Tag Archives: Maria Vrij

Conferring over coins in Birmingham

Sorry about the lateness of this post; I write between two family gatherings that have taken up quite a lot of writing time. But here is a post even so! We’ve come so far with the whole world situation that people are contemplating having real in-person conferences again, but this post is still a story of the distant past for now, and specifically of 18th November 2017, when I was down in Birmingham and indeed my old place of employ, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, to listen to a conference about the collection I briefly managed, entitled ‘The Barber Coin Collection Colloquium Day: Past, Present and Future Research’. I didn’t speak at this myself, being somewhat embroiled with other work just then, but I learnt a few things by going. These were the speakers:

  • Margaret Mullett, “The Legacy of Anthony Bryer”
  • Rebecca Darley, “Sri Lankan Coins in the Barber Collection”
  • Maria Vrij, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mezezios?”
  • Wei-Sheng Lin, “Armenian Cilician Coinage”
  • K. MacDonald, “African Gold Sources for Byzantine Carthaginian Coins”
  • Anika Asp, “Numismatic Sources for the Empire of Trebizond”
  • Alex Feldman, “Coinage and Commonwealth, 9th-11th Centuries: local dynasties and mints in the ‘Ummā and Oikoumene”
  • Joseph Parsonage, “Coins and Co-Emperors – Crowned Regents in Byzantium”
  • Michael Burling, “Sasanian Numismatic Imagery and its Influence”

Now, of these, Wei, Alex, Joseph and Mike were at that stage various levels of postgraduate at Birmingham and were not primarily working on coins for their theses, and had really been introduced to them either by me or Maria as Curators, so they were presenting partly for practice and partly out of goodwill, and for that reason I shan’t discuss their papers in any detail. Professor Mullett’s presentation, in turn, was largely a biographical sketch of a man who had been involved in the negotiations that led to many of the collection items being in the Barber at all, and you can read about him in more detail yourselves if you like. So that leaves Rebecca, Maria and Dr MacDonald, all of whom had things to say which are still probably interesting if you’re interested in such things!

Gold imitation of a solidus of Emperor Theodosius II possibly made in India or Sri Lanka, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts LR0482

Gold imitation of a solidus of Emperor Theodosius II possibly made in India or Sri Lanka after 402 CE, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts LR0482

Rebecca’s paper was an analysis of the sale history of five late-Roman-or-Byzantine coins which, according to a note lurking in the Barber’s archives, had been found in Sri Lanka. This seemed, on the face of it, dubious. Now, not many people have a better idea of what imperial numismatic material is found in Sri Lanka, and as we’ve seen Rebecca also knows a thing or two about numismatic collectors. A false hope was realised by the possible connection of two of the coins to one Leslie de Saram, a man famous in Lankan archaeology but who nonetheless acquired pretty much all his coins on the London market; but the coin above, as well as one of Maurice, she thought could possibly be Sri Lankan finds given everything recorded about them in the Barber (not much) and the wider finds patterns, though even there the Maurice coin would fill a gap rather than having parallels.1 It makes me suddenly think that if our failed attempts to get through the surface dirt on these coins with an X-ray had in fact been directed at analysing the dirt, maybe we’d have been able to settle this question! But as it is, it is still a matter of possibility whether the Barber does in fact hold coins that went all that way out of the Empire and then had another Empire bring them back again and out the other side…2

Gold solidus of Emperor Constants II struck at Carthage 641-654 CE, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4100

Gold solidus of Emperor Constans II struck at Carthage 641-654 CE, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4100, tested in the All the Glitters project and not found wanting

