Tag Archives: Birmingham

All that Glitters 7: the slight return

With due respect thus paid to events that have overtaken us, I return to my sort-of-scheduled programming here at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe and also to the subject of Byzantine coinage, from which it seems I will probably never entirely escape. And why indeed would one want to? But I can bring one thing to a close with this post, which is my reports on the experiments that my collaborators and I did on the All That Glitters project analysing Byzantine gold coins by X-ray Fluorescence of which you have by now heard so much, at least until we actually publish properly on it. So here is the last post on the theme for the time being.1

Bruker S8 TIGER XRF analyser open for business

And therefore last chance to re-use this photograph of the S8TIGER WD-XRF machine in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Birmingham!

I’ve done so many of these posts now that summarising the experiments in any detail would be quite difficult as well as tedious, so for the purposes of this post, let’s just say, we’d gone into the project hoping to say something about changes in the trace elements present in the coins that might tell us something about changing metal sources and minting practices, and we’d found that for two reasons that wasn’t really possible, although we did still find some stuff out doing it. The first and more historical of those reasons why not was simply the nature of the Byzantine tax system, which persistently called in coins from across the Empire, melted them down and redistributed their metal centrally to the mints for striking, thus ineluctably mixing all the different mints’ practices together; the only place we could really see compositional difference was provinces that were falling off the Empire, and even then interaction was usually sufficient to keep things mixed up. But the other reason was that the detection machinery, be it never so sophisticated, couldn’t really tell us what we wanted to know, and that also for two reasons, one being because of invisible surface deposits from the soil that we couldn’t properly see through with the X-rays (and couldn’t safely remove very effectively), and the other being simple and frustrating variation in results.

At what had been supposed to be the end of the project, therefore, because of the various constraints and inefficiencies of getting the coins safely to the analysis machinery and back, we had unspent money left in our grant budget, and so I thought—I think this was me, but if not, I’m sorry to either Rebecca Darley or Maria Vrij for stealing their credit here—that one useful thing we could do with half a day was get some kind of baseline figure for how bad that variability was. So on 16th February 2016 we did a very simple experiment. We took one coin, put it in a sample cup and then without touching it, moving it or changing it in any way beyond what the automatic handling in the spectrometer put it through, ran it through exactly the same test five times, and then turned it over in the cup and did that again for the reverse side, giving us ten runs on the same object in which there was literally nothing more that we could have done to reduce variation.

Apparently I wasn’t taking the security photographs that day, so I cannot show you that coin in its sample cup, but here it is in shiny catalogue image; it is a gold-ish tremissis of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V probably struck in Sicily or Italy, as we demonstrated in the last one of these posts, between 717 and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4542

The results were not encouraging. Admittedly, in terms of gold content they were not too far apart, ranging from 85.26% to 87.21%, an error margin of only about 3%, but even that is 2% raw difference in apparent metal content. People have founded theories about currency alteration on the basis of disparities like that, so if you’re getting them between measurements of a single coin that’s a problem. But the less present elements had similar amounts of variation: silver 7.63% to 8.84%, copper 1.78% to 2.39%, iron 0.15% to 1.04%, aluminium 0.38% to 0.67%, magnesium 0.13% to 0.67%, and then a host of other elements that one didn’t even see in some or most tests. Again, these margins may not seem like a lot, less than a per cent in some cases, but those less-than-per-cent margins are in some cases more than the total percentage of a metal in question, which meant that the error margins we were seeing were mathematically huge, in the order of 300% to 500%. Basically, no respectable scientist would trust such figures, because they could have no confidence that they would be able to reproduce them, and fair enough, because here we were trying to do so and more or less failing.

So what did all this tell us? One gloomy conclusion, that for all we’d hoped to find differently, XRF probably still isn’t a workable way of analysing trace elements in coins, we had more or less already reached, but this let us actually put numbers on why not, which is worth something. I’ve since looked at quite a lot of papers using XRF analyses on coins, and I’ve found only one that used an average of several experiments as their working figure, and that was from 1983 (and was by none other than the late lamented Michael Metcalf, and he was dealing with variations of over 20% depending on what he’d done to Philip Grierson’s coins to get those results, which we know because he actually said so in his write-up).2 He wasn’t even a metallurgist! And he presumably also wasn’t paying for machine time, which is the basic reason that I guess people don’t otherwise do this. But it is, one might say, a little embarrassing for the subdiscipline. Still, I’m not sure that even an average figure from our tests would be very safe to use. How many tests would one need to run on each object to make safe a 300% error margin? What if one of those tests increased that margin? In general, I think that even the best XRF machinery we can get just can’t give accurate figures for small-percentage composition elements, even if it probably still has some application for the big-ticket components. It’s not the conclusion we’d aimed for but when we can get anyone to publish such a negative finding it may not be without value.3 And thus endeth, for now, the sequence.


1. Of course, we have actually published on the project a tiny bit, in the form of Rebecca Darley, “All that glitters…: the Byzantine gold solidus, c. 300-1092″, in Maria Caccamo Caltabiano (ed.), XV International Numismatic Congress, Taormina 2015: Proceedings (Rome 2017), II, pp. 982-985, but that was actually written and given before we’d done these final experiments.

