Sorry about the lateness of this post; I write between two family gatherings that have taken up quite a lot of writing time. But here is a post even so! We’ve come so far with the whole world situation that people are contemplating having real in-person conferences again, but this post is still a story of the distant past for now, and specifically of 18th November 2017, when I was down in Birmingham and indeed my old place of employ, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, to listen to a conference about the collection I briefly managed, entitled ‘The Barber Coin Collection Colloquium Day: Past, Present and Future Research’. I didn’t speak at this myself, being somewhat embroiled with other work just then, but I learnt a few things by going. These were the speakers:
- Margaret Mullett, “The Legacy of Anthony Bryer”
- Rebecca Darley, “Sri Lankan Coins in the Barber Collection”
- Maria Vrij, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mezezios?”
- Wei-Sheng Lin, “Armenian Cilician Coinage”
- K. MacDonald, “African Gold Sources for Byzantine Carthaginian Coins”
- Anika Asp, “Numismatic Sources for the Empire of Trebizond”
- Alex Feldman, “Coinage and Commonwealth, 9th-11th Centuries: local dynasties and mints in the ‘Ummā and Oikoumene”
- Joseph Parsonage, “Coins and Co-Emperors – Crowned Regents in Byzantium”
- Michael Burling, “Sasanian Numismatic Imagery and its Influence”
Now, of these, Wei, Alex, Joseph and Mike were at that stage various levels of postgraduate at Birmingham and were not primarily working on coins for their theses, and had really been introduced to them either by me or Maria as Curators, so they were presenting partly for practice and partly out of goodwill, and for that reason I shan’t discuss their papers in any detail. Professor Mullett’s presentation, in turn, was largely a biographical sketch of a man who had been involved in the negotiations that led to many of the collection items being in the Barber at all, and you can read about him in more detail yourselves if you like. So that leaves Rebecca, Maria and Dr MacDonald, all of whom had things to say which are still probably interesting if you’re interested in such things!
Rebecca’s paper was an analysis of the sale history of five late-Roman-or-Byzantine coins which, according to a note lurking in the Barber’s archives, had been found in Sri Lanka. This seemed, on the face of it, dubious. Now, not many people have a better idea of what imperial numismatic material is found in Sri Lanka, and as we’ve seen Rebecca also knows a thing or two about numismatic collectors. A false hope was realised by the possible connection of two of the coins to one Leslie de Saram, a man famous in Lankan archaeology but who nonetheless acquired pretty much all his coins on the London market; but the coin above, as well as one of Maurice, she thought could possibly be Sri Lankan finds given everything recorded about them in the Barber (not much) and the wider finds patterns, though even there the Maurice coin would fill a gap rather than having parallels.1 It makes me suddenly think that if our failed attempts to get through the surface dirt on these coins with an X-ray had in fact been directed at analysing the dirt, maybe we’d have been able to settle this question! But as it is, it is still a matter of possibility whether the Barber does in fact hold coins that went all that way out of the Empire and then had another Empire bring them back again and out the other side…2
Since we’re now talking about metals analysis, it probably makes sense to discuss Dr MacDonald’s paper next. This was coming out of a project that was trying, effectively, to work out when and if trade across the Sahara Desert can be archaeologically documented before the Islamic era. Part of this work had involved trying to work out if sub-Saharan gold had reached the north of Africa before that time, and one way to determine this was to test coinage issued in Byzantine Carthage, of which of course the Barber has a bit (and we tested some). The thing here is that Byzantine coins from Carthage took on an increasingly thick, globular aspect over the sixth century, as you can sort of see above, and it has been suggested that this is because the blanks were coming in as lumps from the Essouk goldfields, way way south, because such lumps have been found as production debris there.3 Somehow I didn’t write down what methods Dr MacDonald was using to test his coins, but the methods must have been better than ours as he was finding distinct differences between the normal, flat solidi previously minted by Carthage and the globular ones which did not themselves prove, but were consistent with, the idea of them being on Essouk blanks, and what the difference largely was was that the globular coins were made out of unrefined gold. I would have to say that this didn’t fit with what we’d found when we’d tested one, but then as we know our methods were not very good. This is why I (still) want to know more about his…
Lastly, here if not on the day, Maria’s paper covered a very rare coin of which the Barber has one, apparently struck by a very short-lived usurper—I suppose if he’d been long-lived we’d just call him an emperor—by the name of Mezezios, who rose up in Sicily in 668 after the murder of Emperor Constans II. His coinage was first identified in 1979, but has been disputed ever since, and while Maria did not claim to have solved the problem herself, she did, by explaining the arguments for and against, make it seem much more likely that such a thing would have existed, and therefore that since there are several known from different contexts, they’re probably that thing. The argument really hinges on the fact that, iconographically, the coins appear to imitate those of Emperor Justinian I, from a century before, rather than anyone more recent, and while this has a been a mark against the theory for some people Maria thought, quite reasonably I reckon, that if you’re usurping the throne from a dynasty you don’t borrow their iconography, but go back to before their problem ever arose. Certainly this happens with those who finally did, temporarily, replace that dynasty by overthrowing Justinian II and reversed his numismatic innovations, so I don’t have a problem with it thirty years before either!4
All things considered, this was a good thing to have been part of. It did what I think Maria had hoped, by demonstrating that having a good collection in a university can actually be a generator of research and that that research, even on tiny things like coins, can open up bigger findings. It is necessary to remind people of this, every now and then, and while I’m not sure the people who most needed to know it were there, at least by writing it up, even this late on, I can help to remind a few more people of this significant truth!
1. That Maurice coin is Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B1767, visible here.
2. Rebecca now has a version of this story in print, and indeed online, as Rebecca Darley, “‘Implicit Cosmopolitanism’ and the Commercial Role of Ancient Lanka’ in Zoltán Biedermann and Alan Strathern (edd.), Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History (London 2017), online here, pp. 44–65 at pp. 51-56.
3. Dr MacDonald cited what had then just emerged as David W. Phillipson, “Trans-Saharan Gold Trade and Byzantine Coinage” in Antiquaries Journal Vol. 97 (London 2017), pp. 145–169, online here.
4. My bit of that is due soon to emerge as part of Jonathan Jarrett, “Coinage in the Western World at the End of the Roman Empire and After: Tradition, Imitation and Innovation” in Journal of Ancient Civilizations Vol. 36 (forthcoming). You will hear here when that happens!