Identifying Roman Coins: An OCRE Tool
Although fundamental to our discipline, one of the most difficult skills to teach aspiring Roman numismatists is how to identify coins. At archaeological field schools and in the classroom, numismatists provide some guidance and host practicums. But, at the end of the day, there is no substitute for looking at different coins, becoming intimately familiar with the reference works and online resources, and building up hundreds or even thousands of hours of experience to become adept at coin identification.
The task can be even more difficult for aspiring field numismatists, as excavation coins are not always well-preserved and there is sometimes a variety of material from different cultures or periods. For example, in my fieldwork in Israel, we have unearthed Roman, Seleucid, Ptolemaic, Nabatean, Hasmonean, Herodian, Byzantine, Crusader, Islamic, and modern coins. In excavations, it is important to attribute coins correctly, as a single coin find can be pivotal in understanding the history of a place.
Twenty years ago, identifying coins on a site meant packing up relevant RIC volumes for the Roman coins most likely to be encountered and taking good photographs of any other coins that could not be identified on-site. The task became somewhat easier with PDF scans of relevant reference works and online databases that can aid in coin identification, such as CoinArchives. For many recurrent late Roman types at a site, where much of the coin or the mintmark is illegible, one quickly develops the ability to recognize reverse types immediately and to attribute the coin to the date range for when the reverse type was in use.
For example, if all that can be clearly discerned on a coin is the two-soldiers-flanking-one-standard reverse, which was struck toward the end of Constantine’s reign and the beginning of that of his sons, then it can be attributed to at least 335–340 CE (Fig. 1). Of course, if Constantine himself can be identified on the obverse, the coins date to 335–337 CE, and if one of his sons appears as Augustus on the obverse, they date to 337–340 CE. Particularly with worn and often poorly struck late Roman coins, identifying the reverse type can also be difficult, as one turns the coin in the light in an attempt to discern what is there. It can sometimes feel like a Rorschach test. Guido Brück’s book, Die Spätrömische Kupferprägung. Ein Bestimmungsbuch für schlecht erhaltene Münzen (Graz, 1961) is a helpful guide; it provides line drawings of various late Roman reverse types and matches those with different rulers, mints, and legends, to help point users to various attributions and date ranges (Fig. 2).
With the advent of Online Coins of the Roman Empire (OCRE) database, a joint project of the American Numismatic Society and the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) at New York University, identifying Roman imperial coins generally has become even easier without the need to thumb through the pages of RIC and flip back-and-forth to look at plates. Users can easily search by legends and keywords and peruse galleries of images to figure out what Roman coin they are looking at. One underutilized feature of OCRE is the coin identification tool. It was recently brought to my attention by Bennet Hiibner, the ANS’s Director of Information Technology, who was perusing an online coin discussion forum and who without a background in ancient history or numismatics successfully identified a Roman coin posted in the forum using OCRE’s identification tool.
The OCRE identification feature allows one to narrow possible coin identifications by entering what is visible on obverse and reverse legends (inputting the legends without spaces). Of course, legends on Roman coins are not always completely legible and so one can use an asterisk (*) before the legend, in the midst of the legend, or at the end of the search string for a wildcard search, where parts of the legend are not certain. For example, searching the obverse legend for “impconstantinvs*” will return results where the obverse legend begins IMP CONSTANTINVS with anything that follows it (Fig. 3), whereas “*constantinvs*” will return all results where “CONSTANTINVS” appears anywhere in the legend (Fig. 4). Searching “*const*” returns results not just for Constantine and Constantine II, but also Constantius II, as the partial legend allows these various possibilities.
One can further refine results by selecting the metal of which the coin is made. There is also a feature that allows users to search by emperor and to scroll through a gallery of imperial portraits on coins, which is particularly useful to someone not familiar with the visages of various Roman emperors. We are presently considering enhancing the functionality of OCRE’s coin identification tool by adding other features, such as the ability to do a keyword search on the reverse type so that one could enter “patera,” “branch,” “Victory” or any other device or distinct figure that can be discerned to narrow results even further. If users of this tool have any further thoughts or suggestions for increasing the utility of the coin identification tool on OCRE, please email us.