2. That being D. M. Metcalf, “Interpreting the Alloy of the Merovingian Silver Coinage” in C. N. L. Brooke, B. H. I. H. Stewart, J. G. Pollard and T. R. Volk (eds), Studies in Numismatic Method Presented to Philip Grierson (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 113–126, out of 16 studies I know of from 1966 to 2019; I’m sure there are more, though, and if you feel I’ve missed an important one it would be really useful to know!

3. The main reason that we haven’t yet done more on publication of these experiments, even three years down the line, I should explain, is professional mobility. Even in the course of the project, every single project member changed jobs and only two of them even stayed within the same company/institution. Since then several more of us have moved again. Of course, our new employers all hired us for our own individual qualities and while some of them might like us to do this kind of collaborative inter-disciplinary research, they would prefer to have been part of it, so that only those of us who remain in Birmingham have any immediate professional interest in making this part of our workload. We will publish something on it, because we spent money on the assurance that we would, but it will be when one of us needs it more than whatever else we’re supposed to be working on, and the path to that isn’t yet clear.

All That Glitters, Experiment 6 and final

So, as just described, almost my first academic action of 2016 – for that is how far in the past we are for this post – was to head back to Birmingham, freshly remobilised, to pursue what was supposed to be the last run of experiments in the All That Glitters project of which I have now told you so much. Since the last one of those posts was only a short while ago, I’ll not reprise the project plan beyond saying it was to try and find out what was in Byzantine gold coins besides gold using X-ray fluorescence spectrometry and we were finding it difficult to get beyond what was on Byzantine gold coins. Now, read on!

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4599

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4599, in XRF analysis sample cup

Since we now more or less had a working method established, if it could be called that (since it didn’t really work), we had decided that our original research goal, of spotting changes in the trace elements in the centrally-minted gold coinage of the Byzantine Empire, was beyond the technology, and we needed to work out what else we could do with the remaining machine time. At first we’d thought we wouldn’t have enough, now we had more than we knew what to do with… But the most obvious thing seemed to be to broaden our sample as much as possible. So, we selected more of the Barber Institute’s coins, taken from imperial reigns we hadn’t covered, extra denominations from ones we had and sets from other mints than Constantinople that we could compare to coins of the same emperors there, and we took them all over to University of Birmingham’s School of Chemistry over a period of four days, where we were as usual excellently looked after as far as they could manage, and we subjected them to analysis. In all of this we were hampered by the fact that results were basically hard to reproduce; in fact, this became so frustrating that when it became clear that we still had a dribble of machine time budget left at the end of these experiments, we set up one more to address that problem specifically, and that will be the last of these posts when I get so far. But for this one I can basically give you only a very simplified set of findings, some of which might address real questions if only we could trust our results, and then gently suggest that even what we did get might justify some careful conclusions, though they might not really have justified the labour. So: some late antique numismatic questions, as answered by the S8TIGER in January 2016!

Bruker S8 TIGER XRF analyser open for business

Our tool of analysis, the S8TIGER WD-XRF machine, ready for action

Our first question in this set of tests was about fractional denominations. Though the primary imperial gold coin was the famous solidus, the “dollar of the Middle Ages”, there were also small numbers of halves (semisses) and thirds (tremisses) struck, with slightly different designs.1 Were these actually struck from the same metal as the solidi? Our results, shaky as they were, suggested that the answer was broadly ‘yes’, at least at Constantinople and, as far as we could test, Carthage. The only place where we picked up any reasonably substantial difference was Syracuse, in Sicily, but we’ll come back to that…

Gold solidus of Emperor Maurice struck at Ravenna 582-602, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2390

Gold solidus of Emperor Maurice struck at Ravenna 582-602, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2390

Gold tremissis of Emperor Maurice struck at Ravenna 582-602, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2391

Gold tremissis of Emperor Maurice struck at Ravenna 582-602, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2391; note the different design

The other thing we were hoping to establish in this set of tests was variations between mints. I admit that I was cynical about this; as I think I’ve said before, it had sort of become clear that almost all the elements were shared, and that this made sense in a world where imperial coin was being sucked into Constantinople in tax from right across the Mediterranean each year, melted down and then returned to the world as new coins; the recycling should have mixed everything together over time.2 So the only place we had a hope of seeing such variation was in places where that centralisation was breaking down, and in fact, from very early on it had become clear that late coins of Syracuse were gold-poorer than their Constantinpolitan contemporaries, to the extent where the one of us who hadn’t loaded a coin, so didn’t know what it was, could still tell if it was a Syracusan one from its results.

