Category Archives: numismatics

An awful lot of numismatists in Sicily, I

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

Logo of the XVth International Numismatic Congress

Logo of the XVth INC

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

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A Collector’s Cabinet

Sorry for the gap in posting, as so often; marking and a professional need to finish up some publications have coincided in an awkward way. But another one is now off to readers so I can manage a quick post, and the one that is up next is the one where I explain what I did with the discovery mentioned a couple of posts ago that the University of Leeds has its own coin collection with which, when I arrived in post in late 2015, no-one was doing anything much. As explained there, for various reasons I couldn’t just start doing it myself, but I could try to get money for someone else to do it, and that is indeed what happened.

Obverse of a silver penny of King Harold II of England struck at Canterbury in 1066, SCBI 21 1105

One of the coins from the collection I’ve used, a silver penny of King Harold II of England struck at Canterbury in 1066 (as it would have to have been); here the obverse…

Reverse of a silver penny of King Harold II of England struck at Canterbury in 1066, SCBI 21 1105

… and here the reverse, hopefully but inaccurately proclaiming PAX, ‘peace’! The coin is published as SCBI 21 1105.1

There were various funding sources I considered for this, but the one that eventually looked like the best bet was a scheme that is now spread to quite a few universities, the Laidlaw Undergraduate Research and Leadership Scholarships. These are a bit more than your normal involve-the-undergraduates-in-a-research project affairs: though that is the core of them, they aim help people who otherwise could not get to the top of society, to create new educated critically-thinking leaders for the future from all levels of society. To that end, as well as the research project, there is also a whole set of leadership training activities designed to ensure that the lucky recipients would be able to take charge of any situation in which they should find themselves with all the wit and intelligence that the best undergraduate educations should imbue. It’s a powerful mission, and one which, in this iteration, involved a range of activities under the heading of ‘cultural capital’, visits to things like theatre, opera, wine-tastings and so on that were meant to equip the person who has never experienced those things with the familiarity that will prevent those who have, and think they’re important markers of education and distinction, from dismissing these new leaders; in short, to give them the tools to level with elitist snobs. I’m not sure whether this is to reinforce or to undermine the British class system, but as someone with many stories of such exclusion, some even my own, I see its power. It’s also fascinating that the language we have for it has to come from 1980s French anthropology, too; we ourselves couldn’t look at it that closely, it seems.2 Now, for better or for worse, that seems to have been dropped from these scholarships in favour of an international component, which may be better directed toward the future I suppose. But, dear reader, I digress.

The Winchester coin cabinet, in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

The Winchester Cabinet, in the strongroom of the Brotherton Library, in all its slightly wonky eighteenth-century glory (the cabinet, not the strongroom)

Whatever the wider social intent of this scheme, then, the core of it is still a research project, on which it will pay a student to work for twelve weeks spread over two years. So, all the way back in January 2016, I looked at the coin collection, for something that was a self-contained unit that could fill that much work but still produce something, and I lit upon the Winchester Cabinet, which is a rather fancy thing to have in a collection. It is actually a single big coin cabinet, complete with about three thousand coins, which were amassed and put in this same cabinet by one William Eyre in the late eighteenth century. At his death the cabinet was bequeathed to Winchester Cathedral, where he had apparently been a lay canon; they tinkered only minimally with it for nearly two centuries and then in 1954 decided to sell it the University of Leeds.3 So we have not just the coins but a collection, self-contained and almost closed since 1780 or so, of known provenance and association, whose collector could himself be an intriguing subject of study. Knowing that collectors are the hot thing in museums at the moment, and putting aside for a moment my reservations about privileging more or less modern human beings and their interests over the actual historical things we physically immediately have and what they might tell us, I decided that this was our hook, and so I wrote a proposal for a project called “Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet” and sent it in to see who would bite. And it got selected, so quite quickly I wound up interviewing several eager students all of whom wanted in on this opportunity, all of which was quite flattering but rather unexpected.

Laidlaw Undergraduate Research Leadership Scholar Emma Herbert-Davies promoting the Winchester Cabinet project

Emma Herbert-Davies promoting the scheme with, as her Twitter feed explains, the aid of Emperor Antoninus Pius, and whose better could there be?

