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CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz ….
 

MANY ANCIENT COINS circulated in a narrow area, sometimes just a single city-state of a few thousand inhabitants. But there were also long-distance travelers, coins that passed from hand to hand–perhaps for decades–reaching faraway lands in the saddlebags of warriors, the strongboxes of pirates and the satchels of merchants.

The literature of numismatics is rich with stories of such coins, although (as far as I know) there has never been a systematic study of them. Finding coins that have traveled far from their place of origin has helped historians and archaeologists reconstruct ancient and medieval trade routes and patterns of commerce and conquest.

The Silk Road

By the lowest reckoning, India, Seres [China] and the Arabian peninsula take from our Empire 100 millions of sesterces every year: that is how much our luxuries and women cost us.
— Pliny the Elder, Natural History 12.84

Rome’s insatiable demand for Chinese silk and Indian spices sent a steady stream of silver and gold coin flowing eastward. Much of it was melted down to make luxury objects, but some were retained as curiosities, souvenirs, or amulets and deposited in tombs.

In 1942, French archaeologist Louis Malleret excavated Oc Eo near the southern tip of Vietnam. Oc Eo, a city of the Funan kingdom, flourished between the 1st and 6th centuries CE. Malleret found gold discs bearing the portraits of second-century Roman emperors. Erroneously reported as “coins”, these were single-sided pendants – lightweight “costume jewelry” imitating actual Roman aurei. The Southeast Asian goldsmiths who fashioned these objects probably copied Roman coins that had traveled thousands of miles.

silkroad

Some went astray in the chaos surrounding the fall of Saigon in 1975, but German archaeologist Birgitte Borell recently tracked down the remaining material in the Museum of Vietnamese History in Ho Chi Minh City. She writes:

In addition to connotations of wealth and prosperity, the obverse coin design probably also transported the notion of a potent being with special powers… The importance for the wearer of the pendant lay in the profile head and the power embedded in this image. The foreignness of the design may have contributed to the magic power of the amulet (20).

Over 100 late Roman and Byzantine coins have been found in China; at least 50 of these in well-documented contexts (Qiang, 282). One of the earliest is a small bronze of Constantius II (ruled 337-361) found in the oasis of Karghalik in Xinjiang province, a way station on the Silk Road. A mint state gold solidus of Anastasius I (ruled 491–518) was found in the tomb of his near contemporary, emperor Jiemin (ruled 498-532) of the Northern Wei dynasty. The pristine condition of this piece suggests it might have been part of a diplomatic gift. A rare solidus of the four-month joint reign of Justin I and Justinian (4 April – 1 August 527) was found in the tomb of Tian Hong, a general of the Northern Wei dynasty who died in 575. Clipped, pierced four times and well-worn, it now resides in a museum in Guyuan, Ningxia province.

Byzantine solidi were often imitated in Central Asia in the form of thin gold foil ornaments–reportedly found in tombs–on the eyes or in the mouth of the deceased. These are sometimes referred to as “bracteates[1]”. The prestige of Constantinople’s gold coinage was so great that people living far from the empire wanted a bit of it to accompany them in the afterlife. A few of these “bracteates” occasionally appear on the antiquities market.

byzantinegoldcoin
Byzantine Gold Coin Found in Tomb of Emperor Jiemin of Northern Wei (ruled 498-532 CE.)

Silver was relatively scarce and highly valued in pre-modern China, and over 1,900 silver coins of 13 different rulers of the Persian Sasanid dynasty (224-651 CE) have been found in China, including a few sizable hoards (Sun, 190). The great majority of these are from the long reigns of Peroz I (ruled 459-484 CE) and Khusrau II (r. 590-628), but at least two rare coins of the short-lived queen Buran (r. 630-631) are documented.

The Spice Trade

Along with their delight in costly imported Chinese silk, elite Romans craved the spices of India–notably black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and turmeric–and they paid for these exotic commodities with gold and silver. Many hoards of Roman coins have been found in India and Sri Lanka. At Pudukottai in Tamil Nadu, over five hundred gold aurei and silver denarii of the first century were found about 1897. Most of the coins bear deep chisel cuts to test the metal. The local Raja donated seven examples to the British Museum.

Many of the coins from this period are pierced twice, for wear as ornaments. Gold coin jewelry might represent a substantial fraction of a family’s wealth. It was passed down from mother to daughter for generations, and the coins are often heavily worn.

The flow of Roman gold into India seems to have peaked in the second century CE.

Out of Africa

Founded in the 10th century, the Islamic Sultanate of Kilwa on the coast of Tanzania was destroyed by the Portuguese in 1505. From about 1100 to 1300 it flourished thanks to its trade in gold, ivory and slaves, extending its power over Zanzibar and the Comoro islands. The sultans of Kilwa issued low-value copper fulus (the Arabic plural of fals[2]) for local circulation.

