Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Science of Numismatics

While re-shelving books in the spacious new office of Classical Coins, I came across three titles which caught my eye, reminding me that numismatics is much more than a mere hobby, and that collecting ancient coins (and dealing in them) is in reality participation in a long-established science which has made many important contributions to mankind's heritage.

The first of these titles is "Numismatics: An Ancient Science" by Elvira Clain-Stefanelli, former executive director and curator of the Smithsonian Institution's National Numismatic Collection. Originally published as Paper 32 in "Bulletin 229: Contributions from the Museum of History and Technology" by the Smithsonian Institution, it is widely available as an inexpensive 100 page paperback reprint.

Clain-Stefanelli explores and chronicles the origins, evolution and development of coin collecting, starting with the introduction of the term "numismatics" and progressing to Greek art collections (cf. the Cales kylix illustrating a Syracusan dekadrachm), then to the presentation of antique Greek coins as gifts by the Emperor Augustus on festive occasions. She describes the re-emergence of coin collecting during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, and its subsequent development into the distributed science that we know and cherish today. Every collector of ancient coins should acquire and study this fine historical survey.

The second of these titles is "Numismatic Archaeology / Archaeological Numismatics," the proceedings of a conference held in Athens in 1995 to honor Dr. Mando Oeconomodies, published as Oxbow Monograph 75. Now out of print, it is widely available on the used book market. Fifteen papers are included, two in Modern Greek, three in French, one in German and nine in English. They describe the intersection between numismatics and archaeology, ranging from stratigraphic dating to a bronze die thought to have been used in production of the earliest Athenian coinage. As an ensemble, these papers clearly and authoritatively indicate the manner in which systematic study of ancient coins by qualified experts specializing in numismatics has revealed extensive insights into important aspects of daily life, commerce and contemporary political developments during antiquity, extending far beyond mere stratigraphic dating. This illuminating volume is excellent value for the advanced collector interested in exploring the many aspects of numismatic study that progress beyond acquisition and curation of desirable specimens.

The third of these titles is "A Black Sea Hoard of the Late Fifth Century BC" by C. M. Kraay and P. R. S. Moorey, originally published in the Numismatic Chronicle (Volume 141 - 1981) and available as a paperback reprint. It describes a hoard acquired for the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford in 1970, consisting of 78 coins (many fragmentary), 28 ingots and fragments thereof, and a quantity of miscellaneous hacksilber. It is notable for the manner in which the authors tracked down (with the assistance of other numismatists, especially the numismatic firm A. H. Baldwin and Sons) additional specimens thought to have come from the original find, drawing significant inferences regarding coin circulation and commerce in this area of Asia Minor during the last years of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC). It is also notable for presenting coins as being only a fraction of currency at that time, hacksilber (silver scrap weighed out during transactions) still being widely current with coins often treated as a type of ornamental silver, to be cut up as necessary to arrive at a specific weight.

Having been trained in the physical sciences, I am constitutionally unable to view ancient coins solely from an aesthetic and historical perspective and have taken an abiding interest in their methods of production, one example of which is the monograph "Lathe Machining of Bronze Coin Flans" - http://www.classicalcoins.com/flans1.html . The study of ancient die-sinking, flan preparation and minting technology is a very absorbing and extensive subject which can richly reward collectors oriented toward this aspect of numismatics.

Don't limit yourself as a collector - think of your avocation as an adventure in science and history, and advance into these fascinating vistas as far as your imagination and inclination toward research and contemplation can carry you.


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