Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy, including X-rays

Since 2014 or 2015 there has been a large project running at Princeton University in the USA called Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy (acronymised to FLAME, rather than the more accurate but less sexy FLAEME). Its aim has been to put the study of the late antique and early medieval economy onto a firmer quantitative footing than has ever before been possible, by reasoning that coinage is the best proxy evidence for it and assembling an absolutely massive database of coin types and finds from all available data, published and where possible unpublished, in order that really large-scale conclusions can be drawn from it. In this respect, the project is either a rival of or a complement to Chris Wickham’s huge book Framing the Early Middle Ages, whose title of course the project is riffing off and which argued that ceramics were the best proxy evidence, though he does observe that it would be fantastic to do a parallel project with coinage.1 Well, this is that project, and it has reached substantial proportions; checking in on their website today tells me that they have 233,816 coins in the database from 2,806 finds, and I think that more are still being added.

Now, wherever a database is made questions arise about methodology, because data generated by actual live humans living their real lives tends not to fit analytical categories perfectly. When I first heard of this project, one of the concerns the people I discussed it with was that, by uncritically dumping every publication they could find into a database unchecked—because how could they possibly check them all, given available time and the difficulty of identifying and recruiting suitable expertise for some of the weird bits?—the project would just multiply errors of attribution and interpretation by completely unknowable amounts, leading to the kind of bad numismatic maths we have decried on this blog before now and doubtless will again. This turned out to be something they were thinking about at Princeton, but nonetheless, the temptation to make a snazzy visual can still outweigh such cautions: the animation above is based on several questionable assumptions, most of all steady output at the mints concerned throughout the possible period of issue of each coinage, averaged down to a yearly output. In short, you’re probably seeing most dots on that map for much longer than they would have been there, and of course a massive number of mints doesn’t mean a massive output of coinage; the Merovingian Franks ran 80+ mints at once at times, and for much of imperial history the Romans only struck at Rome, but it’s no difficulty guessing who was making more coin… But the video does at least illustrate where minting was happening and roughly when and shows what could be done with such data by people who know what they’re doing. And FLAME is or was full of people who do know what they’re doing, so there’s hope.

Now, that is roughly where things stood with my thinking when, in late 2015, while I was winding up my post at the Barber Institute, FLAME got in touch with me to announce that they were having their first project conference in April 2016 and asking if I would like to talk there about the All that Glitters project. I did, I admit, wonder why they had asked me rather than any of the people on our team who actually work on the late antique or early medieval economy; maybe the Barber job looked like seniority to them, in which case it’s ironic that by the time I went I no longer had it. But go I did, and this is my very very late report on the conference.

Princeton University campus

Princeton University campus, from their own website

I had never been to Princeton before, and found it a surreal experience. Everyone was extremely nice, but the campus looks somewhat as if some mythical giant that was into modelling had acquired a lot of Hornby-type buildings from a giant Ancient Universities series and then, having arranged them nicely on its lawn, subsequently moved away, leaving it free for a passing university to occupy. It is weirdly like walking around a curated exhibit that happens to be teaching space. Nonetheless, the conference facilities were top-notch, so I adjusted. This was the running order for the first day:

Coins, Minting and the Economy in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, 29th April 2016

  • Alan M. Stahl, “An Introduction to FLAME”
  • Lee Mordechai, “The FLAME Project: Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy: An Overview”
  • Alan M. Stahl, “A Numismatic Introduction to FLAME”
  • Peter Sarris, “Coinage and Economic Romanitas in the Early Middle Ages (c. 330-720)”
  • Florin Curta, “Remarks on Coins, Forts, and Commercial Exchanges in the 6th- and Early 7th-Century Balkans”
  • Vivien Prigent, “A Dark Age ‘Success Story’: Byzantine Sicily’s Monetary Economy”
  • Marek Jankowiak, “The Invisible Part of the Iceberg: Early Medieval Imitative Coinages”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “The Marriage of Numismatics and X-Rays: Difficulties with the X-ray-fluorescence-based Study of the Early Medieval Mediterranean Economy”
  • Richard Hobbs, “Hoards of Gold and Silver in the Late Roman Empire”

As you can see a lot of this first day was dedicated to explaining the project to an audience not necessarily directly connected with it (including, mirabile dictu, Peter Brown, though he didn’t stay around for my paper…), which involved explaining that it was starting with minting and production (because you can use any coin that can be identified as data for that), and that a second phase (in which they are even now engaged) would deal with circulation, as measured by where the coins actually wound up after leaving their mints. The questions that this raised were about what material, space- and time-wise, was included, but also about what questions the project was intended to answer, and I would have to say that we really only got answers to the former.

