Category Archives: Now working on…

All That Glitters, Phase 4

The times continue strange in UK higher education, as you may have seen. Many of us are on strike for what is now the third week, more of us than ever now, and the employers’ representatives appear to be refusing to negotiate in person and then changing their mind by Twitter overnight. I don’t know what may happen in the next 48 hours and of course in case classes happen, they all have got to be got ready on the few days when we’re not on strike, in case something is resolved that means we go back to work. But, what this does mean is that my conscience is pretty clear about blogging. Having taken my first steps down a new road in the previous post, it thus behoves me to look around myself and say, ‘What was I doing in July to September 2015 that I haven’t already told you about?’, and the answer to that is not limited to but certainly includes, ‘zapping gold coins with X-rays some more’. So this is about our fourth set of tests.

Jonathan Jarrett and a gold solidus with XRF machinery in the Department of Chemistry, University of Birmingham

Posed, obviously; I may look intrepid, but you have no idea how tightly I was holding that coin. It rolling under the machine would have spoiled several people’s day quite badly…

If you remember, where we were with this is that having got money to evaluate techniques by which we might be able to use X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to measure the metal content of Byantine coins, with an especial eye on trace elements that might betray metal sources, we had fairly quickly established that the kind of portable machinery which we could bring to the coins in their museum wouldn’t tell us what we needed to know. So the working set-up for these experiments was now that, after having checked our insurance quite carefully, as soon as I could get into the Barber’s coin room of a morning I would remove from it about 100 g of high-purity gold in the form of 20-odd Byzantine and other coins, then University security would turn up (in theory) and transport me to the School of Chemistry (in theory). We would then do as much zapping as could be done, with at least two people present where the coins were at all times, before Security turned up again (in theory) in time to get me and the coins back into the Barber before it closed. And this time we did this for four days running. I won’t tell you how many ways this process could go wrong, but I haven’t flagged them all. But Chemistry were lovely and very generous both with expertise and with biscuits, and though we never had quite the same team there two days together it was all quite a good group exercise anyway. So, what were we doing this time and how did it go? The answer is a long one, so I’ll put it behind a cut, but do read on! Continue reading

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All That Glitters, Experiment 3

A problem with finally picking up this blog a bit is that some of the old stories in it have been sitting idle for really quite some time. Does anyone remember, for example, that while I was working at the Barber Institute we got a small amount of money to zap gold coins with x-rays? If you do, you may remember that I’d already reported on the first two experiments we did in that project when everything here ground to a halt in 2016. Well, now I resume, with a brief account of the third experiment we did, and before long who knows, we may be through the rest!

Bruker S8 TIGER XRF analyser open for business

The S8TIGER WD-XRF spectrometer in the Department of Chemistry, University of Birmingham, with five sample cups waiting and one under analysis

A brief recap may be in order first of all, though. The very short version of the project’s purpose was: we had all seen an increasing amount of work using X-ray fluorescence spectrometry to analyse the fineness of precious-metal coins and sometimes even assign origins to its metal based on the trace elements therein. We had our doubts about this, but the manufacturers of some of the best machinery involved wanted to quell our doubts about this and offered us quite a lot of help with it, so we came up with a plan and, somewhat to our surprise, got both permission from the Henry Barber Trust to muck around with their coins and funding from the Royal Numismatic Society to do it, and so set about it. We began this in December 2014, with two experiments. The first was designed to test the viability of hand-held, portable, energy-dispersive machinery that could be brought to the coins; the second did comparator analyses using a fixed-location wavelength-dispersive spectrometer to which we had to bring the coins. This showed us that to detect anything at all of trace elements we would need the big machine, but also that it was picking up a whole load of stuff that seemed very likely to be extraneous material on the surface of the coins, probably from the soil in which they had long ago been found, rather than the stuff of which they were actually made. And that is about where we come in!

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini struck at Constantinople 785-797, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4599

The coin whose results (and details) are given in the first table below, set up for the test in which it did so

So, the third experiment was very simple. Using the same set of coins as we had previously run, I got hold of some conservation-quality acetone and a toothbrush, took them and the coins down to a workroom in the depths of the Barber and gave them all a careful but thorough scrubbing and let them dry, all except one that we left uncleaned as a check. Then I packed them up again and we bore them off to the Department of Chemistry on 22nd July 2015. There we ran them again, on the shorter of the big machine’s two cycles, and this gave us some results both before and after cleaning.

Unfortunately, if anything, the post-cleaning results showed more extraneous grot. That ‘if anything’ will tell you, though, that consistency was hard to observe. The variation wasn’t vast amounts, you understand, between half and one-and-a-half per cent, but cumulatively certainly enough to push our figures for the actual gold content up or down by two or three per cent, which would for some people be enough on which to found a theory about debasement… Here are the top ten elemental results from just one side of one coin by way of example:

Coin 170 (obverse)1 Percentage observed first time Percentage observed second time
Gold 86.51% 84.49%
Silicon 3.44% 4.63%
Silver 1.61% 1.43%
Aluminium 1.27% 1.19%
Potassium 0.80% 0.63%
Sodium 0.74%
Copper 0.44% 0.34%
Calcium 0.32% 1.96%
Sulphur 0.28% 0.48%
Iron 0.27% 0.50%
Total percentage of coin observed 96.38% 96.70%

Down by two per cent gold, and that mostly gone to silicon and calcium, even though some other small elements had dropped in the readings as well. Also, what this arrangement doesn’t show, the second time small but possible readings showed up for chlorine, magnesium and, way down the scale, platinum, all absent the first time through. Surely cleaning with acetone couldn’t have added calcium to the coin? But each coin we ran had its own little tale of additional mess to tell, even (and this should have told us something) the uncleaned check. Here are its top-ten figures for the obverse:

Coin 21 (obverse)2 Percentage observed first time Percentage observed second time
Gold 82.57% 87.43%
Silicon 1.82% 1.61%
Aluminium 1.01% 0.81%
Silver 0.74% 1.10%
Sodium 0.65%
Potassium 0.47%
Chlorine 0.45%
Calcium 0.44% 1.78%
Iron 0.31% 0.31%
Copper 0.24% 0.26%
Total percentage of coin observed 89.12% 93.80%

Some things are beguilingly similar, yes—iron and copper levels stay about the same—but others are not. The first test picked up sodium, potassium and chlorine but none of those turned up second time even though we’d actually got better readings with more of the sample observed (possibly because we gave it a flatter bit to look at). Were we just looking at a different bit? If so, that bit apparently had less silicon in it, but a whole whack more calcium in it. What can you do with these sorts of data?