Graph of gold content over time for Byzantine mints of Constantinople and Syracuse

A very rough Excel-generated graph of coins’ gold content over time for the mints of Constantinople and Syracuse, by your humble author

Some of that impurity was visible by eye, indeed, but we could pick it up from before that. Indeed, there are one or two problem cases where mint attribution is uncertain for such coins, and for one of those at least, we were pretty sure we could now partly answer the question.3

Powerpoint slide showing three tremisses of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V from different mints

This is a slide I’ve grabbed from a presentation I will come to tell you more about in Princeton, and it’s the one on the right that’s the undecided case; but its metal content is much more Italian than Constantinopolitan, and we might get further yet

Why Syracuse was allowed to run its coins differently is a separate question, since as far as we know it was still paying tax to the centre and its coins must have been detectably poorer there too, but maybe what we’re seeing here is actually proof that it didn’t pay tax; its small change, too, seems to have been treated in such a way as to restrict its circulation, and Rebecca Darley (I can take no credit for this thought) wondered therefore if Sicily was persistent suffering a currency drain to the East that these measures were meant to stop by deprecating the exchangeability of Sicilian money.4 It might have helped!

Scatter plot of silver content versus copper content of Italian-attributed Middle Byzantine coins

Scatter plot of silver content versus copper content of Italian-attributed Middle Byzantine coins, which is probably Maria Vrij’s work, though I don’t remember; it was certainly her idea to do it

But as it turned out, we could get one step further with such distinctions. One of the other enigmas about coinage in Byzantine Italy is that we’re not totally sure which issues belong at which mints. Syracuse’s particular characteristics become distinctive after a while, but there are a rook of issues which are tentatively attributed to Ravenna, Rome or just ‘Italy’ that no-one’s really sure about.5 We haven’t solved this problem, but we may have spotted something that will help with it. I say ‘we’, but just as I owed the previous point to Rebecca Darley, this one was thought of by Maria Vrij; I sometimes think my sole intellectual contribution to this project was mainly defeatism. Maria noticed that whereas the Syracuse coins were debased with both silver and copper, and thus maintained a ruddy gold colour even once quite poor-quality, the elemental profile we were getting from supposed Ravenna issues included nothing like as much copper. Instead, the Ravenna issues seem to have turned ‘pale’, being adulerated only with silver. In that respect, they were following the trend of the post-Roman West at large, but it also makes sense in its own terms: Ravenna issued silver coin, which Syracuse didn’t, so when they had to cut corners with the solidi it makes sense that it was the refined silver from the local coinage that went into the pot, while Syracuse was presumably using less processed metal with accompanying copper content.6 So that’s something that belongs to Maria to write up properly, but hopefully it won’t be as many years before that happens as it has already been since we found it out… I make no promises there, as we all have other priorities, but nonetheless, we did find stuff in these tests that people might want to be able to refer to, and I hope this write-up at least gives some basis to believe that!


1. If you want the basics on these coinages, you can do no better even now than consult Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), where pp. 50-56 will cover you for these purposes. The catchphrase, though, comes from Robert Sabatino Lopez, “The Dollar of the Middle Ages” in Journal of Economic History Vol. 11 (Cambridge 1951), pp. 209–234, online at http://www.jstor.org/stable/2113933.

2. My picture of this process comes pretty much direct from M. F. Hendy, “Aspects of Coin Production and Fiscal Administration in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Period” in Numismatic Chronicle 7th Series Vol. 12 (London 1972), pp. 117–139, which is clearer than his later treatment in Michael Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, c.300-1450 (Cambridge 1985), pp. 257-303.

3. The standard reference for such matters, Philip Grierson, Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, volume three: Leo III to Nicephorus III, 717—1081 (Washington DC 1973), Part I, where the coins in question are listed under Leo III 18a.1 (the Barber’s specimen online here), 48 (the Barber’s specimen online here) and, maybe, 12, 13 or 42 depending on what the Barber’s specimen (online here) actually is; the metallurgy makes type 42 seem likely though!

4. On the relevant Sicilian small change see for basics Grierson, Byzantine Coins, pp. 166-168, but for a different view of what was going on with its currency see Cécile Morrisson, “Nouvelles recherches sur l’histoire monétaire byzantine : évolution comparée de la monnaie d’or à Constantinople et dans les provinces d’Afrique et de Sicile” in Jahrbuch der österreichischen Byzantinistik Vol. 33 (Wien 1983), pp. 267-286, repr. in Morrisson, Monnaie et finances à Byzance : Analyses et techniques, Collected Studies 461 (Aldershot 1994), chapter X.

5. Grierson, Byzantine Coins, pp. 168-171.

6. Ravenna’s silver is discussed ibid., p. 140, but for the bigger picture see Mark Blackburn, “Money and Coinage” in Paul Fouracre (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History volume I c. 500‒c. 700 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 660–674.

Chronicle III: January to March 2016

I’m sorry there was no blog last weekend. Frustratingly, the thing I spent that time on now isn’t going to work out, so I’m determined to make sure there is a post this weekend, and the post that is due is the next round-up of my academic life, which has now reached 2016. It has been five months since I posted the last of these three-month slices, and the only real consolation there is that it took me less time to get through those three months of blog content than it did the previous one, but we will hopefully still see further gains made as marking ebbs and the summer shapes up. Can but hope, eh? But meanwhile, here’s how it looked at the beginning of 2016 for your humble blogger.

