Ancient numismatics



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ANCIENT NUMISMATICS
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.
Vocabulary1
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

1257b:
“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:


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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 and ergon, 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 and adjuncts. 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.
Legend 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.
The ethnic 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 and striking. 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.


Striking 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 and punch 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.
Flan, 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:







With few exceptions, dies bear images which are incised into their surfaces (intaglio) prior to use; thus the effect produced is in relief, and the image is a mirror of that which appears on the die. In modern times dies have usually been made of steel. Such ancient dies as we possess (and their authenticity is seldom beyond dispute) are made of iron or work-hardened copper. (A die does not have to be a great deal harder than the surface it is intended to strike in order to produce an image.)


Often, especially in hand-struck coinage, it is clear which face of the coin has been struck by which die; the distinction is important. Unfortunately the terms, which have been devised to make it -- obverse and reverse -- have different sets of meanings, both of which are in common use and both of which have some validity.
Properly, obversus means that which faces you, and reversus what is turned away from you. Obviously in the simplest sense this distinction is dependent on the eye of the beholder. Von Schrötter’s Wörterbuch der Münzkunde is followed almost verbatim by Fengler, Garrow and Unger and in translation by Doty: the obverse is “the side of the coin bearing the more important legends or types” [Ger. Hauptseite or Vorderseite]; since coinage is a prerogative of state, and most states have been monarchies, the more important face is most frequently that which we would today call “heads”, after the head of the ruler that gave the coin its validity.
In many branches of numismatics, however, including the classical, the term obverse denotes the lower die and reverse the upper or hand-held die. The fact that the obverse usually bears the more important image, or “head”, is the result of technical considerations. Dies absorbed stress at differential rates: reverses tended to break more frequently than obverses because they absorbed the impact of the hammer directly and were not shielded by the flan. Since the execution of a portrait, be it of a god, hero, or human, usually required more care and more talented artisans to produce--in short, was more expensive to produce--minters favored this face of the coin by making it the protected die; this face was usually the obverse.
This is not invariably the case. There are many coins, which bear no head at all, and others--the fifth century coins of Syracuse and the staters of Corinth are but two examples--on which the “heads” side is clearly the reverse. The Romans struck some two-headed coins on which it is practically impossible to tell which die was fixed and which movable, and there are some issues--for instance Byzantine solidi struck after A.D. 692--on which there are two heads, one secular and one religious, and where we arbitrarily define the obverse for descriptive purposes as the face bearing the religious image.
Not everyone concedes the necessity of using the terms obverse and reverse in preference to “front” and “back” or “heads” and “tails”. Neither of these pairs of alternatives, however, bears any relation to the technique of coin production, and for statistical purposes it is important to know which face of the coin was produced by the obverse die and which by the reverse die.
There are three terms, which describe the physical attributes of a coin after it has been struck. One of these is die axis, and it is the easiest to render concretely. This term describes the relationship of the types to one another when one is viewed in the vertical position and the coin is rotated on its polar axis. The die axis of virtually all United States coins, for example, is inverted--that is, when either face is viewed upright and the coin is rotated, the other emerges upside down. These relationships are most often expressed in print by an arrow or arrows: ↑ = 12:00,  ↓ = 6:00. When two are present, one is always at 12:00 (e.g. ↑↓ = ↓ = 6:00); in modern literature only one arrow is used, since the other is implicitly at 12. Just as the die axis may be rendered in hours, it may be rendered in degrees in the arc of a circle, so that occasionally you will see 175 o or 345 o, etc. Numeric notation is preferable to other systems when recording coins, since numbers are less liable to scribal error than arrows.
In hand-struck coinages, when dies are simply mated as they come to hand, a fairly random distribution can be expected. Sometimes the shape of the dies themselves leads to a preference for striking at specific die axes (with a square die, e.g., 3:00, 6:00, 9:00, 12:00). If dies are fixed, however, they can be important clues to attribution, since preferences change within mints and sometimes extend over space in a single time frame. Ancient Greek coins, especially in the archaic period, usually are struck without adjusting the dies (though the technique was known e.g. the incuse coinages of South Italy). Later die positions become a regional fashion: Phoenician coins for instance are almost always struck with adjusted dies.
