How are ancient coins dated?

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Pavlos, Nov 13, 2018.

  1. Pavlos

    Pavlos You pick out the big men. I'll make them brave!

    I am trying to understand why these dates were given to the ancient coins I got at the moment in my collection.

    For some coins this is easy, if the kings name is on it then the coin is dated to the years the king ruled.

    For example:
    Kassandros Antipatrou Bronze Coin “One Unit” (305 B.C. - 297 B.C)
    Head of beardless Herakles right, wearing lion skin
    Reverse:BASILEWS KASSANDROU, above and beneath horseman riding right, crowning horse with a wreath, Star in right field, Φ monogram beneath horse.

    But now it gets a little more difficult for me, coins especially in the classical period just have either the name or abbreviations from the town on it, along with objects/animals related to the town.

    For example:
    Kyzikos, Mysia. Obol (450 B.C. - 400 B.C)
    Forepart of boar left, retrograde E on body, tunny fish swimming upwards behind.
    Reverse: Head of roaring lion left, within shallow incuse square.

    How do we know this type of coin was only made between 450-400 B.C., on what evidence is this based?

    Also for magistrates, is the date of their office ever recorded that such specific dating can be given? In this case a Rhodian drachm from magistrate Ainetor with a dating between 205-190 B.C.

    Rhodos magistrate Ainetor drachm (205 B.C. - 190 B.C)
    Facing head of Helios with flowing hair
    Reverse: AINHTΩΡ above, Ρ-O below, rose in bloom with bud to right, butterfly to left.

    I have already did some deeper research to my coin from Gortyna, Crete:

    Crete, Gortyna. Bronze coin (85–82 B.C.)
    Head of Hermes left, wearing petasos.
    Reverse: Bull butting left; caduceus above; in exergue: ΓΟΡΤ; all within circle of dots.

    To this coin a dating is given specifically of 85-82 B.C., I find this very precise. Now I have read the Journal article "The Bronze Coinage of Gortyn" from ANNE E. JACKSON in the Numismatic Chronicle 1971. It turns out they found tetradrachms and drachms from Gortyna in the same hoard as bronze coins of this type, Price dated the tetradrachms 82 B.C. and so they automatically assumed that the bronze coins are also from 82 B.C.

    Also, Gortyna switched to the attic standard in 85 B.C., assuming that the striking of these bronze coins are connected to the issue of (tetra)drachms of the attic standard, then the same magistrate could have issued these bronze coins as well at 85 B.C. This gives this bronze coin a dating of 85-82 B.C.

    However this is just a specific example and doesn't really make me understand how all the other hundreds, thousands of ancient silver and bronze coins were dated?

    I appreciate your answers!
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  3. Ed Snible

    Ed Snible Well-Known Member

    Usually we only know a few things that happened in a particular city in ancient times. For example we might know that the Persians conquered the city in the year X BC, and the Greeks re-took the city in the year Y BC.

    If we see three different denomination sets for the city, and one looks kind of old-fashioned, and one is in a Persian weight standard, the numismatists of the 19th century just wrote that the old fashioned coins were "before X BC?", the Persian weight coins were "X to Y BC?", and the other coins were "After Y BC?"

    Eventually, with enough overstrikes we can confirm the relative ordering. Hoards showing the coins we think are earlier heavily worn mixed with mint state later coins also confirms the relative ordering. Eventually the "?" gets dropped.

    If we see dates ending in 00 or 50 it means we have no clue what happened in the city and made up numbers for a half-century based on artistic style.

    Sometimes there are events that affected the whole Greek world. You will see 480 BC given for a lot of coins.

    If the range is given as "480 - 400 BC" you should not expect that the coins trickled out yearly, like wheat pennies from 1909 to 1959. Probably there were a few big batches but we just don't know if they were at the start of the range, the end of the range, or even really in the range at all.

    For some coins there is no agreement and different catalogs give different ranges for the same types.

    Barclay Head was one of the most serious about putting coins into known periods. Look up the cities of your coins in his Historia Numorum (online at ). Sometimes he explains his reasoning or at least names the periods.
  4. Valentinian

    Valentinian Well-Known Member

    There is no easy answer to this. It is extremely complicated. Ph.D.s are written on such things.

    One method that helps is seriation. It is discussed in the content of Roman Republican coins here:

    but the same idea works for Greek coins. At the top of that same page other methods of dating are outlined.
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  5. Finn235

    Finn235 Well-Known Member

    Sometimes, it isn't possible to throw forth anything resembling a guess. India and Central Asia in particular saw several extremely long-lived series of imitations, some of which lasted up to a millennium past their prototypes. One of my favorite examples is the "archer" type coin from Soghd along the silk road:

    Samarkand soghd archer obol 3.jpg

    The type originates obliquely from Seleucid coinage; the earliest iterations still contain a literate legend ANTIOXOY. Some experts on the series have proposed that once the coins reached the anepigraphic phase, they may have remained in production until the middle ages, possibly as late as the Islamic conquests.

    Likewise, the famous Chinese Wu Zhu cash coins were made to such tight standards that most aren't possible to attribute them more narrowly than their entire 700+ year production run.
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  6. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member

    Perhaps we should mention one other factor in dating coins: lying. Just because a coin says something on it does not mean that data is accurate. The one that come to mind first is the number of English kings whose names were something else that inscribed their coins 'Henry'. Of course we know to allow for name/titles like Caesar and Arsakes. Who would care to explain the late Roman Vota dating like VOTA X MVLTI XX? Are coins with very restrictive dating combinations accurate to the point that the mint stopped using a perfectly good die or did they keep striking until the die was worn out?