Teaching

It’s not just tradition but also a reflection of the real state of life that the first item on the bill is always teaching. Actually, in the first half of 2016 I had a lower teaching load than I have had since or likely ever will at Leeds, given what they need me to cover; I was running one module, albeit a big one, and contributing bits to a couple of others. That said, the beginning of the semester was still a fairly steep learning curve, as the module I was running was an inherited first-year course called Empire and Aftermath: The Mediterranean World from the Second to the Eighth Centuries, and even my undergraduate study experience only previously went back to AD 284; I’d never done the second or third centuries before in any context, let alone one where I needed to show expertise. Thankfully I had the help of two postgraduates who’d taught the module before and that made everything easier, although I did also have to second-mark and observe those postgraduates so they were not solely a labour relief. It was all a fair bit of work, and it coincided with the early part of the excellent but intensive Palaeography: Reading Medieval Manuscripts that we put our MA students through, which has continuous assessment. Furthermore, Leeds has examinations on the first semester’s modules as soon as the students get back in January, so I was reading up for the new stuff and choosing manuscript images for palæography at the same time as marking these exam scripts, and by the time I was done with those the first palæography assignments were in, and they were only just back to the students by the time the first-years’ formative essays came in, alongside the second palæography assignments… and in general it seemed a long time before the marking stopped.

Wolfenbüttel MS Codex Guelfybertiani 13, fo. 6v

One that was set; can you read this? Come to Leeds and we’ll teach you! But if you want to know more independently, it is Wolfenbüttel MS Codex Guelfybertiani 13, folio 6 verso, and you can find out more via the link through the image

In between these I fitted a couple of workshops for an Institute for Medieval Studies module, Medieval Narratives on the Modern World, on European national origin myths and on the so-called Reconquista, but those were fun and much less work. And there were also personal tutorials to be fitted in, to which only half the students turn up but of course you must book the time anyway, and feedback meetings, and also joint care of a visiting Chinese Ph. D. student. I felt fairly busy. Still, looking back, I was not carrying very much and the next year would have been much harder if I hadn’t had this run-up.

Extra Labours

That must also be how I had time for the other things I was doing. In particular, having found out that there was this coin collection in the bottom of the Library, I had resolved to make it part of my teaching, and so one of the few changes I did make to Empire and Aftermath was to turn one of the seminars into a coin-handling session to try and get people excited about the reality of the period in their hands. I’m not sure how well that worked, though commendably both my postgrad assistants leapt at the chance to be able to say they’d taught with coins and did some crash-course Roman numismatics with me, which made me feel useful. More prosaically, in the state of the collection there wasn’t really a way to find out what there was to teach with except to inventory it, so I put aside my Friday afternoons for most of this period to inventory the medieval, Byzantine and late Roman coins and got through a fair few. Some day soon I will get round to sorting out the photographs I took of the cool ones…

Copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Constans II overstruck at Constantinople in 641-642 on a coin of Emperor Heraclius, DOC II Constans II 59c, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued

Here is one that perhaps only I could think is cool, a horribly-made copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Constans II overstruck at Constantinople in 641-642 on a coin of Emperor Heraclius, DOC II Constans II 59c, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued

There was also other stuff involving coins. Back at the Barber Institute the process of replacing me had unfortunately crossed with their normal exhibition schedule, so my humble effort, Inheriting Rome, was extended for a few months to give the new curator a chance. I got to see my thus-prolonged exhibition again because there were still two more sessions of the now-legendary All That Glitters project to do, about which I will tell you shortly, and of course back at Leeds this was also the time in which I started the wheels turning on the project that would become Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet. My head of department was actually concerned that I was going to spend all my time doing late antique numismatics and not the research on whose basis I’d been hired, which I didn’t see as a serious worry because, at this point, there was still time and I used it on stuff that was interesting and useful for others as well as for me.

Other people’s work

I was also at this point still managing to travel for seminars a bit, and I have a lot of notes from this period that I’m not really going to say much more about. The itinerary looked like this, though:

  • Katherine Cross, Dominic Dalglish and Robert Bracey, “Images, Relics and Altars: comparing material religion on the first millennium”, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 20th January 2016, to which I went mainly because Robert is an All That Glitters collaborator, but at this stage he was also busy with a project called Empires of Faith, which was doing the kind of cross-cultural comparison implied by their title here, with Katy Cross bringing early English Christian monuments like the Gosforth Cross to the table, Dominic Dalglish coming from the ancient Mediterranean world and Robert from Kushan India, but here talking as much about what made for valid comparison in this set-up as the actual objects. This was interesting but the results of the project can now be investigated on the web, so I’ll leave this one aside and move on to…
  • Hugh Kennedy, “ISIS and the Early Caliphate”, Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages Annual Public Lecture, University of Birmingham, 27th January 2016, to which I travelled down and which I thoroughly enjoyed, but which needs treatment together with…
  • Julia McClure, “A New Politics of the Middle Ages: a global Middle Ages for a global modernity”, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 3rd February 2016, also substantially about the way people were reading the Middle Ages into the situation in the Middle East at that time, but approaching it from a very different direction. So I’ll do a post about those two together.
  • I also made it down to London for Alex Rodríguez Suárez, “The Komnenian Emperors: a Latinophone dynasty”, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 11th February 2016, about the extent of the changes brought about in Byzantine court ceremonial under, especially, Manuel I Komnenos that would be attributed to Latin influence, which Dr Rodríguez wanted, I think rightly, to read as appropriation of ways to assert dominance over the new Latin lords in the Middle East, not an aping of their flashy chivalric habits as they have often carelessly been read. That seemed convincing to me but I don’t have much more to say about it, so on to a clutch of things back at Leeds, as follows:
  • Pat Cullum, “‘Looking the Part’: presentation and representation of clerical masculinity in late medieval England”, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 24th February 2016;
  • Esther Eidinow, “Seeing into the Future? Oracles and the Ancient Greeks”, Classics Seminar, University of Leeds, 25th February 2016, about ancient Greek stories in which oracles were tested before being consulted for real, pushing at the edges of our categories of rational and irrational, interesting and my first step in a plan to make friends with my counterparts in Classics and Ancient History;
  • Natalie Anderson, “Tournament Trappings: Textiles and Armour Working Together in the Late Medieval Joust”, Medieval Group Seminar, University of Leeds, 7th March 2016, the culminating presentation by one of our Ph.D. students then about to finish and very much a mature piece of work about the ways in which combatants in late medieval tournaments displayed and distinguished themselves, which was as much or more a matter of fabric as the armour that more often now remains to us.
  • Then, back to London again to see a big name, Philippe Buc, “Eschatology, War and Peace: of Christ’s Armies, Antichrist and the End of Times between ca. 1095 and ca. 1170″, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 10th March 2016, arguing for a change in the way that medieval people thought about the oncoming end of the world that occurred with Crusading, in which it becoming OK to kill for God was itself a sign of the end times, but one that could last for quite a long while, setting up the fight that would now go on until everyone was Christian and the End finally came. I remember this being fun and extremely erudite, but looking back over my notes I’m not sure what I have to add to that summary, so it’s back to Leeds for two more to close the season, the relevant items being:
  • Travelling the World: from Apuleius to the Icelandic Sagas, from the picaresque novel to travel literature, a more substantial seminar in Classics whose separate components were:
    • Regine May, “Travelling to the Land of Witches: Apuleius’s Golden Ass“, about Thessaly’s Classical reputation as a hotbed of magic and sorcery and how travel might thus lead you out of the known world in several dimensions, and
    • Ros Brown-Grant, “Encounters between the East and West in Fifteenth-Century Manuscript Cultures”, on pictures of Westerners meeting Easterners either in West of East as imagined by Western manuscript artists, usually for tales of betrayal where Greeks were concerned or conversion where Muslims were, sort of inevitably.
  • and finally, Ross Balzaretti, “Early Medieval Charters as Evidence for Land Management Practices”, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 16th March 2016, to which I would have gone even had it been further afield since Ross has been a supporter of mine for a long time and I am very interested in his work, but precisely because it’s quite similar to my own, I’m not going to do a detailed write-up here because it would look a lot like, “Ross’s charters say things like mine do!” It was good, but you can already read the same sort of thing here.

My Own Research?

So that brings us to the end of the timespan, and I have only promised three extra posts out of it this time, though actually there are also one news and two tourism posts that should also be fitted in there. But what is as ever missing is my own research. What was I working on in this period, looking back? Well, for one thing I was finishing revisions on the conference paper that nearly wasn’t, “A Problem of Concavity”; the final version of that was fired off into what became a suspicious silence in the middle of February 2016. After that I seem to have turned to the reading to support the revision of my venerable paper on early medieval crop yields, of which I’d done the bulk while still at Birmingham, and I had a new draft of that done in March, although, it would seem, not one I thought submissible; that was still a way off, and I now don’t recall why. But beyond that it’s hard to see what I was doing, and the conclusion has to be, I think, that despite the apparently light load I was struggling. I would build up academic muscle from here, and reluctantly trim back a lot of the activity above to make other things possible, but at this stage I was still enjoying being an established academic as I’d imagined it and seen it done by others, as well as reading a lot for teaching, and perhaps not getting that balance entirely right, in retrospect. I think, also, I still hadn’t actually worked out how to schedule research in a job that finally actually included that as a duty, but had structured time only for other activities. Actually accepting that it was a legitimate use of my employers’ time to read a book, after years governed by the next deadline, was still proving weirdly hard for me… Of course, I still was governed by the next deadline, functionally, but I was only letting others set them, wherein a mistake with future complications. Anyway, this story will be continued! But for now there’s enough queued up to write about, and this has already been a long post, so I’ll wrap it here and thank you for reading.

All That Glitters, Experiment 5

Fittingly in some ways, given the distressing news of the last post, this post takes me back to Birmingham (which continues to happen, with a trip there on Wednesday coming that I will delight in telling you about before long if all goes to plan…). In fact, this is the last of the posts promised in my second Chronicle round-up, which means that we are now progressed in the story of my academic life to December 2015… It doesn’t look a lot like blogging progress, but let’s ignore that and instead tell the next part of the story of my project to zap Byzantine gold coins with X-rays, All That Glitters.