Two other terms are module and fabric; the first of these is a component of the other and has a perfectly good synonym. Module means simply diameter. This measurement is carefully recorded in older catalogues, since in many coinages the compilers did not know the proper names for the denominations and size was a clue; moreover there was no easy way to reproduce a coin to scale. Since the advent of cheaper commercial photography it has become more common simply to illustrate the coin, though this puts the reader to the inconvenience of measuring for himself. Diameters are usually given in the metric system, though older British catalogues sometimes use inches and tenths. What to do with a coin that is not round? There seem to be two alternatives: give the minimum and maximum diameters (e.g. 17-19 mm.), or measure uniformly on one axis for all coins. For square coins, use 17x19.
Fabric, like “type”, is not to be taken in its everyday sense: it has nothing to do with the material from which the coin is made. It refers to the general appearance of a coin as a piece of metal, and incorporates shape, weight, diameter, and thickness, all of which reflect the mint’s method of fabrication. Weight and diameter are of course measurable with some precision; in hand-struck coinage it is less easy to make meaningful distinctions in thickness since this varies not only from coin to coin but on the same coin, and an average or maximum value is not readily calculable. Words like “thick”, “dumpy”, “flat”, and “broad” are often used to characterize the fabric of a coin or of a series, and the best way to establish their relative meanings is to have contact with large numbers of coins of different mints or periods. The lifetime and the posthumous coins in the name of Alexander the Great bear the same types but the fabric of the flans is thick in the first and spread and flat in the latter and immediately allows a chronological classification.
Finally it is worth mentioning some terms, which describe the alteration of a coin’s appearance after striking, or simply mint errors. A brockage is an early form of mint error, which results from the use of a previously-struck coin as a die. We suppose that this normally resulted from a freshly-struck piece adhering to the punch die as a result of surface tension, or simply the adhesiveness of heated metal; a virgin flan was then inserted on the anvil die and struck with the punch, so that the obverse previously produced by that anvil die appears in incuse as the reverse of the new coin. Eventually the first coin drops from the die and coining proceeds as usual; the flawed pieces escape detection and find their way into circulation.
A double-strike is just what it sounds like. The same die is brought down twice or more on the same coin, whether intentionally (to raise the relief) or accidentally from the recoil of the hammer. The traces left on the coin will often be visible as a “ghost” or shadow of the type as it was supposed to appear.
This sort of mistake is to be distinguished from overstriking, which represents the re-use of an earlier coin as a flan. Overstriking is seldom employed in modern times, but has often been used to validate or revalidate coins for currency, to freshen their appearance and thus render them more acceptable, or to redefine an area of approved circulation. It was also a quick and dirty way to remonetize earlier coins.
Countermarks have much the same effect, although they consist only of small punches applied to the face of the coin. They can be round or rectilinear and have their own legends and types, just as do coins. They are different in appearance and function from bankers’ marks or test marks, normally thin incision-like marks on the surface of the coin intended to determine whether it was of pure metal throughout.
Both overstrikes and countermarks have obvious applications as methodological tools. The coin created by overstriking must obviously have been manufactured later than the coin on which it is struck, and a relative chronology for two coins can thus be established by a single piece. Often when a mint employed the technique it was indifferent to the nature of the undertype, and several different coinages might be employed for flan material: this can help refine chronologies or provide a clue to mint attribution.
Countermarks establish a chronological relationship between the coin and the countermark itself, and may sometimes be used to date each other, when they overlap on the same coin. In addition the use of identical countermarks on different series helps to establish the contemporary circulation of those series.
This summary shows how much of numismatic vocabulary has to do with to coin manufacture and the resulting product, and it reaches back to the beginnings of numismatic study. In the beginning that study was purely descriptive, and consisted of little more than catalogues of private collections, intended as much to celebrate the acumen of their owners as to broaden the base of numismatic knowledge. The turn of the nineteenth century, however, represents a watershed, and the beginning of the development of modern numismatic method.
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