Gold solidus of Emperor Anastasius I struck at Constantinople 491-518, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0006, in an WD-XRF sample cup

The uncleaned check likewise set up for the results above, though I have to say it’s not like it looks dirty

So this was somewhat daunting, especially as we had four solid days of testing booked in for the following week and now somewhat less certainty that it would produce anything. At the time, my best guess was that the acetone had removed only handling patina, thus exposing the actual surface of the coin and everything that had adhered to or reacted into it while it was in the ground. Actually, looking back, I think we were already seeing here the conclusion that the final experiment would necessarily lead us to. But that would be getting ahead of the story, and even though this story is so very far behind, I have hopes of telling it as I wanted to anyway. So, till next post but, er, two, if I have my plans right (and no-one else dies—did you see Mark E. Smith has left us for the bar of the great and final WMC since the last post?), I shall leave the question hanging…


1. We used randomly-allocated running numbers throughout these experiments, so that we couldn’t try and guess what the results should be according to where the coins fitted in Byzantine history (or the previous curves laid down by work like Cécile Morrisson, Jean-Nöel Barrandon and Jean Poirier, “La monnaie d’or byzantine à Constantinople : purification et modes d’altérations (491-1354)” in Morrisson, Claude Brenot, Barrandon, Poirier and Robert Halleux (edd.), L’or monnayé I : purification et altérations de Rome à Byzance, Cahiers Ernest Babelon 2 (Paris: C. N. R. S. 1985), pp. 113–187. This one was actually Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4599, a solidus of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini struck at Constantinople between 785 and 797, online here. I’m actually almost loath to identify the coins here, though, lest it be thought I’m actually publishing figures for their metal content. As is probably clear, though, that’s something I’m sure we weren’t reliably getting.

2. And this one was Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0006, a solidus of Emperor Anastasius I struck at Constantinople between 491 and 518, online here, with the same reservations as in the previous note.

Leeds IMC Report for 2015, part 4 and final

The last of these posts, though not the last of the 2015 conference reporting I fear, sees me up bright and early on the 9th July 2015. Why? Well, partly so as not to miss breakfast but also because as you may recall, the previous day had almost all been sessions in honour of Ian Wood to mark his retirement. In fact those sessions continued all the rest of the conference, but for reasons that will shortly become clear, I could only go to the first one, and that meant going to hear one of my undergraduate teachers for whom I long ago developed a practice of being good and prompt. What am I talking about? Witness!

1514. The Early Medieval Church: history and hagiography – sessions in honour of Ian Wood, V

  • Rosamond McKitterick, “Reflections on the Manuscript Transmission of Eusebius-Rufinus, Historia ecclesiastica in the Early Middle Ages”
  • Barbara Rosenwein, “Feeling Saints in Gregory of Tours”
  • Wendy Davies, “Unpicking the Early Strands of Becerro Gallicano of San Millán de Cogolla: the monasteries of old Castile”
  • Thomas F. X. Noble, “Response”
  • As a line-up of people whose work has influenced me this is hard to beat. Rosamond, furthermore, opened all our eyes, I think, by picking up on something that I at least knew but knew very little about, that Eusebius’s famous History of the Church, written in Greek around 312-24, was largely known to the West only in the form of the Latin translation of Rufinus, who made it in 401, he says as a distraction from the depradations of the Goths! Rosamond pointed out that he did not leave Eusebius’s text alone, but combined much of the last two books and added two more of his own, and this involved inserting the Nicene Creed, no less, where Eusebius’s report of the Council of Nicæa had only had the council canons. And this was basically the West’s most stable source for the Creed that is the centrepost of Christian worship. Rosamond had counted ten versions in circulation by the Carolingian era, but Rufinus’s was the most common. You can see why some people felt like a reform was needed, can’t you? Professor Rosenwein, meanwhile, reminded us that despite technically being in Heaven and above such concerns, saints as conceived in the Middle Ages still got angry and upset, lamenting and so forth, in much the ways that their followers on Earth did but for better reasons and with better outcomes; they were to an extent emotional guides for the faithful on how to use one’s feelings for the good. This paper was hampered somewhat by relying solely on Gregory, who may well have had his own emotional spectrum (I would centre it on crotchety entitlement, myself), and in questions Albrecht Diem mischeviously raised the prospect that Gregory had two or more different ideals of sanctity in which case, as Professor Rosenwein said in answer, all generalisation would become impossible. Lastly Wendy, taking advantage of the brand new digital version of the Aragonese monastery of San Millán’s oldest surviving cartulary, had dug into it to detect an initial compilation of geographically-focused dossiers, of which one, but only one, went much back before 1000, that dealing with one valley whose materials were, unlike the rest, not in standard diplomatic form; she characterised this as the diplomatic of breakdown, when the practice of charter-writing continued but no authority was left to require how. This is quite powerful as a tool for me and I need to go and look at those charters, not least because I have observed the same myself at Leire and Obarra without thinking about what it meant.1

Sam Ottewill-Soulsby, none other, closed that session by remarking that the frontier had its own characteristics that were worth seeing from a frontier perspective; little did he know how much of a choir he was speaking to… You see, the reason I couldn’t come to any more of the sessions for Ian Wood, be they never so luminaried, was that my own sessions got going after coffee this day. They were but two, and I could have wished they weren’t so late in the conference since the audience dropped with each one as people went home, but they were still fun and they went like this.

1630. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, I: beyond the Reconquista

  • Álvaro Carvajal Castro, “A Kingdom with no Frontier: on the political identity of the Astur-Leonese monarchy, 9th-11th centuries”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “De administrandis marcis: the 10th-century frontier with Islam seen from Barcelona and Byantium”
  • Rodrigo García-Velasco, “Place, Fringe, Society or Process? Rulers and Ruled at the Iberian Frontier through the evidence of the fueros and cartas de población, c. 1050-1150″
  • Remains of the church of San Benito de Sahagún, on the site of the earlier monastery

    Remains of the church of San Benito de Sahagún, on the site of the earlier monastery. Photo by Davidh820Trabajo propio, CC BY-SA 3.0 es, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21717489


