Numismatics, from Hobby to Science
A series of two lectures, meant to illustrate how the simple amusement of coin collecting shades gradually into an endeavour which has added materially to the sum of human knowledge.
Slides for Lecture 1
One of the most remarkable aspects of numismatics is that the hobbyist can sometimes become an expert in a field in which he has no formal training. A great variety of aspects of human life can be understood from coins and their relatives. A minor example : the rolling mill, which in many ways is the defining tool of our age, was originally invented for use in the minting process!
Who was "Eucratides, the Great King"? If not for his extensive coinage, including some of the largest pieces of classical antiquity, both in gold (this unique 20-stater piece, in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris) and silver, we would have little idea. In fact we know that he ruled principally in what is now Afghanistan, that he seized power (from a king whose name we do not know for certain) in a coup d'etat — we even have solid notions as to the names of his parents.
On the left, the first coin — a Lydian electrum one-third stater (the description is misleading) of Alyattes father of Croesus, or perhaps his father, Sadyattes grandson of Gyges, legendary possessor of the Ring of Invisibility. On the right, a Roman cast bronze aes signatum coin-ingot, 1.7 kg, which classical sources tell us was equivalent in value to the ox figured on it. Today, copper & beef trade at about the same price per pound!
One of the reforms introduced by King Rama IV of Thailand, better known in the West as Mongkut, was a European-style currency of round, flat coins, in place of the pot duang "bullet money" of former times. The specimen on left is clearly an early strike, before the minting machinery (imported from Europe, and parts of it possibly in use to this day) was entirely working as intended. His son, Chulalongkorn, introduced portrait coinage, as seen at right, and the use of the King's portrait continues to this day, with the distinctive bespectacled profile of Rama IX.
Slides for Lecture 2
Modern coins are ordinarily struck on blanks which have been upset, using a top die, a bottom die, and a collar die, so as to obtain a uniform diameter and a high and perfect rim which will shield the faces of the coin from wear, and to prevent the distortions of the devices caused by excessive flow of the metal outward along the diameter. Edge decorations, including striations (reeding), incuse lettering, and relieved lettering, originated as a means to defeat persons who would shave or clip precious metal from the edges of coins, but today are primarily security measures, adding a step to the work of the counterfeiter. Incuse decoration can be added at the upsetting stage, as can relieved decoration if the piece is not to be struck in collar ; reeding is ordinarily applied using a grooved collar, while relieved decoration can be applied using the segmented collar or virole brisee, a technique which leaves distinctive marks on the edge where the segments of the collar meet.
Beginning in the mediaeval period, down to the adoption of striking in collar, it was customary to mark the periphery of the coining die with a ring of beads or "pearls", standing apart from each other, or else with "teeth" or dentils which would fuse together into a sort of rim, so as to indicate where the edge should be, & make it obvious if any metal had been removed. To this day some designs retain these features, although their original purpose is long gone. Beading is distinguished from dentilation in that the latter is joined to the rim, while the former is not ; in a moderate state of wear, the blurring of adjacent raised areas into one another can make this difficult to observe. Modern coins which incorporate either often use very ornate form. Within the rim, a decorative border such as the "Greek key" or "Meander pattern" has occasionally been used since the very earliest period. In the mediaeval period, the central design was often surrounded by an additional inner circle, which has mostly fallen out of fashion but occasionally reappears, usually as a deliberate archaism.
The flat area which ordinarily serves as the base from which the design elements rise is known as the field. In some very sculptural types, there may be little or no actual field. The exergue (from Greek, "outside the work") is, generally, an area at the bottom of the piece, set off from the field by a horizontal line of some kind, often the ground line of some design element. The legend is lettering which appears within and concentric with the rim, while an inscription is text which may appear in horizontal lines across the field, or elsewhere, distinct from the legend.
The authorities which issue coins are, in general, not shy about their identities! To the contrary, many design elements exist principally to assure the proper attribution. Coins issued by a monarchy most often bear a portrait of the monarch, while those issued by republics may bear a portrait of an important historical figure, or an allegory representing the country itself or some fundamental concept. Ordinarily this is in the form of a human female (reflecting the fact that, in the Latin tongue, abstract concepts and names of countries alike usually adopt the feminine grammatical gender), and may be represented as a bust or a seated or less often a standing figure, often accompanied by various heraldic or symblolical attributes. In the United States, the characteristic type is an allegory of Liberty, although certain historical personages have taken that role beginning in the early 20th Century. A coat of arms or other heraldic device is often applied, to represent the country or its ruler. A different category of design element identifies the actual maker of the coin, such as mint marks or (on Roman pieces) officina marks in the form of letters or symbols to identify the place of production, and initials or symbols known as privy marks to identify the officials supervising the production process, along with a date ; in the past, these were generally intended to assure that coins defective in their specifications (especially precious metal content) could be traced back to their origins. The signature of the designer or engraver, or initials, or a monogram, often accompanied by a Latin abbreviation such as "F" (made it) or "G" (engraved it) is often also incorporated.
23/30 January 2016 (Saturdays), 6 PM