Archaeology vs. Numismatics

In the 19th century, coin studies received particular attention among the bourgeoning field of archaeology.[198] At this point in time, archaeology was still developing as a new branch of the study of history, and principles like “typologies” and “seriations” of material culture were still being explored. Coins, by their serial nature, lend themselves well to the systemization and classification of historical periods. Archaeologists interested in particular periods or geographical regions regularly learned to recognize, date, and systematize the coins in their field. During the 20th century, this situation changed as archaeology became rapidly influenced by the social and natural sciences.[199] The 1950s and 60s saw the advent of Processual Archaeology: rather than describing and ordering artifacts, archaeologist now attempted to understand the people and societies that created them. Post-Processual Archaeology, which followed in the late 1970s and 80s, emphasized the subjectivity of archaeology: the past cannot be explained by large overarching, objective theories, but rather by studying the patchwork of individuals with their own agencies. Research questions shifted from the WHAT to the WHY. In so doing, archaeology created its own theoretical and methodological frameworks based on principles like the longue durée, the “small” history of the individual, and global connectivity. Numismatics no longer formed an integral part of this endeavor: it was (and still is by many) considered a highly descriptive and specialized field of study, which mainly contributes to archaeological research on an ancillary level: to provide dates for excavated features. Coins found in excavations are now almost always handed over to numismatists, or coin specialists, who write a short report on the coin finds and deliver a conclusion to the archaeologists.[200]

Luckily, this view has been changing again. Archaeologists are slowly rediscovering the broad opportunities coins can offer as they not only reflect the economic world in which they are circulated, but also the social, cultural, and religious aspects of a society.[201] Having coinage or money meant access to power, opportunities, and possessions. Not having money meant a life in poverty and struggle, especially in the Roman empire.[202] People made careful choices on how they used their money and what they spent it on: exploring these decisions tells us something about what communities valued or deemed important, be it food, clothing, shelter, security, or pleasure. Excavated coins furthermore provide a means of understanding the kinds of denominations in circulation, the level of monetization of a settlement, and its economic ties to the surrounding area.[203] They can also provide insights into ancient commodification, iconography, cultural exchange, religious practices, and social patterns.[204] A coin is not an autonomous object — it is part of history, and as such should be treated as any other artifact. Coins provide information about the past that is otherwise unknown and thus supplement other categories of finds.[205] Coins also have several advantages over historical sources and other categories of excavated artifacts. First, they are primary sources and contemporary in nature.[206] Second, they were mass-produced, meaning they give us an opportunity to apply statistical analysis to the bulk. We can, for example, find the same coins spread out over a long time and large distances, allowing us to discern chronological and geographical patterns. Third, coins were produced by the state rather than by private individuals. Their designs and inscriptions provide information about politics, religion, fashion, artistic tastes, and propaganda. And finally, because of their standardized forms, we are comparatively well informed about the official minting sizes, weights, and composition of coins. This enables us to examine the value of coins, the timespan of their circulation, and the influence of socio-economic circumstances on a society. All these elements taken together make coins an essential source of information for archaeologists studying all regions and periods.


[198] Kemmers and Burström 2011, pp. 87–89. For an overview of numismatic scholarship and its connection to archaeology, see Grierson 1975, pp. 182–192; Jones 1990, pp. 213–222; Burström 2019. For an overview of coin hoard scholarship, see Duyrat 2016a, pp. 2–18.

[199] Kemmers and Burström 2011, p. 88.

[200] Of course, that is not all what numismatists do; papers and books are written constantly on the understanding of coins as evidence for economic and social analyses relevant for a comprehensive interpretation of “their” sites. However, coin studies tend to be an independent field, separate from mainstream archaeology, with its own specialized websites, journals, and conferences. Most excavation reports do not include these kinds of in-depth coin analyses (See Kemmers and Myrberg 2011).

[201] For example, Sheedy and Papageorgiadou-Banis (eds.) 1997, Burström 2009, Elkins 2009, Myrberg 2009, von Kaenel 2009, Kemmers and Burström 2011, Haselgrove and Krmnicek (eds.) 2016, Burström and Ingvardson (eds.) 2017, and Evans DeRose 2018, whose works are bridging the gap between numismatics and archaeology. See also Frey-Kupper and Kemmers 2018 for an appeal to fully integrate coin studies into the study of Classical Antiquity and open up communication between numismatists and archaeologists.

[202] Meggitt 1998.

[203] For an introductory overview of what we can and cannot learn about the ancient economy from coins, see Butcher 2016, pp. 225–237.

[204] See also Syon 2015, pp. 31-49.

[205] See also the appeal by Sauer from 2004, p. 327: “Far too often studies on ancient religion focus almost exclusively on literary and epigraphic evidence, iconography, and architecture. … It is symptomatic that the findspots or dates of mintage of the coins were not considered to be worth mentioning. … It is time to redress the balance and to take each item of evidence on its own merits.”

[206] Compared to, for example, texts written about events long after their occurrence. For more about the advantage of using coins to interpret the past, see Grierson 1965; 1966; 1975, p. 3; Burnett 1991, p. 7 and pp. 31–41; Howgego 1995, pp. 62–87.