An awful lot of numismatists in Sicily, I

The progress of this blog continues surreal. I returned from India yesterday, and am nearly three years overdue in writing the next post, about going to Sicily. Nothing loath, here goes, in an attempt to write maybe my shortest ever conference review about one of the largest conferences I ever went to, the Fifteenth International Numismatic Congress, which was held in Taormina, already mentioned, from the 21st to the 25th September 2015. It is too large for one post, in fact, and there is a very obvious break-point in the middle, so this will be part I of II.

Logo of the XVth International Numismatic Congress

Logo of the XVth INC

I travelled to the INC in a sort of party of people one way or another connected to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts and its coin collection, which I’d still been in charge of when I signed up. We arrived the night before, I think, bussed in from Taormina’s delightfully, er, unreformed airport, past those Byzantine graves already mentioned, and stayed in a tiny but charming hostel room for the duration. The papers were split across four different venues in the town, all splendid and close by each other; it was easier and quicker getting between sessions here than at Kalamazoo, for example, than whose campus the whole town might even be smaller, but one had to resist buying tat (or just coffee) between each one in a very definite way. Proceedings began the next morning with a series of welcoming addresses, but I’ve no memory of those and no notes on them, and one was by someone I know, so I think that for one reason or another I didn’t get going until later. The best way to record what I did go to seems to be to list the papers for each day, then make remarks, but that still winds up fairly long. So I shall put it behind a cut, but encourage you to look even if only for the pictures, which are not what you’d expect from the average academic conference.

So, here I go with the 21st.

Mon. R7/ Session 1

  • Paul Beliën, “A New Sixth-Century solidi Hoard from the Netherlands”
  • Daniele Castrizzo, “Le emissioni ‘bizantini’ della zecca di Alessandria: una revisione cronologica”
  • Boyan Totev, Dobri Dobrev, S. Mihaylov & Krystsina Lavysh, “The Hoards of Early Byzantine Coins from the Monastery in Slabnata Kanara”
  • Andrei Gândilá, “Byzantium and Lazica in the Sixth Century: the numismatic evidence”
  • Pavla Gkantios Drapova, “Eastern Mints in the Early Byzantine Period (6th Century Hoard)”
  • Belien’s hoard, from Friesland, was interesting because it contained both actual Byzantine solidi, mainly of Emperor Justinian I (527-565), and a rare full solidus of his contemporary King Theudebert I of the Franks, who is infamous in the work of Justinian’s pet historian Procopius as being the king who put his own name, rather than the emperor’s, on his gold coins; apparently this didn’t stop the coins running together!1 Slavnata Kanara was a monastery near what’s now Odessa, lost from Byzantine control to the Avars in the sixth century; the roughly 2,000 coins found in it in 2014, mostly low denominations, suggest that the actual date was soon after 566, but that the site continued doing something a little longer after what was probably evacuation. Andrei, who is always interesting, reported on an area that is now in Armenia and Georgia inhabited (still) by its own people, the Laz, and his basic story was of long-term payments of precious-metal coinage by both Byzantine and Persian empires, if rather less the latter, which were presumably used to try to secure the area’s loyalty, though it still tended to slip towards whichever was more directly menacing whatever it was paid, and also to hoard both coinages together. Pavla, whose work I had got to know at the Barber, was chasing the various ways in which the Eastern mints of the Byzantine Empire seem not quite to have conformed to central changes in coin types, showing that the control was looser than we’d expect given how close conformity was elsewhere. Discussion bounced around on all topics but included the ideas that Alexandria was a closed economic province within the Byzantine Empire, with small change from other parts not getting in, and that Slavnata’s coins might have been accumulated offerings which had not been possible to change for higher-denomination money. So that was one down, and somewhat challengingly, after lunch, I was up next!

Mon./R7, Session 2

  • Flavia Marani, “Il cosidetto ‘Tesoretto di Sessa aurunca’ i la tesaurizzazione in Italia alla metà del VI secolo”
  • Matteo Campagnolo, “Les poids byzantins à figures impériales des collections du Musée d’art et d’histoire de Genève”
  • Tomislav Šeparović, “Some Notes on Byzantine Coins from the 7th – 9th Century Found in Croatia”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “A Problem of Concavity: the original purpose of the so-called ‘scyphate’ Byzantine coinage”
  • The first paper again showed levels of mixing one wouldn’t necessarily expect: its main component was coins of the Ostrogothic king Baduila (541-552), but its lesser, secondary presence, was Justinian I again, with whom Baduila was at war. The users of these coins apparently didn’t care. Šeparović used the coin finds to plot decreasing and increasing Byzantine interest in dealing with the space that’s now Croatia as its Italian possessions cleared or encountered difficulties; that seems to presume a lot about what coin finds must mean and I might now question it more. As for mine, you can guess what it was saying more or less, and it seemed to go well. Certainly it got most of the discussion and made the resulting publication a good deal more careful, but of that publication a tale must also be told, which I’ll save for a near-future post…2

