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Digitizing a Well-Kept Secret: Cornell’s Ancient Coin Collection

Cornell’s coin collection is one of the best-kept secrets on campus, but if archaeologist Annetta Alexandridis has her way, the world will soon have access to every one of its 1,500 coins. Thanks to the Grants Program for Digital Collections in Arts and Sciences, the coin collection will soon be digitized and its catalog posted online.

“Students love it when they can touch the coins, but that only works in a small class. In a larger class we use images, and it’s definitely more thrilling for the students if an image is of a coin from our own collection,” says Alexandridis, history of art assistant professor.

The Cornell coin collection ranks among the major university coin collections and covers the most important epochs of coin making in antiquity, from lumps of metal marked with a seal to beautifully crafted Byzantine gold stamped with royal faces. The collection boasts one of the first true coins, from 6th century B.C. Lydia — it is shaped like a little bean, but made of gold.

“You can tell the history of Greek culture and the Roman Empire through these coins,” says Alexandridis. She notes that many of the coins can also be viewed as artworks because the details are so finely wrought.

The initial cataloging of the collection was done by Peter Kuniholm, professor emeritus, history of art and archaeology, and Andrew Ramage, professor emeritus, history of art, with student assistance. Each coin needs to be remeasured, reweighed, and compared with the initial classification to ensure catalog accuracy.

Laura Wilke, a master’s degree student in archaeology, will create the metadata for the project in collaboration with the Cornell Library and Alexandridis.

“As a graduate student, I see the enormous benefits for research and teaching offered by digitization projects like this,” Wilke says.

Ultimately the coins, currently stored in randomly sorted paper envelopes, will be put in museum-standard clear trays and reorganized for easier access.

According to Rhea Garen, library digital photo specialist, Cornell’s Digital Consulting and Production Services will generate high-quality digital images of each coin by placing them directly on a flatbed scanner with adjustable focus. A rule will be included in each image to indicate size.

The ability to enlarge these images will enable Wilke to correct catalog errors easily. For example, with enlargement, the image on a coin originally catalogued as a sphinx might be revealed to be a lion.

Metadata librarian Jason Kovari notes that digitization will be the quickest part of the process; he estimates the total project could easily take two years. About 300 of the coins have never been cataloged, so Wilke will have to identify each of them. “It’s quite an undertaking,” says Alexandridis. The images will be published online as they are completed.

“This project will help people realize how important this collection is, for every field, science and humanities,” says Alexandridis. “Understanding is a physical process, and students need to have access to all sorts of objects, whether plow or coin or manuscript, as A.D. White understood so well.”

Digitizing the coins is another step toward creating a virtual museum containing all the university’s collections, including its plaster casts, potsherds, lantern slides, and bronzes, says Alexandridis. “These artifacts should be displayed. My vision is that this virtual museum will be such a success, it will lead to a new university museum.”

Chronicle Online

Linda B. Glaser is staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

Coinweek is the top independent online media source for rare coin and currency news, with analysis and information contributed by leading experts across the numismatic spectrum.

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