Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Mystery Coin - The Wild, Wild East?

Heads and tails of a real challenge from my box of random ancient coins.

The metal composition is peculiar, it looks like high quality bronze.  It is about twice the thickness of late Roman specimens. But it has some features that do speak to its origins.  Note the little ties behind the hair on the obverse side.  See a similar hair fastener in this coin of the Emperor Trajan:

You tend to see a lot of odd stuff in the local coinage of the Eastern part of the Empire, formerly Greek areas that retained the privilege of making base metal coinage.  But a huge blow against this theory is the one unambiguous letter on the coin can be seen on its reverse.  It is a P.  Of course the Greek alphabet does not use this letter, instead using the symbol "Pi".

The whole coin looks wrong.  Sure you see some significant wear in low value coins like this, but there is an overall smooth look to it.  The only really crisp feature is that weird palm frond or giant wheat sheave on the reverse.  And even this is wrecked visually by that big central blob that looks to have been a deliberate part of the design rather than a mold error.

I am assuming that the figure on the reverse is female, based on what looks like a skirt and faint breast shadows.  So maybe this is a very crude representation of Ceres the goddess of agriculture. But she is usually shown holding an understated cornucopia or a small bunch of grain.  Today's mystery coin shows her standing next to a five foot tall monstrosity.

I did not strain my eyes too much trying to puzzle out the other lettering on the coin, I think it is nonsense.  There is for instance what looks like a fork in front of the "emperor's" portrait.

So what we basically have is a front that looks to have been "inspired" by a fairly early Roman coin, and a back that shows a rather crude, exaggerated depiction of Ceres or her Greek equivalent, Demeter.

I think this is an example of another class of Barbarous coinage, specifically of Limes coinage.

This stuff differs from the Barbarous Radiates I visited previously.  Those were made within the Empire during times when central control broke down.  The Limes coins were from the frontiers.

Limes means borders.  The word has come down to us in English as "limits".  When the Empire was in its expansion phases there would be times when the local economy on the frontiers would be cast into chaos.  Imagine the Roman army marching in and conquering a province.  The troops are well paid in high quality silver.  The sullen locals may have had some previous cross border trade but were mostly operating on a barter economy.  Well, now laborers were being hired, prostitutes paid, rounds of drinks were operating in a cash economy, which meant you had to make change.

The thinking is that the local military authorities did not care about minor matters like small change. By Jupiter they were not going to tie up valuable cargo space hauling bronze coins to the ends of the earth. If the locals wanted to slap together low value coins using whatever worn out or DIY coin molds they could lay hands on, it was not a matter of importance.  In favor of the reused/worn out mold have a look at the nose on the portrait...appears to me someone just roughed out the profile by carving a crude line into the mold.

This seems to have been especially common in the eastern province of Dacia, modern day Romania. And not coincidentally that is also where many of the "uncleaned coin lots" of the internet originate.

Archaeologically this means that finds of coin molds, unofficial mints, and of bizarre coins with mismatched fronts and backs are fairly common.

So absent any better theory I think today's mystery coin was the equivalent of what you saw back in the American Wild West.  More or less a trade token for saloons and bawdy houses out on a frontier that was so far from central authority that an "anything goes" mentality prevailed.

Many of the Limes coins were actually base metal coins struck in the molds used earlier for silver denarii.  My example is too mutated to really link to any specific ancestors.  For a brief discussion, that pretty much emphasizes the lack of certainty, go HERE.
On a very implausible note, the weird object near the foot of the "goddess" might be an attempt at showing a "cista mystica".  This appears occasionally on Roman coinage and is basically a basket full of snakes!  It had ritual significance usually with reference to Dionysius, but here is an example featuring Demeter.  Maybe a source coin?  You would just have to add some fronds to the staff in her left hand.

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