    All three of us entered this session with historiographical beasts to slay, I think. For Álvaro it was the frontier itself: he focused on the Tierra de Campos around the monastery of Sahagún and noted that after it was notionally fully incorporated into the kingdom of Asturias at the end of the ninth century, with royal donations indicating a considerable scale of property in the general area, the kings could still effectively lose control to local strongmen after a while, and the monastery had first to become the kings’ chosen strongman and then, after a further while, to give up on the kings and focus on the counts of Castile for support. This was less a frontier zone than just an ineffectively-governed one (though I might still argue for that as a frontier space, like mountains2). This theme that frontier politics were maybe just like politics elsewhere came up a lot in discussion, and it was fellow contributor Nicholas Paul who drew us back on track by reminding us that what made it different was the possibility of and for warfare, and Rob Portass had already raised this possibility by reminding us that Sahagún suffered sacking by the armies of al-Mansur in the late tenth century, enough as we know to detach many an area from its notional protectors!
    Rodrigo’s chosen beast, which has withstood a lot of slaying so far, was the Reconquista. Despite doing the particularly difficult thing of giving a first paper before one’s old supervisor (I taught Rodrigo in Oxford, which was why I had gathered him into this effort), he made an eloquent and even impassioned attempt to use the five-hundred-plus local law codes known as fueros to argue for a fragmented, discontinuous and locally-negotiated process of incorporation of new territories into the Navarrese and Aragonese crowns, a process which military presence and the award of these codes only began, rather than concluding. The results remained at the mercy of local strongmen and contrary offers (meaning, for example, that Tudela, Rodrigo’s particular focus, actually switched from Aragón to Navarre after a while) for a long time after the supposed frontier had moved beyond them. This of course meant that the very processes that Rodrigo here thought defined the frontier were those which Álvaro had used to refute such a definition for Sahagún, so it is perhaps no wonder that the discussion was agnostic about whether we were really looking at a distinct phenomenon, but trying to put some definitional flesh on the skeletal concept of ‘frontier’ was what we were all doing there so that was OK by me.
    Archivo Municipal de Tudela, Pergamins A.0002.3

    One manuscript of the fuero of Tudela, Archivo Municipal de Tudela, Pergamins A.0002.3 I think, due to be published by Rodrigo García-Velasco whose image this is


    Speaking of me, I was of course the middle one here, and my beast was incomparability. Despite the apparent incongruities of culture, size, resource and agency I was determined to put my year of necessary Byzantinism to use here, which was where all the digging into Constantine VII‘s De Administrando Imperii had come from. Looking at Constantine VII and Borrell II of Barcelona, of course, who just about overlapped but who in the former case were writing of an earlier time, I gave due attention to the disparities but then argued that both leaders seemed to realise that their best strategy for asserting themselves beyond the borders of what they securely controlled was to locate and enlist a subordinate in whom they could really trust and then let them have their head. Borrell laid more conditions down on some of his chosen subordinates (some of whom, like those of the kings of Asturias, were monasteries) and arguably got less out of them, but the attraction and retention of somebody who could actually achieve things for you was apparently worth the price of their working for themselves. This is the kind of ‘rule’ I want this frontiers project to derive and test; how well has this worked when people have done it and are there context-specific factors that explain that? And so on. This was by way of a first try at what I want this project to be.
    Castell de Llordà, Isona, Catalunya

    The current state of the Castell de Llordà (image from Viquipèdia), populated for Borrell II by a monastic subsidiary

But, necessarily, such a project cannot be all about the Iberian Peninsula even if that’s where my personal networks are strongest. So there was lunch, and various people fading away and finally, the determined hold-out cohort reconvened for the last session of both conference and strand, as follows.

1730. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, II: Eastern Europe and Eastern Mediterranean

  • Jakub Kabala, “Concepts of the Border in Early Medieval Central Europe”
  • Luca Zavagno, “Islands – Not the Last Frontier: Insular Models in the Early Medieval Byzantine Mediterranean, ca. 650-ca. 850
  • Nicholas Paul, “The Lord’s Tournament Ground: the performance of nobility in Crusader Outremer”
  • I was sorry about the small audience for this session, not just because I’d invited these people to speak from far away in all cases and could in the end offer them only a few hearers, but also because there were three quite different and testing conceptions of frontier space in operation, the discussion such as it was was very thought-provoking and I just wish there could have been more people in it. Kuba was dealing with early medieval ecclesiastical language for borders, which, unsurprisingly, was Biblical, coming from Exodus and Proverbs. While these were usually interpreted in commentaries as describing the boundaries of correct belief, beyond which only heretics would go, Kuba had many examples of churchmen invoking them to complain of more basically territorial infractions, Carolingian clerics writing of Brittany and Thuringia, Methodius of Bavarian infiltration of the province of Moravia, and so on. Clearly the Church had a sense of bounded space here, even if a Biblically-phrased one. Predictably, I therefore asked in questions how that space was bounded, given that it didn’t need to be politically controlled or defended and frequently wasn’t, and Kuba wisely said that the key question was who ordained its clerics.

    Fresco illustration from San Clemente di Roma, showing the apostles of the Slavs, Saints Cyril and Methodius, before the pope

    Fresco illustration from San Clemente di Roma, showing the apostles of the Slavs, Saints Cyril and Methodius, before the pope. By anonymous artistUnknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2303590


    This got me thinking. It is that nodal concept of territory with which early medievalists now like to play instead of lines on a map, and it could be represented almost fractally, as each individual cleric answering or not answering the claimant authority himself had a congregation composed of villages or even households who might go to him but might instead go to the priest next-door. In some sense, at this lowest level, if you could go back there and ask people which fields and streams were in which farm and so on you could build a map up from these tiny tiles, as indeed people did for the term of Santa Maria de Manresa in 978 in a way that Jordi Bolòs hs since mapped (my example not Kuba’s obviously), but it would be sort of missing the point: the resource demarcated by such lines was the hearts and minds of those behind them, not the stuff up to the edge.3 If such a person crossed that line to go and visit someone, and then died, would the priest he ordinarily confessed to still get to claim him for burial? Somehow these questions did not come to me at the time, and I don’t know if they could be answered, but I think I will probably be asking them of Kuba when next we meet…4
    The Byzantine-built castle of Saint Hilarion, Girne, Northern Cyprus

    The Byzantine-built castle of Saint Hilarion, Girne, Northern Cyprus. By Richard – originally posted to Flickr as Saint Hilarion Castle, Girne, Northern Cyprus, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7030408


