BMCR 2023.02.46

The beginning of coinage in the Cimmerian Bosporus (a hoard from Phanagoria)

, , The beginning of coinage in the Cimmerian Bosporus (a hoard from Phanagoria). Colloquia antiqua, 34. Leuven: Peeters, 2022. Pp. xvi, 146. ISBN 9789042946170

In this slim volume, the two authors, both members of the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, publish a new hoard of 162 silver coins from Phanagoria on the Taman peninsula in modern Russia. Even this brief monograph (there are just 60 pages of discussion in total) may seem excessive for such a small find, but much, in fact, is at stake.

To begin with, it is comparatively rare that hoards are found in excavation, as this one was. Too often, hoards are illegally excavated and dispersed in commerce, with the loss of valuable archaeological context. Such context can give important indications of absolute chronology, inform us about the circumstances of deposit, and provide information on the circulation patterns of ancient coinage. All of these elements prove to be particularly interesting in the case of the new Phanagoria hoard, not least because in the coins that it contains, we are looking at the earliest coinage produced in the Cimmerian Bosporus. A careful publication is thus particularly welcome, as is the attempt by the four scientists of the State Historical and Archaeological Museum Reserve of Phanagoria (I.A. Saprykina, A.V. Chugaev, O.L. Gunchina and L.A Pelgunova) to conduct chemical analysis of the coins (pp. 59–78). All told, this is, in formal terms, almost a model for the publication of such an assemblage from excavation: the only blemish is the failure to publish properly the container in which the coins were found (a one-sentence description is provided on p. 2). So what does the hoard tell us?

The coins were discovered in an Ionian pitcher concealed within the wall of a building (house 205) in the upper city of Phanagoria. The house itself contained pottery dating from the second half of the 6th century to the turn of the first and second quarters of the fifth century (so c. 550–475 BC). It, like much of the rest of the upper city and its fortification walls, fell out of use as a result of a major fire. The excavators note the presence of arrowheads and sling bullets in Late Archaic layers of the site, and it seems likely that the destruction that brought the occupation of house 205 to an end was hostile and violent. The destruction of Phanagoria thus fits within a broader horizon of violent destruction observable across a number of contemporary sites in the Pontic region. As it happens, a brief notice in Diodorus (12.31.1) informs us of a significant regime change in the region in 480 BC with the coming to power of the Archaeanactid dynasty. The authors suggest that this followed upon an invasion of the region by the Achaemenid Persians as part of Xerxes’ Greek campaign in that year (p. 2).

Whether one buys the historical reconstruction or not, the archaeological evidence provides the hoard with a terminus ante quem of c. 475 BC and an apparently domestic context. In an admirably frank discussion of previous scholarship (pp. 5–7), the authors point out that this new find seems to rule out comprehensively the earliest dates suggested for this coinage in some of the older Russian-language publications. On the other hand, the authors’ claim that a date in the period 490–480 can now be assigned must also be treated with caution. The hoard provides only a terminus ante quem for the coins it contains: we simply do not know how long it had been concealed before the destruction of c. 480 BC. Rather, the date for the beginning of coinage in the Cimmerian Bosporus can most prudently be stated to have fallen within the period c. 520–480 BC.

Turning to the coins themselves, we begin to see why this is interesting. The hoard contains eight ‘drachms’ and 154 ‘triobols’ or hemidrachms which all share the same designs: the facing head of a lion on the obverse and an incuse square punch on the reverse (cf. these examples). The reverse punches are, for the most part, divided in four, either diagonally into triangles, or vertically and horizontally into squares. A full catalogue of these coins is provided (pp. 53–57) and they are nicely illustrated in colour (a selection, 3x actual size: plates 12–25) and in black and white (all coins, actual size and x3: plates 41–59). Further plates are provided to illustrate die combinations (plates 35–40) and progression of die wear (plates 27–31). All told, the value of the hoard amounts to 85 drachms. If one takes the sum of a drachma as being equivalent to a day’s pay, then this represents roughly 3 months’ accumulated income: a sizeable sum, but not beyond the means of an individual or family to accumulate within a few years.

Indeed, it seems likely that the hoard was accumulated over a relatively short period of time: the coins show little sign of wear, and thus little differential wear over the sample as a whole. Such a body of material provides an important opportunity for metrological study (pp. 16–21). The methodology of the metrological analysis here, however, leaves something to be desired. The authors identify the heaviest examples of the two denominations, assume that these must approximate the weight standard, and then find a point of comparison in Barclay Head’s estimation of the weight of the Aeginetan standard. On the basis of their identification of this standard as that in use for the Bosporan coinage, the authors proceed to suggest that this choice was in part dictated by the desire for compatibility with the coinage of Aegina itself, and of other cities that made the same decision. The desire for ready exchangeability within trade networks would thus be one reason behind this choice, and indeed the decision to produce coinage (pp. 43–5). Unfortunately, the metrological data simply do not bear out such an interpretation. As table 1 (below) shows, the Bosporan drachms were produced in neat relationship to each other, with 80th percentiles falling at 2.9g for the hemidrachms and 5.85g for the drachms. But this would imply a stater of 11.7g, whereas the Aeginetan stater is 12.4g. In fact, the Bosporan drachms are closer in weight to the royal Persian standard, though the correspondence is again not exact, since the siglos of this period seems somewhat lighter at 5.6g.


Drachms Hemidrachms Aeginetan staters
Mean 5.60 2.73 12.30
Median 5.60 2.75 12.35
Mode (ind) n/a 2.64 12.35
IQR 0.40 0.27 0.15
80%ile 5.85 2.91 12.40
SD 0.37 0.21 0.17

Table 1. Weights in grams of the Bosporan drachms and heimdrachms compared with Aeginetan staters[1]


X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) analysis suggests that the metal itself is between 95.3 and 99.55% pure (pp. 60–4), although we should be aware that, as a surface method of analysis, XRF may produce distortions in these results.[2] Lead isotope analysis by multicollector inductively coupled plasma mass-spectrometry (MC-ICP-MS), by contrast, is interpreted to suggest origins for some of the silver used (pp. 64–70). The majority of coins fall potentially within the signatures of the Cycladic region, the Rhodope mountains of southern Bulgaria, and eastern Macedon and Thrace (p. 69, fig. 11).

The source of silver may have been local to the Black Sea, therefore, or it may have travelled there from the Aegean. But who produced this coinage and when? It was not small. Here the hoard numbers may be slightly deceptive. The few drachms present are struck from just four dies, but three of these are represented by just a single coin. Statistical estimates for the original size range between five and 32 obverse dies). Different dies are better represented among the hemidrachms (20 dies in 154 specimens with an estimate of between 23 and 28 original dies). At a bare minimum this probably represents a mint output for the whole hemidrachm coinage equivalent to 53 Attic talents, and conceivably much more.[3]

Traditionally these coins have been attributed to the mint of Panticapaeum on the European side of the straits, opposite Phanagoria, principally because there are later coins with a similar obverse type and bearing the legend ΠΑΝΤ on the reverse (cf. these examples). However, as the authors note, this does not prove that the earlier coins represented in the hoard were produced in the city (pp. 35–36). Having noted multiple finds of these coins on the Asian side of the straits (pp. 8–9), one might suggest the possibility that the original mint may have been located there, perhaps at Phanagoria, and that the coins circulated across onto the European side with sufficient frequency for the design to be taken up there. The authors are rightly cautious: they canvas the possibility that this earlier coinage was in fact a common coinage, or perhaps even (though they ultimately reject the idea) an amphictyonic coinage centred on the sanctuary of Aphrodite Apatouros at Phanagoria. In the end, as they acknowledge, the reasons for the uptake and production of coinage in the Cimmerian Bosporus remain unclear. They conclude (pp. 44–5):

“To all appearance, the beginning of coinage in the Cimmerian Bosporus cannot be attributed to any single, simple cause (trade contacts, construction works, paying salaries to magistrates, etc.) Rather, it stemmed from a mix of reasons, with some kind of association (confederacy) in the background. As it is said in such cases, ‘conditions were ripe’. This association, glued together by the sense of Ionian unity, was created to deal with emerging issues (political, economic, religious, military and whatever). It had to choose the weight standard which would be practical and suit various needs, including those of trade. The other contributing factors could be the Ionian Revolt and the Persian threat, as well as hostilities with the local tribes, who lived in close proximity….”

