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Byzantine Book Review: Archaeological Exploration of Sardis


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Archaeological Exploration of Sardis: Byzantine Coins, Monograph I, by George E. Bates, Harvard University Press, 1971

Coins In Action

Archaeological studies give a fascinating glimpse of coins in action and their historical value in the field. Plus, they describe what can happen to long buried coins and the general location and situation of the coins found. This 1971 publication records the results of excavations at the ancient city of Sardis, located in modern western Turkey, from 1958 to 1968. Though the team uncovered more than Byzantine coins, this volume focuses exclusively on that era. Later monographs apparently included earlier finds.

The excavation catalogued 1,234 Byzantine coins in total, but noted that many beyond that number disintegrated upon handling or cleaning. This may seem less surprising after the author points out that the "rather drastic" cleaning involved caustic soda and zinc pellets and "not the sort normally employed with museum specimens." Many of the recovered specimens included illegible areas, sometimes making exact attribution difficult. Regardless, enough examples remained attributable to determine dates of Byzantine coinage at the site spanning from 491 to 1282.

The vast majority of finds (80%) dated during or prior to the Emperor Heraclius (610 - 641) and regnal years on certain coin types helped identify 616 as a significant date in the city's history. The text theorizes an overthrow and destruction of Sardis around that date, possibly by Persian armies (subsequent studies may have turned up new information). Since this text appeared prior to the Sear catalog, most references point to Dumbarton Oaks or other sources available at the time. One of the types mentioned above appears in the 121 plates in an appendix. The plates show photos of plaster casts rather than actual coins because, according to the author, direct photographs of coins rarely show enough detail (this may reflect the book's age). The type that led to the 616 date resembles a Sear 806, seems decently preserved, and shows a regnal year of 6. These types provided the latest known date examples before a large date gap occurs in the finds.

This gap extends for at least a quarter century. Since the city mostly fell into ruins presumably around 616, and the team found no signs of rebuilding, the later coin finds may have originated from troop encampments or road workers. A few local settlements also appeared around the city in later centuries, but none of them seemed to have rebuilt or re-established Sardis as a city. Ultimately, legible examples of that specific Heraclius coin type helped establish the probable date of the city's final downfall.

The entire collection includes examples dating from Anastasius I (491 - 518) to Michael VIII (1261 - 1282). Most of the examples came from the Constantinople, Thessalonica, Nicomedia, and Cyzicus mints. A very small number came from Carthage, Numidia, and Rome. Just about every known denomination also appears: Follis, half-follis, Decanummium, Pentanummium, Nummus. No exceedingly rare coins appear in the extensive catalog that makes up the bulk of the book. Though someone did find a gold Tremissis of Justinian II, possibly Sear 1419, 1420, or 1421, at the top of the Acropolis. Only two other gold coins, and one silver coin, emerged from the ruins. All other examples featured copper fabric. People fleeing the city may have taken their valuable gold and silver with them, or the invaders took it all upon conquering the city. In either case, the relative absence of gold and silver seems understandable.

Along with coin attributions and descriptions, the catalogue includes many of the coins' approximate locations when found. One Anastasius I Nummus, mostly illegible, came from a bowl in a wall of one of the many Byzantine shops. Others came from drains, from catch basins, from mosaics, in wall niches, in windows, in water channels, in road rubble, and numerous other locations. One Justinian I Follis appeared with two Roman coins of Julia Domna. One Justin II Follis appeared with a coin of Constantine I in "the House of Bronzes." A Maurice Follis and a Heraclius Follis both appeared with a Herm statue. An appendix includes a map of the entire site, so one can nearly pinpoint the final spot that many of the coins remained in for centuries.

At one point, the author noticed that many of the reverses of the recovered coins appeared much sharper than their obverses. He cites an explanation from another professor that "the molecular structure of a reverse may be more closely impacted by the strike and thus may retain its impression better than the obverse which is on the other side of the coin from the blow received in striking." Whether one can actually prove this or not, it remains an interesting theory.

Though likely dated, this book provided enough fascinating information about finding coins "in the wild" to justify reading. The black and white plates do demonstrate, as the author says, that "few excavation coins, particularly those of copper, are apt to be of a quality which would appeal to museums or collectors." Perusing the plates, which display casts of the site's best preserved specimens, many will likely agree. Regardless, the text reveals fascinating aspects of an ancient coin's life, including its usefulness to archaeology, its location within an ancient city, and the approximate context of its original usage. It also provides a glimpse into how ancient people used ancient coins, which remains one of the reasons that people still collect them today.

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There was certain areas that were coordinated off and people working, at the time I didn't know who they were, but they were probably archaeologist excavating the area. the description of the coins are all marked Smyrna, but some were probably from different areas. The Greek coins were marked as to the area: Cyme, Ephesus, etc.

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