    Luca, meanwhile, had and has a manifesto. A decent part of the Byzantine Empire was made up of large islands: if you count Sicily, Cyprus, Crete, Malta and the Balearics together you are looking at quite a lot of land-mass, yet they are almost always considered peripheral to the mainland’s interests, Sicily sometimes excepted. Luca argued instead that these are a third sort of space to range between the plains of the landward empire and the mess of islands that is the Ægean, places to which the sea is very important but which can function autonomously. They are also more than fortresses and defences, often being trade hubs and even—and this is the bit that catches me particularly—becoming sort of betweennesses once technically lost to the empire, with connections still visible in the form of ceramics, seals and coins after their conquest by or loss to opposing or local powers. Cyprus, indeed, was subject to something like a formal power-sharing agreement between the Empire and the Caliphate during the seventh century, and it’s persistently difficult to say whether it was really in the Empire or not thereafter; its officials used Byzantine titles and honours, but we’ve seen how that can work… Much of what seems problematic here stops being so if we start to see Luca’s islands as frontiers in the Islamic sense, as thughr, that is as passages from one space to another rather than barriers between them, and maybe that’s where we take it next.
    Manuscript illumination of Richard the Lionheart jousting with Saladin

    Manuscript illumination of Richard the Lionheart jousting with Saladin (N. B. this never actually happened)


    Similar reflections on a between-space came finally from Professor Paul, who pitched us a picture of Crusader Outremer as its visitors seem to have seen it by the twelfth century, not as a warzone but really more as a holiday camp where you came from the West to get your chivalry good and bronzed. An analysis of chronicles and literature both was behind this, from which emerged a picture of the lords of the Crusader kingdoms as the ultimate hosts and arbiters of chivalric conduct, rich and homed in exotic spaces where, yes, you might go fight Muslims but you might equally fight each other or hey, go hunting lions with trained cheetahs and go back home with a whole cluster of prestige stories whose attainment, rather than expanding Christendom, was really the point in going.6 Presumably not very many Crusaders’ journey was really like this but it was the story people wanted told, and for the audience raised questions about whether anyone saw this as the frontier of Christianity that we now see in it. Professor Paul’s answer was that the frontier became less visible the closer to it you got, and he linked this back to Kuba’s mission grounds with, I now suppose, that same sense of the reductive optic by which you could keep going down a level and define the boundary slightly differently each time you zoomed in. Of course, in Crusader Jerusalem there would be about five cross-cutting ways in which you could define it, which was exactly why I had been so keen to get a Crusader specialist in on this whole thing. Professor Paul did not disappoint.

So that was the end, and accordingly those of us still left went with one accord to the bar, and I can’t remember what eventually made us leave it but we must have done, because I have stuff to report from elsewhere on the next day as well. But to that, we will come next post! [Edit: I forgot the ending… !] Finally, to end with, proof that I will go on needing more shelves and more reading time as long as I keep going to this conference…

Books bought at the 2015 International Medieval Congress, Leeds

The book haul from 2015, assembled shortly after my return to Birmingham


1. In Jonathan Jarrett, “Comparing the Earliest Documentary Culture in Carolingian Catalonia” in idem & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 89-128, DOI: 10.1484/M.IMR-EB.1.101679.

2. I’m thinking here mainly of Chris Wickham, The Mountains and the City: the Tuscan Appennines in the early middle ages (Oxford 1988), esp. pp. 357-365.

3. The Bull is printed in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 1245, and how long it seems since I’ve cited that work! I must have been teaching… The mapping is done in Jordi Bolòs & Victor Hurtado, Atles dels comtat de Manresa (798-993) (Barcelona 2004), p. 53.

4. The question about burial rights mainly occurs to me because they were significant in the demarcation of early English parishes: see John Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005), pp. 433-471 with particular disputes at pp. 450 & 463.

When is a hoard not a hoard?

In the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in the University of Birmingham there is a black box, about as big as the ones A4 printer paper come in, which contains 275 coins. Almost all of them are copper-alloy of some description and they are collectively known as either the Balkans Hoard or the Heathrow Hoard. I was faced with this even before I began work there as Interim Curator of Coins, because they used it as an interview test, and they will never know how I only had the faintest idea what any of it was because of frantic reading of Philip Grierson the week before.1 (Never.) One of my assigned responsibilities while in that job was to produce a report on this box, which I duly did in February 2016, by which stage I also had a master’s student working on it for her dissertation and plans actually to publish it with her. Somehow, by the end of my tenure in post those plans had not much advanced, and so in October 2015 as I gathered my various responsibilities up in the new job I decided that this project was still among them, and stubbed this post to tell you about it. As it happens, a few days ago I signed off the first part of the project, a skeleton formal catalogue, and so it’s all very timely how these things (slowly) come around.

A copper-alloy follis of Emperor Anastasius I, struck at Antioch in 498-518, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0151

A copper-alloy follis of Emperor Anastasius I, struck at Antioch in 498-518, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0151. This isn’t one of the coins in the box; I don’t seem to have a picture of any of the folles therein, but it’s not unlike them except by being from Antioch; there’re only a couple of Antioch coins in there, and they’re both of Justinian I.

I noticed even at the interview that this supposed hoard was not one, at least as the word is usually understood. The most obviously identifiable components were big early folles of Emperors Anastasius I (491-518), Justin I (518-527), Justinian I (527-565) and Justin II (565-574), but on the other hand a goodly part of what was in the box was concave billon, and so late-eleventh-century or later. The implied 500-year span pretty much precludes this being a single assemblage; while certainly folles circulated for a very long time, it’s not half a millennium by anyone’s reckoning and the concave coins and the old flat ones probably couldn’t have been part of the same system. (Probably. Assuming there was actually a system. Anyway…)

Billon aspron trachy of Emperor John III Ducas, otherwise known as John Vatatzes, struck at Thessalonica in 1249-1254, Barber Institute of Fine Arts BH0173

This is a lot more like what the state of the ‘hoard’ is generally like, and is, we think, a billon aspron trachy of Emperor John III Ducas, otherwise known as John Vatatzes, struck at Thessalonica in 1249-1254. You can imagine how much fun the identification was… The Barber has not formally accessioned the ‘hoard’, but this coin’s provisional access number is Barber Institute of Fine Arts BH0173. Not to scale with previous coin.

Further investigation only deepened this paradox. Firstly this was because we were able to identify more of the components. The later end included not just this twelfth-century concave stuff, mainly of Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) but some later still, but bits and pieces of the Latin Empire of Constantinople and its Thessalonican rival and really quite a lot of medieval Bulgarian material, most of all of Tsar Ivan Alexander (1331-1371) though again, a bit later. The absolute outlier was a grano of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1519-1558)! Meanwhile, we had checked into the provenance, because the ‘hoard’ had originally come to us from the British Museum, and we had only received the Byzantine portion. It turned out that what they had kept was another 400-odd coins, mostly from the period of the Roman Empire but going back as far as Alexander the Great (336 BC-323 BC). So that date range was now up to nearly 1900 years and the issues of some very different states. It’s not a hoard!