Mon./R8, Session 3

Having been Byzantine so far this day, that was also how I concluded it session-wise, as follows:

  • Robert Leonardo, “Adronicus Comnenus’s Invasion Money of 1181-82”
  • Katerina Hristovska, “On a Rare Billon Trachy of Theodore II Ducas-Lascaris of Nicaea”
  • Donald A. Squires, “Unpublished Transitional Hyperpea of John II Vatatzes”
  • Julian Baker, “The Height of Denier Tournois Minting in Greece, 1290-1310, According to Archaemetric Data”
  • In the materials of this session I would probably never have been interested but for the ‘Heathrow Hoard’ and, to a lesser extent, my work with Alexander Nagle to catalogue the Barber’s Crusader coins, and the papers here were certainly all about much less common coins than the previous ones had been, Julian Baker’s archaeometry not withstanding. You have already seen here how tricky attribution of the late Byzantine empire’s coins can be, especially from the period where the empire was broken up, and I can’t rehash the speakers’ detailed arguments here. So let’s instead move on to events after the papers, which is where the pictures come in!

For lo, after the end of the papers, firstly there was a cocktail reception, with the terrace of the Palazzo dei Congressi overflowing (or nearly—thankfully no-one actually did go overboard but it seemed a real danger) with hobnobbing numismatists, and then we were promptly hustled off to nothing less than the Greco-Roman theatre (also close by). This is why I didn’t include pictures of that in the previous photo post: all that I have, I got in this flash of evening activity, and it seemed better to present it as a space that was in use. Therefore, witness!

Entryway to the Greco-Roman theatre, Taormina, Sicily

Entry, among a hubbub of numismatic expectation, through the same passageways the original spectators would have used


So in we went, and then we sat for some time…
Evening view from the seating inside the Greco-Roman theatre, Taormina, Sicily

The view from the stands, as people began to take their seats


And once most people were in, a sequence of people were summoned, by means of a public address system competing somewhat unequally with the stiff breeze, to the stage to receive prizes or acclamations for winning bursaries. Again it delighted me how such an obvious space for such things was still in use for them, though it might have done that job better with more its structure intact. Still, you can’t deny that there was space…
Prize-winners from the 15th International Numismatic Congress on the stage of the Greco-Roman theatre, Taormina, Sicily

Prize-winners on the stage


And then there followed what I can only describe as a short cultural experience, in which a really quite good orchestra played us five or six pieces of classical music to soothe us out into the streets again mentally refreshed by the grandeur of the whole spectacle.
Orchestral performance during the 15th International Numismatic Congress, in the Greco-Roman theatre, Taormina, Sicily

The orchestra in action


It didn’t quite have that effect, however, partly because they were hard to hear in the wind, and partly because that wind kept blowing away their music and even knocking over music stands. One of the reasons I could be sure it was a very good orchestra was that I heard no mistakes and even saw no pauses when that happened, and one of the cellists gamely did the last piece and a half with no music at all, but even at best the conductor’s and musicians’ hair and clothes were flapping about like leaves in a storm, and while it was certainly impressive, it was perhaps not so for all the reasons the organisers had hoped. I have a short video of this, but for once it may be a blessing that free WordPress doesn’t allow video embedding…

It seems from my notes that despite plans to make it to at least one of the morning sessions the next day, I didn’t, and I can now only guess why. Perhaps I went hunting smaller theatres instead. My conference experience thus resumed after lunch on the 22nd September, like this.