Since we’re now talking about metals analysis, it probably makes sense to discuss Dr MacDonald’s paper next. This was coming out of a project that was trying, effectively, to work out when and if trade across the Sahara Desert can be archaeologically documented before the Islamic era. Part of this work had involved trying to work out if sub-Saharan gold had reached the north of Africa before that time, and one way to determine this was to test coinage issued in Byzantine Carthage, of which of course the Barber has a bit (and we tested some). The thing here is that Byzantine coins from Carthage took on an increasingly thick, globular aspect over the sixth century, as you can sort of see above, and it has been suggested that this is because the blanks were coming in as lumps from the Essouk goldfields, way way south, because such lumps have been found as production debris there.3 Somehow I didn’t write down what methods Dr MacDonald was using to test his coins, but the methods must have been better than ours as he was finding distinct differences between the normal, flat solidi previously minted by Carthage and the globular ones which did not themselves prove, but were consistent with, the idea of them being on Essouk blanks, and what the difference largely was was that the globular coins were made out of unrefined gold. I would have to say that this didn’t fit with what we’d found when we’d tested one, but then as we know our methods were not very good. This is why I (still) want to know more about his…

Gold solidus probably struck by Emperor Mezezios in Syracuse 668 CE, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4272

Gold solidus probably struck by Emperor Mezezios in Syracuse 668 CE, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4272

Lastly, here if not on the day, Maria’s paper covered a very rare coin of which the Barber has one, apparently struck by a very short-lived usurper—I suppose if he’d been long-lived we’d just call him an emperor—by the name of Mezezios, who rose up in Sicily in 668 after the murder of Emperor Constans II. His coinage was first identified in 1979, but has been disputed ever since, and while Maria did not claim to have solved the problem herself, she did, by explaining the arguments for and against, make it seem much more likely that such a thing would have existed, and therefore that since there are several known from different contexts, they’re probably that thing. The argument really hinges on the fact that, iconographically, the coins appear to imitate those of Emperor Justinian I, from a century before, rather than anyone more recent, and while this has a been a mark against the theory for some people Maria thought, quite reasonably I reckon, that if you’re usurping the throne from a dynasty you don’t borrow their iconography, but go back to before their problem ever arose. Certainly this happens with those who finally did, temporarily, replace that dynasty by overthrowing Justinian II and reversed his numismatic innovations, so I don’t have a problem with it thirty years before either!4

All things considered, this was a good thing to have been part of. It did what I think Maria had hoped, by demonstrating that having a good collection in a university can actually be a generator of research and that that research, even on tiny things like coins, can open up bigger findings. It is necessary to remind people of this, every now and then, and while I’m not sure the people who most needed to know it were there, at least by writing it up, even this late on, I can help to remind a few more people of this significant truth!

1. That Maurice coin is Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B1767, visible here.

2. Rebecca now has a version of this story in print, and indeed online, as Rebecca Darley, “‘Implicit Cosmopolitanism’ and the Commercial Role of Ancient Lanka’ in Zoltán Biedermann and Alan Strathern (edd.), Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History (London 2017), online here, pp. 44–65 at pp. 51-56.

3. Dr MacDonald cited what had then just emerged as David W. Phillipson, “Trans-Saharan Gold Trade and Byzantine Coinage” in Antiquaries Journal Vol. 97 (London 2017), pp. 145–169, online here.

4. My bit of that is due soon to emerge as part of Jonathan Jarrett, “Coinage in the Western World at the End of the Roman Empire and After: Tradition, Imitation and Innovation” in Journal of Ancient Civilizations Vol. 36 (forthcoming). You will hear here when that happens!

Leeds International Medieval Congress 2016, reflected upon from a distance

Somehow Action Short of a Strike still looks a lot like a really hard week—the contract I’m working to doesn’t have fixed hours—so I find myself blogging very late on a Sunday. Both because of that and because of the topic, I don’t want to write a long post (though when I say that it never works, not least because of parentheses like these…): what can there be to say about a conference three years ago? On the other hand, in so far as this blog is my academic record, I don’t want to miss it out: I was there, I did things I hope will matter, and I was for the first time able to host friends for it at the house then ours in Leeds, so it was a sociable occasion worth remembering. Indeed, I made quite a few new friends at Leeds 2016, looking back, so some sort of record is needed. I’ll restrict it, however, to a list of the papers I went to and limited commentary where I have some memory or good notes, and I’ll put it behind a cut so as not to bore those who think this a touch too obsessional. If I don’t feature your paper, please blame my memory, not your content; it was a long and tiring conference, as it always is. But I will take the last day in a separate post, because it was sort of a conference within a conference for me, for reasons that will become obvious in that other post. So this is 4th to 6th July 2016 in my world, as it unfolded… Continue reading

Many many Barber Institute coins now online

Following up on that previous post more quickly than usual, the mention of Dr Maria Vrij of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, my honourable successor and exceeder in post there as Curator of Coins, and also the use of the University of Birmingham’s online objects catalogue to instance a Barber coin, both lead me together to pointing something out that’s deserved notice since it began in March 2016 with some of the Barber’s Roman Republican coinage, which is: they have managed to put really quite a lot more of their coin collection online since I left you know!

