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Treasure Coins: Ancient Gold Coins Recovered From Shipwrecks

By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..

The Dokos Shipwreck, the oldest in the world, was discovered by the father of underwater archaeology, Peter Throckmorton, after almost four thousand years on August 23, 1975. A simple pile of ceramics and stone anchors and other stone items devoid of all biodegradable organic material, this wreck, unfortunately, contains no coins for one simple reason: the wooden vessel sank beneath the waves almost 2,000 years before the first coins were struck from electrum in Lydia.

Since then, UNESCO estimates that over three million other vessels have joined the Dokos shipwreck at the bottom of the ocean. Today, approximately 85% of all trade is transported by ship, and this percentage was greater in the ancient world. Ancient shipwrecks were mainly filled with amphora, “the cargo containers of the B.C. world” (Villano). These vessels, however, carried both physical and cultural goods, and it is possible to trace not only trade routes but also “the ideas of people” by studying these wrecks (Villano).

By the time coins came into widespread use between 700 and 600 BCE, the oceanic trade routes down from the Black Sea through the Bosporus towards the Greek Islands located in the Aegean Sea and out across the Mediterranean to the various Greek colonies had become extremely well defined. Many ships sank along these and other routes due to pirate attacks, fires, storms, reefs, among other reasons.

Those discovered and salvaged are then subject to modern laws. More modern wrecks, like those from the Spanish Treasure fleets and American “Gold Rush” shipments of the 18th and 19th centuries, may be claimed as cultural patrimony by the “successor owner” of the shipwreck (Curfman, 204). However, the vast majority of ancient shipwrecks have no legitimate successor owners and are therefore considered abandoned and “having no prior owner” under international law when the wrecks are discovered in international waters (Curfman, 191).

The Corsica Hoard

Sunk shortly after 272 CE, one of the more controversial ancient shipwrecked treasures was partially discovered in the Gulf of Lava located off the southern coast of Corsica. The Lava Treasure, also known as the “Corsica Hoard” and the “Mediterranean Sea Hoard” was first discovered in the late 1950s by two brothers. Their discovery garnered little attention, and 41 aurei and multiples, or large gold medallions, were quietly sold to private collectors. It wasn’t until 1986 when the story really broke. Three local Corsican sea urchin divers discovered hundreds of extremely high-grade Roman gold coins dating from 262 to 272 CE. According to one of the divers, Felix Biancamaria, the trio repeatedly dove to retrieve artifacts and sold them on the black market all while claiming that they were inherited (Giedroyc).

Rome. Gallienus, 253-268. Heavy Aureus (Gold, 5.67 g 7), Rome, 265. Image: Leu Numismatik AG.

The divers immediately began spending their newfound wealth at local businesses. Local policemen quickly noticed the suspicious behavior, and since the French government claimed that “this submerged treasure, identified as a maritime cultural asset, belongs to the state,” they seized all remaining coins and arrested the divers along with five other associated individuals (Giedroyc). To this day, the French government is attempting to recover the entirety of the treasure. In fact, in 2005, 25 years after the events of 1985, five additional people were arrested in Paris and pieces valued between €1-2 million were seized, including the missing gold dish that is now housed in the Marseille History Museum. Additionally, in 2010, French police and customs forces arrested a group of arms traffickers in the Corsican city of Bastia.

Image: © Stéphane Cavillon / French Ministry of Culture

Due to piecemeal recovery efforts and the illicit exportation and selling of the hoard, the historical nature and cultural import of the treasure has been damaged. While only 450 pieces remain in public hands, it is estimated that the hoard contained at least 1,400 coins (Estiot). Comprised of coins from Gallienus, Claudius II, Quintillus, and Aurelianus, this hoard is a testament to a tumultuous period in Roman history. The French historian Sylviane Estiot posited that due to the large number of multiples from the reigns of Gallienus, Claudius II, and Aurelianus, the hoard represents the various donatium payments the emperors distributed to their troops.

Image: Ángel M. Felicísimo.

Included are examples from Gallienus’s initial ascension in 262 CE and the “grain-ear wreath” type from the donatium handed out upon his return to Italy in 265 CE (Estiot, 2010). The five and eight aurei multiples of Claudius commemorate both his ascension donatium and later victory over the Alamanni at Lake Garda in late 268. The third emperor represented in the hoard, Quintillus, only ruled for six months at most. Prior to the discovery of the Lava Treasure and its 19 examples from Quintillus’s reign, only two genuine gold coins from this emperor were known to exist. Also represented in this treasure is Aurelianus’s donatium, the reverse of which celebrated the emperor’s myriad military victories and reunification of the armies after the death of Quintillus. A second type of gold coins represented in the hoard from Aurelianus’s reign allows archeologists to date the wreck to either late 272 or early 273 CE (Estiot). Furthermore, the French national Department of Underwater and Submarine Archaeological Research reports that the star of the hoard, a 30-kilogram gold statue and one of the “greatest treasures of Roman antiquity”, was cut up and resold as scrap by the smugglers (Arnaud). [[COIN3]]

Rome. Aurelian, 270-275. Aureus (Gold, 4.29 g 12), Milan, late 270. Image: Leu Numismatik AG.
Rome. Quintillus, 270. Aureus (Gold, 5.01 g 7), Milan, September-November 270. Image: Leu Numismatik AG.

