be part of two works in progress. The first is an article that I am finishing up focusing on the Don Quixote coins, and the second is a larger book project about Jerusalem and early modern Spain.
For information about how this work develops, check out Dr. Leahy’s academia.edu page here.