Bruker S8 TIGER XRF analyser open for business

The maw of the S8 TIGER XRF analysis machine in the Department of Chemistry, University of Birmingham, already much featured in these posts

It’s getting a little silly now to re-summarise the project every time I do one of these posts, however far apart they may be, so I’ll invite you to look here for the premise and just say where, by December 2015, the project had got up to. In brief, we had started from a belief that we might be able to find out about sources of metal for the Byzantine coinage and how those changed and maybe why by analysing them using a technique known as X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF). We got money to investigate this possibility in April 2015, and either before that or thereafter moved through the following developmental steps:

  1. finding out that the lightweight, energy-dispersive kit that we had hoped to use just wasn’t going to get the information we needed;
  2. finding out that the big, stationary, wavelength-dispersive kit we had to use instead (by kind courtesy of the Department of Chemistry, University of Birmingham) would get us the best results only on its longest cycle, cutting the number of things we could test in the time we could pay for down considerably;
  3. finding out that the results we were getting apparently included quite a lot of invisible surface deposits that seemed most likely to be leftover soil;
  4. discovering that, against all expectations, cleaning the coins in acetone actually made this problem worse, if anything;
  5. deciding, along the way, that we could not, as we had hoped, test different areas of coins for comparison of homogeneity either, because the results were just too darn variable to interpret;
  6. establishing that despite all these limitations, we could still distinguish between mint practices sometimes, but that only in the most difficult of cases was this telling us anything a competent numismatist couldn’t have seen by thmselves;
  7. and, although this was my colleague Dr Rebecca Darley, not myself, presenting these initial findings at the International Numismatic Congress in Taormina and at the Joint British Museum/Institute of Archaeology Seminar at University College London.1
  8. At the former of these presentations we got some pushback from the numismatists whose work we were implicitly questioning, which was understandable, but in the latter we got lots of pushback from one or two archaeometallurgists who felt that we were not people properly trained to do such work and that in fact it was pointless, which I saw as one of those ivory-tower problems; people are out there doing such work badly anyway, so would you rather just let them publish it and be accepted or shall we aim to do at least a bit better?2 Admittedly, we were having trouble doing much better, but that was what we now set about solving…

On 17th December 2015, therefore, three of us brought our test set of coins back to the Department of Chemistry, but this time with a difference. We’d already tried cleaning the coins in acetone, as said, so we had decided that we needed to try harder. But how hard should you try to clean a relatively soft precious-metal object of considerable value? Thankfully, this was a question that the team working on the Staffordshire Hoard had already faced, and since I’d been able to talk with one of them earlier in the year, we had a kind of answer, which was, berberis (or barberry) thorns: tough enough to shift surface dirt, soft enough not to scratch the metal!3 So before the test, Maria Vrij, by now in post succeeding me as Interim Curator of Coins at the Barber following my move to Leeds, had taken the coins and more acetone down to the Barber’s most suitable room for the purpose and, with the windows wide open, had laboriously worked over their surfaces with thorns under a magnifying glass.4 I can only say that this made me very glad to have moved jobs before this could have become my task, and I remain very grateful to Maria for doing it, but of course the real question was, what difference did it make? And the answer was, sadly, ‘a bit’: the levels of presumably-surface material that shouldn’t really be in the coins (calcium, silicon, potassium, aluminium) dropped, but were not gone.

A gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius struck at Constantinople in 613-616, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2762, in a WD-XRF sample cup

A gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius struck at Constantinople in 613-616, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2762, in its WD-XRF sample cup for testing

This was, in many ways, not the answer we wanted, as with so many of the findings thus far. We would much rather not have had to use the big, fixed machine to which the coins had to be brought, rather than one of the portable ones we could have taken to other collections; we would rather have been able to use a shorter test cycle and thus test more things in the time we had; we’d rather not have had to clean the coins at all; but if we had to clean the coins, we’d rather it had been possible just with a wash and a rub in acetone, not with hours of picking at them with thorns with your face close over a bath of solvent. If we had (and by we, I really mean Maria, sorry Maria), to do all that, however, we’d at least have liked it to produce good results. What it actually produced, however, was only measurably less bad results, which was not the exciting scientific conclusion for which we might have hoped. But it might be a bit more like actual science, and sadly, it’s a lot more like real life; messy, never quite sorted out, but still interesting…


1. The former of these papers is now published, in fact, as Rebecca Darley, “All that glitters…: the Byzantine gold solidus, c. 300-1092″, in Maria Caccamo Caltabiano (ed.), XV Internationa Numismatic Congress, Taormina 2015: Proceedings (Rome 2017), II, pp. 982-985. A cite for the latter would be Rebecca Darley, “What does the science mean? Interpreting metallurgic analysis of Byzantine gold coinage”, unpublished paper presented at the British Museum/Institute of Archaeology Joint Seminar, University College London, 15th December 2015.