Copper-alloy asarion of Tsar Ivan Alexander and his son Michael, struck at an unknown location in 1331-55, provisionally numbered Barber Institute of Fine Arts BH0088.

Copper-alloy asarion of Tsar Ivan Alexander and his son Michael, struck at an unknown location in 1331-55, provisionally numbered Barber Institute of Fine Arts BH0088. Not to scale with previous coin, though it is actually smaller.

Except, it kind of is. A hoard is by definition an assemblage of valuable items (whether personally or monetarily valuable) deposited with the intent of recovery, right?2 Well, the other documentation we got from the British Museum clarified a lot of things. This particular assemblage was deposited in a set of carrier bags, behind a loose panel in a bathroom on board an aeroplane staging through London Heathrow airport on its way between Sofia and Washington DC. If that’s a ritual deposit, I’m pretty sure it’s only because shipping stuff out of Bulgaria to sell on the US market has now become almost a regular practice.3 Someone was meant to pick this up. As it happened instead, it was discovered by a cleaner and taken over by Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise, who decided in due course that there was no prospect of returning it to its owner and that therefore it fell under a legal doctrine called ‘last resort’, which meant that rather than lose it to world heritage by dumping it on the open market it could be deposited with a UK museum. So the British Museum got it and gave some of it to the Barber. (This was in 2004; I believe the law about this changed in 2008.) It’s a fascinating group, has some actual numismatic novelties in it we think, and the combination of what’s in there allows one to make some educated guesses about where it was coming from (which my student bravely did, on the back of considerable research4), but it’s most fascinating as a collection, I think, because of the story by which it has become a hoard. It’s one of the things I’m working on, anyway, and, while it is temporarily out of my court, you can expect some day to hear more about it here.


1. Reading, of course, P. Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982) which, if it doesn’t have all the answers, at least has most of the questions and some good guesses with illustrations to help. If you ever have to gen up on Byzantine coinage in a week, I recommend it!

2. For example, P. Grierson, Numismatics (Oxford 1975), p. 125: “A hoard is by definition a group of coins or other valuables which was concealed as a unit….”

3. This is the bit that needs the most substantiation, really, isn’t it? But you could start with Tihomir Bezlov & Emil Tzenkov, Organized Crime in Bulgaria: markets and trends (Sofia 2007), pp. 177-198, or Nathan T. Elkins, “A Survey of the Material and Intellectual Consequences of Trading in Undocumented Ancient Coins: A Case Study on the North American Trade” in Frankfurter elektronische Rundschau zur Altertumskunde Vol. 7 (2008), pp. 1–13, online at http://s145739614.online.de/fera/ausgabe7/Elkins.pdf, last modified October 2, 2008, as of October 12, 2009. I found these cites while researching what became Jonathan Jarrett, Reinhold Hüber-Mork, Sebastian Zambanini & Achille Felicetti, “Coinage, Digitization and the World-Wide Web: Numismatics and the COINS Project” in Brent H. Nelson & Melissa Terras (edd.), Digitizing Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture, New Technologies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies 3 (Tempe: University of Arizona Press 2012), pp. 459-489, but look, they have become useful again because the problem did not end with what these people knew about…

4. I can’t replicate her bibliography here, not least as I don’t have a copy, but the place to start for the Anglophone is D. Michael Metcalf, Coinage in South-Eastern Europe 820-1396, Royal Numismatic Society Special Publication 11 (London 1979), even now.

Minute details of minting in Constantinople

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that I had, “for my sins or for whatever reason”, been reading A Corpus of the Nomismata from 713-976 in Constantinople by Franz Füeg.1 This was not leisure reading, I should probably say, I had been asked to review both it and its partner volume covering 976-1067, which of course meant I had to read it in detail, of which there is much in the books.2 What they actually are is a number of corpora of Byzantine gold solidi of Constantinople (not just one corpus each, as you might imagine) and a series of attached essays dealing with the design, political æsthetics and production of the coins. Füeg is not a numismatist by training—there are, after all, almost no places that one can acquire such training—but a retired professor of architecture, and this may be one of the reasons this book goes to some strange places. It seemed to me in reading it, though, that the author doesn’t always recognise where his argument, or even in happy moments his data, take him, and that the true worth of the book is in deductions which it requires like the one I want to set out in this post.

Six denarii of Emperor Septimius Severus, all struck from the same obverse die but different reverse ones, and collected by Doug Smith

Six denarii of Emperor Septimius Severus, all struck from the same obverse die but different reverse ones, and collected by Doug Smith, on whose website this image is located (and which is linked through it)

The great strength of Füeg’s work is that he has a huge sample die study. For those not already speaking fluent numismatist, this is a thing one can particularly do with pre-industrial coinage because each of the dies with which the coins were struck were, of course, hand-carved and therefore unique in detail. Thus, if one has enough of a certain issue of coins, one expects to see individual dies turn up again and again, and someone with sharp enough eyes and short enough sight can recognise them.3 There are various things one can do with this information, but the simplest thing one can do is to count the dies one observes, and this Füeg has done. That is data we didn’t have before, whatever its quality may be, and my brain started to fire where he observes that there is a drop in the number of reverse dies being used at the Constantinople mint at the point where the coinage ceases to distinguish between officinae of the mint on its gold coinage.4

A copper-alloy forty-nummi coin of Emperor Justin II, struck at Constantinople in 565-566, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B1208

A copper-alloy forty-nummi coin of Emperor Justin II, struck at Constantinople in 565-566, in the Alpha officina, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B1208

So, OK, you may fairly ask at this point, what’s an officina? And the answer is that we don’t really know. In the mid-fourth century the Roman coinage, which was basically uniform across the whole Empire but with frequently varying codes that identified the issuing mint of each coin, began to add letters to reverse designs in use at certain mints that seem to have distinguished issues within their production; Lyons is especially complex, for example. By the time we can sensibly speak of Byzantine coinage, this system had settled into a sequence of Greek letters for each mint.5 Most mints ran to only two or three letters, alpha, beta, gamma, sometimes delta and epsilon, or more confusingly nothing and theta, but Constantinople could get up to iota in some issues. On the copper-alloy coinage these letters appeared below the main denomination mark on the reverse, as you see above and on the gold they appear at the end of the reverse legend as below. These, we call officinae, largely because some of the early Roman instances actually use the letters OF and a number for them.

