Announcing All That Glitters

Starting work at the Barber Institute in August meant learning to work in and outside of office hours again, and I’m still rebalancing my routine. It has also meant an even longer to-do list, not least since I am also still doing some teaching for History at Birmingham on my spare day. There are long and difficult jobs connected with the electronic catalogue of the coins and the numismatic library, as well as more immediate ones connected with the next exhibition. But it has also meant a bunch of exciting new research projects! In some ways this should have been expected, and indeed I came into the job with one particular problem I wanted to use the coin collection to address, which I’ll tell you about when I’m slightly further along. But in the meantime, we are about to start something quite big and I wanted to announce it. The project name is “All that Glitters: the Byzantine solidus 307-1092″, and it aims to carry out non-destructive scientific testing of the metal composition of the Byzantine gold coinage over that period, up to 300 coins in all depending on results.

A gold solidus of Emperor Anastasius (491-518) struck in Constantinople, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0031

A gold solidus of Emperor Anastasius (491-518) struck in Constantinople, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0031

The reason this has got so ambitious is that word ‘we’, because this is essentially the brainchild of Rebecca Darley, one of the curators of the current coin exhibition at the Barber as you may remember and now part of the Bilderfahrzeuge project based at the Warburg Institute in London. Rebecca is an energising collaborator who does not think small and has thus gathered me, as the man with the coins and the wider medieval background, and Robert Bracey of the British Museum, as a man with an X-ray flourescence spectrometer and experience using it on the money of ancient empires, into a suddenly-active attempt involving Birmingham University’s School of Chemistry and Bruker Industries Ltd., who make XRF machinery among many other things, to deepen the basis of Byzantine monetary history (and with that, it’s probably not too much to say, the monetary history of the early Middle Ages as a whole). Here is our synopsis, with some edits for context:

“The Byzantine Empire, which evolved from the eastern Roman Empire, issued coinage continuously for more than a thousand years. The gold solidus, a coin of 4·5 g and a notional 95-97% purity, was the backbone of this system from the reign of Emperor Constantine I (306-37) to the eleventh century, though it was debased steadily from the tenth century until its replacement in a coinage reform in 1092. Before that time, the reputation of the solidus was near-legendary and it has remained so in scholarship.” In fact, however, we have limited evidence as to the precise purity or composition of the early coinage prior to debasement.
Earlier metallurgical studies of Byzantine gold coinages concentrated mainly on the later period, and used the most sophisticated equipment available in the 1980s and 1990s. Recent developments in X-Ray Flourescence technology, in which Bruker Industries Ltd. have been at the forefront, now make it possible to evaluate non-destructively the composition of metal alloys with far greater sensitivity to a range of trace elements, and the ability to quantify very small changes in the proportions of different metals in an alloy and in detecting and identifying even minute quantities of trace elements. “These newly developed techniques have not, however, been applied to Byzantine gold coinage and the time is therefore ripe for a project which could not only offer new data on the Byzantine monetary economy but also explore the possibilities of XRF testing, and set standards of analysis for other currencies and precious-metal objects.
“The Barber Institute of Fine Arts contains the most important collection of Byzantine coins in Europe and its greatest strength is in the coinage of the sixth to eighth centuries. It is currently unpublished, though cataloguing is in progress, and it has never been subject to any metallurgic analysis. It therefore offers an entirely new source of data for a detailed examination of the gold coinage that underpinned the Byzantine economy. In light of increasing recognition by historians that the numerous crises experienced by the Empire were survived only because of the sophistication and resilience of the imperial monetary and taxation system (Haldon, 1990; Wickham, 2005; Brubaker and Haldon, 2011), this study has immediate relevance not just to the Middle Ages but also to wider questions about the impact of monetary stability on political balance.”

You see that we have plans, and as of last week, we now have permission from the Henry Barber Trust, who own the collections of the Barber Institute, to carry on and do Science! with their coins. At this point we’re still in meetings-and-planning stages but before the end of the year we will in fact be zapping solidi with X-rays and trying to get money from people to do so on a rather larger scale. We should be presenting preliminary results from the first phase of work as early as January. It’s all moving rather fast! Anyway. One of our pledges is to keep the world updated via our various blogs, but I rather thought you might be interested anyway. Now, when those results come in, you’ll have some idea of what they might lead to…

The references above decode as John Haldon, Byzantium in the Seventh Century (Cambridge 1990); Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005); and Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era c. 680-850: a history (Cambridge 2011). To those I should add the essential starting point for the scientific study of Byzantine coinage till now, Cécile Morrisson, C. Brenot, J. N. Barrandon, J. P. Callu, J. Poirier & R. Halleux, L’or monnayé I : Purification et altérations de Rome à Byzance (Paris 1985).

17 responses to “Announcing All That Glitters

  1. Dear Jonathan,

    Using scientific methods to study the complexities of the coinage and the economies which produced them is indeed a great idea. I would advise you to contact Cécile Morrisson directly for advice on pitfalls and wise strategies if you have not already done so: she is very smart and very open, as well as very experienced in these matters.

    You probably already know the study that our group did on Carolingian silver coins using LA-ICP-MS a few years ago (Revue numismatique). I am interested that you are using XRF. Is there some new advance that allows you to measure beyond the surface?

    If it is of any use to you, you should know that at Harvard we are organizing a broader program to foster scientific approaches to humanists’ questions:

    Every good wish,

    Mike McCormick

    • Welcome to the blog, Professor McCormick; that was quick! Thankyou also for the useful suggestions. We are alert to the Science of the Human Past Initiative and indeed I was singing the praises of its roots a while back (or at least, using the MC5 to do so). Rebecca also knows Professor Morrisson from being a Dumbarton Oaks Fellow, and we have already been in contact. As to measuring depth, well, surface enrichment, depletion and homogeneity are certainly all big questions with XRF data, and we’re aiming for methods that elucidate rather than increase them. As you will know, most of the work on these phenomena in coins has looked at silver-copper alloys rather than gold ones, and there’s an experimental component built into one of our to-be-funded sections that will address that directly. I hadn’t yet caught up with your group’s study at the BNF, however, which looks very exciting; thankyou for the reference!

  2. Is there any chance of a by-product being establishing the sources of the gold used?

    • Well, maybe! But only maybe. Bruker’s new machinery is fantastically sensitive, but getting from knowing what is in the coins to knowing where else there is gold like that, or how those elements got into the gold and when, is a whole bunch of extra questions, which, of course, someone should give us a great deal of money to investigate…

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