BMCR 2020.10.33

Money matters: coin finds and ancient coin use

, , Money matters: coin finds and ancient coin use. Bonn: Habelt Verlag, 2019. Pp. vi, 272. ISBN9783774941755 €69,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of this review.]

The papers collected in this volume originated in a conference on money and ritual in the Greco-Roman world held in 2015. It also serves as a festschrift of sorts for Hans-Christoph Noeske, the doktorvater of both editors and a scholar of coin finds in Roman Egypt. Coins themselves — though catalogued meticulously in many of the articles, with pictures — are not the focus of most of the articles in this collection. Instead, the broad theme of the volume is coin finds: the sites and contexts in which archaeologists find ancient coins, and what they might learn from them about how the coins were used. The articles are mostly in English with some in German (4), French (3) and Italian (3).

Coins were produced in large numbers and meant to circulate. People lost them all the time, sometimes while trying to put them somewhere safe. They are thus useful for dating layers and buildings, for reconstructing economic histories, and for understanding how ancient states used them for propaganda purposes, not to mention their importance in reconstructing chronologies. Scholars of the ancient world are reliant upon them in many ways. This is why thinking about the contexts in which coins are found, and the ways in which they were used in the ancient world, is so important.

The articles are divided into four sections. In the first, Method and Theory, four authors offer innovative approaches to dating coin finds, especially hoards. Hoards are accumulations of coins found buried in the ground, or deposited in and under buildings. Hoards are mysterious: someone must have put them there after collecting them, hiding them away, but then neglected to recover them. The origins of each hoard are an untold story. David Wigg-Wolf offers a new typology of hoards, thinking about how they were assembled (over time? all at once? for what reason?), and not only why and how they were deposited or forgotten. Jean-Marc Doyen and Fabien Pilon study new methods for dating coins not by the date of their creation, but by their wear and use, which better indicates their age. Kevin Butcher discusses coin distribution in the Roman empire and offers an intriguing parallel from the Ottoman empire, in which small change was a commodity traded by speculators.

Most papers in the collection deal with finds of small change. Thus, in the second section, Site Finds, Komnick discusses a bronze coin from Apulia, presently located in Bonn, in the context of ancient coin finds in the Northwest provinces of the Roman empire. Nathan Elkins offers a survey of coins of Nerva with the image of Neptune on them, found in Britannia, far from where they were minted, and explains this in terms of Nerva’s founding of a colony at Glevum (modern Gloucester), rather than as a deliberate decision to supply the provincials in Britannia with coins bearing propaganda about games played in the Circus Maximus. Pierre-Marie Guihard documents the production and circulation of false bronze nummi in early fourth century Egypt against the backdrop of the crisis of the third century. Bruno Callegher surveys nummi and false nummi from the North-African west found in Palestine.

Staying on false coinage, in a subsequent section of the book, Jérémie Chameroy shows, using XRF analysis, that the consecration coins of Claudius Gothicus were first produced by the official mint, then also by professionals outside of the mint in Rome, and finally in the provinces as well. He connects this phenomenon to testimony about a rebellion of Roman mint workers in 270-271, and to the broader scene of the monetary crisis of the third century. Fraudulent coinage, says Chameroy, is a sign of weakness of the Roman state, which was not able to produce sufficient coinage to meet the needs of the market. This weakness was exploited by “speculators, merchants, or maritime conveyors” (143). Its existence is also a cultural phenomenon that requires further scholarly attention: Do users of fabricated coinage conceive of it as a fraudulent object? Do they believe that they are engaging in criminal or immoral activity, or that perhaps they are stepping in to do the work the state cannot do?

The essays in the sections on Hoards and on Ritual Depositions discuss various contexts in which coins are found and grouped together, as well as possible explanations for that grouping. The focus of these sections on ritual reflects the topic of the conference on money and ritual out of which this edited volume grew. Adam Rogers’ study of coin hoards within buildings, often not considered hoards at all, suggests we should think beyond the visible world and consider notions of protection and sacrifice as explanations for secreted cash in buildings. Richard Reece notes that “small change is not hoarded” (155); but it is found in large quantities in many situations, including ritual deposits in temples. This broad cross-section of evidence requires a re-thinking of what hoarding means: it is just a functional secreting of coins for safe-keeping, or is something else going on? Grazia Facchinetti shows how “pagan” uses of coins were re-employed as Christian practices in late antique Italy. Joachim Gorecky’s paper discusses coins intentionally deposited into a sanctuary for Isis Panthea and Magna Mater in Mainz.

Sophia Zoumbaki’s article on Greek thesauroi from the classical period down to the first centuries of the common era is a remarkable study of hoards that were recovered: these collection boxes are evidence that coins were deposited. Zoumbaki meticulously assembles a corpus (or, should we say, a hoard) of such boxes, or evidence for them, in mainland Greece (198-203). She also offers some discussion on what the religious meaning of such monetary gifts might have been, and which deities preferred receiving gifts of small coins. A joint paper by Klaus Kortüm and Stefan Krmnicek explores coin finds from a Romano-Celtic temple of Apollo Granus at Neuenstadt am Kocher: it provides a detailed catalog of the coins, but also, significantly, a discussion of the places within the temple in which the coins were found, including the base of a cult statue. Sean Leatherbury’s paper on coins as votive gifts in late antiquity combines literary and archaeological evidence to show how coins were used as ritual instruments by Christians in various places in the late ancient East.