Alan Stahl’s paper was basically a summary of coinage history across the period and raised questions of tinier detail, but to all those that were of the form, “why were they doing that?” he raised the factor of user demand, which is indeed something people don’t think about much; lots of stuff was apparently usable as coin we don’t think should have been, but it must be we who are wrong there.

Peter Sarris’s paper stressed how many small ways the Empire had to alter the value of its coinage, whether by changing its weight or by changing the rate at which it could be exchanged for precious metal, for all of which the money-changers charged. Peter could speak of this with authority because of being nearly finished translating Emperor Justinian I’s new laws, which are now out.2 I still wonder how many of the practises described there were occasional preventatives rather than regular operation, but of course I haven’t read the laws yet. Here again, though, came up the theme of change that was and wasn’t acceptable to those who actually used the coinage; it seemed to me hard to reconcile the power attributed to the emperor and state and that attributed to the people, or really, the market, in this vision of Byzantium, and I still have to think that one out.

Florin Curta’s paper also touched on this by thinking that we have evidence of army pay-packets of large-denomination copper coins in military sites in the Balkans, but that smaller-value coins also got up there somehow in smaller numbers, the state and the market meeting here again and creating a different pattern doing so here than anywhere else. Andrei Gândilà suggested that fourth-century Roman small change was still in use in many of these sites so that the dearth of small denominations might not have mattered much, which of course as a factor threatens to unseat any of the deductions that one might try to make only from what was being minted

Vivien Prigent’s paper included his debatable (as in, I’ve debated it) belief that the term mancus refers to low-fineness Sicilian solidi, but also helped explain how those coins, about which I was also talking, as well as the inarguably slipshod small change of the era, came to be by setting them in the context of the short-lived relocation of imperial government to Syracuse in the reign of the justifiably paranoid Emperor Constans II, and the much increased demand for coin in which to make payments that the increased state apparatus there must have involved. Of course, Syracuse was an active mint before and after that, so until you can get quantitative representation into the sample, that wouldn’t show up in the video above.

Obverse of a copper-alloy forty-nummi struck onto a cut section of an old coin at Constantinople in 635/6, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/BYZ/58

Obverse of a copper-alloy forty-nummi struck onto a cut section of an old coin at Constantinople in 635/6, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/BYZ/58

Reverse of a copper-alloy forty-nummi struck onto a cut section of an old coin at Constantinople in 635/6, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/BYZ/58

Reverse of the same coin. It’s not from Syracuse, but it makes the point!

Marek Jankowiak was there to represent the Oxford-based Dirhams for Slaves project, and was consequently talking about apparently-imitative Islamic coins that we get in the region once populated by the so-called Volga Bulgars, which exist either as isolated singletons in huge batches all struck from the same dies; he explained these through the slave trade, which I might doubt, but I had to agree that the best explanation of a find record like that is that local production of coinage had suddenly to be ramped up at very short notice now and then, and maybe the best explanation for that is a bunch of incoming people you have to pay at short notice… Still, slaves might not be the only reason for that. His general emphasis on counting the imitative coins as part of the sample is something I deeply agree with, however; but again, how could a project set up with FLAME’s premises (identifiable mints) do that? By being very vague about origin location, was one answer, but that means that the dots in that video above are sometimes artifical and sometimes historical, and to read it you have to know which…

Then there was me, and of course you know roughly what I was saying, which was, “we tried doing this analysis by XRF and it doesn’t work so don’t believe people who do that”, but I’m afraid the reactions it got were about equally split between “well yes, don’t do that then” (though the relevant person did then offer me use of a cyclotron if I could sort out the insurance…) and “man I gotta try that now”, so I’m not sure it really had the effect I was after!

All of this had been interesting to me but in some ways the last paper, by Richard Hobbs, was the most so, and not least because it showed again how small the difference can be in terms of results between the dedicated lone scholar with a personal project (and, admittedly, the British Museum behind him) and a massive well-funded team effort like FLAME. Hobbs had been assembling a database of Roman precious-metal hoards, coins included, which he was comparing substantially by bullion value, but in the course of doing so had noticed many weird things, such as:

  1. During the third-century crisis, unsurprisingly, there were hoards buried all over the Empire, especially on the frontiers, but during the period 395-411 it’s almost only the coasts of the English Channel that show them.
  2. Only Gaul really hoarded silver plate in the third century, and not many more places thereafter until a generalisation of the habit during the sixth century. Did coinage not work as well in Gaul as everywhere else, or something?
  3. Despite the numerous wars there, fifth-century Italy either didn’t hoard stuff or always recovered it (or we haven’t found it, but that seems unlikely; it’s not as if hoards from other period of Italian history are unknown)….

