INTRODUCTION TO NUMISMATIC TERMS AND METHODS*
Numismatics is the study of coins and money, of coins and coin-like objects. The word derives from the Latin nummus and the Greek νομíσμα, both meaning “coin”, though the Greek implies something more: the verb νομíζω means to bring into usage, to make common, to regulate. The value of coins as historical evidence was understood even in antiquity. There are literary references to collecting already in the Hellenistic period and under the Roman Empire but it is in the Renaissance that the study of coins really began.with the great Italian humanist Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374). With the invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg in the 15th century, the reproduction of images and dissemination of knowledge became easier. The systematic development of the study of coins as a proper discipline, with a methodology of its own, however, started only in the late eighteenth century with the work of Joseph Hilarius Eckhel, an Austrian Jesuit priest whose Doctrina Numorum Veterum (Vienna, 1793-1799) was an attempt to comprehend all of ancient Greek and Roman coinage in the span of eight volumes. Eckhel’s work spawned few immediate imitators, but it provided the impetus for the systematic cataloguing and study of the great numismatic collections of Europe. In Austria and gradually elsewhere, chairs in numismatics were established in the great universities, and the major cabinets were placed under the supervision of trained historians and archaeologists. In North America, where there was no academic tradition (but, above all, where there are no genuine finds of ancient coins), interest in coinage may be associated with the maturity of the country and interest in its origins. In the late 1850s “numismatic and antiquarian” societies sprang up in the major cities (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Montreal, Chicago). Some of these attracted the involvement of prominent academics, but the discipline has never really penetrated into the university structure. Numismatics is seldom taught in this country and then only as an adjunct to other pursuits. Today, Harvard and Yale and Princeton have numismatists among their museum curators and there is hope that the discipline will assume some role even in graduate curricula.
The objective of a course in numismatics or a graduate seminar is to provide an introduction to the discipline, not for the purpose of training professional numismatists but in order to make future members of the scholarly community aware of the existence and proper use of one extremely important form of evidence. The beginning of any discipline is the proper use of vocabulary and methodology, which this text has been prepared to introduce.
It is first necessary to have an understanding of the meaning of the term coin
itself. Webster (second edition) gives:
A piece of metal (or, rarely, of some other material) certified by a mark or marks upon it to be of a definite exchange value, and issued by governmental authority to be used as money; also, such pieces collectively.
This definition derives from Aristotle’s explanation of the origin of coinage in the Politics
“For when they had come to supply themselves more from abroad by importing things in which they were deficient and exporting those of which they had a surplus, the employment of money necessarily came to be devised. For the natural necessaries are not in every case readily portable; hence for the purpose of barter men made a mutual compact to give and accept some substance of such a sort as being in itself a useful commodity was easy to handle in use for general life, iron for instance, silver and other metals, at the first stage defined merely by size and weight, but finally also by impressing upon it a stamp in order that this might relieve them of having to measure it; for the stamp was put on as a token of the amount.”
In other words, three elements are necessary to make a coin
Metal. The most obvious physical attribute of a coin is the material from which it was produced--almost invariably, up until modern times, metal. The metals selected had to be abundant enough to provide the raw material for an exchange medium, but scarce enough to have value in their own right, and the selection has varied from culture to culture. In China, the initial metal of choice was copper; in India, silver; and in the west, silver or an alloy of gold or silver known as electrum.
Normally in describing coins in prose the English terms are used, but standard catalogues almost universally employ abbreviations taken directly from the Latin rather than from the periodic table: thus EL (electrum) = an alloy of gold and silver, AV (aurum) = gold, AR (argentum) = silver, AE = copper or one of its alloys. (The last abbreviation derives from the Latin aes, usually translated “bronze”; it is used generically to describe any coin consisting principally of copper.) Other metals are used occasionally and the abbreviations Bi (= billon, an alloy of silver in which the silver comprises less than 50%), NI = nickel, Pb (plumbum) = lead, are encountered, and Cu is becoming more common to describe copper. Iron money is mentioned in the literary sources: the iron, F (ferrum) bars of Sparta and iron coins in Klazomenai and Byzantion. Examples of iron coins survive from Argos, Heraia, Tegea, Megara, Phlios and from the Arcadian League, all from the fourth century B.C. most likely.
