CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..
For many collectors of classic and modern American coins, the only information resource they need is the old, reliable “Red Book”, which will mark its 75th anniversary in 2022.
Collectors of ancient coins, however, face a problem that is considerably more complex. With thousands of types issued by hundreds of cities, states, and rulers over many centuries, information on ancient coins is scattered across out-of-print books and obscure journal articles in many languages. A common saying among old-school collectors is “buy the book before you buy the coin” – but finding these books often requires diligent, patient search, and buying them may demand deep pockets.
Fortunately, during the past two decades, a tremendous range of instantly accessible online resources has emerged to help the collector of ancient coins in their study and research.
The following is a personal listing of high-quality websites that I have found useful in my own research and study. The inclusion of certain resources in this article is not intended to marginalize or disparage any other online resources.
Launched in October 2002 by A.J. Gatlin, a collector, talented web developer, and database programmer, CoinArchives.com is a “repository for coin auction catalogs in the digital domain. Its goal is to make entire auction catalogs … available to Internet users for both academic and commercial research.” The free website provides listings (without prices realized) for the most recent six months. The subscription service, Pro CoinArchives, provides listings back to the beginning of this century with prices realized. This is a relatively expensive subscription service ($600 per year), intended mainly for dealers and high-end collectors, but there is an academic discount (without the prices realized) priced according to the number of accounts requested per institution.
As of October 23, 2021, ACsearch listed over 8,585,000 lots from 8,252 auctions of 303 different companies, dating back to 1999. Based in Switzerland, the site can be viewed in English, German, French, or Russian. Access to prices realized requires a “Premium Account” that costs €85 per year. A unique fee-based feature is “Image Search” which attempts to match a user’s photograph of a coin to records in the database.
Supported in part by advertising, WildWinds is well-maintained. The website lists over 76,000 coin types, including Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Celtic, and English hammered. Greek coins can be searched by cities, geographic regions, rulers, tribes, etc. Roman coins can be searched by ruler (or gens – the extended family or “clan” of officials responsible for coinage, a traditional way of referencing Republican coins), or by catalog number in the first three volumes of David Sear’s monumental five-volume reference, Roman Coins and Their Values. Byzantine coins are searchable by ruler, or by catalog number in Sear’s Byzantine Coins and Their Values (1987). In some cases, the text provides prices realized and pedigree information for a coin, but this is not consistent.
MANTIS is the online coin catalog of the American Numismatic Society (ANS) based in New York. Listing some 600,000 objects, the collection includes Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, East Asian, Medieval, and Modern coins, paper money, medals, and tokens. The comprehensive database provides for search by keyword, date range, region, mint, dynasty, denomination, material, and many other options. Not all the objects in the collection have been photographed, but for ancient coins, the coverage is quite good. A check box makes it possible to search for only those records that include images.
Hosted by the American Numismatic Society, Coins of the Roman Republic Online (CRRO) is basically a digital version of the standard reference Roman Republican Coinage (1974) by the British numismatist Michael Crawford. This work was based on the extensive collection of the British Museum. Richard Witschonke of the ANS added additional coins not in the British Museum.
The Roman Republic began in 509 BCE when the monarchy was overthrown. The end of the republic came in a complex series of civil wars known as the Imperatorial period (82-27 BCE), which ended with the establishment of the Roman Empire. The republic began to issue coinage around 300 BCE. Much of the early coinage is anonymous. A powerful search engine provides for searching by date range, deity, denomination, issuer, mint, material, and other variables. Most of the listed types have photographs, and for many types, there are links to multiple examples in major museum collections.
Online Coins of the Roman Empire (OCRE) is a joint project of the American Numismatic Society and the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. It is “designed to help in the identification, cataloging, and research of the rich and varied coinage of the Roman Empire. The project records every published type of Roman Imperial Coinage from Augustus in 31 BC, until the death of Zeno in AD 491.” It provides links to nearly 20 major American and European institutional collections, totaling over 100,000 coins. The text can be displayed in any of 18 modern languages, including Arabic, Greek, and Turkish. Especially useful to beginning collectors is the “Identify a Coin” page, which provides a comprehensive set of ruler portraits and an inscription search feature.