Well, the successful applicant was one Emma Herbert-Davies, who has been exactly the kind of star we rather expected she would be; she has put in far more work on this collection than we could ever have paid her for and become quite the face of the Leeds coin collection, leaving me as the kind of scheming Brian Wilson in the background (which is fine by me). She’s catalogued quite a chunk of the cabinet, including many different numismatic cultures and areas, and I don’t know how many papers she’s given on this now but I know that it’s more numismatics papers than I have. Emma is not the first person I’ve trained up from zero as a numismatist, and I bet she won’t be the last, but she’s certainly the one who’s so far become best known in numismatic circles and here, again, the student may well have outstripped the teacher. So, I will not steal her thunder here, I will just point you to her work, which is what all the money and study went towards. Firstly, there has been since October 2017, should you be in Leeds and willing to negotiate your way into the Brotherton Library, an actual physical display of some of the coins, mostly with Emma’s captions and selections but also with two of my own; I’ll post something else about this soon when I have better photos, but meanwhile here is one of Emma’s.

The Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet exhibition, curated by Emma Herbert-Davies and Jonathan Jarrett, in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

The Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet exhibition, curated by Emma Herbert-Davies and your humble author, in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

But, in case you are not in Leeds or have no such library card, there is also a virtual exhibition, with more material in it, which showcases not just Emma’s grasp of the general interest of the coins but also our Library’s rather good digitization; it looks pretty smart and you can zoom in to an almost silly degree. So if you have some time and like coins, do click through and give Emma your web-traffic! I am very pleased with what we have, and by that I mainly mean she, has been able to do here.


1. Which, for those of you not fluent in UK numismatist, is Elizabeth Pirie (ed.), Coins in Yorkshire Collections: Part I, Coins from Northumbrian Mints, c. 895–1279; Part II, Ancient British Issues and Later Coins from other English, Irish, and Scottish Mints to 1279, Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles 21 (London 1975), no. 1105.

2. The originator being Pierre Bourdieu, as in his “Ökonomisches Kapital, kulturelles Kapital, soziales Kapital” in Reinhard Kreckel (ed.), Soziale Ungleichheiten, Soziale Welt Sonderheft 2 (Göttingen 1983), pp. 183-198, trans. Richard Nice as “The Forms of Capital” in John G. Richardson (ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (New York City NY 1986), pp. 241–258, whence online here.

3. We have (and again I mainly mean Emma Herbert-Davies has) found out quite a lot about the cabinet, its original owner and its subsequent history, but I have to admit that why this happened no-one has been able to tell us.

15,000 more coins to play with

This post is a step or two out of order; I originally stubbed it in December 2015 and would, if everything were normal, have intended it for seven or eight posts down the line. But it occurred to me that I had also referred to various successes with publications and grants that I probably ought to mention while they’re still even near fresh, rather than queue them out of my usual dogged commitment to chronology; and then I totted up the grants and realised that the ones I had to start with were to do with the Brotherton Library Coin Collection, and that without this post you, dear readers, would have no idea what that was. So here we are!

The Reading Room in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, including readers

The Reading Room in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, including readers, photo from Leeds’s website

So obviously you will remember, because I am still writing about it, that between 2014 and 2015 I was Interim Curator of Coins at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, which involved me doing exhibitions, outreach and general work with a collection of just over 15,000 coins and items of paranumismatica. But I put all that behind me, excepting lagging publication commitments, when I came to the University of Leeds, who had hired me as a historian of the early Middle Ages, not as a numismatist. Admittedly, I had tried to set up an undergraduate module using the coin collection in Leeds Museums Discovery Centre, but due to staff shortage there that was never possible. But just as I thought I might be through with numismatics again, someone here asked me, “has anyone told you about the coin collection in the Library?” And it turned out, wouldn’t you know, there is a collection here of just over 15,000 coins and paranumismatica, just waiting for someone to do exhibitions, outreach and general work with…

A copper-alloy sestertius of Emperor Nero struck at Rome in 65 AD, Brotherton Collection, University of Leeds, uncatalogued

A copper-alloy sestertius of Emperor Nero struck at Rome in 65 AD, Brotherton Collection, University of Leeds, uncatalogued; obverse…