A gold solidus of Emperor Maurice struck at Constantinople in 583-601, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B1810

A gold solidus of Emperor Maurice struck at Constantinople in 583-601, in officina Eta (H), Barber Institute of Fine Arts B1810, not to scale with previous. Note how the officina letter is bigger than and out of line with the letters of the legend (VICTORI-A AVCC), suggesting that the die was marked for an officina only after it had been completed elsewhere.

As I say, we don’t really know what these divisions within the mint were. Some obvious suggestions have been made—different workshops (as implied by the word we use for them), teams within the mint, markers of different commissioned officials or even companies making the coin—but we don’t really have the means to test these theories. Or we didn’t, until now. But Füeg notices that when this marking of officinae ceases (under Emperor Leo III, some of whose coins you can see here) the count of reverse dies drops noticeably. He doesn’t do anything with this fact but it’s part of the answer.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Constantinople between 717  and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4530

As mentioned, the officina-marking only stopped on the gold at this point; here is a copper-alloy follis of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V, struck in Constantinople in 717-741, and about the clearest thing on it is the mark for officina Beta. Not to scale with previous coins; Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4530

In case you’re not with me, consider. If the way that the mint worked was that there were up to ten separate workshops or even teams turning out coins at full capacity, they would go through dies at the same rate whether those dies were marked for them or not. But production seems to have stayed up and reverse die use went down. That can only mean that prior to the change, reverse dies marked up for officinae weren’t being used to capacity, which means in turn that there must have been a point in a minting cycle or design lifetime at which each officina stopped work. That’s not simultaneous striking under each mark, therefore; the officinae must have been sequential, switching over at intervals we don’t know. That’s where Füeg’s observation leads, even if he hasn’t taken it there. It’s not a big deal, perhaps; but no-one’s been able to figure it out before, it affects millions of pieces of evidence that passed through millions of people’s hands and if he won’t figure it out I am happy to do so instead.

A gold solidus of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Constantinople in 717-741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4510

A gold solidus of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Constantinople in 717-741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4510. Not to scale with previous coins. The alert will notice that this coin has a Theta at the end of the reverse legend instead of the old officina mark. These have long puzzled people. Füeg has an explanation for them, of course, but that would be another and much longer blog-post…6


1. F. Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I in Constantinople 713-976: Structure of the Issues, Corpus of Coins Finds, Contribution to the Iconographic and Monetary History, ed. Italo Vecchi & transl. H. Thomas Hofmänner (Lancaster PA 2007).

2. Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Basil II to Eudocia 976-1067: corpus from Anastasius II to John I 713-976 with addenda, structure of the issues 976-1067, the concave/convex histamena, contribution to the iconographic and monetary history, ed. Vecchi & transl. Hofmänner (Lancaster PA 2014), reading the which is what has held up the review. But it will get done, after another project that I haven’t yet told you about is off my desk for a bit…

3. For explanations, as well as Doug Smith, “Die-Links: a tool for the numismatist” in Celator Vol. 9 (Lancaster PA 1995), pp. 12-17, as linked above, see Philip Grierson, Numismatics (Oxford 1975), pp. 142-144.

4. Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I, p. 11.

5. R. A. G. Carson, P. V. Hill & J. P. C. Kent, Late Roman Bronze Coinage (London 1960); Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 20-24.

6. The short of it is that he thinks the mint switches to using indictional dates here for a few years, which lets him do all kinds of magic with reattributions and so on (Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I, pp. 13-18). The long of it, explaining all of that, would be oh so much longer…

The quiet return of the ruler of all

Long-term readers may remember a post from when I was teaching on medieval views of the Apocalypse, in which I looked at some charters from St-Pierre de Beaulieu that mention the end of the world every now and then, and then stopped doing so somewhere around the year 1000. I’m still interested in that kind of inverse evidence for a phenomenon, in which what we can actually see is concern stopping, and I think that last year I found another sort. Consider: in 843 the Synod of Constantinople, under the Empress Theodora as regent for her son Michael III and Patriarch Methodios, relegalised the veneration of images of heavenly persons, or icons, in the Byzantine Empire.1 Meanwhile, at some point between 842, when Theodora’s husband Theophilos died and she assumed the regency for their son, and 856 when she demitted the regency, the gold coinage of the Empire began to show a portrait of Christ on it, and it would continue to feature either Him, the Virgin or a saint, and often more than one, from then on until the empire’s final end in 1453.2 This was, therefore, the beginning of something big, and it seems to have begun with the end of the condemnation of icons.

Gold solidus of Emperor Michael III and Empress Theodora struck in Constantinople between 842 and 856, sold in Classical Numismatic Group auction no. 64, lot 1330.

One I couldn’t source from the Barber Institute’s collection, alas, a gold solidus of Emperor Michael III and Empress Theodora struck in Constantinople between 842 and 856, sold in Classical Numismatic Group auction no. 64, lot 1330.

This is not true in a way, because it didn’t quite begin here. You may even remember a very similar-looking portrait on the Barber Institute coins of Justinian II’s first reign (685-695) which I told you all about in March 2015. It would be very neat to be able to say that the promotion of Iconoclasm by Emperor Leo III meant the removal of Christ from the coinage, but it won’t work: for one thing, we are as you may remember no longer sure that Leo III really did very much about icons one way or the other, and for another and more important thing, it was Justinian II’s initial successor Leontius (695-698) who removed Christ from the coinage, not Leo III (717-741). Justinian restored a slightly different portrait of Christ to the coins in his second reign, but that was stopped by his immediate successor Philippikos (711-713). Leo and his descendants certainly did change the coinage, but mainly by putting themselves on it to the exclusion of almost everything else, and it has frustrated a number of scholars who have hitherto accepted the idea that Iconoclasm was an all-consuming state policy which divided the whole empire that not only does the coinage not show any other trace of this almighty schism, but the coins of the supposedly pro- and anti- parties don’t even really differ.3 So why should the reappearance of Christ, supposedly distinguished by his long hair and Gospel Book as the Pantokrator, ruler of all, already, be connected either?

