Uncovering twenty-five century-old mystery behind ancient Greek coins

January 6, 2015, ANSTO
Twenty-five century-old mystery uncovered
Ancient Greek coin

Researchers at Macquarie University's Australian Centre for Ancient Numismatic Studies (ACANS) have joined forces with scientists from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), on a joint research program to solve a twenty-five century-old mystery behind the technology used to produce a special variety of ancient Greek coins.

First minted around 540 BC in the cities of Southern Italy (modern Basilicata and Calabria), incuse show the same image on the front and back – but the image on the back is sunk into the metal so that it appears as a negative or incuse version of the front.

The mysterious technique of manufacture, which appears to be quite difficult to execute, has attracted a good deal of discussion but it has never been satisfactorily explained. We do know, however, that these cities continued to mint these coins for over a century.

There are no surviving contemporary accounts of ancient coin manufacture, and no illustrations. Only three or four of the dies once used for striking coins in ancient Greek mints survive today. Therefore, what we know about the earliest history of coin minting is derived from a study of the coins themselves.

With the emerging science of neutron scattering, the use of neutron diffraction to improve our understanding of the techniques of ancient coin manufacture is just beginning, and the ANSTO/ACANS study is among the first.

"Our aim is to explore the technology behind the production of one of the world's first coinages," explains Dr Vladimir Luzin, Instrument Scientist at ANSTO.

"In particular, our objective is to explain the very singular technology and processes for minting incuse coins."

Bringing the past into the future

"ANSTO's neutron scattering texture measurements will provide insight into the mechanical processes undertaken to create the coins," explains Associate Professor Kenneth Sheedy, Director of ACANS.

"Numismatists from ACANS will then infer the production steps undertaken to produce these coins using knowledge of ancient materials and equipment that were available at the time."

ANSTO's Bragg Institute leads Australia in the use of and X-ray techniques to solve complex research and industrial problems in many important fields.

Although measurements of coins using neutron texture analysis have been implemented before, a systematic and full-scale study to set a benchmark is unique to this project.

Mutual partnership benefits

Macquarie University's Numismatic Centre holds one of the finest collections of South Italian coins in the world (there are 1267 coins specimens in the Gale donation). This research partnership with ANSTO will help to enrich the Centre's knowledge of this important university resource.

There is also the opportunity for ANSTO and Macquarie University's Faculty of Arts' to partner on future research ventures engaging both staff and students, and also projects linked to Macquarie University's new Bachelor of Archaeology degree.

Besides providing a solution to a twenty-five century-old mystery, it is anticipated that this collaboration will benefit the community in the area of cultural heritage. There is a strong Australian and global interest in the ancient world and in particular, a fascination with the material culture of antiquity.

"By collaborating with enterprises such as ACANS, ANSTO can help to further the understanding of ancient civilisations which enables us to better understand how the human race interacts with the world around it," says Mr Scott Olsen, Scientific Operations Group Leader and Quality Coordinator for the Bragg Institute.

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patsy lee oswald
5 / 5 (1) Jan 06, 2015
i'd be even more curious to learn why greeks from 540bce would have put the roman emperor hadrian on their coins, as the picture indicates, since he wouldn't come around for another 650 years.
5 / 5 (1) Jan 06, 2015
Here's a hint on how it was done. 2 identical molds, at least one is concave, the other fits into the first. Metal is poured or put into the first, the second it put on top and pressed into the other. You then get one side that is raised and the back side is indented. Seems fairly easy to me, the concept anyway. Execution is another matter that I don't know anything about.
not rated yet Jan 07, 2015
A recent Big Finish 7th Dr. Who audio story had some interesting tidbits. Way ahead on coinage, it seems that the "Greeks" at this time didn't have coin purses or pockets...so they kept their loose change under their tongue!
not rated yet Jan 11, 2015
...two identical molds, one intaglio and one convex with the coin design. The mold for one side of the coin was carved intaglio into a hard metal block (or a hard metal molten casting of the carved intaglio design made from some other process). Then another metal piece was molten cast over the first intaglio metal block (again, either cast directly or through a lost wax/other casting process). When finished the result would have been two mint molds fitting together with identical patterns stemming from the same original carved/cast design, one intaglio and one convex, in a male/female joint circumstance. A coin would then be made by fitting a silver blank between the metal molds and then using either screw pressing or using some sort of strike hammering to mint the coin.

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