Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Coinage of the Late American Empire

I had no intention of doing three straight postings that featured coins.  Its just one of those things that happens.

Appearances aside this technically is not a hoard of coins.  The strict definition of a hoard in the archeology sense is a collection of coins all intentionally buried in one location.  This agglomeration represents one calendar year's worth of picking up scruffy looking coins while out for walks.

I know that this, along with a heightened interest in all things relating to squirrels, is a warning sign of becoming An Old Guy.  But I justify it in several ways.  I need walks.  It actually is free money. And it keeps my archeology "eye" in tune year round so that when I arrive at Vindolanda for my annual dig I am all set to spot minor variations in shape, color and texture. A closer look:

There is much variation of course, not only between denominations but with different ages of coins, differing degrees of damage from the circumstances of where they ended up, and so forth. But there were a few things I noticed that had parallels to the Roman coins I find when excavating.

Here is a fairly typical late Roman coin as it comes out of the ground after 1600 years or so:

Not much to look at really.  It is copper, or an alloy of same.  Basically its the equivalent of our modern penny.  Note the greenish tint, this is copper oxide and is the natural consequence of aging copper.   Some of our pennies show a bit of this:

Notice that these are somewhat older coins.  56 years in the case of the specimen on the left.  But newer pennies...

Yuck.  They just get a sort of dirty coating on them.  In fairness I suspect some of this is from the salt we so liberally use on our roads and sidewalks in the winter.  But there is also a very different make up to modern pennies.  Lets take a closer look..

This coin is mere months old, and despite obviously living a rough life there is nary a smidge of oxidization on it.  In fact, the thin shiny coating of whatever alloy is on it simply is a thin wash covering up a core of some other cheesy stuff.  Note the beard and side burns of "Dishonest Abe". 

This process of using a thin coat of (apparently) valuable metal over a base core is as old as coinage itself, being practiced not only by counterfeiters but also by dishonest mint workers since ancient days.  In a previous post we have visited a few examples.  Here is a silver denarius with a crappy base metal surprise waiting for the outer layer to wear through.

It has of course been many years since we have had any real silver coinage in our own currency. Our financial wizards make no effort to hide the process, and the copper - more or less - inside a modern day dime can be seen just by looking at the edge.  Or wait until it wears through a bit. From my 2016 ambling I present a spiffy new dime that somebody dropped soon after it came into circulation.  Next to it is a tired and dingy specimen with its copper showing through on the lower edge.

Archaeologists are probably guilty of reading too much into coins as a barometer of societal health.  Not every devaluation of currency is another marker for Decline and Fall.  We just don't consider coins to be as important now as in times past.  There are even periodic attempts to eliminate the penny as a useless anachronism.  If you dropped a penny circa 1900 it was the equivalent of about five minutes of salary at the then typical "dollar a day" wages.  Today with the minimum wage at $7.25 an hour a penny is what you would earn every five seconds. No wonder people don't bother picking them up.

And of course we are rapidly approaching a cashless economy where physical manifestations of wealth are used less often than a swipe of the plastic or the entry of a few numbers onto a screen. 

So I can't make the devalued coinage of the current American Empire into anything profound. Money is less important than it once was, at least money as the Romans would recognize it.

Whether this is progress or not is debatable.

No comments: