By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
One of the most basic tasks of a numismatist is the identification of coins.
While correctly attributing the denomination, issuing authority, and date are important, determining the mint at which a coin was struck can reveal lots of contextual information. Outside of private issues and small city-states that operate only a single mint, most states “control[ed] more than one mint”. As a result, one would think that the moneyers from these states would want to create a clear and unambiguous system of demarcating where each coin was produced. This would seem to be advantageous for the tracking of precious metal consumption, trade, and as a guaranty against counterfeiting. However, with many of the symbols remaining highly “ambiguous” to today’s numismatists, this was not the case.
Besides the basic devices on ancient coins, the major design images, and legends, most coins included a series of identifying symbols and letters. Most are either “easily recognized” mint marks or the signatures of local magistrates. Due to a lack of surviving information, however, many of these marks are of “undeterminable significance.” For example, included on this posthumous Alexander the Great AV stater, minted between 250-200 BCE, is a small cicada located in the reverse field beneath an H P monogram. It is unknown precisely what this small insect represents, but it may well be a mint mark.
While most modern mint marks are simple alphabetical abbreviations representing the city in which a particular mint operates (such as “D” for the Denver branch mint of the United States Mint), “ancient and modern coins bear fundamental differences” and as such, the mint marks on ancient coins can be either images or letters. The most common means of identifying the difference between mint marks, local control marks, and magisterial monograms is that “generally speaking, any time a control mark is observed as a constant element over a long period, it is likely to be a mint-mark.”
For example, in the Seleucid Empire, the Greek letters A and AP were used to represent the Antioch and Ake-Ptolemais mints, respectively.
There is some confusion surrounding the mint marks used for the vast number of Alexander the Great tetradrachm types. The numismatist and historian Hyla A. Troxell estimated that over 1,075 dies were used to strike 79 types and as such there are many monograms and symbols used across the centuries. Some of the more common ones are an oenochoe (single-handed wine jug) beneath a vine for Temnos; a Corinthian helmet for Mesembria; a bee for Babylon; and an AΣ monogram for Aspendos.
While these mint marks are rather standard, they are far from the only examples. In fact, the mint at Amphipolis is thought to have used many different symbols. Types include a ship’s stern, a herm (a square stone pillar with a carved head of Hermes), and a bucranium or ox head as the most common as can be seen on the examples below. One theory on the selection of the bucranium for Amphipolis is that it alluded to the city’s patron goddess, Artemis.
Another example of this is the “AP” Byblos mint mark. While this mintmark has no relation to the name “Byblos”, it may stand for King Adramelek, a roughly contemporary local Phoenician king of Byblos. Another representative mint mark was produced by Ptolemy I in Memphis.
This type employed a ram’s head right wearing the Egyptian crown of Isis to represent the city’s important cult center to the goddess.
One last Greek example, struck a few centuries later, comes from Athens. In his 1876 book The Coinages of the World; Ancient and Modern, numismatist George D. Mathews identifies the small male figure in the lower left reverse fields of this New Style tetradrachm as the god of healing, Aesculapius. He posits that it was “probably intended as a sort of mint mark” and as a reference to the famous olive oil produced around Athens.
As can be seen, the choice of mint marks on Greek coins can sometimes appear rather arbitrary. Yet, starting in the middle to late third century CE, the Roman Empire began to institute the first systematic system of mint marks. Before this period, it was difficult to attribute some coins to specific mints, and in the early republic it is almost completely “not possible.”
This new system, comprised of three main elements, was uniform and is easy to decipher.
The first section was either the letter P (for pecunia, or “money”), M (an abbreviation of Moneta), or SM (Sacra Moneta). The second section was between one to four letters as an abbreviation for the city. Lastly, the mint might include a letter to represent the officina or workshop of the mint. The officinae were represented by either a Latin or Greek letter depending on whether it was a colonial, provincial, or Italian mint. Because of this new system, the Romans were able to reinforce their quality control system and hold specific mint officials accountable if issues in the monetary supply arose.
These marks are usually included in the reverse legend or in the exergue at the bottom of the coin’s reverse. Each city might have multiple mint marks and they mostly conformed to this general formula. While there are dozens of types, one example is the city of Heraclea (modern-day Eregli in Turkey). This city has seven official mintmarks: H, HER, HERAC, HERACI, HERACL, HT, SMH. The example below displays the SMH mark in exergue below the figure of Victory.
Not only do mint marks teach us about the production and distribution of coins, but they can also inform the very method of our collecting. While some people strive to complete a set of the first 12 Roman emperors or perhaps a type set of all Pergamese coins, an enterprising collector might try to put together a mint set of ancient coins. Even though the concept of mint sets is generally attached to modern coins, it is not exclusively associated with them. A collector might try to assemble a set of all coins produced at the Tyre mint across antiquity, covering all the issuing authorities (Roman, Seleucid, etc.) or perhaps a high-grade set of all the coins of Justinian I struck at the Carthage mint. For an inventive numismatist, the permutations are limitless.
Those on a budget should not worry, however, as most ancient mints produced thousands of coins. There are types for every budget, from the 5-25$ late roman bronzes to 10-20,000$ gold staters of Alexander the Great.
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Mathews, George D. The Coinages of the World; Ancient and Modern. (1876) – https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moa/ABF7029.0001.001?rgn=main;view=fulltext
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About the Author
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).