I noticed with some sadness that Jewish studies are absent from the materials brought to bear on the findings, even in cases when Jews are known to have deposited at least some of the coins at a site (e.g., Leatherbury’s discussion of Mamre on p. 257). Descriptions of the Jerusalem temple and its money collecting practices, both in the Hebrew Bible and in the Mishnah are not discussed as comparanda for papers on temple hoards (Zoumbaki’s short remark on Jesus and the moneychangers on p. 198 highlights this absence even more). Similarly absent is the coinage of the two Jewish revolts, which overstruck Roman coins with Ancient Hebrew legends and aniconic images. Coin finds in Jewish contexts, such as synagogues in the Roman empire, are absent from the section on ritual deposits. This is in part the result of the festschrift format, but also the result of departmental biases and institutional fences. Bringing these matters into dialogue with the findings of this book would be an important contribution.

The book is handsomely produced and beautifully bound and printed. The monochrome photographs are sharp, detailed and numerous. The folio format and glossy paper are cumbersome but understandable given need for tables and maps. A good part of the book consists of tables, diagrams, maps and sketches. Scientific analyses of ceramics and metals are utilized and cited. Individual coins are described in detail, and photographed.

All this offers specialists — archaeologists and numismatists — a wealth of information (I wish the pictures were larger, perhaps in color, but they are professionally executed and generally sharp). But the potential of this information is much greater. Students of religion, for instance, should examine this material to try to define “ritual” activity and its relation to “the mundane.” Scholars of written sources might wish to corroborate or challenge the evidence through an examination of literary sources on hoarding or depositing coins. Scholars of other traditions, including but not limited to Jewish and Early Christian studies, should examine this material and see how it informs their own work: if coins were already ritual objects in the Roman empire, does this impact our understanding of the temple tax, or gifts to the poor, or the idea that coins given to charity can buy “treasure in heaven?” If coins can protect a building, we should not be surprised to see them in the walls and floors of synagogues. Scholars of the ancient economy need to asses these data when thinking about how money was used and abused in the ancient world. The economic significance of hoarding and ritual depositing, and its costs to the broader economy, should be discussed by scholars of the ancient economy. Thus, this book is important not only for the archaeologists and numismatists for whom it is intended (p. 6), but for any student of the classical world who has an interest in the nexus of the ancients and their coins. It is rich soil on which more studies can and should grow.

Authors and Titles

Introduction: Stefan Krmnicek and Jérémie Chameroy. “Why Money Matters. An Introduction” 3.
Method and Theory
David Wigg-Wolf. “Rethinking Coin Finds as a Process” 13.
Jean-Marc Doyen. “L’ indice d’usure des monnaies en tant que substitut aux indices de fréquence” 21.
Fabien Pilon. “Datations numismatiques et datations céramiques: approches croisées” 31.
Kevin Butcher. “‘This Extravagant Trade of False Money’: Commercial Speculation and Coin Distribution” 45.
Site Finds
Holger Komnick. “Zwei griechische Münzen aus dem Bereich des niederrheinischen Vetera?” 55.
Nathan T. Elkins. “The Circulation of Nerva’s Neptune Coins in Britannia” 75.
Pierre-Marie Guihard. “La fausse monnaie coulée au début du IVe siècle dans la vallée du Nil (Égypte). État de la question” 83.
Bruno Callegher. “Nummi nordafricani e occidentali (V-inizi VI secolo) in Palestina: nuovi dati” 101.
Adam Rogers. “Between Ritual and Mundane: Coin Hoards within Non-Religious Buildings in Roman Britain” 119.
Jérémie Chameroy. “A Late Roman Workshop Producing Divo Claudio Coins in North Africa” 137.
Richard Reece. “Homes for Hoards” 151.
Michele Asolati. “Il ripostiglio di Arpaia riscoperto e la moneta di bronzo ostrogota in Italia meridionale” 163.
Ritual Depositions
Sophia Zoumbaki. “Monetization of Piety and Personalization of Religious Experience: The Role of Thesauroi in the Greek Mainland and the Cyclades” 189.
Joachim Gorecki. “‘Mos stipis’ — die Sitte des Geldopfers: Zu den Münzvotiven aus dem Heiligtum für Isis und Mater Magna in Mainz” 209.
Grazia Facchinetti. “Stipes. Gesti e luoghi dell’oferta di monete nell’Italia settentrionale di età romana” 225.
Klaus Kortüm and Stefan Krmnicek. “Heiliges Geld. Die Münzen aus dem Apollo-Grannus-Heiligtum von Neuenstadt am Kocher (Germania superior)” 237.
Sean V. Leatherbury. “Coins as Votive Gifts in the Late Antique East” 253.