A copper-alloy sestertius of Emperor Nero struck at Rome in 65 AD, Brotherton Collection, University of Leeds, uncatalogued

… and reverse, photographed by me for teaching last year

Now in some respects the timing of this was perfect: not only did it mean that I could in fact run that module the next and indeed this year on local resources alone, it also came a short while after the collection, which had for a long time been without a clear place in the University’s organisation, had been definitively placed in the care of the University’s Special Collections team. But they had no numismatics expertise in-house, and then there came I, a man who had quite literally written the book(let) on the care of coin collections (with really quite a lot of uncredited help).1 And so, while I couldn’t do much for the Library myself, not alongside my other responsibilities, one thing I could do was apply for money for someone else to do that work.

A copper-alloy forty-nummi of a type which has been suggested was struck by the occupying government of the Syrian provinces of the Byzantine Empire during their occupation by the Persians at the turn of the sixth and seventh centuries

I think this is an unusual one, a copper-alloy forty-nummi of a type which has been suggested was struck by the occupying government of the Syrian provinces of the Byzantine Empire during their occupation by the Persians at the turn of the sixth and seventh centuries. Here the obverse, fairly normal but a bit blocky and unclear of identification…

Copper-alloy forty-nummi struck during the Persian occupation of Syria 615-27

…and reverse, unobjectionable except for a jumbled mint-mark that just can’t be Byzantine. Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, no. not available to me but it does have one now. This is one of the cases where I’ve been able to improve on a previous identification. There aren’t many!

Now, I will talk about that in a future post, but first, how come the University has an orphaned coin collection at all, and what’s in it? Well, it’s not quite unknown: expert diggers in databases could already find out something of its history and the early British and English portions have even been published, although more was acquired after that was done.2 And in fact the history is composite, as these things so often are; while Lord Brotherton himself, the man behind our oldest library and the extremely significant collections therein, did not dally with coins, in 1918 the then-Department of Latin acquired itself a small set for teaching purposes, in 1949 the Yorkshire Archaeological Society presaged the eventual donation here of all its collections with a Roman coin collection, and in 1954 the rather fabulous Winchester Collection, which is where the funding story will come in, arrived here. Substantial anonymous gifts followed thereafter but the real difference was made by Mr Paul Thackray, of the same Thackrays as our local Medical Museum, who added 11,000 or so coins to our holdings in the early 1990s. Now, probably two-third, maybe even three-quarters, of all this is Roman, and almost all base-metal, although it’s an extremely good collection as far as that goes, with lots of varieties. There are also good representations of Chinese coins, including some genuinely rare items I am told, and of local merchants’ tokens, and a good set of modern world coins I want to convince my modernist colleagues to start using too. But there is also a small but precious selection of medieval and Byzantine items, and on them I have built my course. There is, indeed, more than I have fully discovered and some very interesting Eastern and Indian stuff, all of which is out of my competence, and two cabinets of Roman Provincial, which should definitely interest somebody, even if not me.3 Thankfully, even now we have actual hired help in place for cataloguing, though they won’t be able to do it all. But the potential is definitely here for people to do lots more with it, and it is a potential on which, as I shall describe in that near-future post, we have already started to deliver…


1. Jonathan Jarrett, Coins in Collections: their care and use (Cambridge 2009), now sadly out of print and unobtainable but obtained, thankfully, by Leeds just before that became true.

2. In Elizabeth Pirie, Ancient British and later coins to 1279 in the Yorkshire Museum, York, the City Museum Leeds and the University of Leeds, Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles 21 (London: Oxford University Press, 1975).

