Tag Archives: tokens

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The Richard B. Witschonke Collection at the ANS includes 16 specimens of these tokens, nine of which remain unpublished.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.

REDRESSING THE BALANCE, PART 1: THE GLORIES OF LEAD

Brasher dubloon (ANS 1969.62.1)
Brasher dubloon (ANS 1969.62.1)

When thinking about the collection of the American Numismatic Society, the mind often leaps first to the trays of gold and silver coins, to beautiful and famous rarities, and the extremely valuable pieces that only a select few could ever hope to own privately. The shiny stuff has a great allure. There is no question about that. Who doesn’t like the warm glow of the Brasher doubloon or appreciate the rarity of the Confederate States silver half-dollar? I can personally attest to the great thrill of holding one of these in each hand while we were preparing the Drachmas, Doubloons, and Dollars exhibit for the Federal Reserve back in 2000.

Lead token of Boure, A., Canada (ANS 1966.176.492)
Lead token of Boure, A., Canada (ANS 1966.176.492)

This edition of Pocket Change, however, is not about such pretty and valuable coins. Instead it is about the coins in the collection that many readers may not know about. They are the forgotten coins, the odd coins, the sometimes distrusted and maligned coins. They are those humble and unsung heroes of the ANS cabinet—the lead coins.

It may come as some surprise (perhaps even shock) to learn that the ANS collection includes some 4,448 lead pieces (including ancient scale weights, seal impressionsmedals, and modern fakes). These range in place and period from Archaic Greece and Classical India to the Netherlands in the sixteenth century and the United States in the nineteenth century.

Samian lead hemistater (ANS 1979.116.1)
Samian lead hemistater (ANS 1979.116.1)

Lead coins of all periods generally fall into one of four main categories:

  • Counterfeits intended to deceive the unwary in commercial transactions. This use of lead can be traced in the Western World all the way back to the late sixth century BC, not long after coinage was invented. Herodotus reports a rumor that Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos, struck lead coins and plated them with gold (probably really electrum, an alloy of gold and silver) to buy off a besieging Spartan force in 525/4 BC. Despite the doubts of the Father of History, the ANS collection includes a Samian lead hemistater that tends to support the story as well as several Milesian lead issues of even earlier vintage (c. 560-545 BC). Although plated bronze cores seem to have been far more common than plated lead in later periods, lead counterfeits were still produced by unscrupulous individuals to pass as silver coins as late as the early twentieth century AD. The Society’s collection includes a number of lead U.S. half-dollars, quarters, and dimes that were cast from authentic silver examples, apparently for circulation.
2010.22.11.obvrev.width350
Lead half-dollar (ANS 1934. 2010.22.11)
  • Official coinages. When other forms of metal currency—especially copper/bronze—were in short supply, governments sometimes produced official fiduciary coinages in lead as a means of preventing the collapse of quotidian transactions. Thus, in southern China of the Ten Kingdoms Period (AD 907-979) lead coins were cast both officially and in private with value ratings against copper cash coins. Lead sporadically occurs as a coinage metal in India of the Classical Period (first-third centuries AD), especially in central India, but also later under the occupation of the English East India Company in the eighteenth century. The Company’s lead pice not only filled a need for low-value coinage, but also returned a hefty profit since the face value of the coin was much greater than the cost of the lead from which it was made.
Lead pice, Mumbai, 1741 (ANS 1988.21.63)
Lead pice, Mumbai, 1741 (ANS 1988.21.63)
  • These coin-like objects are distinguished from emergency coinages in that they were produced officially or privately usually to be exchanged for goods or services rather than to circulate as money, although in times when other low value coin was scarce they were pressed into service as emergency money. In Roman times, tokens, known as tesserae, were used by emperors and lesser officials in Rome and the provinces to distribute the grain dole and other bonuses to the populace. The also seem to have been used by private businesses. The ANS collection is notable for a group of tesserae from the Roman client-kingdom of Nabataea, which may have been distributed in the context of a religious celebration or were used as tokens to purchase votive gifts in a temple. English shopkeepers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries also often produced their own tokens in part because there was rarely enough copper halfpence in circulation for daily transactions. Lead tokens made business more manageable and some of the more trusted issues even gained the status of local currencies. Lead tokens were still used by small businesses in North America and elsewhere in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Lead tessera (ANS 1967.160.11)
Lead tessera (ANS 1967.160.11)
  • Test strikes and patterns. As a soft metal, lead was often used for trial strikes at many mints in different periods in order to test the quality of dies and their engraving or as patterns for coins and medals not yet struck. The ANS collection includes a variety of lead trial pieces and patterns for U.S. coins that were ultimately rejected by the Mint. It also holds numerous lead trial pieces for medals struck or planned by the American Numismatic Society during its long history as a medal-producing institution. Indeed, even as late as the 1990s lead blanks were used to demonstrate hammer-striking when the Society used to have its open house at the old Audubon Terrace location. Some readers may still have one of these ANS “test strikes” carried off as a memento. As one of the demonstrators back then, I still have mine. Out of a concern for safety, all demonstration strikes made at the ANS now use plasticene rather than lead.
Lead half-dollar, Philadelphia, 1859 (ANS 1956.122.3)
Lead half-dollar, Philadelphia, 1859 (ANS 1956.122.3)

It is easy to love gold and silver, but this brief survey of the Society’s holdings of lead should shown that their humble cousin, lead, is of comparable interest from the historical and numismatic technical perspective. Just because they are often small, have less than stunning patinas, and could cause physical harm if you do not wash your hands after handling them, there is no reason why they should not sometimes share the spotlight with their shinier and more attractive relatives. After all, in some cases there might not have been the finished gold or silver coin in the trays if there had not already been a lead piece first.