Tue./R7, Session 7

  • Ruth Pliego Vázquez, “The Pseudo-Imperial Visigoth Coinage”
  • Wolfgang Hahn, “The Sequence of Issues Struck by the Mint of Rome from Emperor Leo III to Pope Hadrian I”
  • Florian Hürlimann, “Die mittelalterlichen Fundmünzen aus Ingelheim”
  • Marcin Wołoszyn & Anna Bochnak, “The Sphinx of Slav Sigillography—Dorogichin Seals in their East European Context”
  • Here the most interesting paper for me was probably Wolfgang Hahn’s, about the point at which, in some sense, Rome finally left the Roman Empire, when its mint finally ceased to strike Byzantine coinage and the popes started to strike their own, at first resembling imperial ones and then, dramatically, resembling the Carolingian ones of the city’s new Frankish protectors. Using the indiction dates that perhaps no-one else would have looked for on these coins, and not without some questionable steps, Hahn was able to put these into a new sequence.3 I’m sure I would have found Ruth Pliego’s paper as interesting, but it was given in Spanish and very fast, and I kept being distracted by the extremely loud English-language presentation happening next door. So the interest here for me was Carolingian, and not least because Florian Hürliman was presenting the whole sequence of coin finds from one of the Carolingian dynasty’s biggest palace sites, Ingelheim, which was indeed pretty various and ran from the 1st century B. C. to the 15th A. D. but mainly missing the early Middle Ages until the Carolingians got going there. Anna Bochnak’s paper was maybe the most enigmatic, though, dealing with a type of lead seal that is found all over Poland and western Russia, in 15,000+ examples so far, but whose function remains obscure; as close as we got here was a suggestion that they might be 12th-century and have replaced wooden ones which we can date more closely. I was glad this wasn’t my problem to solve!

Tue./R8, Session 10

  • Ceren Ünal & Akin Ersoy, “A Lead Seal of Alexios I Comnenus from Agora Sector, Excavations of Smyrna”
  • Marc Bompaire, “Piéforts médiévaux : Reflexions sure l’origine et les fonctions d’un objet monéaire mal connu”
  • Robert Kool, “Money and Coinage at Arsur: rise and demise of a rural township and castle, 11th – 13th centuries”
  • This session was classed as Miscellanea in the program, and it was marred by the fact that neither microphone nor laser pointer worked, placing the speakers at a disadvantage. For me the most interesting one here was the paper on what I think of as the Crusader site of Arsuf, which I mainly know because of the battle there and which I hadn’t really ever thought of as a place in its own right.4 But of course it was, founded as a colony of holy warriors for Islam in 970 (against other Muslims, note), conquered by Crusaders in 1101, lost in 1187 and reconquered in 1191, a possession of the knights of the Hospital of St John after 1261 and lost to Islam for good in 1265, except of course that it’s now in Israel which is why Robert Kool was examining its coins. These were curious: there were no real signs of anything before the Fatimids who founded the settlement, but the biggest stash of their coins was in a post-Crusader context, as if it had been reburied after first being found by the Crusader settlers. The few Byzantine coins here also seemed to have been used by people who by the likely date of use would have been ‘Frankish’, which is apparently typical here; the Hospitallers, in their turn, used the coins of their Ayyubid enemies alongside their own. Coin also came in from parts western, especially Messina in Italy; in general, the coins of the site refuse to allow it to be placed easily within any one political context. This is well known for this area, of course, but the coins show how material culture and identity don’t have to match up in the ways we expect very clearly. It wasn’t just me that focused on this, as the discussion showed; though Marc Bompaire’s paper was also very interesting, but whereas he is right that no-one really knows a lot about the odd weight-coins we call ‘piedforts’, with Crusades-period coinage lots and lots of people have opinions…

So that was the end of the second day, and there was another cocktail reception, but I’m not sure I went as I have no memory of it; I think, instead, I went hunting pizza or seafood, with which the town is very splendidly blessed. Whatever I did it was obviously decorous enough, as I was back on deck the next day in time for most of the first session of the 23rd September, and a drift back to the Romans.

Wed./R6, Session 12

  • Antony Hostein & Jérome Mairat, “Some New Lights on the 3rd c. Crisis in the Propontis: the coins of Parium from Gallus to Gallienus”
  • George Watson, “The System of Coin Production in Roman Asia Minor: new light on an old problem”
  • Dario Calomino, “The Coinage of Diva Paulina in the Roman Provinces”
  • Bartosz Awianowicz, “Peculiarities in the Legends of Syrian Aurei and Denarii from the Flavians to the Severans”
  • Somehow, whether a slow start or confusion over finding my first room in the Palazzo, I missed most of the first paper, but it would probably still have been the second that most impressed me, as I believe it won a prize. I can’t remember if I’ve explained here the odd thing that is what is called Roman Provincial coinage, but the basic deal is that when Rome took over the Greek-speaking cities of Asia Minor and the Levant, in the centuries immediately before Christ, the cities mainly got to carry on making their own small change, each with its own iconography but now usually with the emperor’s bust and title on it, mostly in Greek but sometimes in more local languages. At least that’s the idea, but George Watson told us that at times the same dies were used to strike coins for several cities at once, suggesting that even though these coins don’t usually fit a common weight pattern they were still, somehow, being made centrally across areas bigger than their home cities. This paper was the first time I’d seen him present this work, which I think is still unpublished, but it is telling us something quite big and otherwise almost invisible about how these areas were governed, and I want to know more even though it’s not my period.5 I hope some day to persuade some hapless student to work through the two cabinets of Roman Provincial that we have at Leeds and see if it contributes to this discussion…