In 1944, Morry Isenberg, an Australian technician stationed at a radar site on Marchinbar Island in the Wessel Islands off Northern Australia, found five coins of Kilwa, along with some 17th- and 18th-century coppers of the Dutch East India company (which circulated in nearby Indonesia), while walking along the beach. The two groups of coins may not be related, although they were found at the same time. One theory is that the coins came from a shipwrecked Arab dhow. Or perhaps Malay seafarers traded them to local natives. Dating the coins of Kilwa sultans is problematic, but the Australian examples may be as early as the 10th century or as late as the 14th. Having traveled over 8,000 km from their origin, they are probably the long-distance record holders for pre-modern coins. They are in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.

Across the Atlantic

icelandromancoins

Five third-century Roman bronze coins have been found in Iceland, which has no archaeological evidence of human presence before the arrival of the Norse in 874[3]. All found at different locations between 1904 and 1967, the coins range in date from Philip the Arab (r. 244-249) to Diocletian (r. 284-305).

One theory is that one or more Roman ships from Britain were driven off course in a storm and wrecked on Iceland’s rugged coast. A more likely possibility is that they were souvenirs or talismans acquired as loot by Vikings when the coins were already centuries old, and brought to Iceland in medieval times (although none of the coins are pierced, which would be expected if they were worn as amulets).

These enigmatic travelers are on display at the National Museum in Reykjavik.

mainevikingOn 18 August 1957, amateur archaeologist Guy Mellgren found a pierced and corroded silver coin in the rubbish heap (“shell midden”) of a Native American site at Naskeag Point on Penobscot Bay in Maine. Initially thought to be Anglo-Saxon, it was identified as a coin of Olaf III (called Olaf Kyrre or Olaf Haraldsson), king of Norway from 1066 to 1093. It bears the head of a dragon on the obverse and a long cross on the reverse surrounded by a “pseudo-inscription” of crosses, strokes and circles (some examples are catalogued as having a “Runic” inscription).

Some time after its discovery, the pierced portion crumbled to dust, so only about two thirds of the piece survives in the Maine State Museum.

The type is rare, but a hoard of “hundreds” was discovered in 1878 and dispersed in trade. The American Numismatic Society acquired 13 specimens in a 1948 sale.

Robert Wilson Hoge, an eminent American numismatist and member of the U.S. Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC), argued that the coin’s discovery in Maine “should probably be regarded as a hoax” (49). Others accept the idea that the coin was brought to one of the Viking settlements in Labrador or Newfoundland and then passed (by trade or capture?) from one Native American tribe to another for decades, until it arrived in Maine.

In a comprehensive review of the evidence for “pre-Columbian Old World coins” found in America, Epstein concludes that the majority of claimed finds are either modern losses or deliberate hoaxes.

Collecting Far Travelers

Coins that are clearly identifiable as long distance travelers are likely to be treasured museum pieces. Most ancient and medieval coins that reach the market come with no information about their “provenance,” find spot or even their source country.

Notable exceptions are Roman coins found in India. Since these are often heavily worn and pierced for wear as ornaments, they are some of the most “affordable” Roman gold aurei; examples around US$500 can still be found.

Notes

[1] From a Latin word meaning “metal foil”, this term is commonly used by numismatists to describe thin, single-sided silver coins of late medieval Central Europe: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bracteate

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fils_(currency)

[3] The presence of Gaelic monks before this date is controversial (McGovern, 340).

References

Borell, Brigitte. “The Power of Images: Coin Portraits of Roman Emperors on Jewellery Pendants in Early Southeast Asia”, Zeitschrift fur Archäologie Aussereuropäischer Kulturen 6 (2014)

Epstein, Jeremiah. “Pre-Columbian Old World Coins in America: An Examination of the Evidence”, Current Anthropology 21 (1980)

Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P. “East African Coin Finds and Their Historical Significance”,
Journal of African History 1 (1960)

Hoge, Robert W. “Current Cabinet Activities”, ANS Magazine 4 (2006)

Lubec, G. et. al. “Use of Silk in Ancient Egypt”, Nature 362 (1993)

McGovern, T. H. “Archaeology of the Norse North Atlantic”, Annual Review of Anthropology 19 (1990)

Owen, Mike. “Unraveling the Mystery of Arnhem Land’s Ancient African Coins”,
Australian Geographic (7 August 2014)

Qiang Li. “Roman Coins Discovered in China and Their Research.” Eirene: Studia Graeca et Latina (Prague) (2015)

Sun Li. “The Distribution and Significance of Sassanid Silver Currency in China”, Chinese Archaeology (Kaogu Xuebao) 4 (2004)

Suresh, S. Symbols of Trade: Roman and Pseudo-Roman Objects Found in India. New Delhi (2004)

Thierry François, Morrisson Cécile. “Sur les monnaies byzantines trouvées en Chine.” (“On Byzantine coins found in China”) Revue numismatique 36 (1994)

Turner, Paula. Roman Coins From India. Royal Numismatic Society. London (1989)
 


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