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Money Talks through Ancient Coins

Usually I have to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to attend a conference. But recently, one was held near my office here in Antalya, Turkey, at the Ramada Plaza Hotel. Sponsored by the local Research Institute on Mediterranean Civilizations, it was titled the “First International Congress on Anatolian Monetary History and Numismatics.”

The First International Congress on Anatolian Monetary History and Numismatics.

Numismatics is a unique scholarly discipline that spans archaeology, ancient history and epigraphy. It seems the axiom “money talks” is true. Much information can come from an ancient coin: the name of a king or emperor as well as his regnal titles, the names of governors or elite citizens and a city’s symbols, local gods and goddess and foundation myths. Coins are also one of the primary means of dating archaeological remains. Sealed in a stratum, they can provide conclusive evidence for the date of that level.

I was eager to learn about new discoveries and developments in the field. One of the speakers was the French authority Michel Amandry, whose work on Roman imperial coinage I had consulted during my doctoral research. In Biblical studies the field of numismatics helps to illustrate the influence of Roman imperialism. Even Jesus discussed coinage on one occasion with the Pharisees and Herodians. He asked whose image and inscription (Greek: epigraphē) was on the denarius, and they replied that it was Caesar’s (Mark 12:16).

Roman Coins with Prof Kevin Butcher – Render unto Caesar

But which Caesar was it? Numismatics has provided us with an answer. One of the congress’s speakers was Kevin Butcher, an authority on Roman Syria, who has discussed the “Jesus coin” in above video. He explains why the image on the coin could only be that of Augustus, contrary to some popular opinions. His research has shown that denarii of Tiberius, the emperor who lived during the time of Jesus, never circulated in Judea.

A denarius from the reign of Augustus. Eretz Museum, Tel Aviv.

Something that struck me during the congress was the presentation of unprovenanced coinage sold at auctions. Various galleries and images connected to coin dealers were cited. I asked two of the numismatists at the congress about this. Readers of BHD know, some archaeological publications refuse to cite or publish unprovenanced material.* Both scholars told me that to ignore such coins would be to severely limit our understanding of ancient mints and coinage types. And they also believed that ignoring illegally excavated coins would not stem the flood of unprovenanced coinage entering the market.

In Turkey it is illegal for anyone except registered collectors to possess ancient coins. These collectors must maintain a detailed inventory that is reviewed regularly by a local museum. Because of Turkey’s numerous ancient sites, old Greek and Roman coins are frequently found, and many are collected clandestinely or sold on the antiquities market, from where they are shipped overseas. Turkish museums try to purchase ancient coins, particularly hoards, when they are found. Since most local museums display coins from the area, they usually have funds to purchase these coins. But the prices paid on the illegal market are often higher, especially when the coins are made of precious metals.

A final bonus at the congress was to see my friend, Inci Turkoğlu, give an outstanding presentation on the coins of Chalcedon, an ancient city located on the Asian side of the Bosporus in Istanbul. Numismatics is one portion of her doctoral dissertation being written on Constantinople’s sister city and the site of the Fourth Ecumenical Church Council in 451 CE. I walked away from the congress with a fresh appreciation for this specialized discipline and grateful for the contribution of these numismatists who helped me better understand the ancient world.

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