An anonymous bronze quadrans of the Roman Republic, struck at Rome in 215-212 BC, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0073

For a while Maria was keeping me posted as uploads went up, so that I could post about them here, but since I wasn’t really posting and she soon had a new exhibition to cope with, that stopped and I’ve only just got as far as the first stub I made to mention this to you all. What this means is that the phenomenon has meanwhile achieved very serious proportions! When I took on that collection, 188 items were online, out of a collection of nearly 16,000; by the time I left, not least due to the efforts of Maria, that was 462. But since I left, in four fairly short years (three only 365 days each, I believe!), that total has risen to more than the 3,000 items the search will find at once, even in just Byzantine coins. I can determine that it includes 2,109 Roman coins, including 400-odd Republican pieces, but not including 22 Late Roman pieces of about 250, so that at least is still ongoing work, and the Byzantine collection doesn’t yet include the coins of Constantine XI so can’t be finished yet either, but it’s amazing what has been achieved. That achievement includes the digitisation and getting online of 908 Sasanian Persian coins, a larger collection than most other places in the world and surely pretty much the only one online; it includes the fascinating Mardin hoard, which is very worn Roman and Byzantine coins that were some of them countermarked for use in the medieval Islamic world and therefore presumably were all used thus, since they were buried together; and a selection of Trebizond and Vandal stuff, to name but a few things I can find in searches.1

An anonymous copper-alloy follis struck in the Byzantine Empire between 976 and 1035 and then later countermarked 'Saif' and lost as part of Mardin Hoard, Barber Institute MH0099

An anonymous copper-alloy follis struck in the Byzantine Empire between 976 and 1035 and then later countermarked ‘Saif’ and lost as part of Mardin Hoard, Barber Institute MH0099

So great things have been afoot, and so many feet have they been a’ that I can’t actually determine how great they are; but we are talking records in the thousands, all with good images and metadata that tell you at least something about the rulers who issued them and sometimes the collectors who found them and made it possible for the Barber to make them available all these years later. More is doubtless still to come, but meanwhile I invite you to have a browse, follow some cross-references and revel in the numismatic riches of it all!

A gold hyperperon of Emperor John III Vatatzes of Nicaea struck at Nicaea in 1227-1254, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6081

A gold hyperperon of Emperor John III Vatatzes of Nicaea struck at Nicaea in 1227-1254, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6081. Note the way that the method of striking with two dies has left the image of Christ doubled up on the obverse!

1. The Mardin Hoard has actually been exciting people for long enough to be published in print, at least in summary, as N. M. Lowick, S. Bendall & P. D. Whitting, The Mardin Hoard: Islamic countermarks on Byzantine folles (London 1977).

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.

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!

Another Gathering of Byzantinists in Birmingham

My reporting backlog now reaches 30th May 2015, which was a very full day in Birmingham occasioned by the 16th Annual Postgraduate Symposium of the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, with the title Fragmentation: the Eastern Mediterranean in Conflict and Cohesion. I have dithered before about whether I report on what is essentially a postgraduate event, but it’s a postgraduate event with a keynote by an established scholar and people come to it from all over the world, so it’s really as high-level as such things get and the people participating in it are all working at their highest level. So, I shall blog it, but as the backlog is so long and time is so short I shall try to be brief and hope it still does the participants due credit. I should stress, though, that looking through my notes for this, the number of times I have said to myself, “Oh! I met so-and-so then?” or even, “Oh? I ran that? I have no memory of this at all” has been much higher than it really should be for anyone of even my advanced age. I was clearly just getting by at this point in my life on not enough sleep, and while things have come back to me as I write this, we are basically reliant on my notes for what I’m reporting, which may be wrong or inadequate. So if you were there, I invite corrections!