Early Southeast Asian Currency

Ancient, shipwrecked gold coins can tell us much more than just providing evidence of a donatium or flushing out the short-lived reign of an emperor.

The discovery of a single gold coin in 1998 provided a vast wealth of knowledge of early Arabic trade routes in the seas near Indonesia. A sea-cucumber diver accidentally located the remains of the first ancient Arab dhow to be excavated (Flecker, 101). Over the subsequent years, archeologists recovered approximately 60,000 intact and 10,000 damaged pieces of ceramics totaling 25 metric tons (Flecker, 107). These ceramics, mainly bowls and jarlets, offer evidence of trade between the Western Indian Ocean and China in the year 838 CE.

While the ceramics provide evidence of the “longest [sea route] in regular use by mankind before European expansion in the 16th century,” archeologists also uncovered a single gold piloncito in the wreckage. Piloncito, a word derived from Spanish meaning “little weight”, are the “earliest form of precious metal based currency” in the South East Asian islands. Consisting of locally mined metal, these small, engraved coins ranged in weight from 0.5 to 3 grams of high-grade gold. Since the coin “almost certainly originat[ed] from Indonesia,” this discovery fleshes out the relationship between the local Srivijayan kingdom in Indonesia and the fledgling Arabic states and provides a useful link in the early silk road trade routes.

Philippines. Piloncito, ND (ca. 10th-11th Century). 2.33g. Legarda-pg. 8; Legarda & Bantug-pg. 3; Philippine Numismatic Monograph-#18 1973, Pg. 25.

Byzantine Gold

Just 202 years later in 1040 off the Dalmatian coast, another imperial ship sunk. This ship belonged to John “Orphanotrophos”, who was sending it to his brother, the Byzantine emperor Michael IV. On this ship, John loaded 10 centenaria of gold, each of which was equal to 100 roman pounds or 32.89 kilograms, for a total of 328.9 kilograms of gold (Metcalf, 102). Due to the date and location of this shipwreck, it can be assumed that the bullion was intended to support the emperor’s military campaign in Bulgaria. Instead, the Byzantine Empire lost a massive sum of money off the Illyrian coast that was subsequently salvaged by the ruler of Zeta (modern-day Montenegro) Stefan Voislav, an occasional Byzantine ally as well as adversary (Metcalf, 102).

The vast majority of these coins, some of which have survived to this day, were not minted during Michaels’ reign but instead during that of his predecessor, Romanus III. This may evidence a limited mintage of gold coinage during Michael’s reign restricted to “official and ceremonial requirements” (Metcalf, 105-6).

While the shipwreck is no longer extant, and the gold was salvaged by contemporary actors, it is fortunate that historians and archeologists can connect the event to a handful of coins collected over the past few hundred years by the Museum of History in Split, Croatia.

Michael IV the Paphlagonian. 1034-1041. AV. Image: CNG.
Romanus III Argyrus, 1028-1034. Histamenon (Gold, 24 mm, 4.43 g, 7 h), Constantinopolis. Image: Leu Numismatik AG.

Shipwrecks are vital links to the past. They are generally accidental and “show the past as it really was”, while a temple or gravesite can tell the story of an idealized world that may not reflect the contemporary reality.

Due to the vast number of vessels sitting at the bottom of the world’s oceans, we are continually discovering fascinating sites. For example, in 2015, recreational divers off the coast of Israel discovered nearly 2,000 gold coins from the 10th- and 11th-century Fatimid caliphs Al-Ḥākim and Al-Ẓāhir (McGurran, 2015). For all we know there may be even greater treasures lying undiscovered on the ocean floor, just waiting for an unsuspecting diver.

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Arnaud, B. “Monnaies d’or et trafic d’armes: Le légendaire trésor Corse de Lava resurgit—Sciences et Avenir“. Sciences et Avenir. (2017, March 19).

Curfman, D. “Thar Be Treasure Here: Rights to Ancient Shipwrecks in International Waters—A New Policy Regime”, WASH. U. Law Review. 28. (2008)

Estiot, S. (2010). “The Lava Treasure of Roman Gold“. French National Centre for Scientific Research.

Flecker, M. “A Ninth-Century Arab Shipwreck in Indonesia“, Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds. 100–120. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. (2010)

Giedroyc, R. “France seizes Corsica’s Lava Treasure coins“, The Archaeology News Network. (2010, December 15)

Meadows, D. “Bits of the ‘Lava Treasure’ Recovered by French Police“, Rogueclassicism. (2010, October 30).

Metcalf, M. “A shipwreck on the Dalmatian coast and some gold coins of Romanus III Argyrus”, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 3(2 & 3). 101–106. (1960)


Villano, M. “Shipwrecks Offer Clues to Ancient Cultures“. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. (2009, December 18)




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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).

Tyler Rossi
Tyler Rossi
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 U.S. 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).

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  1. Very minor niggle, the photographs of the aurei of Quintillus and Aurelian have had their captions transposed. A good read though!


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