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ISAW Papers 7.15 (2014)

Coinage and Numismatic Methods. A Case Study of Linking a Discipline

Andrew Meadows and Ethan Gruber1

1. The Opportunity

As a type of evidence for the ancient world, coinage is unique. Coins are monetary objects, and thus a key element in modern attempts to reconstruct the workings of the ancient economy. For example, through the process of ‘die-study’ it is possible to determine with some degree of accuracy how many dies were used to strike a given coinage. This provides us with a way to quantify ancient monetary production. Since coins can also be attributed to particular rulers or cities with some degree of certainty, this makes it possible to ascertain the monetary output of different cities, kingdoms and empires, and to compare them with one another. There now exists a substantial body of scholarship devoted to the estimation of size of production, but comparatively little as yet to its broad analysis or representation in interactive media such as timelines or maps.2

Coins are also archaeological objects in that they have find spots. Coins within archaeological contexts have much to tell excavators about the contexts they are digging, but also more broadly about the monetary profile of the site they are excavating compared to others of similar or different types; from multiple sites a regional history may emerge (see e.g. Reece, 1982). But find spots also give coins a trajectory. If we know where a coin was made and where it was found, we have evidence for movement, connectivity and economic circulation (see Map 1).

Map 1. Hoard find spots of coins minted at Alabanda in Caria. From http://nomisma.org/id/alabanda.

Few archaeological objects from antiquity can be mapped from source to deposition with such certainty as coins, and yet again we are only beginning to exploit the possibilities of this evidence in analytical and representational tools. Moreover, with the advent of the metal detector, individual coin finds and their recording are no longer confined to excavation material. The Portable Antiquities Scheme in the United Kingdom, for example, now has recorded find spots for some 283,000 coins (Pett this volume; see Map 2). Already it is leading to new works of synthesis (e.g. Leins, 2012; Walton, 2012), but again work is just beginning. Only when it becomes possible to compare data sets across multiple modern source countries will it become possible to write the larger monetary history of ancient imperial spaces. With other coin-finds projects in other countries beginning to come online (see e.g. http://www.ecfn.fundmuenzen.eu/Partners.html), it will not be long before the quantity of such material available enters the realm of Big Data.