Ancient Coins in Archaeology
By Josh Moran, WINS#62
Having recently returned from an archaeological excavation, it seems that a discussion of the importance of ancient coins to archaeologists is in order. From a collector's perspective, obtaining a coin adds another piece to his or her collection. From the standpoint of an archaeologist, excavating a coin adds another piece to a puzzle. This "puzzle" helps to recreate an image of ancient cultures.
To understand how this information is gathered from coins, one must first have an understanding of the most fundamental concept in archaeology: stratigraphy. Stratigraphy is the relationship of the different layers of soil at an archaeological site. These layers, known as strata, can be anywhere from a few millimeters to many meters deep and are differentiated from each other by color and texture. Each stratum represents a different period of time ranging from a few hours to many millennia. (There is no direct relationship between depth and time in strata. For example, Mt. Vesuvius, in the eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum, left a stratum of ash that was many meters deep in just a few short hours.) It is the duty of the archaeologist to determine the significance of these strata and their relationships to each other and the civilization that deposited them. The majority of an archaeologist's analysis of stratigraphy is based on the artifacts found within the soil. As artifacts, coins can play a very helpful role by providing insight into a culture's age, trade patterns and general wealth.
Due to many years of study by scholars and collectors alike, most ancient coins can be dated to a relatively small window of time (archaeologically speaking). This can be very helpful to an archaeologist when trying to determine the age of a site or culture. Using Figure 1 as an example, if a tetradrachm of Alexander the Great (Figure 2) was found in Stratum 4, it tells the archaeologist three important things: (1). Stratum 4, and the other artifacts found within it were not deposited much earlier than 336 B.C.E. because no coins of Alexander the Great would have existed. (2). Because Stratum 4 sits on bedrock, it is likely that use of this site began circa 336 B.C.E. or later. (3). Strata 1, 2 and 3 all must have been deposited after 336 B.C.E. since they sit on top of Stratum 4. This is a good deal of information gathered from just one artifact
That same tetradrachm of Alexander the Great would also reveal information about the site's relationship with other contemporary civilizations. The mere presence of the tetradrachm implies, at the very least, that the people utilizing the site were aware of the existence of the Kingdom of Macedon (the homeland of Alexander the Great and his coinage) since it seems unlikely someone would accept an unfamiliar coin in payment. It may also be inferred that the occupants of the site were involved in trade with Macedon. This trade may have been directly with a Macedonian city or indirectly through a "middle-man" city that trades with Macedon. The frequency of this trade would have to be determined by analyzing other artifacts from Macedon, but the tetradrachm provides a good starting point.
Statistical analysis of coins found during excavation can provide a general idea of the overall wealth of the site's occupants. As an example, if a total of 148 tetradrachms were found distributed among 17 houses, each containing between 6 and 13 coins, it would seem to indicate the site was inhabited by a number of middle class citizens/families. However, if all 148 coins were found in one house, and 16 other houses contained none, perhaps the site was occupied by one wealthy citizen/family exercising power over a number of peasant families. A complete lack of coins on a site could indicate a society that relied completely on a barter system.
Because of the information that can be gained from them, coins and the science of numismatics have contributed much to the field of archaeology. Of course, the reverse is also true. Although a good portion of ancient numismatic research has been conducted by classicists and art historians, archaeology continues to confirm and clarify much of what is already known about ancient coinage. (This is particularly true in regards to ancient counterfeits and imitative coinage, because written record and stylistic differences cannot be used to date them since they are from unofficial or "barbarous" mints). As the fields of archaeology and numismatics continue to evolve and improve in their methodology, both stand to benefit greatly from their overlapping relationship.
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