While a lot of this is down to detector bias, for sure, there is something here about variation of response to crisis (and to wealth!) across regions that we would struggle to see any way, but it’s still quite hard to interpret. One thing is that we are looking at non-recovery, not necessarily hoarding per se; we only have hoards whose owners didn’t come back for them, and that’s important. But still: what does it all mean? That is is often the result that assembling a lot of data gives us, isn’t it?

All of this was therefore good for getting conversations going, but it was made additionally surreal by the fact that one of the attendees, Stefan Heidemann, had been prevented from actually attending by a series of small disasters. Not deterred, he was therefore present by Skype from Germany, but not on the main projection screen as might normally have been done, but on a laptop that was placed where he could see the screen, or on a trolley so that his field of view could be changed between presenters and audience. The latter meant that his window on us had to be rolled about like a trolley, but this more or less worked, and the link somehow stayed up throughout. In the final discussion people were wandering up to Stefan’s wheeled avatar to say hi, and I couldn’t shake the idea that we were looking at the future here somehow, as if the gap between this and an entirely virtual presence of a digital-only academic was just a matter of degree. It made things odder…

Florin Curta delivering his paper at the FLAME Conference

This is Florin Curta presenting, but, if you look carefully, in the centre of the table in front of the screen is a laptop, face towards the screen. If you could somehow see that face, it would be Stefan Heidemann’s…

Anyway, all of this had meant that Stefan, who had been supposed to be speaking on the first day, actually led off the second, whose running order was thus:

FLAME, Phase 1: Minting, 30 April 2016

  • Stefan Heidemann, “The Apex of Late Antiquity—Changing Concepts of Monetarization in the Early Islamic Empire”
  • Lee Mordechai, “The FLAME Project: Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy. Details and Future”
  • Andrei Gândilà, “Legacy of Rome: Money in the Early Byzantine Balkans and Asia Minor”
  • Jane Sancinito, “The Mint at Antioch: Disruptions in the Fifth Century”
  • Luca Zavagno, “Coinage from the Eastern Mediterranean: an insular perspective (ca. 600–ca. 750 C. E.”
  • Tommi Lankila, “Coinage in the South Central Mediterranean in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages”
  • Paolo Tedesco, “The Political Economy of Accomodation and Monetary Circulation: the case of Gothic Italy”
  • Ruth Pliego and Alejandro G. Sinner, “Minting in the Iberian Peninsula 350–725”
  • Merle Eisenberg, “Money as Governance: The Burgundian Revolution of 500 C E.”
  • Jan Van Doren, “Merovingian Gold Coinage in the Low Countries”
  • Rory Naismith, “From Feast to Famine and Back Again: Mints and Money in Britain from Fourth to the Eighth Century”
  • Round Table chaired by Cécile Morrisson

As may be evident, this second day was much more about project participants presenting their data. Stefan, however, was again demonstrating how much a lone scholar could do with his own database, as well as a sharp knowledge of sharia law. He emphasised how devolved jurisdiction over Islamic coin could get: while gold was controlled centrally where possible, silver could be run at provincial level and types and identification of authorities vary there, and we are quite unclear about who issued copper-alloy coinage as sharia doesn’t consider non-precious-metal to really be coin, rather than, I suppose, tokens; imitative production to answer demand thus probably happened rather a lot, as indeed we have seen here with the Arab-Byzantine coinages of Syria and Palestine. Their circulation was very local, however, so for any long-range transaction small change was made by cutting up legitimate coin, to generate the fragments we have so many of from Scandinavian hoards, which were presumably counted by weight. Clearly Stefan could have gone on for longer—I think he was trying to summarise a book here—but even what he was allowed to say left me a lot clearer about the systems behind what I have seen in the material.

Once we got into the actual project members’ papers, however, it becomes easier to be economical in the reporting. Lee Mordechai helpfully emphasised many of the difficulties with the project I’ve raised above, but hoped that the second phase, when findspots and hoards were more fully integrated, would help clean things up a bit. He also emphasised that there was far more data out there than they were using in the form of the trade, whether just harvesting eBay (for which, of course, software once existed…) or trying to gather all auction catalogues (and eliminate duplicates?). So how selective is their data, one might ask?