2. It seems mean to point fingers, but once it’s being cited it is probably fair game and, on the basis of our experiments, I might raise questions about Rasiel Suarez, “A Metals Analysis of Silver Roman Imperial Coins using X-Ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy”, online here, whose precision just seems impossible with the equipment he used despite his checks (which were not carried out against a standard), and one would like at least to be able to ask more questions about the methods and reproducibility of the tests in Monica Baldassarri, Gildo de Holanda Cavalcanti, Marco Ferretti, Astrik Gorghinian, Emanuela Grifoni, Stefano Legnaioli, Giulia Lorenzetti, Stefano Pagnotta, Luciano Marras, Eleonora Violano, Marco Lezzerini and Vincenzo Palleschi, “X-Ray Fluorescence Analysis of XII–XIV Century Italian Gold Coins” in Journal of Archaeology (2014), pp. 1–6, online here. Note that we are not the only researchers wondering about things like this, by now: see also V. Orfanou and Th. Rehren, “A (not so) dangerous method: pXRF vs. EPMA-WDS analyses of copper-based artefacts” in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences Vol. 7 (Basel 2015), pp. 387–397, DOI: 10.1007/s12520-014-0198-z, and E. S. Blakelock, “Never Judge A Gold Object by its Surface Analysis: A Study of Surface Phenomena in a Selection of Gold Objects from the Staffordshire Hoard” in Archaeometry Vol. 58 (Chichester 2016), pp. 912–929, DOI: 10.1111/arcm.12209.

3. See ibid.!

4. Of course, she is no longer Interim, but now actually properly Curator of Coins, and much better at it than ever I was, despite the acetone fumes!

Memories of Ruth Macrides

You are owed a post, dear readers, but as happens too often these days, this is not one I wanted to write. Over the Easter vacation news reached me of the unexpected death of Dr Ruth Macrides, of the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham, noted Byzantinist and my erstwhile colleague. I have dithered about writing, because there are many people already doing so who knew Ruth better than I did, but I worked with her, I shared seminar wine with her and I have written notices about people I knew far less well; I probably should. So, this is a few memories of Ruth.

Staff picture of Dr Ruth Macrides

Picture of Dr Ruth Macrides from her Birmingham staff page, now displaying a sad notice of her death

Pinning down when I first met Ruth is tricky for me. It would have been when I was teaching on the History side of Birmingham’s School of History and Cultures, whereas the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies sits organisationally within the Department of Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology, so our points of crossing then were limited. But I knew her by the time I handed over the MA in Medieval History’s Research Skills module to her at the end of my contract, so I must have met her before that. In this respect, my memory is deficient, sorry Ruth. But she made a fresh impression upon me when, rescued from possible academic unemployment by the job as Interim Curator of Coins at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, I thus found myself gathered into the Centre. I don’t know if Ruth was in fact running the Centre at this point, but she was everywhere in its activity: she edited its journal, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, and she organised its seminar programme, which was (as indeed you heard here) studded with international speakers, including non-Byzantinists. The thing that most impressed me at the first meeting was that she had had termcards printed, not just A4 printouts but little green folded cards with the Centre’s logo on them. An affectation, you might think, but it was practices like this (and its Postgraduate Colloquium and periodic hosting of the Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, which latter Ruth was organising this year…) that meant that the Centre was instantiated and continued to have a group identity despite being organisationally subsumed into something else. With things like these Ruth was the Centre’s lungs; she kept it breathing, and I could point you at other interdisciplinary centres of yore which are no longer really visible or significant not least because no-one bothered to do things like those. So all power to Ruth’s memory for that.

Cover of the April 2019 issue of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies

Cover of the April 2019 issue of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, presumably the last one Ruth edited and displaying the logo of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, a coin of Emperor Leo III

My next most powerful memory of Ruth is of her laughing. As she was organising those seminars, she also had to take the speakers out to dinner. Not every one of those dinners could be a party, but I remember one seminar dinner in particular—though I don’t remember who the speaker was, or even if they actually came to dinner—in which Ruth and fellow American immigrée Professor Leslie Brubaker were exchanging anecdotes about the terrible British housing they had encountered with horror on their first arrivals on these shores. I have a very clear picture in my mind of Ruth drawing breath between laughs with her hand emphatically grasping Leslie’s arm, and I see that this is also Ruth as Leslie has remembered her on Birmingham’s tribute page. So Ruth energetically fronting the Centre and Ruth laughing with her colleagues are my two strongest memories of her, and that is just as it should be I think.

But Ruth also needs remembering as scholar, so I will add one more, though, because it makes a point she would not have. In fact, she wasn’t even present for it. A very long memory of this blog could however contain a seminar report on a paper by Kyle Sinclair, one of Ruth’s doctoral students who had on that occasion returned to present to one of the local postgraduate seminars. That was a good paper, but it was also the first time I had heard Ruth actually cited, for a paper entitled ‘The Historian in the History’, which turns out to be one of those super-useful things on how medieval authors’ own perspectives mess with our understanding of the history we rely on them for.1 That is, obviously, a known factor of doing history and yet it’s really hard to find people explicitly writing about it and about how we might extract practice as historians from these instances. It’s why I still struggle to direct students for whom source critique is a new idea, because clear and transportable examples are few and far between.2 I’m sure that, if you’re in the field, this is not the work for which the name Ruth Macrides is best known; in fact, she wrote so much of importance that I wouldn’t know where to start with that, especially as she specialised a few centuries later than I do at the other end of the Mediterranean from where I started. But that paper is one that all medieval historians could usefully read, and of course I had to hear about it from one of her students, because something I never heard Ruth do was boast about her work. Her own importance to her field was not something she thought worth mention, apparently. But I think it is and will continue to be evident in all the things people are now saying about her. She was important, she will be much missed, and so I wanted to make my own little contribution to her being remembered. Go in peace, Ruth, and may there be laughter where you have gone.