3. That Roman Provincial coinage should be interesting more people has recently become clear partly because of the ever-growing database of it at the Ashmolean Museum but also because George Watson, “The system of coin production in Roman Asia Minor: new thoughts on an old problem”, in Maria Caltabiano et al. (edd.), XV International Numismatic Congress Taormina 2015: Proceedings (Messina 2018), pp. not yet known to me, has started to make it clear that there are systems to its production about which we had previously not suspected, making it a key to the administration of the Roman East we didn’t know we had. So I want someone to do something with our boxes of it… Any would-be research students, do get in touch

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

Chronicle I: July, August and September 2015

I’m back in the UK, and even if you’re not, you may have gathered that quite a proportion of this country’s academics are currently on strike about proposed cuts to our pensions. In theory, therefore, I can do nothing like work today, but for various reasons I think blog can be allowed; after all, given that the main reason I haven’t been blogging regularly of late is my job, it seems all sorts of perverse if when the job halts I still can’t blog. So, without further ado, I’m going to test out the new format with a short account of the three months of my academic life following the last backlogged event I covered, a conference in Lincoln which you can go and read about if you so desire.

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

We begin here… The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Now, I say my academic life but it’s even more difficult to separate that from the rest than usual for this particular patch of my existence, as in this time I was transferring that existence from Birmingham to Leeds. The two themes of my life in this period were therefore movement between cities, and counting coins. The latter was because one of the things the Barber Institute had hired me to do when I started there was an actual audit of the coin collection, whose records from the previous few years were sadly not all they should have been. In the event, it was only once I knew I was leaving that I really got started on that, becuase immediate priorities were all more, well, immediate. But now it had to be done, so I was spending most of any given working day in the coin room comparing trays to spreadsheets, and occasionally finding where someone had evidently dropped such a tray at some point then put things back in the wrong places. There were only a few of those but they really slowed things down… But it did, finally, happen and I wrote a big report which not only confirmed that the Barber was then in possession of 15,905 coins, 35 tokens, 22 medals, 165 seals, 42 weights and 10 other objects of paranumismatica, as well as collections not formally part of its holdings like the so-called ‘Heathrow Hoard’, but gave them something much more like a firm footing for future development of the collection. At the same time I was also setting up a lecture series for my exhibition, which I was now going to miss, processing uploads which you already heard about, and zapping coins with X-rays on occasion. It wasn’t a bad job, really. Oh yes, and I was also supervising two MA dissertations, one of which was on the Heathrow Hoard, indeed, so there was some teaching even though it was outside term.

A tray full of pale gold and billon coins of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5704-B5735

A tray full of pale gold and billon coins of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5704-B5735, which did not get dropped

So all that was busy enough, but in August my old diaries and e-mails betray a slow shift: correspondence about workshops I would be doing in Leeds, moving company quotes, a farewell party at the Barber (bless them) and eventually the actual close of play. Somewhere in there, of course, was also happening the slow packing-up of stuff and eventually it all going into a Pickfords lorry, in coordination with my partner’s stuff coming up from London to be so shipped as well, and finally our actual installation into what we then thought would be our new home for the foreseeable future. I also did a medievalist tour of Dudley with a couple of friends, and I will post about that separately, with photographs, because there is actually medieval stuff to photograph there. But it’s September where the itinerary just gets crazy: from Leeds to Birmingham on the 8th, crashing for one last night in my now-empty previous home to hand over white goods and keys the next day, and then back to Leeds; to London and then Harpenden, of all places, at the weekend for a gig, then back to London and back to Leeds; and back down to Birmingham again on the 15th, for reasons I’ll say more about in a moment, and back up to Leeds again on the 16th; and then on the 20th I flew to Sicily, where I was for the following 6 days for reasons I’ll likewise mention below. And the day after I got back, we had to start having our house hot-water system replaced and I started teaching in my new job, opening up my career there with a lecture on Charlemagne and the Carolingians, all fairly fitting I think. Up to that point I’d been on campus quite a lot anyway, for induction and training, and also organising next year’s frontiers sessions for the International Medieval Congress, but now it had really started.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Justinian I struck at Cyzicus in 543&ndash544, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0692

Can it be that we have got so far through this post without an actual coin? Here’s a good big ugly one to make up for that, a copper-alloy follis of Emperor Justinian I struck at Cyzicus in 543&ndash544, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0692