    In my specialty, we see two types of Alexandria mint denarii in the name of Commodus. One has a normal looking lifetime obverse and reverse while the other has the same obverse and a Consecratio reverse. Which of these were struck before Commodus died? There are Alexandria mint denarii of Pertinax that copy lifetime issues of the Rome mint. Were they made while Pertinax lived or later when the mint was not sure who was going to win the civil war or even later when Septimius Severus was honoring his position as successor to Pertinax? You can guess but showing proof is not as easy. Other specialists will know details of this nature from their specialties.

    When I first became a father, I was amazed at how my daughter had to learn everything and would stare at her hand as she realized it was attached to her. Coins were like that. The makers of the first ones had to learn what it was that made a coin a coin and what was good to include on that coin. Dating came in many ways. Many coin makers saw no reason for a date of any kind. A few added month dates. Today, we expect coins made in 2018 to have that date on the coin. When was the last time the US mint intentionally made coins that had incorrect dates? 1804 dollars are well known even to non collectors of US like me. I know nothing since that but the point is we have to allow for a little error in any of our figures.

    Guesses are never bad unless someone takes their guesses so seriously that they lose sight on the fact that they are, however educated, guesses.
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  7. Finn235

    Finn235 Well-Known Member

    The VOT coins are misleading. I have read it as the inscription meaning "I vow to serve five years, and, God willing, ten." That explains VOT V types for emperors like Jovian who ruled less than a year. It doesn't claim they actually attained five years, just that they hope or expect to.

    Doug's comments sparked a couple thoughts into my head:

    1) The entire AD calendar system is based on medieval math that we now know may well be wrong. The biblical narrative tells us that Herod ordered the Massacre of the Innocents in response to the birth of Jesus, when he was about 1-2 years old. Josephus states that Herod died in a short interval between a lunar eclipse and Passover, which has led a majority of scholars to accept a date of death in late March or early April 4 BC. If correct, that would mean our entire calendar system is off by about half a decade.

    2) Of the calendars of antiquity, only the Mayan calendar is what we would call scientifically accurate. The old Roman calendar was so far off that upon the adoption of the Julian calendar in 44 BC, two extra months were added to catch up. I have no idea if scholars adjusted older dates accordingly.

    3) Re: Doug's comments about modern coins that lie about their date, plenty have done it since 1804. The 1816 Austrian kreuzer was frozen for almost half a century, and 1780 Maria Theresa thalers are still being made. With the switch from silver to clad coins in 1964, the Mint actually froze the date and continued making 1964-dated coins until at least early 1966, hoping to convince the public that silver wasn't actually being hoarded. Likewise, there have been a few instances where the Philly mint couldn't meet its production quota, so "Philadelphia" coins were struck at San Francisco and/or West Point.
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  8. Ed Snible

    Ed Snible Well-Known Member

    Perhaps we can turn this into a coin thread, showing coins that lack a consensus date range. Here is a bronze of Amphipolis in Macedon:

    Macedon, Amphipolis, AE22, 11.26g
    Oobv: Winged Medusa head in three-quarters or facing view with curly hair, serpents in hair, all within circle of beads.
    Rev: ΑΜΦΙΠ[Ο]-ΛΕΙΤΩΝ; Athena holding Nike within border of dots.
    Ref: SNG ANS 147-8, Lindgren Europe 937, SNG Copenhagen 85-86

    Barclay Head, keeper at the British Museum put the coin in the “168 BC to Imperial” range writing BMC Macedonia in 1879. George MacDonald, curator at the Hunterian in Glasgow, dated to “Imperial Times” (meaning no earlier than 44 BC?) writing Catalogue of Greek Coins in the Hunterian Collection in 1899.

    A bunch of catalogs were written and included this type using the dates from BMC (e.g. Katharina Martin, Sammlung Köhler-Osbahr (2003); H. C. Lindgren, Europe (1989); Serge Boutin Pozzi (1979)).

    Other catalogs used dates from MacDonald (e.g. Nancy Waggoner, SNG ANS (1987); Nils Breitenstein, SNG Copenhagen (1943); Balázs Kapossy, SNG Switzerland: Righetti (1993)).

    I suspect a better range is 187-158 BC. Why? The unusual thing about this coin is the orientation of the inscription. I can only think of one other Amphipolis with that orientation: . The CNG cataloger dates that shield/scorpion coin to circa 187-168/7 BC. The obverse of that coin, a shield with crescents as boss, is a match for royal issues of king Perseus struck 178-168 BC. It’s reasonable to assume Amphipolis used the crescent boss shield obverse type during Perseus’ reign.

    These Medusa bronzes are thick, unlike other Amphipolis bronzes, which may mean their metal content was important. Amphipolis was forbidden by the Roman occupation to strike silver coins between 168 and 158 BC so may have struck heavier bronzes than usual then.

    I propose these coins were struck at the end of the Macedonian kingdom period or very early in the Roman era.

    I came up with a range completely different than Head's and MacDonald's, but at least I can give two reasons for proposing my range. They never gave their reasons.

    Post any coins that have different dates in different catalogs.
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