This literally unscientific terminology and abbreviation describes the principal element only
; when standard chemical abbreviations are used, it is almost always in the context of a formal analysis of a coin’s content. Only in recent times has it been possible to determine with any degree of precision the metals of which a coin was comprised, so the older abbreviations have a use in describing the major component of a coin while disclaiming the precision of a scientific analysis.
Weight. The Webster definition does not mention weight as an aspect of a coin, but in antiquity the only way of stabilizing a “definite exchange value” was to strike a coin to a specified weight and to regulate its alloy: the tariff or exchange value of a coin bore a very close--sometimes even direct--relationship to its intrinsic value, and thus it is possible to determine the relationship among denominations by comparing their weights. In some coinages the comparison of weights among series may determine the standard to which that series was struck; this in turn may be significant for chronology or attribution.
Today it is customary to express coin weights in grams, though in older catalogues one may encounter troy grains (from Troyes in France; 1 grain = .0648g; 1 troy pound = 5,760grains); usually a conversion table is provided. Whatever system is employed, it is important to relate that system to the one used at the time the coin was produced. Many coin denominations derive their names from weights, e.g. Greek stater (from ίστήμι = to weigh) and since the scale had two arms, the stater in most cases is divided into two. The drachma (from δράττεσθαι = to take, to grasp) 1/6000 talent. The dekadrachm = 10 drachm; though the term is not known in the ancient sources, but instead pentekontalitron, from the Sicilian litra = 12 ounces and the silver litra = 1/10 of the Corinthian stater. In the Roman system as = pound, uncia = ounce; semuncia = half-ounce, semis = half pound, sextans = 1/6 pound or two ounces, and so on.
The “mark or marks upon it,” which certify a coin, are categorized in different ways, and in many cases using terms that are familiar in themselves but have different meanings for numismatists.
Type, for example, is one of the terms most misused by beginning students of coinage. It can easily be read as if one were asked, “What type of coin is it?” and answered with a classification (“Roman” or “Islamic” or “U.S.”) or with a denomination (“stater”, “denarius”, “peso”), or simply “gold”, “silver” or “copper”. Any of these would be natural responses to the sense normally conveyed by the use of the word “type” in everyday English, but all would be wrong. For our purposes, “type” refers to the central device or motif (Doty uses the term “dominant design”) of either face of the coin. On one face of the United States cent, for example, the type is the bust of Lincoln facing r.; on the other, the Lincoln Memorial.
The field is the area on the face of the coin around the type, or which provides its background. The field is often subdivided into left and right. When “to l.” and “to r.” (or “in field l.”, “in field r.”) are written, they refer to left and right as the viewer sees them, although when we are describing the left or right arms or hands, they are the left or right arms or hands of the figure portrayed. Some catalogues eliminate the verbiage by using a graphic device, e.g. A|*, where A appears in l. field, * in r. field, and nothing beneath.
One part of the field has its own name. This is the exergue
, a term which originates in Greek ex
, literally “outwork” or an accessory to the main work. This refers to the portion of the type beneath the ground line, which is often explicitly rendered and always implicit. In archaic coinage it is often left blank, though on the more titulary-laden reverses of Hellenistic coins it is used for mint or issue marks and, sometimes for dates.