I’m still quite smug about the second Birmingham trip, just because it involved seeing an opportunity coming from a long way off at a time when I was otherwise completely lost in the weeds of the job. As I mentioned, there were a set of lectures intended to support my exhibition at the Barber. For various reasons they took a long time to organise, and I was having trouble finding suitable guest speakers. But as the date slipped back and the new job became clear, I suddenly realised: by the time they happened, I could myself be a guest speaker, because I would no longer work there! So that’s what I did, giving my successor in the post the job of introducing me for a lecture I’d set up. Perhaps it shouldn’t seem like a triumph, but it did. After all, if you want something done, do it yourself… The lecture was called “Small Change and Big Changes: minting and money after the Fall of Rome”, and it basically went through the changes that the imperial coinage system underwent as large parts of the Roman Empire fell into the control of non-Roman rulers, using Barber coins as illustrations throughout; the background idea was that of the exhibition, that we are still the heirs to Rome’s monetary and iconographic vocabulary of power, but the foreground was much more me working out ideas that I intended to take into the classroom; the lecture title is, after all, suspiciously similar to that of one of my current modules

The Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

Which means we are now here, the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds,once again. Photo by Tim Green from Bradford [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

So, what haven’t we covered? Well, one thing that this new post format means sacrificing is the old write-up of trips, papers and conferences. I should still mention what they were, however, I think, so this is the list such as it was:

  • 3rd August: the medievalist outing to Dudley and Claverley, of which there will be separate photo posts;
  • 12th August: Eleanor Blakelock, “Secrets of the Anglo-Saxon Goldsmiths: underlying truth of the Staffordshire Hoard”, a seminar in the Department of Physics at the University of Birmingham whose details have now gone from the web, but a very useful contact with someone who genuinely knows about metallic analysis of early medieval gold, which resulted in an exchange of references as well as some useful knowledge about how Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths seem to have made their work look shinier;
  • 23rd August: an actual visit to the then-new display of the Staffordshire Hoard in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, which was good but probably isn’t worth recording separately for you all at this long remove given how much coverage the Hoard has already had here;
  • 21st–25th September: the XVth International Numismatic Congress in Taormina, Sicily. This needs a post of its own, and I’m not quite sure how I’ll keep it to one, but I am determined; it was a good but intense experience and I’m still trying to find out if my paper at it will be published. As you might imagine, I also managed to fit in some medievalist tourism here and there will be photos of that too.
  • 29th September: David Hinton, “Personal Possessions in Medieval England: archaeology and written evidence”, Institute for Medieval Studies Public Lecture, University of Leeds: my first academic event at my new job put one of the great figures of Anglo-Saxon archaeology before me and he was, of course, interesting; he emphasised the great spread of standards of living and wealth that Anglo-Saxon and medieval English material culture covered, from subsistence farming with almost nothing incidental owned (or at least lost) up to hoards of treasure such as have already been mentioned. Nonetheless, probably more people than that implies had precious items, however paltry; these were kept for lifetimes, which can make dating them from context difficult to do, but were also often metal and therefore recyclable, so the evidence all needs careful interpretation. Of course it does! But here was someone very used to doing that who made it sound manageable.

So, firstly that sort of summarises two and a half of the busiest months of my life until last year, but secondly I seem already to have promised five more posts of various kinds, mainly photos. I’d better therefore leave this one here and thus properly establish the new state of the blog! More will follow! After all, we haven’t got our pensions back as yet…

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.

In memoriam Ted Buttrey (1929-2018)

2017-2018 has been a rough transition, like 2010-2011’s second instalment but with the deaths closer to me this time. I would have liked the last post but one to be enough for one winter but the toll has continued to ring and ring hard. I already failed to mention Professor Peter Spufford, whom I didn’t know well but should have recorded here after he died on 18 November 2017; I can’t point to a good obituary just yet but there must be one coming, probably indeed in the upcoming Numismatic Chronicle. I likewise would have wished to say something about John Casey, whom I only met a couple of times but was fun both to read and to talk to. But I cannot fail to mention Professor Theodore Vern Buttrey, Junior, because he was one of my favourite people in Cambridge and while his death, on 9 January, was not unexpected as he’d been fighting prostate cancer, more or less in secrecy (I found out last October) for some time, and also he was eighty-nine, still his praises must be sung because he was a fantastic guy. Also, he would be terribly embarrassed by my saying as much on the web, and so if I’m to commit such a sin at all, I must do it so thoroughly that he would feel obliged to step up to the role of his own personality. So Ted, this is your stage.