Wed./R5, Session 13

  • David Wigg-Wolf, “The Origins of the COM Mint in Late Antiquity”
  • Said Deloum, “Le trésor monétaire inédit de Guernine (Djendel, Algérie) : Étude historique et monétaire”
  • Elena Baldi, “Online Catalogue of the Ostrogothic Coins at the British Museum”
  • John Naylor, “The Use of Gold Coinage in 6th- and 7th-Century Burials in England”
  • David Yoon, “Evolution of Stylistic Patterns in pre-Visigothic Tremisses”
  • I should have paid more attention to David Wigg’s paper, as on the fairly abstruse subject with which it deals, the use of the letters COM on imperial gold coins rather than the more usual CON for Constantinople, I have subsequently come to internalise the work of Michael Hendy and this might be one of the few areas where he was wrong; the coins come from too many mints where the emperors were never present just to be a mint based out of the actual imperial court as Hendy thought.6 Elena Baldi’s paper is perhaps best illustrated by the actual resource she had been creating, which you can find here and is a fair achievement. John Naylor, meanwhile, was talking about something I’ve been interested in for a long time, and could say that in fact we know of 88 instances of gold coins buried with people in early Anglo-Saxon England, more of whom were female than were male but only the women buried with coins that were pierced, as if for wear, or actually mounted as jewellery. It was primarily a custom of the southern and south-eastern seaboards, and very old coins were as likely to be used as recent ones. The cases are highly individualised and probably have to be read case-by-case; there are personal messages buried with these coins, that we may not be able to read (or indeed be the audience those burying the people had in mind).7

Gold solidus of Maurice Tiberius found in Kent, Portable Antiquities Service KENT-EF4810

Can it be that I have written a whole post about numismatics and not pictured one coin? Here to fix that is this battered example, a solidus of Emperor Maurice Tiberius found in an Anglo-Saxon field at Selling in Kent and now in Canterbury Museum, suspended for wear and possibly, though not provably, from a ploughed-up grave, Portable Antiquities Service KENT-EF4810, image licensed under Creative Commons BY SA

So that gets us to lunchtime on the third day, and at that point sessions halted, because there were various expeditions organised as part of the congress, and this was where they all fitted. I had not booked onto any of those, but plans had already been formed for an expedition of our own, and I’ll tell you about that, with photos, in two posts’ time and resume the report with the last two-and-a-half days two posts after that. Never fear: I’m not out of numismatic content yet…


1. Since it is a besetting sin of Byzantine numismatics not to reference such allusions in written sources, I should make sure I do this one: it is Procopius, De Bello Gothico, VII.XXXIII.5–6, which you can find as did I in Procopius, History of the Wars, transl. by H. B. Dewing, Loeb Classical Library 48, 81, 107, 173 & 217 (Cambridge MA 1914-1928), 5 vols, IV p. 439.

2. I can at least cite it, however, and it is Jonathan Jarrett, “Why did the Byzantine Coinage Turn Concave? Old Suggestions and a New One” in Maria Caccamo Caltabiano (ed.), XV International Numismatic Congress Taormina 2015: Proceedings (Roma 2017), Addendum pp. 1–4. It is in that word ‘Addendum’ that the tale is hidden.

3. For those to whom this sounds interesting and can live with the old sequence, see Philip Grierson and Mark Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, I: The Early Middle Ages (5th-10th Centuries) (Cambridge 1986), pp. 259-266 and plates 47-50.

4. I will admit, however, that I know more about it from Andrew McNeil, Knights at War, Usborne Battle Game Books 2 (London 1975, repr. 1983) than I do from anything I actually studied.

5. But wait! Apparently there is George Watson, “Die-Sharing and the ‘Pseudo-Autonomous’ Coinages” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (London 2017), pp. 201-211, which is at least an account of the problem and makes it clear that there is a long but inconclusive literature about it.

6. The Hendy in question here being Michael Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300–1450 (Cambridge 1985), pp. 386-394, which attempts to get round the problem at the end by suggesting that dies might have been sent out from this mint to others.

7. The guide to my thinking on such issues is Howard Williams, Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain (Cambridge 2006).

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2 responses to “An awful lot of numismatists in Sicily, I

  1. Pingback: Site of a Byzantine Last Stand | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  2. Pingback: An awful lot of numismatists in Sicily, II | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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