Telegraphic Numismatica

Detail of Morse from the reverse of an 1896 $2 silver certificate, ANS 1980.67.17
Detail of Morse from the reverse of an 1896 $2 silver certificate, ANS 1980.67.17

On January 6, 1838, American polymath Samuel F. B. Morse and his partners Leonard Gale and Alfred Lewis Vail hosted a successful private trial of their new electric telegraph system. Morse was a celebrated painter who became fixated on the idea of creating an expeditious means of long-distance communication when his wife fell ill and died while he was away (the news, delivered by mail, arrived only after the fact). Morse’s signature contribution was adding extra circuits or relays to the existing electromagnetic systems, which ensured that the telegraphic signal would carry over longer wires. The first message that was transmitted that day was an aphorism: “A patient waiter is no loser.” (The more famous phrase associated with the telegraph, “what hath God wrought,” was sent in 1844 as part of a public demonstration of the new commercial telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.)

The electric telegraph expanded exponentially in the mid-nineteenth century, transforming commerce and communication throughout the United States and eventually around the world. The key to the globalization of the technology was overcoming the challenge of manufacturing underwater cables that were durable enough to survive and transmit signals across vast distances. The first successful effort to lay a trans-Atlantic cable was undertaken by the Atlantic Telegraph Company headed by Cyrus W. Field. On August 16, 1858, the first message was sent from England to the United states, which read: “Europe and America are united by telegraphy. Glory to God in the highest; on earth, peace and good will toward men.” Shortly after, Queen Victoria and President James Buchanan exchanged congratulatory messages, but the cable failed after just a few short weeks.

ANS, 0000.999.4493
ANS, 0000.999.4493

Nevertheless, the venture had demonstrated the viability of undersea cables, even if there were some technical issues that still needed to be worked out. The New York Chamber of Commerce commissioned a medal from Tiffany & Co. to celebrate Field and the engineers that had made the project possible. The richly symbolic result depicted Columbia and Britannia holding a cable across the globe. In the small cartouche below the figure of Mercury stands with the fruits of American commerce, which includes a beaver.

A more entertaining version of Tiffany’s rather formal medal were a series of tokens struck for the occasion by George H. Lovett of New York City.

ANS, 0000.999.4501
ANS, 0000.999.4501

Here an electrified handshake takes place across the Atlantic between ‘Brother Jonathan,’ a contemporary personification and parody of a New Englander, and a British gentleman. The latter asks “How are you Jonathan,” to which he responds “Purty well old feller, heow’s yer self.” Another fascinating momento from this event was a token produced by Granville Stokes, a merchant in Philadelphia who purchased a portion of the failed cable.

ANS, 1952.110.26
ANS, 1952.110.26

Stokes had the cable cut into quarter-inch thick slices and a suitable die was made to serve as a housing and advertising card for his business. It was then attached so that a cross-section of the cable showed as the reverse. It was not until 1866 that trans-Atlantic telegraphic communication was re-established when a new 1700-mile long cable went into operation.

ANS, 0000.999.57219
ANS, 0000.999.57219

The means by which signals were sent and interpreted via the telegraph was by what came to be known as Morse code. In this system, numbers, letters, and symbols were assigned a combination of dots and dashes that allowed for quick communication by simply tapping on a receiver. Skilled technicians could transmit a remarkable amount of text, up to 30 or 40 words per minute. A silversmith named S. W. Chubbuck from Utica, New York, seemed to have a particular interest in the Morse code system. This silver token is one of two minted, though more were made in bronze, and it depicts the full “Morse Telegraph Alphabet” and advertises his business, which apparently had a connection to the telegraph industry. Chubbuck later issued paper scrip during the Civil War that also included a tutorial in Morse code.

ANS, 1945.42.278
ANS, 1945.42.278

Perhaps the most famous bits of telegraphic numismatica are the Canadian nickels minted during the Second World War. New twelve-sided five-cent pieces were struck in brass and chrome-plated steel in 1943 amidst metal shortages caused by the war. As you can see, the device on the reverse was a torch splitting through a large V, which both indicated the denomination (5 ¢) and nodded towards the Allied ‘V for Victory’ campaign.

ANS, 1944.33.1
ANS, 1944.33.1

Some will note that the rims of the coin look a bit strange. This is because Thomas Shingles, the engraver of the Royal Canadian Mint, included a message along the rim in Morse code. Beginning at 6 o’clock (under the N) and reading clockwise it says:

We Win When We Work Willingly

Here’s a closer look at the top edge where the word “WORK” is spelled out: W (·——)  O (— — — ) R (· — ·) K (— · —)

1944.33.1.det

And with that short lesson in Morse code we end our short survey of the numismatics of the telegraph!

Matthew Wittmann