Professor Ted Buttrey in a seminar in Vienna

“Seriously, you’re gonna do this?” Ted, I am gonna; I owe you no less.

I’m not sure Ted was ever off a stage, if he was where people could see him; he actually did act, indeed one of the first conversations we had where I realised what an strong character he was was when he came into the Department of Coins and Medals announcing that he had been selected as one of the extras for Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which was then filming in Ely. He had thought it best to lie about his age so as not to risk crossing their insurance thresholds, and accordingly, apparently, his legs can be seen in one scene and his top half in another, amid a crowd of bearded Spanish grandees tutting in the background of Philip II’s court. I don’t know how many septuaganarians would do that; by the time I left the Department, however, I knew that Ted was one of them. He also quoted Shakespeare rather a lot, with great and stagey disappointment in the younger generation if it wasn’t recognised, but was as likely to throw out bits of Sophocles, on whom he wrote what is as far as I know his last book; with numismatists it’s always possible there’s another draft that someone is going to finish off, and while I don’t know of one he was always trying to get something else finished before it was too late, so I bet there’s at least one.1 He will also probably still have shipments of numismatic sale catalogues, of which he had amassed the world’s largest collection at the Fitzwilliam, inbound, which is going to be a touch day for the crew who remain there when they arrive, emotionally as well as physically. I remember celebrating the 35,000th catalogue’s accession and the Department’s new mobile shelving with an afternoon of tea, cake, Latin acclamations and sung rounds, accompanied by one of my colleagues on “the Giant Wurlitzer”, a very small Casio keyboard that she discreetly played behind a bookshelf so as not to dispel the illusion. Ted had, of course, written all the words himself, including apologies from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Queen and the Chancellor of the University none of whom, sadly, were able to be present, and I hope I still have the Order of Ceremonies somewhere. Again, who else would do such a thing, and do it over mobile shelving and auction catalogues?

Professor Ted Buttrey with a cartload of numismatic sale catalogues in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

None but Ted! Here pictured with a fresh shipment and a very fake smile in the Grierson Room of the Department

But as the fact that a great numismatist’s last book would be on Classical drama should tell you, Ted was more than a numismatist, and indeed he sometimes described himself as a philologist first and foremost, and this was probably fair if you just take it etymologically (as of course such a person would), in as much he really loved words. It was from Ted I learnt to play Boggle, and while I got to the point where he didn’t often beat me, the real point of the game was not who won but the lengthy arguments over whether the particular combination of letters he’d found on the grid was in fact a real word or not; we haggled for long enough over ‘sawdusts’ that another then-member of the department subsequently got me a mug made with the word on it. To his delight, because my father had been (indeed, when I started there, still was) much of an age with him and had had an American wife, I knew quite a lot of Ted’s backdated Americana references, like Pogo, another huge sink of wordplay for the player with words, and could spar back at him with them. Lunches in the Department were made the more splendid for Ted appearing dramatically in the doorway with a Boggle set and proclaiming, “The hour cometh, and now is!” There was less Boggle after I left and still less after the mug-making colleague did, so I very much hope there’s someone willing to play wherever Ted’s spirit now roams.

Jonathan Jarrett, Ted Buttrey and Vladimir Nastich in the McClean Room, Coins & Medals, Fitzwilliam Museum

Myself, Professor Ted Buttrey and Professor Vladimir Nastich in the McClean Room, Coins & Medals; my beard is more sensible now

What else should be said of Ted? There are many stories to tell, most of which maybe don’t belong here like when I made his life dramatically easier at a stroke by showing him the double-click; Ted had determinedly learnt computers as an early adopter and then carried on using that computer in retirement from 1991 to about 2003, with no-one to tell him about some of the major changes his post-2003 machine embodied. But one cannot speak of Ted as a whole without also including his role as a fraud-busting detective. Not only did he catch two coin thieves at the Department during his tenure as Keeper, one of whom he quite deliberately set up with an opportunity he couldn’t miss, but, much more famously, exposed a traffic in early Mexican and American gold bars which he held to be fakes, including pointing a finger at the traffickers; they then sued him for libel, but the suit was dismissed and since no legal verdict was reached against Ted’s accused either I’ll leave it there, but it made the papers.2 Such was the man.

