etruscans

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz ….
 

THE PEOPLE WHO LIVED IN TUSCANY before the Romans are often described as “enigmatic” or “mysterious.” We know them as “Etruscans”[1] from the name that the Romans called them; they called themselves “Rasna.” The last speakers of the Etruscan language probably died out in the first century of the common era. The consensus of linguistic scholars is that Etruscan is unrelated to other known languages. A single Etruscan book – a third-century BCE ritual calendar – survived in fragmentary strips because the linen it was written on was recycled in Ptolemaic Egypt to wrap a mummy[2]. The Roman Emperor Claudius (r. 41-54 CE) wrote a 20-volume history of the Etruscans in Greek, now lost.

Blessed with fertile volcanic soil and abundant ores of iron and copper (along with forested hills providing charcoal to refine and work these metals), the Etruscans prospered, reaching a peak of cultural expression and political power in the sixth century BCE. A line of Etruscan kings ruled in Rome until they were overthrown about 509 BCE, and the Romans adopted many customs and institutions from Etruria.

etruscans2
Gold 50 Asses. Roaring lion’s head r., mark of value below. Rv. Blank. 2.83 grams. SNG ANS 1, Vecchi I.46, Sambon 1, HN Italy 127.

Although Etruscan cities often fought with the Greek colonies in Italy (“Magna Graecia”), they were evidently fascinated by Greek art and mythology. Some of the best Greek painted pottery survived only because Etruscan connoisseurs had it buried with them. Etruscans borrowed their alphabet, some of their gods and the idea of coinage from the Greeks.

The Chronology Problem

Like their Roman neighbors, Etruscans used crude lumps of bronze (aes rude) or cast bars with a herringbone pattern[3] as their earliest money. Like the Carthaginians across the sea in North Africa, Etruscans only adopted coinage after their Greek neighbors had been using it for centuries. How many centuries is a matter of dispute; some numismatists put the earliest coins as far back as 500 to 450 BCE, while others insist on dates around 300 (the only thing classical numismatists love more than ancient coins is arguing about chronology.)

Of about 12 major Etruscan cities, only five seem to have issued significant coinage: Vulci (Velch, in Etruscan), Populonia (Fufluna), Vetulonia (Vatluna), Volaterrae (Velathri) and Lucca. For many coins the mints as well as the dating is uncertain.

Like medals in the modern Olympics, Etruscan coins come in gold, silver and bronze.

Gold

Etruscan numerals
The Etruscan number system was the basis for later Roman numerals.

Etruscans may have been the first people to put marks of denomination on their coins. They used letters to represents numbers – a system the Romans later modified as “Roman” numerals. Gold and silver were apparently denominated in units corresponding to heavy cast bronze asses, which gradually declined from the “libral” standard base of 329 grams to the “sextantal” standard of about 55 grams.

hippocampus
Hippocamp: Gold 50 asses, Etruria, 211 BC – 200 BC (left), 1915 U.S. Panama-Pacific $2.50 (right)

The “lion head” gold coins of Populonia provide an example. The American Numismatic Society collection has a unique 50-unit gold piece of Populonia, formerly in the collection of J.P. Morgan, that depicts a “hippocamp” – a mythological sea monster.

Silver

Vulci is credited with some of the earliest silver coinage, on the basis of archaic style. Unlike most Etruscan issues, the coins are two-sided, and were apparently based on a Greek weight standard (the “Chalkidian” stater of 5.8 grams.) They are inscribed “THEZI” or “THEZLE”–meaning unknown. One obverse depicts Vanth, a winged goddess or demon who accompanied the souls of the dead on their journey to the afterlife.

The most common silver coins of Populonia show the image of a Gorgon’s head, the gorgoneion. To us, this grotesque female face with the protruding tongue looks comical, but in ancient art it was a comforting, protective symbol[4] that scared away evil spirits. These coins carry denominations of XX and X; many are single-sided, but some have stars, crescents and the name of the city on the reverse. There were several reductions in weight, perhaps reflecting the declining fortunes of the city.

Bronze

Some Etruscan bronzes were cast, like the clumsy aes grave coinage of early Rome, but some bronze coins were struck. A remarkable type from Populonia dated to the third century BCE shows the head of Sethlans, the Etruscan name for Vulcan or Hephaistos, god of metal-working. He wears the conical leather hat that kept sparks from the forge from setting a smith’s hair on fire. On the reverse we see his tools, a hammer and tongs, along with four pellets (a denomination mark, but perhaps also a reference to the process of striking coins.)