Subsidiary to the type itself are attributes
. An attribute is usually something attached to or held by the figure portrayed that allows identification: the trident for Poseidon, the quiver for Artemis. A bust might be laureate or diademed, hold a scepter or palm branch; a standing figure might be naked or draped, wear headgear or not, or hold branch, cornucopiae, orb, spear, scepter and the like. An adjunct
is usually disconnected from the figure itself--seated on the ground line or in the field, perhaps flying in the field crowning the type, or even attached to the throne on which the main figure sits. In composing descriptions of types, it is well to subordinate these elements verbally: first the type, then its attributes, then adjuncts. Generally speaking the description of images will move from left to right after the central figure is described.
is a term derived from the gerundive form of the Latin verb lego
, and means, “to be read”. It describes the verbal content of a coin. The legend may indicate the issuing authority, describe the type, combine with the type to specify the occasion commemorated, or convey virtually anything desired by the mint official (whose own name might be part of the legend). Legends may encircle the type or flank it, and may continue in the exergue.
may or may not be present. The term originates in Greek and is most commonly encountered with reference to Greek coins. It refers to the name of a tribe, nation, or city-state responsible for issuing a coin. ΑΘΕ
(“of the Athenians”) and ΣΥΡΑΚΟΣΙΩΝ
(“of the Syracusans”) are ethnics; the only ethnics employed on Roman coins are ROMANO (on early AR and ) and ROMA (on Republican silver and aes
). When the entire legend consists of an ethnic, the terms are synonymous. The term ethnic
is used seldom if at all in other fields.
Photographic reproduction is, relatively speaking, less expensive and therefore more common than ever
, and it might seem that such attention to verbalizing the elements of coin typology is unjustified if not downright pedantic. But a disciplined approach to the visual content of the coin forces attention to detail and minimizes the impact of value judgments about what is important and what is not; moreover no photograph, however good, can replace the firsthand examination of details that only a cataloguer can give.
The remainder of the basic numismatic vocabulary has to do with the manufacture of coins and the effects of the techniques employed on the coin’s appearance. There are two methods for the production of coins: casting
Casting is the simpler: molten metal is simply poured into a pair of joined molds which are then separated or broken, and the images incised in the molds
appear in relief on the final product. The sprues, which often join one hollow in the mold to another, are trimmed off and thrown back into the melting pot for reuse. Without extensive labor casting does not allow for precision in weight, and with reuse molds tend to produce steadily blurrier images.
This method has been employed almost exclusively for base-metal coins: in the West, Selinous. Himera and Akragas in Sicily first issued cast bronze coins around 450 B.C.. Olbia, on the Black Sea, near the mouth of the Borysthenes (Dniepr) as well had very large cast bronze coins. In Roman times casting was used for coins of such large size that it was impossible to strike them with manual force, such as the Umbrian and Roman aes grave. In later times, large medals and plaquettes were often cast. In China and in regions influenced by the Chinese numismatic tradition, casting was the standard method of coin production until modern times.
involves the physical alteration of a quantity of metal by impressing an image upon it. It involves the use of dies
. The term “die” comes into English from Latin via Middle English. In the sense used here, it compares to machinists’ dies, which are used for cutting or stamping an image, generally in metal but also in wood or any other malleable material. In machinists’ language, the matrix is the lower and usually larger of a pair of tools; it is fixed, while a similar but somewhat smaller one, designed to fit into the larger, is held in the hand or attached to a cam that is brought down against the matrix. This is the die.
In numismatics, both these tools are referred to as dies, irrespective of size, since until the advent of machine-produced coinage the two dies were seldom made to mesh with each other and in fact looked much alike. One, however, was rendered immobile by being fixed in a block that is referred to as an anvil
. The upper die, sometimes enclosed in a casing, was usually hand-held but in modern times is attached to its machinery. This is known as the punch
or the trussel
. By extension, anvil
are often used to describe the dies held in the anvil and the punch. The term punch
is also used for a smaller tool used to impress letters or parts of letters, and occasionally parts of the type, into mediaeval and modern dies.
, the piece of metal placed between the dies for striking, comes from Latin flare
, “to blow.” The term is conventional for hand-struck coins; planchet
is often used for modern ones, but blank
is an acceptable substitute for either. In antiquity, flans were most often made by casting
; the coin production process was therefore two-stage: the blank was cast (and, for precious-metal coins, probably corrected for weight by filing), and then struck. In mediaeval and later times, metal was sometimes hammered or rolled into sheets and cut to weight before being struck.
The ancient minting process can be illustrated diagrammatically as follows: