Featured Viewing Coins Obliquely: 3-D Images on Ancient Coins

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by kaparthy, Nov 3, 2019.

  1. kaparthy

    kaparthy Supporter! Supporter

    According to Geraldine Chimirri-Russell curator emerita for the Nickle Art Museum of the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, certain series of ancient Celtic coins present lifelike three-dimensional images when viewed obliquely at arm’s length. This was intentional. Moreover, such presentations have been discovered on coins across cultures, showing people, animals, and buildings.
    Oblique Sassanians from Iceni Book page 92.jpg
    ABOVE: Illustration from page 92 of Made for Trade: A New View of Icenian Coinage by John Talbot (Oxbow, 2017). Sassanian coins with 3-dimensional oblique view.

    (An earlier version of this article appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of the Mich-Matist of the Michigan State Numismatic Society.)

    · Chimirri-Russell first announced her findings at the 13th International Conference on Numismatics held in Madrid, Spain, September 15-19, 2003. Her paper was titled “Changing Artistic Perspectives on Celtic Coins.”

    · The following year, she shared her work at the “Art and Symbolism of Coinage Design” conference hosted by the British Numismatic Society on July 3, 2004, in Canterbury.

    · In 2008, she published “Taking an Oblique Point of View: The Challenges of Interpretation and Display in Museums” in The International Journal of the Humanities.

    · Finally, in 2009, she attended the 14th International Numismatic Conference in Glasgow. The title of the paper stated the thesis: “Not All These Things are Easy to Read, Much Less to Understand: New Approaches to Reading Images on Ancient Coins.” Then she retired from the university. But her ideas continued to circulate.

    Temple of Zeugma Calgary.jpg
    (Image from Calgary Conference)

    Her theory was incorporated in The Unknown Face of the Lugian Federation– Celtic Coinage in the Polish Lands(Nieznane oblicze Związku Lugijskiego– o mennictwie celtyckim na ziemiach polskich, Małgorzata Andrałojć, Mirosław Andrałojć, editors, Translation by Agata Drejer-Kowalska; Inowrocław–Poznań 2014).

    This broad cultural matrix is critical to appreciating the fact that 3-D imaging on coins was not limited to the Gallic context, but is even known on Sassanian coins from Persia c. 224-651 CE. That fact appeared in Made for Trade: A New View of Icenian Coinage by John Talbot (Oxbow, 2017). The book grew of out of Talbot’s doctoral dissertation. The Iceni were iron age people of England. Talbot used Sassanian coins to illustrate some of the 3-D effects because the phenomenon is hard to capture with a camera.

    Writing to the Numismatic Bibliomania Society E-Sylum mail list Volume 21, Number 11, March 18, 2018, Robert D. Van Arsdell suggested that a common cell phone will allow the curious investigator to view and rotate many of the images in his book, Celtic Coinage of England (Spink, 1989).

    Not everyone is so easily convinced. Douglas Mudd is the curator and director at the Edward C. Rochette Money Museum of the American Numismatic Association. I met him at the 2018 National Money Show in Irving, Texas, March 8-10, 2018. He sent me his opinion via email. He wrote, in part: “It is an interesting theory - but, yes, I believe it is an artifact of modern perception. …. I find it difficult to believe that there would have been some imperative reason to create an obscure method of viewing utilitarian objects such as coins in a non-intuitive way …. and it is not clear to me that the images that are claimed to be created are worth the trouble … On the other hand - the subject is really a non-issue for me - it is an interesting opinion, but even if it can be proved, what difference does it make? I do not see some new profound understanding of ancient coinage coming from this...”
    Nero Coin Russell.jpg Honorius Calgary.jpg
    (Presented by Geraldine Chimirri-Russell at Glasgow conference 2009)

    The first reply to the challenge is that the physical evidence is abundant. In her paper for the 13th International Conference on Numismatics Chimirri-Russell wrote: "In order to examine the optical effects of the rotation of Celtic coins I examined over 400 coins from various collections. The results of this preliminary investigation were compelling: 85% of the coins examined showed evidence of a more natural face when viewed from an oblique angle, the remaining 15% were nearly all damaged through wear or corrosion. There were seventeen coins in good condition that did not exhibit the effect at all. In general, the better the state of preservation of the coin the more compelling the effect."

    Douglas Mudd is fully correct when he cautions against projecting ourselves on the past. One aspect of that is the error of seeing coinage as money in the modern sense. All economists agree that money serves three purposes: it is a store of value, a medium of indirect exchange, and unit of account. In his landmark thesis, Debt: the First 5,000 Years (Random House, 2012) anthropologist David Graeber placed the origin of money not in economic calculation but in ritual gift exchange. Trade seals friendships. We numismatists see this on the bourse floor all the time as two collectors get two different prices for essentially the same coin. The difference is their personal relationship with the dealer. And at every purchase, both parties always say “Thank you.” The idea that a silver coin is just an instrument of arithmetic ignores a deep foundation of social engagement. As gifts, ancient Celtic coins were intended to be gazed at and appreciated.

    We think of the Celts as occupying extreme northwest Europe. However, they were only pushed there in Roman times by Germanic incursions. Some of that was chronicled in Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the War in Gaul. In fact, “Galatia” is a place name in Turkey, as known from the New Testament. Galicia is in southern Poland. Galacia is in Spain; and the surname “Gallegos” is common enough among Hispanic Americans.
    Istead quarterAM.png
    Above: Hidden face emerges from Horse held obliquely

    Third, as the researchers studying the Celts of ancient Poland found, these different views – which they called “anamorphic”—allow the numismatist to categorize varieties of the same issue. A coin easily identified as “head of goddess / prow of ship” may be a member of an identifiable subset if we consider the other images it contains. They wrote: “This means that the depictions differ depending on how the object is rotated and on which elements we concentrate. … The best examples of this kind of illusion are iconographies of the find from Kryspinów … The reverses of these specimens, when rotated by about 140 degrees in an anticlockwise direction reveal two different depictions …”

    Finally, the idea of optical illusion is far from modern. The Roman cataloguer, Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus 23-79 CE) in his book Natural History tells of two Greek painters, Parrhasius and Zeuxis. Both were considered masters of lifelike creations. Birds pecked at the grapes of Zeuxis. But Zeuxis himself tried to open drapes drawn on a wall by Parrhasius.
    Sulla80, eparch, Spaniard and 13 others like this.
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  3. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    Cool! Here's my Philip II from Zeugma at an oblique angle:

    Spaniard, Pellinore, zumbly and 5 others like this.
  4. Bing

    Bing Illegitimi non carborundum Supporter

  5. TIF

    TIF Always learning. Supporter

    Interesting, but I'm inclined to agree with Mr. Mudd.
    Orielensis likes this.
  6. Ancient Aussie

    Ancient Aussie Supporter! Supporter

    It is handy for showing how high or low the coin's relief.
  7. Bing

    Bing Illegitimi non carborundum Supporter

    I'm not a photographer. I've never had any desire to become one, or even learn the basics. Point-n-shoot is my motto. That being said, many of my coin images do not show depth much like the first image I posted above. So a second, oblique shot can show that depth. I do not do many of my coins that should have an oblique angle shot, but it can have a purpose.
    Alegandron and Ancient Aussie like this.
  8. kaparthy

    kaparthy Supporter! Supporter

    On which point? He made four. First, he said that we are projecting ourselves on the past. Second, he said that ancient people did not know how to work in 3-D. Third, he said that even if they knew how and did it, it would serve no purpose. Fourth, he said that even if they knew how, and did it, that would tell us nothing more of interest about the coin.

    Do you agree with all of those, or some of them?
  9. kaparthy

    kaparthy Supporter! Supporter

    If you look at your Augustus Comet again from the oblique view, the face becomes dramatically more lifelike. The Philip/Zeugma reveals more than the depth of strike. The perspective of the temple grounds is revealed as it is not by the front-on view.
    Pellinore likes this.
  10. TIF

    TIF Always learning. Supporter

    Oops, I meant on his last point. But to be specific...

    Point 1: agree
    Point 2: disagree
    Point 3: soft agree
    Point 4: agree
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  11. kaparthy

    kaparthy Supporter! Supporter

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  12. Pellinore

    Pellinore Supporter! Supporter

    Inspiring article. I would like to see the Sasanian illustrations, too, for Sasanians are very thin.
  13. Finn235

    Finn235 Well-Known Member

    I had always imagined that at least for the Greeks, the 3D artistry was a form of deterrent for counterfeiters; it takes a lot more skill to engrave a die that will strike a 3D portrait onto a piece of silver.

    As the coins became more ingrained into the culture, we often see the relief becoming more shallow, especially as the Greek methods were lost following the wholesale closure of the provincial mints in the Roman Empire.

    I had actually taken some obliques of my Athens tet posted a few days ago

    Athens early tetradrachm.jpg
    20191101_165112.jpg 20191101_165046.jpg 20191101_165056.jpg
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