Perhaps the most famous Etruscan bronze is a rare small coin from the period of the Second Punic War (“Hannibal’s War”, 218-201 BCE) attributed to the Chiana Valley, which is in the territory of the city of Arretium in the northeastern corner of Etruria. The coin shows the head of an African–possibly the earliest depiction of a black person in Western art. The reverse shows an Indian elephant wearing a bell around its neck, and the single letter “M.” The elephant is clearly a reference to the African forest elephants in Hannibal’s army, but the coin suggests that African men might have accompanied them.

Collecting the Rasna

Etruscan goddess Vanth
The Etruscan spiritual being known as Vanth guided the souls of the dead through the underworld.

All Etruscan coins are scarce, and some of the most interesting types are unique. This is a challenge for collectors; it would take very deep pockets and great patience to assemble a representative type collection. In a typical major ancient coin auction catalog, there may be only one or two Etruscan coins offered.

An even greater challenge for American collectors is the U.S. State Department’s “Memorandum of Understanding” with Italy[5], which prohibits the importation of many types of ancient Italian artifacts–including all Etruscan coins–into the United States unless the importer can provide documentary proof (typically a photograph in a sale catalog) that the object was outside Italy before a specified cutoff date. This regulation was ostensibly designed to discourage illegal tomb-robbing, even though relatively few Etruscan coins are found in tombs, and ancient coins are freely bought and sold in Italy[6] and within the European Union.

Much of the literature on Etruscan Numismatics is in Italian, as you might expect. The definitive reference in English is Etruscan Coinage (2012) by Italo Vecchi, with a list price of $350.

In catalogs and reference books, these coins are classified as “Greek” and listed under “Etruria.” A search on CoinArchives Pro found 494 hits[7] using the search term “Etruria”. Of those hits, 41 were for gold, 335 were from Populonia, 20 from Velathri, 45 from Volaterrae, 15 from Vetulonia and 3 were from Lucca. The American Numismatic Society online catalog had only 16 Etruscan coins with photos; the British Museum had just 11.

Etruscan coins are notably absent from many museum displays. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, with possibly the most spectacular collection of Etruscan artifacts outside Italy, didn’t have a single Etruscan coin on exhibit during my last visit. The World of the Etruscans, a major museum exhibition sponsored by the Italian Ministry of Arts and Cultural Affairs at the Bowers Museum in Southern California in 2002, included 326 artifacts but not a single coin.

Sigh

Notes

[1] “Those Darned Etruscans” is a recurrent topic for questions on the TV series Jeopardy

[2] “The mummy was bought in Alexandria in 1848 and since 1867 both the mummy and the manuscript have been kept in Zagreb, Croatia, now in a refrigerated room at the Archaeological Museum” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liber_Linteus)

[3] Called ramo secco, modern Italian for “dry branch”

[4] The technical term is “apotropaic image.”

[5] My friend Peter Tompa provides ongoing coverage of this issue on his blog: http://culturalpropertyobserver.blogspot.com/

[6] Under Italian law, archaeological objects as defined in Law No.42 January 2004 cannot be exported without a license.

[7] Hit counts are only a rough measure – perhaps 5-10% of these are repeated sales of the same coin.

References

Bonfante, Giuliano & Larissa. The Etruscan Language: An Introduction. Manchester
University Press (2002)

Bowers Museum. The World of the Etruscans. Santa Ana, CA. (2001)

Burnett, Andrew. “Etruscan Numismatics – An Introduction.” Etruscan Studies, 10:7 (2007)

Catalli, Fiorenzo. Monete Etrusche. Roma. Libreria Dello Stato (1998)

“Etruscan Coins” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etruscan_coins (accessed 25 December 2012)

Gillett, Miriam. “A closer look at the Etruscan coins at ACANS, Macquarie University (SNG Australia 1, 4-13)” Journal of the Numismatic Association of Australia, 21 (2011).

Grant, Michael. The Etruscans. Viking. (1980)

Haynes, Sybille. Etruscan Civilization: A Cultural History. Getty Museum, Los Angeles (2000)

Stoddart, Simon. Historical Dictionary of the Etruscans. Lanham, MD (2009)

Vecchi, Italo. Etruscan Coinage: Part 1 (2 vol.) Milan (2012)

— “Etruscan Numismatics: A Notorious Dating and Identification Problem.”
Etruscan Studies, 10:8 (2007)

— “The Coinage of the Rasna: A study in Etrusan numismatics” Parts I-V, in Schweizerische numismatische Rundschau (SNR) 67 (1988), 69 (1990), 71 (1992), 72 (1993), and 78 (1999).

Rutter, N.K., A. M. Burnett, M.H. Crawford et. al. Historia Nummorum Italy. British Museum. (1990)
 

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