Numismatic research has to deal with vast numbers of Greek coins. Coins were mass produced and coin types issued in abundance, not least because of the large number of minting authorities in the Greek world. It always has been a challenge to numismatists to find ways to assemble and classify coin issues, and even in the digital age with networked databases and the promise of the semantic web they still struggle with the sheer numbers.
This short book by Hans-Markus von Kaenel looks at the late 19th– and early 20th-century attempts to create catalogues, corpora, sylloges, thesauri, and trésors of Greek coins. Von Kaenel deals with the Greek numismatist Ioannis Nikolaos Svoronos (1863–1922) and the influence of his attempt to create a Trésor de la Numismatique Grecque Ancienne. The starting point for von Kaenel is the hitherto unpublished letters of Svoronos and documents from the F. Bruckmann Verlag in Munich, which was supposed to publish the Trésor in twenty-two volumes with 1,200 collotype plates illustrating roughly 50,000 Greek coins. This endeavor was never completed and only the volume by Svoronos himself on the coins of Athens was ever published, in several fascicules between 1923 and 1926. With the new documents, which are published as appendices to the book, von Kaenel is able to identify the intended contributors to this major project, which was initiated in 1913 at the latest and was ambitiously supposed to be completed by 1921. Svoronos was able to bring together the most important numismatists of his time and the result was a truly international project involving Greek, American, French, British, German, and Swiss numismatists, each having specific geographical areas assigned to them.
The aim of the Trésor was to systematically collate a large number of coins representing each of the coin types produced by the minting authorities. This was not a die study but was intended to publish all the coins and coin types from the major collections, and what set it apart from earlier studies was that it provided photos of the coins. Whereas previous comprehensive coin publications focused on detailed and accurate descriptions of the coins, often with line drawings, the goal of the new publication was to publish photos of plaster casts of the coins. These plaster casts were to be taken from the coins in the major collections and photographed by the experienced photographers of Bruckmann Verlag. This process guaranteed consistent and high quality for the plates. Technical advances in photography and collotype printing made this possible, and the focus was to be on the photos and swift publication with only very brief technical descriptions of the coins.
The publication project, however, was not successful. The most severe obstacle was, as von Kaenel describes, World War I, which also destroyed international collaboration: former colleagues turned into foes. Another reason, of course, was the premature death of Svoronos, whose energy and networks had been crucial in bringing together the many researchers. The result was that only the fascicules on Athens were published, posthumously, and the attempt to assemble a comprehensive number of coins and types of all Greek issues came to an end. However, the publication of the volumes on Athens was a proof of concept for the reliance on high-quality photographs and only limited technical text. The presentation of such a large number of coins was the prerequisite for die studies, which at that time were becoming more sophisticated, and they opened up completely new perspectives in numismatics.
Von Kaenel convincingly argues that another legacy of Svoronos’ Trésor was the establishment of the new series Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum (SNG), initiated by the curator of coins at the British Museum, Edward Stanley Gotch Robinson (1887–1976), who in 1931 presented the first volume of the new series. Robinson was also supposed to be one of the contributors to Svoronos’ Trésor and therefore knew of the concept. Although, as von Kaenel shows, Robinson did not explicitly refer to Svoronos’ endeavor, he adopted its concept of publishing photos with brief descriptive text. Robinson stated that he had been inspired by the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum project, which in 1921 had been initiated by Edmond Pottier (1855–1934). This project aimed to publish the Greek vases held in Museum collections, and each volume was dedicated to one specific collection, again focused on high-quality photographs and (initially) only very brief textual descriptions. It was a decentralized undertaking. Also, the SNG tackled single collections, and this approach was much more pragmatic and efficient because the collections could be published individually and the responsibility for the publication lay with the collections’ curators. The publications thus made available large numbers of coins and coin types to researchers, and the photographs facilitated die studies. Such a decentralized structure also made the undertaking less prone to failure and even if today we are still a long way from the publication of all the major collections in the SNG, the more than 200 published volumes speak for themselves and the success of the concept. Von Kaenel does not elaborate on the current situation with regard to the digital humanities, but it is obvious that an approach such as the one initiated by the SNG is also helping to successfully integrate decentralized data in networked databases, as can be seen from several impressive linked databases hosted by, e.g., the American Numismatic Society and the German NUMiD consortium. It is ironic: the decentralization that arose from the catastrophe of World War I is today an enormous advantage in the transnational digital age.
Von Kaenel’s book, although small, is nicely illustrated and reads very well. It accurately describes with many historical details the situation in the early 20th century when with the aid of new technological advancements, like the ability to print photographs at a reasonable cost, scholars attempted to solve the same problems we still face today: how can dispersed archaeological data be connected, structured, and classified in order to make it widely available and foster international research.