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Ancient Coins and (Modern) Object Biographies

By Nathan Elkins for American Numismatic Society (ANS) ……

One way to study numismatic objects is through the lens of the anthropological/archaeological concept of object biography. A helpful guide from Stanford University (PDF here) defines it as follows: “Object biography is a methodology that goes beyond provenance research to create close, contextual consideration of the shifting relationships of things and people as they circulate into and out of different social situations.”

When it comes to ancient coins, archaeology provides the best insights into their ancient “biographies”, because archaeologists can record various related geographical, material, and depositional relationships. This information helps recreate the end (at least) of these objects’ past “lives” and user interactions. Sometimes coins themselves exhibit physical alterations that speak to their social encounters long ago, as is the case where the portrait on some coins is defaced.

For example, coins with portraits of Caligula have been known to show signs of attack, suggesting an emotional and/or political expression regarding a user’s sentiment toward Caligula’s memory (fig. 1).

Figure 1. Framed sestertius of Caligula with gouge marks on the obverse portrait (Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Missouri-Columbia, Gift of Mrs. Thomas O. Mabbott, 72.208).

The biographies of ancient objects are also ongoing, helping us write history and themselves writing history still. And, here, I use the example of the coins of Constans, Constantius II, Constantius Gallus, and Julian that show a Roman solider spearing a fallen horseman; the reverse type is among the most common Roman coins (fig. 2).

Figure 2. Copper coin of Constantius Gallus from the mint at Rome, 352–355 CE. OBV: Bust, draped and cuirassed to the right, D N FL CL CONSTANTIVS NOB CAES; REV: Roman soldier spearing fallen horseman who falls over his horse, FEL TEMP REPARATIO, RS in exergue (ANS 1944.100.20940, Bequest of E. T. Newell).

At the Roman fort at Yotvata in modern-day Israel, these are the latest coins from the excavations and direct us to conclude that the fort was abandoned in the late 350s or early 360s CE, perhaps in conjunction with the earthquake of 363 CE that devastated the region. The modern discovery of these objects in specific contexts and associations led to these conclusions.

At other excavations, coins similarly have stories to tell if we are able to listen. After excavation, coins end up in museums and archaeological storehouses for future study and consultation. The ancient biographies of coins found by metal detectorists who do not report or record finds under schemes such as the Portable Antiquities Scheme are forever lost.

Following their discovery after millennia in the earth, ancient coins have a new “life”, as they inspire the public in museum displays, teach students and scholars new insights when consulted for information, and, in some cases, they can even direct the life course and biography of people today who encounter them.

Such is the case with my own chance encounter with a “fallen horseman” coin on February 9, 1995, when I was 13 years old.

A year or two before, my parents had passed on to me, from their youth, some Whitman folders containing wheat pennies and the like, and other old coins. I developed an interest in coins and would visit a nearby coin shop. On Thursday evenings, there was a silent auction and I would pick up the occasional silver dollar, war nickel, or (if I could afford it) something interesting from the 19th century.

That one night in February, I saw an ugly but intriguing lump of bronze labeled “ancient Roman coin, 2,000 years old.”

At that time, I could hardly describe who the Romans were and the span of 2,000 years felt unimaginably vast – I was intrigued. I was the successful bidder at $1.75 and, over the next several months, I spent countless hours looking at the coin, trying to decipher the mysterious text and images I saw on it. I nagged my parents to take me to the public library, where they had a single tome on Roman coins, a well-illustrated book by C.H.V. Sutherland (Roman Coins, London, 1974). With that book in hand, what had looked to my young mind to be a skeleton on the reverse I eventually determined to be the soldier spearing the fallen horseman and identified the emperor on the obverse as Constantius II (figs. 3–4).

Figure 3. A copper coin of Constantius II, bought in February 1995 (Photo: author).
Figure 4. Pencil rubbing of fig. 3 with notations from 1995 and a public library receipt for Sutherland’s book (Photo: author).

Having solved the mystery, I was hungry to know more.

Who was Constantius II? Why was this violent scene on the coin? Learning more led to new questions.

I renewed my loan on the book frequently and visited the Texas Tech library to read more about what Sutherland (and others) wrote about Roman coins. I also read about Greek and Roman civilization more generally and, eventually, my parents found a second-hand copy of the book for me, which I received as a birthday or Christmas gift; I expect that early exposure to Sutherland’s work inspired my own interest in the political aspects of Roman Imperial coin design that has endured now for three decades.