Andrei, meanwhile, painted us a picture of circulation in the Balkans (despite the project not being onto that yet) that showed a tremendous mixture of coinages from different Roman and Byzantine eras being used together; how were their values calculated? If they were strictly face-value, why change the size of the coins? If they weren’t, why tariff coins against each other as Constantine IV was evidently doing when he issued new large ones?

Copper-alloy 20-nummi of Constantine IV struck at Constantinople in 664-685, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4304

Copper-alloy 20-nummi of Emperor Constantine IV struck at Constantinople in 664-685, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4304; note the small M, apparently indicating that this big 20-nummi coin was equivalent to an old small 40-nummi one like the cut-up bit above

This paper and the discussion after it provoked me to write one of my own I’m giving in China in a couple of weeks, so I’m grateful, but it was a sharply divided discussion. Peter Sarris believed strongly that coin was basically moving by weight, in which case it seems stupid for the Empire to have issued coins of the same face value in larger sizes than previously; but this it repeatedly did. I tend more to believing in face value, seeing the size increase as essentially a PR exercise, which Andrei also suggested, and as others pointed out big and small coins did get used together, whereas if their value was different you’d expect only the big ones to be hoarded, but I admit it’s not unproblematic. Andrei wondered if old coin was treated as being equivalent to the piece of current issue that it weighed most like, and that seems murderously complicated, but it might be possible.3 Jane Sancinito was a Parthian specialist temporarily employed on sorting out the coins in the archive of excavations from Antioch that Princeton happens to have, which is what she told us about.4 Luca did roughly the same job for the Eastern Mediterranean island zone, as you’d expect, but again was able to emphasise how long-lived even the most basic small change could be, with Syracuse issues lasting a century or more in Crete and so on, and the overlap between supposedly conquered zones and still-imperial spaces in the wake of Islam, as has been said here, potentially telling us something quite important, but hard to specify. Paolo Tedesco was trying to link coin use patterns to the question of how ‘barbarian’ soldiers were settled in Italy that has generated so much scholarship, but it turns out that the coin finds don’t help, or at least suggest that very little money moved from the capitals to the south, as if everything there was sorted out locally.5 The two Hispanists summarised Visigothic gold coinage but noted that there was at least some silver and copper coinage too, which is still contentious among Spanish numismatists for some reason; this wasn’t news to me but I expect it was to others.6 Eisenberg was mounting an attempt to link the few Burgundian coins we can identify to known events that might let us date them, but wasn’t helped by the fact that the Burgundian laws refer to several sorts of coin we either haven’t got or can’t identify, and as Helmut Reimitz pointed out, were not even necessarily issued for the kings! The paper did provoke the useful announcement from Cécile Morrisson that all the Bibliothèque Nationale de France’s collection of Merovingian coinage is now online, however, which may be very useful to some people. Van Doren reminded us how much coinage the late antique Low Countries produced, almost all apparently for North Sea trade since it barely turns up in France. Lastly Rory Naismith did much the same exercise for Britain, but this involved calling into question the whole concept of mint as more than the identity carved onto a pair of coin dies, and in most British cases we don’t even have that, so how can these coins be attributed as a project like FLAME would want? The British record is however massively distorted by the huge volume of fourth-to-fifth-century Roman hoards; at a later point in the conference Alan Stahl revealed that they now had that data in FLAME, but its effect was simply to drown out everything that wasn’t British in whatever query one ran, so they’d had to exclude it again! What do you do when your evidence prevents you using your evidence? The round table addressed a lot of these questions, but it would be hard to say that it solved any of them…

Many of the same questions came up again in a final workshop the next day, along with many suggestions for how to get truer or more realistically qualified results out of the database. I think that this probably was useful to the project team, and maybe was the big point of bringing us all there; there as much can’t-do as can-do in their responses, but the discussion as a whole left me much happier than I had been going in that all this data would probably be more useful to have than not, and could answer many questions if flagged and curated with suitable cautions and references. (And indeed, work has continued and many useful things that were talked about at this meeting seem to have happened.) The labour still seemed immense, however, and it is perhaps not surprising that, although at this stage there was talk of publishing this conference, a journal issue, and many other things, in the end I’m not sure that anything has come of it except the still-developing database, which remains on closed access. The project director has moved on and now works on late antique environmental history; none of his publications seem to have come from the project, and I can’t find any signs that others have. Even the site’s blog is now inaccessible in full. One wonders how long the website itself will survive, and then what all this money and time will have been spent on. I suppose the message is: data is great, and could potentially change everything, but while they were right in these discussions to say that this dataset could answer a great many research questions, it may have turned out that having no questions has sadly doomed them to having produced no answers. Maybe this post can be an encouragement to others who do have questions to see if the FLAME database can answer them! But you will have to ask them first!


1. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), p. 702 & n. 16.

2. Peter Sarris (ed.) & David Miller (transl.), The Novels of Justinian: a complete annotated English translation (Cambridge 2018), 2 vols.

3. It was because of this discussion, and the following conversation with me, him and Peter in the bar, that I wrote in my “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (London 2018 for 2017), pp. 514–535, at p. 515 n. 4, that I think Andrei is going to solve this question for us. I was then thinking of Andrei Gândilă, “Heavy Money, Weightier Problems: the Justinianic reform of 538 and its economic consequences” in Revue numismatique Vol. 168 (Paris 2012), pp. 363–402, online here, but now there is also Andrei Gandila [sic], Cultural Encounters on Byzantium’s Northern Frontier, c. AD 500-700: coins, artifacts and history (Cambridge 2018), so I’d better read it and find out if he has!

4. For those of you watching closely, yes, that does mean the only female speaker on the whole programme didn’t get to present on her own work. I didn’t organise, I merely report, but I also note that among the people on the All That Glitters project for whom this would have been closer to their research area than it is to mine, two are women, so more women certainly could have been invited.

5. See for the debate S. J. B. Barnish, “Taxation, Land and Barbarian Settlement in the Western Empire” in Papers of the British School at Rome Vol. 54 (Rome 1986), pp. 170–195.

6. If it is to you, the new data can be met with in Ruth Pliego, “The Circulation of Copper Coins in the Iberian Peninsula during the Visigothic Period: new approaches” in Journal of Archaeological Numismatics Vol. 5/6 (Bruxelles 2015), pp. 125–160 and Miquel de Crusafont, Jaume Benages and Jaume Noguera, “Silver Visigothic Coinage” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 176 (2017 for 2016), pp. 241–260.

7 responses to “Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy, including X-rays

  1. “The British record … the huge volume of fourth-to-fifth-century Roman hoards … effect was simply to drown out everything that wasn’t British in whatever query one ran, so they’d had to exclude it again! ”

    You can get garbage out even when you’ve put non-garbage in.

    “Large project … massive database …”

    To see what can happens when a university department starts chucking data into computers it’s worth looking at the “Climategate” emails that were either leaked or hacked a decade ago from the University of East Anglia.

  2. Merle Eisenberg

    Thanks Jonathan for the summary. Just to note, the FLAME project is still going and is in the process of hiring someone to do database work full time (https://careers.historians.org/jobs/12895117/database-coordinator-framing-the-late-antique-and-early-medieval-economy-flame-project). Employing a full-time person to work on the project should really help to get more of it done.

    • Good news, thankyou! I should probably point some people at that job, in fact… I’d still like to see some output from the project beyond just the ever-accumulating data, but I realise that I can hardly claim to have done better with my last two collaborations!

  3. Pingback: Criticism, scholarship and reviews – an incidental post – Voynich Revisionist

  4. Thanks Jonathan for the write-up. It might be late, but it’s still better than never! We’re very much still operational, our digital tool is largely done at this point, and we’re working with several partners to further increase the amount of coin data we have. The main challenge we’re struggling with is how to overcome the major biases we’ve encountered in the data & data collection, and frankly, how to do the equivalent of ‘peer-review’ with regards to the back-end data processing and visualization that define the results we’re getting on the front end, while of course avoiding misrepresenting our evidence to the broader audiences that we hope will use the app once we open it. We’re hoping that the research specialist we’re currently running a search for would help with that.

    FLAME was designed to develop a research tool that would assist answering questions. At this point I’d be very wary of claiming it could *answer* anything by itself, but at the very least (well at least for me) just playing around with its data and visualization tools has already generated multiple interesting questions that could be further investigated.

    • Thanks for this, Lee; good to hear from you, and about the further progress, but also about that job, news of which I shall pass to a couple of possible people. As for the question/answer thing, the amount of data you have and the excellent tools you have developed to make it usable already enable a whole slew of interesting enquiries. The only problem is that the data isn’t openly accessible yet, so you still don’t have the people with questions meeting the people with the data to answer them…

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