The caravanserai of Kesik Köprü

The caravanserai of Kesik Köprü, in the erstwhile Seljuk Sultanate of Konya

We began with the keynote address, which was by Professor Scott Redford and entitled “84 Mongols Walk into a Caravanserai…”. This promising start was occasioned by a document, signed indeed by eighty-four Mongols, mostly local officials of various grades, at the caravanserai of Yüksekligi, to witness the act of one Nur ad-Din ibn Tayā as he established a church. The document is dated to the Year of the Monkey and has a gloss in Mongol. With this example of how cultures were mixing in the thirteenth century in what is now Western Turkey, Professor Redford then picked out a number of other ways in which we can, if we choose, find links between Greek, Turkish and yes, even Mongol cultures of patronage and power in this area. For example, Nur ad-Din had also built a caravanserai at Kesik Köprü, which is still up as you can see above, on the route between Constantinople and the local Sultanate of Konya, and stands near a bridge which went up at about the same time and only fell down in 1990, but contained an inscription set up by the Sultan of Konya when he was actually in rebellion against his masters in Baghdad, and so closer to the Greeks than the Turks in some ways.

The bridge at Kesik Köprü

The bridge at Kesik Köprü, as it has been restored I think

I was personally less convinced by some of the art-historical links which Professor Redford drew, but the widespread use of a symbol called the ‘elibelinde’, seen below, in Constantinople (and indeed more once it became Istanbul), various locations in the Seljuk sultanates and indeed yet another local caravanserai, did speak loudly of a cultural identity that crossed and blurred political boundaries that were in any case more fluid below the top, state, level than we sometimes remember when doing history in outline. So this was good, and full of much better illustrations than I have been able to use here.

A modern piece of weaving featuring a central row of four elibelinde symbols

A modern piece of weaving featuring a central row of four elibelinde symbols

After this we were down into the postgraduate sessions. I had volunteered to chair one of these, so my choice about what to go to was made for me, but in fact this put me into my first ever contact with two future colleagues so unbeknownst to me it worked well. Also, the papers were interesting. They were these:

  • James Hill, “Missing the Opportune Moment: John V Palaiologos and the spectre of union”
  • Nafsika Vassilopolou, “Royal Marriages of the Palaeologi (1258-1453): appraising a political practice”
  • Maroula Perisanidi, “Should We Abstain? Marital Equality in Byzantine Canon Law”
  • All these papers were about one or other sort of union, really. James was looking at the agreement of Emperor John V to re-reunify the Eastern and Western Christian churches, an agreement that in the end collapsed not just because of its deep unpopularity in the eastern Empire (where it doesn’t even seem to have been made public as a plan) but also and perhaps mainly because the popes simply couldn’t deliver the troops that were John’s asking price, despite their best diplomatic efforts with Genoa and Venice. Ms Vassilopolou’s paper made it seem odder that the eastern emperors had such trouble enjoining union of the Churches on their people, because when it came to marrying off princesses there was pretty much no theological objection which they could not overrule: consanguinity, juvenility, differing religions or sects of Christianity… What is less clear is what most of the eighty-eight political marriages the Palaeologan emperors arranged actually got them: alliance, sometimes, especially with the Mongols who seem to have received the most consistently high-status brides, territory sometimes, but it usually cost a lot in terms of land, money and human capital as well, and Ms Vassilopolou thought that the main motivation was to remain on the international stage as a player, not an extra, which as we know in the UK is a strategy that can make you do some very stupid things. Lastly Maroula went looking for gender equality in Byzantine canon law, hoping to find it at the most fundamental point: who got to choose when to abstain from sex? The trouble here is that most of the law deals with churchmen, who by reason of needing to perform holy office weekly and being supposed to abstain before and after were much more often confronted by this question, so that kind of comes pre-gendered. It was quite surprising to me how much thought the Byzantine canonists had put into this question, but I suppose it did keep coming up (if you’ll forgive the phrase). The paper is now out in print, anyway, so you can read it yourself if you like!1

    Tailpiece of a chrysobull of Emperor Alexios III Megas Komnenos of Trebizond to the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, showing him and his wife Theodora, niece of Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos of Constantinople