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II struck at Constantinople in 692-695, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4381

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II struck at Constantinople in 692-695, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4381

Well, whether or not Iconoclasm had been a big deal under Leo III, it had certainly become one by 843. The whole issue had provoked a three-way theological dispute with the papacy and the Carolingian Empire and become a casus belli for several coups (because, like bullying someone for whatever makes them different, any excuse will do for that perhaps, but it became effective propaganda).4 This is the spirit in which our principal written sources for the controversy were written, and the whole reason why our perspectives on Leo III and his son Constantine V are so warped by them.5 Thus, whether or not the removal of Christ from the coinage had been for theological reasons or just to make it clear that Justinian II and all his policies were now gone, for those that knew those coins—and someone obviously had some of them coins at the mint to copy—it would have been seen as theologically motivated by 843. This is how I am trying to get away with arguing that the changes to the coinage in 695 and 711 were not to do with theology and that in 842×856 was, but if you will accept it, it’s another of these cases like the Beaulieu apocalypse charters, in which our sources only expose that something was a concern once it ended!

Triumph orthodoxy


1. See Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconcoclast Era, c. 650-850: a history (Cambridge 2011), pp. 447-452.

2. I met this fact for the first time while reading Franz Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I in Constantinople, 713-976: structure of the issues, corpus of coin finds, contribution to the iconographic and monetary history, transl. H. Thomas Hofmänner & ed. Italo Vecchi (Lancaster PA 2007), where the issues of 843 are discussed p. 30 and illustrated p. 76, but I don’t by any means accept Füeg’s close dating of the issue, for which there is no firm basis.

3. Frustration evident in Philip D. Whitting, “Iconoclasm and the Byzantine Coinage” in University of Birmingham Historical Journal Vol. 12 (Birmingham 1971), pp. 158-163. On the actual coins see Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 150-187, but even he performs this same double-think, in which the coinage is unchanged by the advent of Iconoclasm but Irene’s changes to it must be explained in its light, not in the light of her having murdered her son the emperor (p. 158) and Theodora’s restoration of Christ to the coinage (p. 178) is also an Iconodule move. Only the latter seems justified, and even that underexamined.

4. For the Western side of the story see Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm and the Carolingians (Philadelphia PA 2009).

5. This is the basic argument of Brubaker & Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era. The sources in question are accordingly discussed in John Haldon & Leslie Brubaker, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era: the sources. An Annotated Survey, Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Monographs 7 (Aldershot 2001). See also Leslie Brubaker, Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm (Bristol 2012).

Imitation and officialdom in early Islamic Syria

I want to write today about something I want at some point to be working on. This has been in the plans since I was at the Barber Institute and first met the relevant coins, but at the moment I have too many other things to finish to give it the time it needs; I’ve done enough reading to teach it, which worked well, but not enough to write with assurance. So I’ll just set it up to think about and promise to return to it in more depth later. The subject is what happened to the organisation of government in the areas taken over by Islam in its rush of conquests in the mid- to late-seventh century.

A Coptic-language papyrus detailing renders to an Islamic governor of Egypt, ʿAmr Ibn al-ʿĀṣ, London, British Museum, Pap. BM 1079

A Coptic-language papyrus detailing renders to an Islamic governor of Egypt, ʿAmr Ibn al-ʿĀṣ, London, British Museum, Pap. BM 1079

In Egypt, at least, it is now fairly clear that the immediate difference the Islamic conquest of the 640s made was minimal. The very top level of government, the Byzantine imperial governors and their staffs, was sliced off and replaced by an Arab governor appointed from Damascus, and that often proved to be problematic, but the people who ruled in localities, usually officials called pagarchs, were often allowed to remain in office, raising taxes in more or less the same way (and quite possibly less, which may have meant they were keeping more) and just rendering them to officials from Fustat for transmission to Damascus rather than Alexandria for Constantinople.1 We know this from Egypt because of the prolific, if localised, survival of the papyrus documentation of the administration that dealt with all this, but Egypt’s level of survival, especially for papyrus, is kind of unique. What can we use where there are no papyri? And the answer is, as so often, coins.

Copper fals of 'Abd al-Malik, Commander of the Faithful, struck at Manbij between 680 and 696, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B36

Copper fals of ‘Abd al-Malik, Commander of the Faithful, struck at Manbij between 680 and 696, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B36

The areas that Islam took over in the seventh century were coin-using ones. In the west, as seen from Medina, there was the Byzantine (or, as they saw it, Roman) Empire, with a tax system based on the gold solidus and made practical by voluminous copper-alloy small change that also fed market exchange and kept city economies running. This system had been in trouble over the previous thirty years because of the ‘last great war of Antiquity’, that between the Romans and Persians during which Persia had for a decent while occupied the Middle East and Upper Egypt, and in that time not only do we apparently find the Persians striking pseudo-Byzantine coinage to keep things running, we also have several of the smaller cities of the occupied zone apparently making their own emergency coin to keep things going; that that is what it is seems obvious by how very much it doesn’t look like the real stuff, as if they feared to be accused of forgery if and when regular government returned.2

Probable coin of the Persian occupation of Syria in the reign of the Emperor Phocas (602-610), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

Hastily-constructed composite image of a probable coin of the Persian occupation of Syria in the reign of the Emperor Phocas (602-610), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

Meanwhile, in the relative east, the system of what had been the Persian Empire, based on a tax system working in silver drachms with only locally-issed copper-alloy small change, also seems to have continued almost unaltered. That is really interesting, not least because of the Zoroastrian and royal imagery of the coinage which was maintained with only the smallest Islamic additions, but it’s not where I want to go today because that system does actually seem to have continued pretty much as before, with provincial governors in the same provinces striking coin of the same sort at the same mints. Not so, however, in the west.

Arab-Sassanian drachm after Shah Yazdgerd III

Arab-Sassanian drachm after Shah Yazdgerd III {Edit: struck at Jayy (Isfahan),and] islamized only by the addition of the words ‘Muhammad the prophet of God In the name of Allah’ in Arabic by the Shah’s left shoulder, image from I forget where alas. Thanks to Yngve Karlsson for corrections in comments below!

