Friday, 19 November 2010

A Puzzling Process

An important part of the numismatic cataloguing that is being done at the Leeds Museum Discovery Centre is to assign catalogue numbers to coins that have not been listed already. Some of these coins are completely unknown, some are partially identified and some are wrongly identified! For me one of the biggest joys of numismatic research is the puzzle-solving that is involved in narrowing down ‘a coin’ to its very specific classification. So if you like crosswords and sudoku, follow this …

Obverse and Reverse:

To begin with what can we tell from this piece of an ancient coin? Luckily in 1988, a H. Williams classified some of the collection of Roman coins of England, so we know that this piece is an antonianus (a smaller denomination than the more familiar denarius) of Carausius, who was emperor of Britain from 287–293 AD. Beyond this there was little information.

The coin itself is worn and corroded so at a first glance it is easy to assume that there is little more information to be gleaned from the piece, yet there is enough detail remaining for us to do just that.

Close examination of the obverse shows that most of the inscription and much of the head is missing from the fragment, but for many coins, what the bust is wearing is as equally important for classification as the head and the wording around it. The clarity of the neck and shoulders shows that the bust was draped – a toga – but most importantly it shows that the bust is NOT cuirassed (armoured). The part of the head that we can see shows a radiate crown (the zig-zags), rather than a laurel wreath.

The reverse shows Pax holding a sceptre and an olive branch. Pax is the Roman personification of peace and is a common motif on the coins of Carausius. In fact the majority of antoniani that Leeds Museum holds feature Pax. What is most important about the depiction of Pax is that way the sceptre is held: it is held transversely across the body of Pax. This a rarer form of the Pax reverse type. The next important information we can glean from the reverse is that the mint-marks are just visible, with a S to the left of Pax and a P to the right.

Now we have four important numismatic characteristics for this coin:
Bust is not cuirassed.
Bust wear a radiate crown.
Pax holds her sceptre across her body
Mint-mark are S and P, either side of Pax’s body.

After this careful examination of the coin, we can begin to consult the reference volumes!

The main reference work for the coins of Carausius is found in volume V of Mattingley and Sydenham’s ‘Roman Imperial Coinage’ (RIC). What can be even more puzzling is that numismatic reference works can often seem to be written in a type of code. If you look at the page below, you see in the field labelled ‘obverse’ there is a number and then some letters. The number relates to the most common inscriptions, from 1 to 9; the letters relate to the types of bust and go from A to G.

This page list the types of Pax holding a transverse sceptre, from which we can narrow down the obverse types.

As the inscription is illegible we need to narrow down the letters that refer to the types of bust. For the ‘tranverse Pax’ types there are three possible bust types - A, C and F:
A: Radiate, draped bust, facing right.
C: Radiate, draped and cuirassed bust, facing right.
F: Radiate, cuirassed bust, facing r.

Immediately, since we know the bust is not cuirassed, we need to now only consider numbers from the page that are type A. So rather than us having to choose between numbers 118 – 123, our choice is now limited to 120 or 123.

Now we consult the page again, this time looking at the mint-marks column. Mint-marks have a special notation, to show where on the coin they are found:
Left reverse image│Right reverse image
Under reverse image

So we need to look to see if either 120 or 123 have mint mark notation like S│P. From that we can see that the piece is best categorised as number 123. In the Museum catalogue all our research is then written as RIC Carausius/123, showing the reference work, the emperor and the number to consult.

Why is this important I hear you ask?

It is important because the more pieces that are individually and correctly identified, the more detailed our knowledge of particular coinages becomes. When contextualised as part of the economic and political history for a particular time and place, then it greatly adds to what we already know.

Part of the joy of this internship is the process of sorting out the puzzle. Using skills of examination and deduction to get to a result, in this case a result no-one had reached before, is loads of fun!
Author: Lucy Moore, Leeds Museums and Galleries Intern 2010

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