Advocacy News

August 7, 2007

Coins and Archaeology

Since their first invention in western Turkey in the late seventh century B.C., coins have been struck in precious metals and copper alloys, and since that time they have been lost, buried in hoards, placed in graves, or otherwise left behind for archaeologists to find. When coins are found as part of a scientific excavation, they can make an immense contribution to our understanding of ancient society. One obvious way they help archaeologists reconstruct life on ancient sites comes from the fact that they are relatively easy to date. When a building has a coin in its foundations, archaeologists know that the building must have been built after the time in which the coin was struck. In 1962, a ship was discovered in London that had a worn coin of the Roman emperor Domitian (A.D. 88-89) placed under its mast. While not the only evidence pointing to a late first century date for the construction of the vessel, such a find provides precious chronological information. Careful recording during excavation also showed that the reverse (“tails”) of the coin was face up and read “To the good fortune of the Emperor”. We can imagine that the shipwright was hoping to bring such luck to the newly built merchant ship.

Just as with pennies today, ancient coins were lost during everyday activities. Small change, usually small bronze coins, comprises the huge bulk of excavation coins. They are indicative of the kind of coin that is dropped or lost, with the owner having no intention of, or no chance to recover them. Although they are not usually intrinsically interesting to collectors, they tell us about the changing use of coins–especially pocket change–and the distribution of coins from the place where they were minted.

At the sanctuary of Zeus at Nemea (Greece), for example, the coin scatter indicates which areas of the sanctuary were used at different times, and from which regions the travelers came, thereby facilitating a reconstruction of patterns of pilgrimage at the site. In addition, the distribution of coins confirms heavy use of the sanctuary in the fifth century B.C., a lower level of use in the early fourth century, and intense building during the later fourth and early third centuries. In the site’s stadium, coins indicate that citizens were seated by towns, not randomly around the track, and that a predominantly local audience watched the games. Furthermore, coins of Ptolemy III, ruler of Egypt from 246 to 222 B.C., are found in great numbers at the site, which constitute direct evidence that the king financed warfare in the Peloponnese (southern Greece) as he did in Attica.

At Caesarea Maritima in Israel, coins from the reign of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius (A.D. 610-641) show that the imperial government placed a small mark (known as a “countermark) on older coins to reassert Byzantine authority at a time when the armies of the newly powerful Arab rulers were threatening Caesarea. Only by having a large number of excavated coins from the site could it be ascertained exactly when this “minting” took place, and that it probably occurred in Caesarea. The scope of the excavated coins at Caesarea has also clarified the town’s trade networks: statistical analysis of the coins shows that the city had little in common with the Palestinian cities of Jerusalem and Samaria, and that its ‘sister cities’ were Antioch and Sardis (now part of Turkey). In effect, Caesarea was more closely tied to the large cities of the Roman Near East because of her harbor, and her military and civilian postings.

Perhaps the most well known confluence of coins and archaeology comes in the dating of the origins of the Roman denarius. The denarius was the “dollar” of the Roman world and Roman moneyers and emperors struck them in various weights and purities from the late third century B.C. to the third century A.D. How do we know when the denarius was first struck? The ancient historian Pliny, who wrote in the first century A.D., gives the most extensive account of the origins of Roman coinage but his chronology can’t be reconciled with evidence from hoards of early Roman coins found in Italy. As a result, the first denarii had been variously dated from 269 to 187 B.C.

A numismatist, Rudi Thompsen, suggested that denarii were first struck during the Second Punic War (218-202 B.C.). A more precise date was established by archaeologists working at the city of Morgantina in central Sicily, one of the main theaters of battle. There were two attacks on the city: one in 214 and one in 211, both of which are attested archaeologically. Very early denarii were present in the debris from the second attack, along with pottery and terra cottas of late third century B.C. date. The earlier levels of the city have no denarii, and the site was essentially abandoned after the attacks, which enables us to fix the origin of the coins to 211 B.C. or shortly before. This is a superb example of historians, archaeologists, and numismatists working together to determine the date of one of the most important coinages of the ancient world.

Archaeology also clarifies the history of early Greek coins. In a recent article in the American Journal of Archaeology, Nicholas Cahill and Jack Kroll published three coins from ancient Sardis in western Turkey: two of silver and one of gold. The coins are of a type called “Croesids” and show an angry bull and lion confronting one another. In the mid-sixth century B.C., Sardis was the capital of the powerful Lydian kingdom ruled by Croesus, who was renowned in antiquity for his great wealth. He was also famous for once asking the oracles of Greece what would happen if he faced the Persian king Cyrus in battle, receiving the response that “a great empire will fall.” That story comes from the Greek historian Herodotus, who also tells us that when their armies met at Sardis in the 540’s B.C., Croesus’ forces were defeated and the city was sacked.

What is the connection between this history and early Greek coinage? Numismatists have long debated whether or not the so-called “Croesids” were struck before or after the Persian sack. Because the three Sardis coins were well excavated, we know that two come from under pavements laid before the siege and one from near the skeleton of a young man who died during the fighting. Finding these individual coins in unambiguously pre-Persian contexts can only mean that the series as a whole was initiated before the mid-sixth century.

All these examples show that archaeologists and numismatists can best work together when the findspots of coins are accurately documented. Millions of Greek and Roman coins have been found, but only a fraction of these have been properly recorded. A late Roman bronze struck in Italy and auctioned on the Internet adds essentially no new knowledge to our understanding of the ancient world. But if we know that it was found in the countryside of England, perhaps on a small farm or a wealthy villa, and if it is available for study by scholars and the public alike, then that small piece of impure copper becomes a fascinating document in the economic and social history of the ancient world.

Some of our best information about the economic history of an area comes from hoards, which are groups of coins collected in containers, such as pots or leather pouches, and hidden by the owners, perhaps before an attack or for general safekeeping. In 1998, Israeli archaeologists discovered a hoard of 751 Byzantine gold coins, known as solidi, in a house at the site of Bet She’an and this material has now been published by Gabriela Bijovsky of the Israel Antiquties Authority. The latest coins date to A.D. 674-681, during the reign of the emperor Constantine IV, a time of considerable upheaval at Bet She’an, just as it was at Caesarea. A remarkable feature of some of the pieces is the presence of Arabic inscriptions scratched into the soft gold while these coins were still in circulation. These letters indicate that the coins, which were struck in Constantinople, were handled by Arabs and then again by a wealthy citizen of Bet She’an before he buried them in his home. Only close study of the hoard and knowledge of its original context can reveal these important cross-cultural interactions.

Careful excavation of coins from both hoards and sites combined with systematic archaeological recording is key to further progress in understanding the ancient world. In this effort, numismatists and archaeologists can work hand in hand, facilitating discoveries and interpretations that neither discipline could produce in isolation.

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