Cover of Buttrey and Hubbard, Guidebook of Mexican Coins

Cover of Buttrey and Hubbard, Guidebook of Mexican Coins

Obviously I have to mention his scholarship, as well, and it would be too seductively easy to pick out stuff like his work on Domitian’s rhinoceros, on spintriae (careful with that link, probably NSFW unless your work is Roman numismatics or history) or his three excellent and finely-written articles decrying attempts to put numbers on the production of ancient coins which I have praised here before, in general the quirky, funny or destructive (though always scholarly), if only because it would be so hard to pick a small number of the more important publications like the coins from the excavations at Sardis, with the late Ian Carradice the new standard catalogue of the coins of the Flavian emperors, or what is still the go-to book on Mexican coins though his first book of all…3 I mean, there is loads. The American Numismatic Society’s library catalogue contains 116 items under his name and they must be selling him short. Though, weirdly, as he told me once, he’d never actually found a coin in context himself, there were very few coins about which he didn’t know something; though I discovered later that it was not original to him, he was not wrong once to say, “I am a numismatist, and nothing numismatic is foreign to me.”4 And he will be missed for that, and for the work he might still have completed if he’d lived on further, but I don’t often cross with his actual fields of interest, and I personally will miss the Boggle, the elevated drama of his conversation, and the endless fund of stories he could tell—he had crossed the Atlantic by sea more than once, for example—and the fact that when next I go to the Fitzwilliam there will no-one with whom to “savage the reluctant scone” as I would have if Ted were still there. Ladies and gentlemen, I invite you to applaud; the show must end for us all but few of us will deserve reviews as glowing as Ted’s should be.

(I live in hope of being able finally to deliver the new shape of the blog that I have now repeatedly promised. But seriously, people just need to stop dying…5)


1. I actually can’t find any trace of the Sophocles book now that I look, so it may be that it is still in press and it actually will be his last book. I’m fairly sure he told me it had gone off to a press…

2. Of course, it’s a mark against the guy that he would say ‘who’ where he meant ‘whom’. In the words of Doc Owl from Pogo which Ted would sometimes quote, “Whom? Moom?”

3. T. V. Buttrey, “Domitian, the Rhinoceros, and the Date of Martial’s Liber De Spectaculis” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 97 (London 2007), pp. 101-112, online here; idem, “The Spintriae as a Historical Source” in The Numismatic Chronicle 7th Series Vol. 13 (London 1973), pp. 52-63; idem, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production: facts and fantasies”, ibid. Vol. 153 (1993), pp. 335–351; idem, “Calcuating Ancient Coin Production, II: why it cannot be done”, ibid. Vol. 154 (1994), pp. 341–352; S. E. Buttrey and T. V. Buttrey, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production, Again’ in American Journal of Numismatics Vol. 9 (Washington DC 1997), pp. 113–135; T. V. Buttrey, A. Johnston, K. M. Mackenzie & M. L. Bates, Greek, Roman and Islamic Coins from Sardis (Cambridge MA 1982); T. V. Buttrey and I. A. Carradice, The Roman Imperial Coinage, vol. 2 part 1 (revised edition): From AD 69 to AD 96 – Vespasian to Domitian (London 2007); T. V. Buttrey and Clyde Hubbard, Guidebook of Mexican Coins, 1822 to Date, 6th edn. ed. by Thomas Michael (Fort Collins CO 1992).

4. An earlier instance somewhere in P. J. Casey (him again) and Richard reece (edd.), Coins and the Archaeologist, 2nd edn (London 1988), but drat it, I haven’t written down where, sorry.

5. The 2010 post I mentioned was also weighed down by the death of many important musicians, at least important to me, and sadly this is no different. Not only have I taken this long to find out about the death of Walter Becker, bassist-and-more of Steely Dan, in September, but “Fast” Eddie Clarke, once of Motörhead of course, also didn’t make it through this killing winter. The classic line-up of Motörhead is now hopefully reunited, though if so Lemmy will have some serious retractions to make… Anyway, it needs to stop now please, this has just been too many figures of renown to lose in a month.