Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.06.19 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.06.19

Jane DeRose Evans, Coins from the Excavations at Sardis: Their Archaeological and Economic Contexts: Coins from the 1973 to 2013 Excavations. Archaeological Exploration of Sardis monographs, no 13.   Cambridge, MA; London:  Harvard University Press, 2018.  Pp. xxi, 305 p., 19 p. of plates.  ISBN 9780674987258.  $90.00.  


Reviewed by George Watson, Goethe Universität, Frankfurt am Main (watson@em.uni-frankfurt.de)

As befits Sardis’s status as the birthplace of western coinage, the publication of coin finds from the excavations there counts among one of the best and most extensive of any site in the eastern Mediterranean. The volume under review here not only supplements three previous publications with new material,1 but also corrects and newly analyses finds that had already been published. The aim of the book is clear both from the title and from the introductory chapters: not simply to analyse the coins, but also to set them in context. This book will thus be of interest not only to numismatists but also to archaeologists and economic historians.

After editorial prefaces, summaries in English and Turkish, and a brief introduction, come two substantive chapters, followed by four appendices concerned with countermarks, monograms, reverse types of late Roman bronzes and statistical formulae, respectively. The lengthiest part of the book is the catalogue, which lists over 8,000 coins found during excavations in Sardis between 1973 and 2013; this is supplemented with a concordance between the catalogue and field numbers from the excavations. The nineteen high-quality plates contain illustrations of 118 coins, 11 maps and 14 graphs.

The title of Chapter 2, “Excavation coins as evidence of the economy and trade,” is something of a misnomer. The use of excavation coins as evidence for economic prosperity is much contested, and Evans herself often resorts to archaeological evidence regarding the state of the Sardian economy at any given time period, at one point remarking, “We know that Early Imperial coins are not common in eastern urban sites, reinforcing the argument that the number of excavation coins found in strata are not necessarily good indicators of economic prosperity or downturn” (29). What we get instead is a numismatic history of Sardis. For the Lydian and Hellenistic periods, Evans discusses many controversial mint attributions and datings, sometimes drawing on contextual information from the excavations. There is a long excursus on the dating of civic bronzes from Sardis, and Evans suggests that the first civic bronze issues should be dated to the late third century BC, far earlier than the suggestions of many previous scholars. The high imperial period is discussed mainly with reference to Sardis’ civic types, but also with occasional reference to the changing origins of “foreign” coins, that is coins found in the excavations that were not struck at Sardis.2 The final part of the chapter, concerning the late Roman and Byzantine periods, examines the changing circulation pool at Sardis, which was often composed of coins more than 100 years old.

Throughout this chapter, Evans is keen to set Sardis in its regional context and has compiled figures for coin loss across time at various sites in the eastern Mediterranean, much in the manner of Reece and Casey for Britain and the north- western provinces. Thus she uses the Sardis material to confirm previously observed phenomena, such as the fall in numbers of excavation coins from the fifth through the seventh centuries, and discusses in the text why this may have been the case. Little thought, however, is given to the validity of this method for the period before the Diocletianic reforms. Comparing coin finds from different sites is only valid when supply to those sites might reasonably be expected to be uniform. This is true after Diocletian, when all coins came from centralised mints, but in the Classical, Hellenistic and high Imperial periods, many cities in the east produced their own coinage. Higher average annual coin loss in these periods is more likely simply to reflect increased activity of the local mint. For these periods Evans’ Chi-Squared test (116–17) simply confirms that coins did not come from a unified source.

In chapter 3, "Archaeological contexts of note," Evans draws on the excellent recording system at Sardis, including a database, described on p. 2, that allowed her to bring together coins and other objects from the same context with great ease.3 A principal concern of the archaeological contexts chapter is to explore how long coins remained in circulation. Thus Evans is able to show, on the basis of independently dated contexts, that Hellenistic coins appear to have remained in circulation well into the first century AD. Better known from other sites in the eastern Mediterranean and confirmed by the Sardis material, is the fact that fourth-century coins were still circulating in the fifth-century. More surprising is the reasonable frequency with which third-century coins also turn up in fifth-century contexts, and Evans argues that these were still part of the monetary pool. The chapter also examines coins found in votive deposits and in graves. Here Evans’ interpretations are a little too fanciful for this reviewer’s tastes: why, for example, should the two coins in the votive deposits in field 49 have been chosen specifically for their reverse types (62–3)? I cannot agree that the wear on one of these coins indicates that it “came directly from the mint into the [deposit]”. Coin 100.1 is considered to have been deliberately smoothed on one side to remove the imperial portrait (66), which seems inconsistent with the interpretation of coin 172.3, which also has one side smoothed away, but is said to have been in circulation for a long time or subjected to particular secondary depositional forces (60). Nonetheless, there is much interesting material here, not least the apparent preference for particular reverse types in graves (68–9), and a series of early imperial deposits all consisting of a coin, an eggshell and assorted bronze and iron implements.