    Tailpiece of a chrysobull of Emperor Alexios III Megas Komnenos of Trebizond to the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, showing him and his wife Theodora, niece of Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos of Constantinople, image public domain via Wikimedia Commons

That took us to lunch, and then after that, the programme tells me, I was dashing back to the Barber Institute to give a coin handling session, “Coins of Byzantium and its Neighbours in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts”. I have literally no memory of this, although I remember correspondence about it, but it’s in the programme and I have a handout from it in my notes, so I guess it happened! I was apparently basically showcasing the Byzantine collection, from beginning to end, or at least, as close to the end as I thought we could get, a solidus of Constantine I to a half-stavraton of John VIII. (I later discovered two coins of Constantine XI in the collection which the Curator for whom I was standing in had acquired but never accessioned; they are there, if you want to see them.)

Silver half-hyperperon of Emperor John VIII struck at Constantinople in 1423-1448, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6492

Silver half-hyperperon of Emperor John VIII struck at Constantinople in 1423-1448, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6492

The route between the two took us via Justinian I’s reforms, Heraclius’s mighty beard, the strange mixture that is Arab-Byzantine money, Komnenian concavity and the various daughter coinages of Byzantium; I picked Trebizond, Venice and Hisn Kayfa, all of which tells you that I was finally beginning to get my head round what this collection had to offer and what, had circumstances been otherwise, I might have done with it. But with the alternative path laid out before me already, it was still really nice to be able to show off some of its shiny and curious components. Then, it was back up the road to where the papers were.

  • Yannis Stamos, “Kazantzakis’s Representations of the Greek Civil War: the divided vision of socio-political fragmentation”
  • Mike Saxby, “Arms in Exile: an analysis of military iconography on coins of the Byzantine successor states”
  • Carl Dixon, “From Armenia to Bulgaria? The Transmission of Heterodoxy in Peter of Sicily’s History of the Paulicians
  • The first of these was the only paper on the programme representing the Centre’s Modern Greek component, a study of two novels by the 1940s Cretan writer Niko Kazantzakis, Christ Recrucified and The Fratricides, arguing, I think, that Kazantzakis was trying to find an ethic that might heal his riven country in the form of a grass-roots socialism well infused with Christian charity, a community religious mutual help ethic; the paper overran and had to be cut short, so what the conclusion was to have been I have no idea. Mike, who was one of the vital sources of institutional memory when I took over at the Barber, went into the messy period after 1204 when Byzantine rulers-in-exile set up in Nicæa, Thessaloniki and Epiros, all of whom struck coin which generally diversified from the fairly standardised Constantinopolitan money of the previous period. Mike noted that although all tried out images of armed rulers and saints to different degrees, Thessaloniki had Saint Demetrius with a sword on more than half of its coin types, which as he said could be down to the six-hundred-year tradition there of the saint as the city’s military protector but could also just be down to the fact that Thessaloniki was most exposed to war, mostly with the Bulgarians who also by now claimed Saint Demetrius as a protecting saint. Several kinds of politics vie for expression in the coins, therefore. Lastly Mr Dixon took us into the history of a disputed text about the dualist Byzantine heretics known as Paulicians.2 The History in question purports to be from the 870s and to be a warning to the Byzantine administration that the group plans to mount a mission to convert, or subvert, the Bulgarians, but this cannot easily be; the situation it foresees had in part come about by the eleventh century, but the themes of the early tenth century, when the movement seems newly to have been observed, place it in Armenia, and it was only moved to the Balkans by Emperor John I in the late 970s. The text is thus very hard to date, and while Mr Dixon didn’t want to rule out that it was just a forgery given how little knowledge it seems to have about the settlement at Tephrike where it is set, he certainly felt that any evidence that it existed and was being used in the early tenth century, as has tended to be assumed from the text’s own claims, needed reexamination. Discussion suggested a few ways this might be done, but none of them were easy, so it’s quite the mission Mr Dixon had ahead of him.