1. Ruth Macrides, “The Historian in the History”, in Costas N. Constantinides, Nikolaos M. Panagiotakes, Elizabeth Jeffreys and Athanasios D. Angelou (edd.), Philellen: studies in honour of Robert Browning, Biblioteca dell’Istituto ellenico di studi bizantini e postbizantini di Venezia 17 (Venice 1996), pp. 205-224.

2. My other good example is Janet L. Nelson, “Public ‘Histories’ and Private History in the Work of Nithard” in Speculum Vol. 65 (Cambridge MA 1985) pp. 251-293, repr. in eadem, Politics and Ritual in Early Medieval Europe (London 1986), pp. 195-237, and I believe Chris Given-Wilson, Chronicles: The Writing of History in Medieval England (London 2004) does this work as well, but there really aren’t enough such pieces. I dream of some day writing one for charters…

Introducing the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive

I am buried in marking, so have to resort to stored content for this week, in the hope of more progress later in the week. This is a post that I’ve had stubbed for so long to complete, indeed, that I have just repeatedly forgotten that it should come next on quite numerous occasions. Now, however, its turn in the sun finally comes! For lo, it was in the year 2015, in the January of that year, while I was still residing in the settlement of Beormingaham, that word reached me of a new digital venture by two of my by-then-bosom colleagues, Dr Rebecca Darley (now of Birkbeck, University of London) and Dr Daniel Reynolds (still, but now establishedly, at Birmingham), called the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive.

Screen capture of the home page of the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive

Screen capture of the home page of the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive

If I have my memories right, and I seem to, this came about because while those two had been in charge of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts coin collection (in which of course they preceded me), they had found in the coin room several cardboard boxes of photographs and ephemera, which on inspection turned out to be nothing less than the photographic archive of the Byzantine excavations of Professor David Talbot Rice, eminent art historian and archaeologist at Edinburgh. Apparently his widow thought the Byzantine materials would be best homed with Birmingham’s famous Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies of which I once had the honour to be part. It was quite the little hoard, anyway, as most of his photographs had been taken before the Second World War, so he had, for example, pictures of Istanbul (where he’d dug the Great Palace of Constantinople) which showed it completely different to its current state, with things that are now long gone, built over, or otherwise inaccessible visible and inspected with an academic’s precision. And this being our modern digital age, the immediate thought of our bold curators was to get this stuff online.

Pages from David Talbot Rice's notebook from the excavations of the Myrelaeon in Istanbul in the 1920s, image Myrelaion 006 from the David Talbot Rice Archive, digitised by the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive, licensed under Creative Commons 3.0

Pages from David Talbot Rice’s notebook from the excavations of the Myrelaion in Istanbul in the 1920s, image 386 from the David Talbot Rice Archive, digitised by the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive

Now, those who know these two will also realise that no plan of theirs ever stays small. After all, though this was a special one, there are a lot of academics with photo archives, and what happens to them usually? If we’re fortunate, they go to a museum collection which may or may not have time to catalogue and/or display them; if we’re not, they either wind up in someone’s attic (or a coin room) or they go to landfill or recycling. What if someone set up a digital archive that could guarantee upload and preservation of such things? And thus was the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive born.

Rihab, St George, Jordan: stone-lined tomb with accompanying grave cover (left and middle). Image 15704362483, Rihab, by Daniel Reynolds, digitised by the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive, Creative Commons 3.0

Rihab, St George, Jordan: stone-lined tomb with accompanying grave cover (left and middle). Image 15704362483, Rihab, by Daniel Reynolds, digitised by the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive, Creative Commons 3.0.

Buy-in was pretty rapid. Dan contributed his own photos straight away, and their (indeed, my) then-colleague Matthew Harpster gave a load of his, but these were born-digital and in some ways easy pickings. Rather more of a coup was to obtain the promise, then the delivery, of the photos of Birmingham’s founder Byzantinist and then-living legend, Anthony Bryer, who had also trodden or ridden many a road no longer recognisable. Work to upload those is ongoing, and other scholars’ archives have been promised. But this is work that can use your help! To be maximally useful, these images need tagging. That’s a fair labour in itself, and both Rebecca and Dan now have full-time high-demand jobs that don’t leave much spare effort for tinkering with photographs, but there’s also the basic problem that some of them are unrecognisable, or at least unfamiliar to anyone but the seriously expert. By way of an example: can you identify this church? Because as far as I know, we/they can’t, as yet…

A church somewhere in Trebizond, c.1920, image 002 from the David Talbot Rice Archive, digitised by the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive, licensed under Creative Commons 3.0

A church somewhere in Trebizond, c.1920, image 002 from the David Talbot Rice Archive, digitised by the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive, licensed under Creative Commons 3.0

So I, and Rebecca and Dan, invite you to have a look at the archive as it now stands and see what you can find. Please note their terms and conditions, and their careful statement of limitations, but also please note the possibilities, and if you think you can help, I’m sure that they’d love to hear from you!

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