For the late Roman and Byzantine contexts discussed in this chapter Evans introduces a new calculation, which she dubs the Mean Coin Date (MCD). The math is adequately explained in the appendix (117), but nowhere are we told how we are supposed to interpret the figure. The text talks of the percentage of coins in a deposit struck before and after the MCD, but this does not seem to lead to any conclusions that could not be gleaned simply from looking at the lists of coins. Confusion is compounded by the fact that the figures given in the text for the fifth-century deposits do not match up with those given in the footnotes (82, with footnote 160).4

The catalogue is well laid out and easy to use. There are, however, some concerns regarding Evans’ dating of the Roman provincial coins, which is either too precise or not precise enough. For coins without an imperial portrait, she pays no attention to magistrates’ names, which often allow a far more precise dating than that which she gives.5 For the coins of Sardis, she gives a false impression of precision. For example, coin types 157–58 are dated in the text of RPC to “between 63 and 68”, and in RPC’s catalogue to “c. AD 65”, which becomes for Evans simply “65 AD”. This becomes particularly problematic when one of these coins is used to give a terminus post quem of a votive deposit. 6 More serious though is the misattribution of coins: coin 127.1 is not an unpublished coin of Smyrna, but a coin of Apamea Myrlea in Bithynia under the Roman proconsul A. Vibius Pansa,7 and coin 320.1 is a coin of Gallienus, not Carinus.8

Similar problems are unfortunately to be found throughout the text as well. The book would have benefited greatly from a more detailed editing process. The author’s thought is not always easy to follow and despite hints that the book is intended for a non-numismatic audience (e.g. glossing the term “overstriking” at p. 7, footnote 16), complex numismatic ideas are introduced with little explanation or clarification. For example, in the discussion of Hellenistic coins we read things like, “The Apollo/club coins do appear to fall into denomination B/C (under Antiochus II) or C (under Seleucus II) or could even be tied to the Attalid one-unit coin” (18). Nowhere is it explained what these denominational terms refer to or where the classification comes from.9 On p. 60 one deposit is discussed in much the same terms in two consecutive paragraphs, without any indication that the material under discussion is the same. Of the typos and other errors that might have been picked up in the editorial process, only the most serious can be noted here.10

Some errors must, however, be ascribed to the author and not the editor. Most concerning to this reviewer is the alarming frequency with which other scholars’ views are misrepresented. The following are those that have come to my attention, which naturally reflect my own knowledge of the literature:

p. 29: In his book Das System der kaiserzeitlichen Münzprägung in Kleinasien, Kraft did not argue that dies for the Roman provincial coinage were only shared within the conventus. In fact, he proved that this idea, posited by Louis Robert, could not stand. Kraft also never suggested that reverse dies were shared between different cities.
p. 32: To my knowledge, Johnston never suggested that die-engraver workshops had influenced circulation pools or predicted that coins from Antioch in Pisidia and Attalea in Pamphylia would be found at Sardis. She certainly did not do so at p. 240 of her Greek Imperial Denominations, which is cited by Evans on this point.
p. 66: Neither Clay, whose review of the 1988 publication of the coins from the sacred spring at Bath Evans cites, nor Walker, the original publisher, argue that coins were deliberately selected by the depositor on the basis of reverse types. Rather, both saw the deposit as indicative of the circulation of particular types in Britain.
p. 143: Spoerri-Butcher (in Schweizerische Numismatische Rundschau 2009) disagreed with Johnston’s analysis of denominations at Roman colonies during the third century, but did not discuss denominations at Sardis, as Evans suggests.

Mistakes such as these diminish confidence in the book, and its conclusions, as a whole. This is greatly to be regretted, particularly considering that analysis of coin finds from excavations in the eastern Mediterranean lags so far behind that done on sites in northern and western Europe. That being the case, if this book, despite its faults, can stimulate more attempts to do more with excavation coins than simply list the material, it is to be welcomed with open arms.


Notes:


1.   H. W. Bell, Sardis XI: Coins. Pt. 1: 1910-1914 (Leiden: Brill, 1916); G. E. Bates, Byzantine Coins, Archaeological Exploration of Sardis Monograph 1 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971); T. V. Buttrey et al., Greek, Roman, and Islamic Coins from Sardis, Archaeological Exploration of Sardis Monograph 7 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).
2.   These coins are all considered circulating media at Sardis, and Evans does not engage with Butcher’s idea (e.g. in Small Change in Ancient Beirut. The Coin Finds from BEY 006 and 045 (Beirut: American University of Beirut, 2003), pp. 40–41) that foreign coins might be found in excavations precisely because they were not valid currency.
3.   The preface states that this database will be made available online at http://www.sardisexpedition.org, but to date only 21 coins have been uploaded.
4.   The footnote also includes the baffling claim that fewer than 39% of coins in deposit 6 were minted after the deposit’s median date, which is, per definitionem, impossible.
5.   E.g. I. Pollion on coins 107.1–4 is known from the reign of Hadrian (RPC III.1741), and Au. Neikostratos on coin 110.1 is known from the reign of Gordian III (RPC VII-1.349).
6.   Coin 157.2, discussed in section 3.2.3, not 3.2.2 as stated in the catalogue.
7.   cf. W. H. Waddington, E. Babelon, T. Reinach, Recueil général des monnaies grecques d’Asie Mineure (Paris: Leroux, 1908–25) part II, p. 250 no. 31.
8.   RIC V.1 p. 144 no. 159; Evans has misread the scales in the figure’s right hand as numerals in the field.
9.   The terminology seems to be that of A. Houghton and C. Lorber, Seleucid Coins: A Comprehensive Catalogue. Part 1: Seleucus I to Antiochus III (New York: American Numismatic Society, 2002).
10.   Latin letters have been introduced into the Greek coin legend on p. 63. Coin 111.1 is 26 mm in diameter, not 16 mm. The reverse of coin 167.1 actually shows two Demoi with an altar in between. The obverse and reverse descriptions of coin 168.1 have been transposed. The obverse legend of coins 184.1–4 should read ЄΠΙ ΔΑΡΙΟΥ.

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