    Anonymous copper stamenon struck in Thessaloniki around 1320, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6534

    Anonymous copper stamenon struck in Thessaloniki around 1320, showing St Demetrios with sceptre and shield, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6534

Then tea and then back into the sessions for the last round of papers, which took me back to the early Middle Ages where, really, my interests are.

  • Anna Kelley, “Rethinking Cotton Use and Cultivation in Late Antique Egypt”
  • Catherine Keane, “More than a Church: the archaeology of the economic reality of Christian structures in the late antique Mediterranean”
  • Maria Vrij, “The Anomaly’s Anomaly: the curious case of gold coin production at Syracuse under Justinian II”
  • Anna laid out for us a peculiar picture of cotton use and cultivation before the seventh century, in which it was far from unknown but for most people hard to get, and found only in certain areas; there was cotton growing on the Red Sea coast in the fourth century, for example, and in the Western Desert over the Nile, but not at points between. The current suggestion of a source seems to be Nubia but even there it’s hard to show cotton being grown for export, rather than just for local use. There’s a network here yet to be pieced together, which is roughly where Anna’s research comes in of course! Ms Keane was at a similarly early stage, and her basic question was about the relocation of economic production in Northern Africa, of oil, wine and so on, out of Roman rural industrialised complexes into cities and then, increasingly, localising out to the then-fairly-new churches. The focus of production seems therefore to be following the focus of public space, which is something that, like cotton, looks like there is more to be found out. although Ms Keane’s paper was full of citations indicating that the process has started.3 Lastly, Maria, my right hand at the Barber at this point and now my replacement there, was asking why, when Emperor Justinian II famously (to readers here at least) put a portrait of Christ on his gold coinage, the mint at Syracuse didn’t follow suit. Syracuse was rarely exactly on the Constantinopolitan model when it came to minting but this seems sufficiently outright a refusal of imperial authority as to need explanation, which might be offered in terms of a Western resistance to images of the divine, and one which was followed after Justinian’s death in all quarters, indeed. The discussion here circled somewhat around who this message might be for, the world of Islam or the coin-using public, and who they might be, all of which, sadly, the coins don’t really tell us.

    Ancient ruins at the modern city of Sidi Jdidi, Tunisia

    Ancient ruins at the modern city of Sidi Jdidi, Tunisia, one of the sites under discussion in Ms Keane’s paper

The final part of the symposium was a closing address by Professor Redford, who somewhat unconventionally started by asking the organisers why they’d picked this theme. With that answered he pointed out gaps and strengths in the programme and its adherence to the theme but reassured everyone that the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies was still showing a flag for the value of study clusters like it, and the day closed with pretty much everyone much satisfied by how things had gone.

1. M. Perisanidi, “Should we Abstain? Spousal Equality in Twelfth-century Byzantine Canon Law” in Gender and History Vol. 28 (Oxford 2016), pp. 422–443.

2. Again, memory failure; I own this text, at least in translation… You can find it in Janet Hamilton and Bernard Hamilton (edd./transl.), Christian Dualist Heresies in the Byzantine World, c. 650-c. 1450: selected sources (Manchester 1998), pp. 65-91.

3. For example, Anna Leone, Changing Townscapes in North Africa From Late Antiquity to the Arab Conquest (Bari 2007) and Aïcha Ben-Abed-Ben Khader, Michel Fixot, Michel Bonifay & Sylvestre Roucole, Sidi Jdidi I : La basilique sud, Collection de l’École française de Rome 339 (Rome 2004).

Announcing Buried Treasures

Entrance to the exhibition Buried Treasures: Uncovering Hoards, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

New state of the entrance to the coin gallery at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

I no longer work at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, as keen readers will know, but you could be forgiven for making the mistake given that while I deal with the backlog about half the things on the front page of this here blog are posts about objects at the Barber and that until a few weeks ago they were displaying my work in the form of the exhibition Inheriting Rome, which for reasons I explained a while back has had the benefit of a considerably extended run while the new Interim Curator of Coins, Maria Vrij, got appointed and to work. This, however, she has now done and the results in the form of a new exhibition, Buried Treasures: Uncovering Hoards, is now open and I got to go to a private view.