Needless to say, that chance encounter with a coin altered my path in life, igniting a passion for Roman history and coinage, prompting me to study classics and archaeology at college and at the postgraduate level, and to specialize in and publish on Roman coinage.

In fall 2018, I was on a Tytus Fellowship at the University of Cincinnati when Richard Beleson from San Francisco invited to fly me out to give a presentation on the coinage of Nerva for the San Francisco Ancient Numismatic Society.

After I arrived, we first met in person at a café, where he told me about his first coin, which was also a “fallen horseman” type; subsequently, we shared how our fallen horseman types had put us on our respective paths.

Rick was 10 years old in 1964 and had been living with his family in Nairobi, Kenya. As they were moving back to the United States, they toured the Greek islands and stopped also in Istanbul. There, in the grand bazaar, he rummaged through a box and picked out a coin with a fighting scene, which ignited his imagination. He could read “…RATIO” on the coin and thought about the story of Horatio at the bridge, which he knew (fig. 5). Only later from a pamphlet on FEL TEMP REPARATIO coins did he learn what the coin was.

Figure 5. A copper coin of Constans from the mint at Alexandria, 348–350 CE, and of the same reverse type as Richard Beleson’s first coin—unfortunately his first coin was subsequently lost. OBV: Diademed, draped and cuirassed bust to the right, D N CONSTANS P F AVG; REV: Roman soldier spearing fallen horseman who falls over his horse, FEL TEMP REPARATIO, ALEB in exergue (Photo: Courtesy of Richard Beleson).

As he grew older, Rick’s passion for ancient history also grew and he developed a significant collection and personal library and volunteered on excavations. His interests tend to focus on reverse types that have a strong connection with historical events, such as the Jewish Revolt or Hadrian’s travels. While his first chance encounter with a Roman coin did not direct him to pursue graduate-level study or sustained research on numismatics and history, it nonetheless significantly altered his life path, as manifested through his philanthropic efforts in support of numismatics and historical preservation.

For instance, he has helped to fund a curatorial position at the British Museum that records all newly discovered coin hoards. For a San Francisco Ancient Numismatic Society trip to England in 2012, during the group’s visit to St. Albans that had been facilitated by Philippa Walton, the hoards curator at the British Museum, Rick and the group got to see a hoard of 150 late Roman gold coins, which had been recently discovered and reported by a metal detectorist (figs. 6–7). The hoard, now known as the Sandridge Hoard, was purchased by the museum in St. Albans with the support of a donation by Rick and other members of the San Francisco Ancient Numismatic Society.

He also recently provided funds to the York Museum to purchase the Ryedale Ritual Bronzes, which includes a processional bust of Marcus Aurelius, and which were found by a metal detectorist; the museum would not have been able to acquire the objects otherwise. These sculptures will be exhibited at the York Museum this spring.

Figure 6. Richard Beleson and members of the San Francisco Ancient Numismatic Society examining coins from the Sandridge Hoard and other objects at the St. Albans Museum (Photo: Courtesy of Richard Beleson).
Figure 7. Richard Beleson with a coin from the Sandridge Hoard during the visit of the San Francisco Ancient Numismatic Society at the St. Albans Museum (Photo: Courtesy of Richard Beleson).

Here in the United States, Richard Beleson’s support of numismatics and history has been no less pronounced. He has been a member of the American Numismatic Society (ANS) since 1995, is a Life Fellow and served on the Board of Trustees from 2010 to 2016. He has been a generous donor to the ANS’s campaign to endow the chair of the Executive Director, many different appeals, events, and galas, and in 2020 was himself honored at the Annual Gala Dinner and presented with the Trustees’ Award for his distinguished service to the Society and support of the institution (fig. 8).

Figure 8. ANS President Sydney Martin presents Richard Beleson with the Trustees’ Award at the ANS Annual Gala Dinner in January 2020 (Photo: Alan Roche).

These small objects had a big impact on lives thousands of years ago and today they can still sometimes direct our paths and write parts of our own biographies. The most important things about numismatics, in my view, are not the objects themselves, but rather what they tell us about the people who use(d) them and their entanglements with us.

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American Numismatic Society (ANS)

American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Societyhttps://numismatics.org
The American Numismatic Society (ANS), organized in 1858 and incorporated in 1865 in New York State, operates as a research museum and is recognized as a publicly supported organization. "The mission of The American Numismatic Society is to be the preeminent national institution advancing the study and appreciation of coins, medals and related objects of all cultures as historical and artistic documents, by maintaining the foremost numismatic collection and library, by supporting scholarly research and publications, and by sponsoring educational and interpretive programs for diverse audiences."

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