Launched in January 2018, Seleucid Coins Online (SCO) began as a digital version of the two-volume reference, Seleucid Coins: A Comprehensive Catalogue by Arthur Houghton, Catharine Lorber, and Oliver Hoover, published in two parts in 2002 and 2008. The catalogue lists some 2,491 different types. Part of the Hellenistic Royal Coinages project, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, SCO is gradually being expanded with links to coins (many unique) in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the British Museum, the Munzkabinett der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, and other major collections.
A useful feature of the site is the “Symbols” page, which provides large, clearly drawn images of almost 1300 different monograms found on Seleucid coins.
The Seleucid empire was one of the successor states to Alexander the Great. It existed from c. 320 to 64 BCE, ruling all or part of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan at various times, before it was divided between the Roman and Parthian empires.
Ptolemaic Coins Online (PCO) is an ambitious project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and hosted by the American Numismatic Society. The Ptolemaic Empire ruled Egypt and some adjacent lands between 323 BCE and the death of Queen Cleopatra VII in 30 BCE. The database will eventually include all coins listed in the four-volume reference, Coins of the Ptolemaic Empire, edited by Catharine Lorber.
Along with 3,371 coins in the ANS collection, the site will also link to coins in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the British Museum, the Münzkabinett der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, and other collections. The catalog is also searchable by “Svoronos numbers”; the Greek numismatist J.N. Svoronos compiled a monumental reference, Ta Nomismata tou Kratous ton Ptolemaion (“The Coins of the Ptolemaic Empire”), published between 1904 and 1908 and which is still often cited in auction listings.
“PELLA is an innovative research tool … to provide a comprehensive typology and catalogue of the coinages struck by the Macedonian kings of the Argead dynasty (c. 700–310 BC), arguably the most influential coinages of the ancient Greek world.” This includes the abundant coinage of Philip II (ruled 359-336 BCE), his son, Alexander III (“the Great,” 336-323 BCE) and Alexander’s disabled half brother Philip III Arrhidaeus (who “ruled” as a puppet of various warlords from 323 until his murder in 317 BCE). Hosted by the American Numismatic Society, PELLA is another part of the Hellenistic Royal Coinages project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. It currently links to over 20,000 examples. Future plans will expand the coverage to earlier Macedonian rulers back to the reign of Alexander I (498–454 BCE).
“Digital Library Numis (DLN) is a specialized portal and depository on open access numismatic books, journals and papers, currently available on the internet.” These are mainly in pdf format. Much of the material is in French, German, Italian, Spanish, and other modern languages. An author index is particularly useful for finding obscure articles by eminent numismatists when you know the person’s name. It appears that the site has not been maintained since 2017, and there are many broken or dead links. Nevertheless, there are some excellent free resources to be found here
BM Collection Search
The Department of Coins and Medals of the British Museum in London has one of the world’s greatest collections of ancient coins, with about 800,000 items. This collection is searchable online, although not all the items have been photographed. For most users, it will be worthwhile to take some time to learn how to use the powerful but rather quirky search engine. It should be noted that the Museum asserts copyright over all of its images, although most are available free of charge for non-commercial use.
Researching Ancient Coins
The process of identifying or “attributing” an unknown coin begins with a description. If you know the weight, the diameter, and the metal, you may be able to determine the denomination. If there is a legible inscription, even if it is fragmentary or partly off the edge, that provides a searchable text string. Deities and heroes can often be identified by signature attributes; for example, a lunar goddess (Diana, Selene) often wears a crescent, and Herakles (Hercules to the Romans) usually wears a lion-skin headdress and carries a knobby club. Every week, ancient coin groups on Facebook and other social media platforms are deluged with cell phone photos of worn ancient coins that someone has found. The invariable questions are “what is it, and what is it worth?”
I am constantly astounded by the ability of expert dealers and collectors to quickly and accurately identify coins that, to me, look like shapeless blobs. The human brain is a powerful image processing engine, and when an experienced numismatist has seen many thousands of similar coins, the key recognition features trigger instant associations.
To use any online search engine efficiently, it is worth a little effort to learn about Boolean search operators. So-called “Boolean logic” is named in honor of George Boole (1815-1864), an English mathematician. Different search engines implement the use of AND, OR, and NOT in various ways, and there is usually a page of “Search Tips” or “Help” that should be explored.
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Mike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.