Two of the display cases and the golden doors of the Coin Study Room in the coin gallery at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Two of the display cases and the golden doors of the Coin Study Room

I could, if so minded, at least claim an assist on this as, when it still seemed that I would be setting up the next exhibition after Inheriting Rome, I had the idea of displaying some of the hoards that reside in the Barber in their entirety, of which there are several, one of which I am even working towards publishing. They are all kind of bronze and damaged, however, and it remained an undeveloped idea. Maria, however, who has always known the Barber Collections far better than I got to, was also aware that lots of items in the collection had come from hoards, and that has proved the seed for a rather brilliant exhibition.

Introduction case from the exhibition Buried Treasures: Uncovering Hoards, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Introductory case, naming and placing the 1945 Carthage Hoard, the 1954 Tunis Hoard, the 1957 Syria Hoard, ‘Hoard A’ from Syria, the Messina Hoard, the Dorchester Hoard, the Appleford Hoard and the Mardin Hoard, parts of all of which are on display

Using the hoards and their discovery as a platform, Maria has been able to open up in accessible terms many of the questions that lie beneath the practice of burying coins, such as: why do people do it? Are the purposes always the same? (To which, this exhibition makes abundantly clear, the answer is ‘no’.) What sort of coins get buried when? Where do the coins come from? Why were they not recovered? And what can they tell us, about the history of the coinage or about the history of their times?

Coins from the Messina Hoard and a replica of one of the vessels from the Dorchester Hoard against a backdrop of photographs from that hoard's discovery in 1936, in the exhibition Buried Treasures: Uncovering Hoards, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Coins from the Messina Hoard and a replica of one of the vessels from the Dorchester Hoard against a backdrop of photographs from that hoard’s discovery in 1936

There are also more specific research outcomes on display here. Maria is of course one of the investigators on the project All That Glitters about which I have written here, and as a result one small part of one case uses our findings from that to talk about metal purity in the Byzantine gold coinage. If you want to know more about that, firstly rest assured that further posts will appear here as I slowly tackle the backlog, but more immediately, this coming Wednesday the 18th May there will be a lunchtime lecture at the Barber with the title, “The Marriage of History and Science: Testing the Purity of Byzantine Gold Coinage” and the speaker will be none other than myself! It’s not really my work I’ll be presenting so much as the group’s, set into a context in which the general public can understand it (or so I hope), but it should be fun, it is free and if you happen to be in Birmingham that lunchtime perhaps you’d like to come along?

Section of display on the concavity of late-Byzantine coins in the exhibiton Buried Treasures: Uncovering Hoards, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Section of display on the concavity of late-Byzantine coins in the Syria case

I am, though, almost more pleased with this inset, in as much as without committing itself to any of my theories on the question, this is actually based on my research, which of course I talked out with Maria while I was actually working on it.1 I never thought of displaying the coins in a way that made their fabric this visible, however. As with so many elements of this exhibition, it is not unlike what we did in the coin gallery before (and the designers deserve a huge credit for making it recognisable as well as different) but it is probably better, managing to do more with less and make it more accessible. It runs until 26th February 2017, but go and see it soon! Then you can go again before it closes!

Website banner image created for the exhibition Buried Treasures: Uncovering Hoards, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Website banner image created for the exhibition

1. Jonathan Jarrett, “A Problem Of Concavity: The Original Purpose Of The So-Called ‘Scyphate’ Byzantine Coinage”, paper presented at the XV International Numismatic Congress, Università degli Studi di Messina, 21st September 2015, now under review for publication.


Probably only one person reads my blog so closely as to notice this, but the backlog has actually advanced to the point where the ‘sticky’ posts on the front page that I have been using to hold current events and … Continue reading


Parting Shots: two Michaels and a Leo

This gallery contains 6 photos.

For once I don’t feel the need to apologise for the lapse in posting here: moving house (including buying a house), starting a new job, learning my way around a new university and city, attending many many meetings, doing the … Continue reading


The Empress, her Son, her General and his Heir

This gallery contains 15 photos.

Another day, another upload of Barber Institute coins to the web! This one is only small, 27 coins, and these comprise the coins of the notorious Empress Eirini, with her son Constantine VI (780-797) and then without (797-802), and those … Continue reading