Another form of explanation may be worth considering too. The authors note the need to bring discussion of the origins and nature of coinage in the northern Black Sea into the same discourse as that governing the emergence of coinage in other regions. In recent years it has become clear that the emergence of organized naval warfare may play a major part in the rise and expansion of coinage in the Aegean world.[4] Could the same be true of the Black Sea? The Persians hover in the background of the discussion at various points in the book. The recent discovery, also at Phanagoria, just a few metres from the 2019 coin hoard, of the remarkable cuneiform stele DFa may well suggest an Achaemenid presence in the region as early as the reign of Darius.[5] One might justifiably ask if, in the coinage of the Phanagoria hoard, we are seeing a sign of, or reaction to, Darius’ naval campaigning in the Black Sea in the penultimate decade of the 6th century. Wolfgang Fischer Bossert has recently drawn attention to another, massive coinage that seems to have been struck at Herakleia Pontika, beginning around this period.[6] Could we be starting to perceive, in these coinages and this new inscription, an important contemporary supplement to the romances of Herodotus and Ctesias for the history of the Achaemenid Black Sea? Could these coinages be a sign either that local authorities were fighting fire with fire, and commissioning their own navies? Or are they rather an indication that responsibility for paying for the King’s fleet rested on local shoulders? This book brings us fresh evidence and much to think about.



[1] Weights for the first two are taken from the volume at hand; those for Aeginetan staters are derived from the 77 relatively fresh tortoises contained in the Hollm 1991 hoard: H. Nicolet-Pierre, S. Gjongecaj, ‘Le monnayage d’argent d’Égine et le trésor de Hollm (Albanie) 1991’, BCH 119.1 (1995), pp. 283–338.

[2] It will overemphasise silver content if the surface has been corroded or deliberately enriched. For a survey of analytical methods see M.J. Ponting, ‘The Substance of Coinage: The Role of Scientific Analysis in Ancient Numismatics’, in William E. Metcalf (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage, Oxford Handbooks (2012; online edition, Oxford Academic, 21 Nov. 2012).

[3] Calculations are not provided by the authors. Figures given here are based on W. Esty ‘The Geometric Model for Estimating the Number of Dies’ in F. de Callataÿ (ed.), Quantifying Monetary Supplies in Greco-Roman Times (Bari, 2011), pp 43–58, Formulae 3 and 4 with confidence intervals from id. ‘How to Estimate the Original Number of Dies and the Coverage of a Sample’, NC 166 (2006), pp. 359–364, Formula 4, and assumption of 10,000 coins struck per die.

[4] See for, example, H. van Wees, Ships and Silver, Taxes and Tribute: A Fiscal History of Archaic Athens (London, 2013), J.K. Davies, ‘Corridors, Cleruchies, Commodities, and Coins: the Pre-history of the Athenian Empire’ in A. Slawisch (ed.) Handels- und Finanzgebaren in der Ägäis im 5. Jh. v. Chr. Trade and Finance in the 5th c. BC Aegean World, Byzas 18 (Istanbul, 2013), pp. 43–66, A.R. Meadows, ‘Tout ce qui brille…. Electrum and the origins of western coinage’, Revue Numismatique 178 (2021), pp. 444–471.

[5] For the publication see V. Kuznetsov and A. Nikitin, ‘An Old Persian Inscription from Phanagoria’, ACSS 25.1 (2019), pp. 1–7 suggesting a date in the reign of Xerxes. For improvements to the text and the preferable context of Darius’ Scythian expedition see E. Shaverbi, ‘An Inscription of Darius I from Phanagoria (DFa): Preliminary report of a work in progress’, ARTA 5 (2019), pp. 1–15.

[6] W. Fischer-Bossert, ‘Die Elektronhekten mit dem Herakleskopf: Herakleia Pontike, nicht Erythrai’, NZ 126 (2020), pp. 15–64, estimating an output equivalent of 400-800T of silver within the first 20 years of production (p. 86).