Question about cuts/gouges around Medusa's mouth in Plautius Plancus Denarius

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by DonnaML, Mar 26, 2020.

  1. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member

    Great coin, Ignoramus Maximus! You even have two animal marks. Mine has many marks which I liked to attribute to more people doubting the coin because it was struck crosswise on the oval flan. It's best mark is the owl on the edge where it is hard to photograph.

    I do have an opinion regarding the matter of multiple strikes. There is no reason to believe that all countermarks served the same purpose. Using a great deal of imagination, I can list these (you might think of others).
    1. Test to see if fourree
    2. "I, (insert name here), have tested this coin and found it to be of good metal."
    3. This coin has been sacrificed at the temple of (insert god name) and can not be accepted again for sacrifice.
    4. This coin belonged to (insert name) who will prosecute any thief found with a large number of them. (I have seen merchants decades ago that put a pen mark on the large bills in their cash register for this reason. Anyone here know what I mean by a 'Hawaii' overprint US bill?)
    5. This coin was weighed and found to be underweight and only accepted at a discount.

    I do not claim that any of the above are true meanings for any mark but I do maintain that we can not assume that each and every mark was for one purpose. Obviously some marks may have been for multiple reasons or always applied together (study required for that one). These are coins suitable for collectors who see the IM coin as especially interesting rather than a AG piece of junk with a lot of post mint damage. When I am buying a coin like this, I do expect to get it at a discount because the majority of collectors want pristine and beautiful rather than interesting with questions that may never have answers.
    rrdenarius, Ryro, DonnaML and 3 others like this.
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  3. Ignoramus Maximus

    Ignoramus Maximus Nomen non est omen.

    Thanks, Alegandron. I'll check it out :)

    And thank you, dougsmit for your enlightning answer. The sacrificial and protective/prosecutorial angle are both new to me. Learning every day...:)

    And nice coins, the both of you...
    DonnaML and Alegandron like this.
  4. Volodya

    Volodya Junior Member

    I agree they're banker's marks, but my back-up suggestion in cases like this is always to blame the bored 8-year old kid of some 18th or 19th century collector.

    Phil Davis
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  5. DonnaML

    DonnaML Well-Known Member

    This article on Athenian owls, for which I've previously posted the link, has an extended discussion on bankers' marks/countermarks/test cuts, etc., which I think answers many of the questions people have raised in this thread. Thus: [illustrations omitted]

    . . . [T]his coin was test cut in ancient times and reveals no interior bronze. Like the Owl three pieces up, this specimen has a countermark, also called a banker's mark, on the reverse to the right of the owl, which is a mark typically used to certify that the coin is legal tender beyond its place of origin or has been retariffed at a different value. The upper mark appears to be a Semitic aleph (A), which would suggest that the countermark is of Middle Eastern origin. Owls are known to have been countermarked in ancient times as far away as India.

    The terms "countermark" and "banker's mark" are often used interchangeably for symbols, letters, or numbers that are stamped into the coin's surface after it has been minted for an official purpose. Countermarks are distinguished from graffiti, which are engraved or scratched markings created unofficially. The term "punchmark" is sometimes used for a smaller official mark, as distinguished from a larger "countermark." Countermarks, large or small, are distinguished from "test cuts," which are crude slashes into the metal with a hammer and chisel to determine whether the coin was a silver- or gold-plated counterfeit. Sometimes these differences blur, when punchmarks appear to have been used also to reveal the metal in the coin's core. The term "countermark" or "counterstamp" is also used for the "COPY" or similar indication on modern replicas.

    Most test-cut Owls were test cut on the reverse, with most of these in turn being cut through the owl's head. Interestingly, the test cut on this specimen follows the contours of the owl's body. It's likely that the owl's head was cut in half so often for one of two reasons. Perhaps coin testers in lands outside the Greek world were sending a message to Athens, a passive-aggressive protest against Athens' hegemony. Athens was one of the imperial powers of the day, controlling or exerting influence upon territories beyond its own and generating resentment in the process. The Egyptians and Judeans and Phoenicians and Syrians and Anatolians and Babylonians may have simply not liked the snooty Athenians, their pretty bullion, their god, and their god's little owl. Or perhaps, less interestingly, most test-cut Owls were cut at the owl's head because it was the high point of the reverse and cutting here thus caused fewer coins to be broken.

    Similarly, the reverse rather than the obverse was typically test cut because it was concave, which also led to fewer coins being cracked during the procedure. If you test cut the convex obverse, there's a cavity under the reverse as the coin sits on its rim.

    In his book Archaic and Classical Greek Coins, Kraay described test cuts as "savage incisions inflicted with a chisel with no regard for type or legend." He also wrote that hoard finds indicate that test cutting was normally applied outside the Greek world, where the type (design) on the coin didn't offer the same guarantee of authenticity and where these coins were treated as bullion. And he wrote that some coins were test cut more than once by successive owners because old cuts when dirty or tarnished wouldn't reveal the color of the interior metal and because some forgers created pre-test cut plated fakes.

    In their 1988 book Coinage of the Greek World, Ian Carradice and Martin Price wrote that test cutting of ancient coins in antiquity was a frequent occurrence both inside the Greek world (in Athens, for instance) and outside. They pointed to a papyrus reference indicating that in Egypt officials were employed to both collect debt and test cut coins. They also wrote that with some hoards of Greek coins unearthed in the Near East, particularly those from the archaic period, every single one had been test cut. This and other hoard evidence provides support for the view that test cutting was more common outside the Greek world, as Kraay wrote. Finally, Carradice and Price indicated that up to the fourth century BC, simple slashing was the most common method used to authenticate coins.

    More intricate countermarks have been used on some coins since the beginning of coinage. On Lydian Lions, which are the first or among the first of all coins, they appear to have been used as marks of ownership rather than marks of authenticity or legal tender. Pantikapaion heavily countermarked its bronze coinage during the third century BC to retariff it and earn profits in the process. In modern times banker's marks were used most notably in China from about 1750 to 1920 with large silver coins such as U.S. trade dollars and Spanish milled dollars. China didn't use silver for native coins, and the banker's marks, called "chop marks," indicated the coin was tested and determined to be of good silver.
    [illustration of Classical Owl Type B test-cut tetradrachm (16.99g, 26mm), Athens, c. 431-393 BC, Sear 2526v.]

    This specimen has been test cut an astonishing six times, the most test cuts I've ever seen on an Owl, once on the edge (visible on both obverse and reverse) and five times on the reverse. (An Owl illustrated in the section on test cuts in Haim Gitler and Oren Tal's 2006 book The Coinage of Philistia of the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC also appears to have six test cuts, as is the case with one of the Owls illustrated in Peter van Alfen's article "The 'Owls' from the 1973 Iraq Hoard" in the 2000 American Journal of Numismatics.)

    This many tests of authenticity on one coin speaks volumes about the high frequency of plated counterfeits that must have existed and about the paranoia that this likely engendered. The random pattern of test cuts visible on the reverse of the above piece imparts a jarring modernistic aesthetic that's also quite interesting. The protuberance near the base of Athena's skull looks like a casting sprue but is actually a flattening of the flan caused by one of the reverse test cuts.

    Not all numismatists agree that test cutting was done to authenticate. Ute Wartenberg and Jonathan H. Kagan in their paper "Some Comments on a New Hoard from the Balkan Area" in the 1999 book Travaux de numismatique grecque offerts a Georges Le Rider, Peter van Alfen in his article "The 'Owls' From the 1989 Syria Hoard, With a Review of Pre-Macedonian Coinage in Egypt" in the 2002 American Journal of Numismatics, and Richard Fernando Buxton in his paper "Chisel Cuts: Bureaucratic Control Marks on Fifth Century Owls in the Near East?" presented at the 2009 Archaeological Institute of America/American Philological Association annual meeting have proposed or commented on a theory that test cutting on Owls represented an elaborate system of bureaucratic control in the Middle East.

    The logic of such severe gashes into the interior of the metal being used for this purpose, however, is strained. Deep test cuts had the potential of leading, and sometimes did lead, to a coin cracking into pieces, with the more cuts, the more the integrity of the coin's structure would have been compromised and the greater the chance of the coin breaking. What's more, the technology existed for imparting more information through the use of designed countermarks that were smaller, shallower, and safer. It's more likely that the multiple test cuts were just testimony to the abundance of silver-plated copper Owls that were circulating, both unofficial counterfeits and official emergency pieces. Some of the unofficial counterfeit Owls were even struck with test cuts that had been to engraved into the die, as a further deception, trying to fool people that they had already been authenticated. It's likely that some percentage of traders and merchants would not have been satisfied with one cut. Each person test cutting any given piece would have wanted to verify for himself that the interior was good silver.

    Not much contemporary documentary evidence exists about ancient coin authentication. An inscription found in 1970 referred to the Law of Nicophon passed in Athens in 375/74 BC, which governed the testing of money. The law required both official Athenian Owls and imitative Owls originating elsewhere to be tested by Dokimastes (testers). Any Owl found to be good had to be accepted in commerce. Counterfeit pieces, on the other hand, were to be withdrawn from circulation.

    The law, however, didn't indicate how the coins were to be tested or whether only the purity of the silver or both the purity and weight should be tested. In his 1998 book The Power of Money: Coinage and Politics in the Athenian Empire, Thomas stated his belief: "The purview of the Dokimastes does not seem to have extended to an examination of coins for their weight. Such calculations may have been left to negotiations between buyers and sellers."

    In his 1996 book Quality in Ancient Greece, George Varoufakis stated his belief, on the other hand, that Athenian and other money testers tested both purity and weight. He suggested that the ancient testers could have used scales as well as looking, touching, and listening to the sound the coin made when dropped on a tabletop, a practice still employed by money testers today. Another piece of evidence, this one contemporary, is the c. 405 BC play Frogs by Aristophanes in which the playwright talked about how "coins alone are struck clearly and proven true by ringing."

    My own belief is that official coin testers within Athens and other Greek cities tested their own city's coins by experienced, nondestructive looking, touching, listening, and weighing. But official testers of foreign coins as well as traders and merchants unofficially testing any coin wouldn't be concerned with defacing the coin's surface and would take a hammer and chisel to suspected currency to examine the inside.

    Along with Classical and Intermediate Style Athenian Owls, other coins used heavily for intercity trade were also test cut frequently, including but not limited to Aegina Turtles, Philip II tetradrachms, Alexander the Great tetradrachms and drachms, Thasos tetradrachms, Sinope drachms, Cherronesos hemidrachms, and Mesembria diobols. . . .
  6. DonnaML

    DonnaML Well-Known Member

    I was thinking about how tiny those banker's marks/test cuts actually are. In the case of the ones next to Medusa's mouth on the Plautius Plancus denarius, probably no more than 1 or 1.5 mm. across, given that the entire coin is only 18 mm. in diameter. Imagine how incredibly fine the instrument tips must have been to incise or punch those marks, especially if the marks had any kind of designed shape. It seems inconceivable to me that people were able to do that (or that die cutters were able to cut parts of the original coin designs) without the aid of some sort of artificial magnification. Since the magnifying glass itself supposedly wasn't invented until the European Middle Ages, by Roger Bacon, what did people use? Crystals? I also vaguely recall reading about containers filled with water being used for magnification in the ancient world. There must have been something.
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  7. Ignoramus Maximus

    Ignoramus Maximus Nomen non est omen.

    Good question!

    I've been wondering about that myself. And making a banker's mark is one thing, but you also have to be able to examine the result; to spot a possibly minor discoloration in a recessed, dark spot on the bottom of a punch mark isn't necessarily easy.
    The same applies to a greater extend to the die cutters. I have the greatest admiration for the countless celators who sometimes managed to produce fantasticaly intricate and highly artistic portrets and minuscule scenes on surfaces no greater then a half square centimeter. The craftmanship required, both technically and artistically... It never ceases to amaze me...
    How they did it? Did they have visual aids? And, if so, what sort?
    Sadly, I don't have the answers either.

    Perhaps a more enlightened member on CT?

    Also, I generally find that there is much more information about on striking coins than there is on die-cutting. All articles I've read ( but have no specialized literature, so please correct me if I'm wrong! ) tend to take the die more or less for granted and focus almost solely on the striking.
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