In the Roman zone, much of the coinage had previously come from Constantinople or its two satellite mints of Nicomedia and Cyzicus, all of which were now outside the political area. More local mints had been at Antioch (not conquered until 637) and Alexandria (which was taken in 641, reconquered in 645 and definitively fell to Islam in 646), with some coinage perhaps coming in from Cyprus (where Roman-Islamic power-sharing was agreed in 649).3 We know of emergency issues that are probably from Jerusalem and Cæsarea, but these are very scanty and since we can’t date them, we also can’t be sure they were still being issued.4 What this means is that the ex-Roman area of the new Islamic dominion at the point of takeover had no regular mints in it, and even the addition of Alexandria didn’t solve that because Egyptian coinage was struck at a different standard to the rest of the Empire’s.5

Copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck at Nicomedia in 615-616

Copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck at Nicomedia in 615-616, Stoa Image Gallery

Copper-alloy duodecanummi of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck at Alexandria in 613-618

Copper-alloy duodecanummi of the same rulers struck at Alexandria in 613-618, HJB Coins sale 16 August 2001, not to scale (in fact, none of these are to scale)

So, what did they do? The study I’ve learnt most from so far breaks it down into four phases, all of which can seem a bit surprising.6 In the first place, the captured provinces continued to ship in Byzantine coin; we know this because issues struck after the date of the conquest, for Emperor Constans II (642-664), turn up there still in considerable numbers. Quite how that was arranged, I would love to know… After a while, which we can’t date and could actually have started straight away, local versions of Byzantine coins started to be made, which we can mostly identify because the details start to be slightly wrong. At the extremities of that range they feature things that were never on the same coin together, or which didn’t turn up on coins at all but seem to belong to the general symbolic library.

'Derivative Arab-Byzantine coin of uncertain mint and date

“Er, Severos, usually that B goes below the M, and vertically? What? No, no, it doesn’t matter…” ‘Derivative’ Arab-Byzantine coin of uncertain mint and date (636×695 to be safe?), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

Almost none of these coins identify their place of issue, though some of them carry Greek or, perhaps increasingly, Arabic, words meaning ‘good’ or ‘legitimate’ or the like. There is assumed by the numismatists a general progression from real-looking pseudo-Byzantine coins towards things that are essentially Arabicised variations on a vaguely Byzantine theme. If that’s right, then we get more and more Arabic, and among those coins emerge new mints, at Damascus, Tiberias (a. k. a. Tabariyya), Manbij, Scythopolis (Baisan), and many other places, none of which except perhaps Jerusalem and Cæsarea, neither of which stuck at it long, had ever struck coin under the empire [Edit: for nearly four centuries].

Forty-nummi coin of an unknown issuer at Heliopolis (Baalbek), signed in both Greek and Arabic, of uncertain date, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B19

Forty-nummi coin of an unknown issuer at Heliopolis (Baalbek), signed in both Greek and Arabic, of uncertain date, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B19

But almost all of these coins seem also to be imitated quite widely, at varying standards that have made one scholar, Clive Foss, write of a spectrum ranging from official issues to things that could have been made by a local blacksmith.7 At the extreme ends of this there are coins overstruck on whole or partial old coins, but this is hard to be sure about because the actual empire did a lot of that too, by now. And running alongside all of this is a myriad of very very worn Roman and Byzantine bronze, as well as some of the new stuff, that was validated or otherwise updated with Islamic countermarks, about which we know hardly anything (though a selection of it is now on display at the Barber Institute, if you’re interested).8

A copper twenty-nummi probably struck by Emperor Anastasius (491-518) or Justin I (518-527), very worn and bearing an Islamic countermark, from the Mardin Hoard, Barber Institute of Fine Arts MH0123

A copper twenty-nummi probably struck by Emperor Anastasius (491-518) or Justin I (518-527), very worn and bearing an Islamic countermark, from the Mardin Hoard, Barber Institute of Fine Arts MH0123

Copper-alloy forty-nummi coin struck by an unknown issuer at Emesa (Hims) at an uncertain date, and later countermarked on both sides, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B15

Copper-alloy forty-nummi coin struck by an unknown issuer at Emesa (Hims) at an uncertain date, and later countermarked on both sides, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B15

And this whole situation lasts until the 690s or so, at which point Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik seems to have tried a number of ways of joining Arab-Byzantine and Arab-Sasanian coinages up then replaced them all with the more standard Islamic coinage of the Middle Ages that we recognise somewhat more easily.

Silver dirham of Caliph Hisham struck at Wasit in 734/35, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73

Silver dirham of al-Walid struck at a mint I can’t identify between 713 and 715 AD Hisham struck at Wasit in 734/35, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73

So, if you were one of my Empire and Aftermath students, at this point I would be asking you what this all means in terms of authority and government in the area. Usually coinage is a state monopoly; if everyone and his or her neighbour is making coins, who’s in charge? Isn’t it a problem for our picture of the early caliphate if there were ‘official’ mints like Damascus striking coin and then there was another mint, somewhere we can’t place, imitating them to the point where numismatists actually distinguish it as pseudo-Damascus? How can the ‘official’ coinages and the countermarked quarters of coins hundreds of years old have been part of any system together? What can the point have been of marking some things ‘good’ or ‘of legitimate weight’ when their weights vary by sometimes as much as 50%? Why was no-one stopping the imitation? Could they not do so? These are the kind of questions that understanding the coinage might help with, and I intend to try, with the help of some esteemed collaborators, but any understanding of it is going to have to include the imitations.


1. This has been pretty much established by the work of Petra Sijpesteijn: see for example her “Landholding Patterns in Early Islamic Egypt” in Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 9 (Oxford 2009), pp. 120-132, DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-0366.2009.00198.x.

2. I follow here Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications 1 (Washington DC 2008), pp. 1-17, with the Persian coinages described on pp. 9-12. For the phrase ‘the last great war of Antiquity’ I have to acknowledge James Howard-Johnston, “Al-Tabari on the Last Great War of Antiquity” in idem, East Rome, Sasanian Persia and the End of Antiquity: historical and historiographical studies, Variorum Collected Studies 848 (Aldershot: Ashgate 2006), VI.

3. On the coinage system as it had existed here, see for preference Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 43-77. My dates for the conquests could be challenged; I follow Hugh Kennedy, The Great Arab Conquests: how the spread of Islam shaped the world we live in (London 2007).

4. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coinage, pp. 14-19.

5. Ibid., pp. 87-98.

6. Ibid., pp. 18-57, on which most of the next two paragraphs rest. Important differences with Foss’s account can be found in Grierson, Byzantine Coins, pp. 144-149, and Stephen Album and Tony Goodwin, The Pre-Reform Coinage of the Early Islamic Period, Sylloge of Islamic Coins in the Ashmolean Museum 1 (Oxford 2002), pp. 77-112.

7. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coinage, p. 26.

8. Nicholas M. Lowick, Simon Bendall and Philip D. Whitting, The Mardin Hoard: Islamic Countermarks on Byzantine Folles. Catalogue of an Exhibition of Coins from the “Mardin Hoard” of Byzantine Folles, Many with Islamic Countermarks, in the University of Birmingham, 1976 (London 1977).