A Helpful Graphic about Ancient Coins

This graphic from the Museum of the Bretti and Enotri, in the southern Italian town of Cosenza, illustrates the process for manufacturing ancient coinage. Photo by Douglas Boin, 2016.
This graphic from the Museum of the Bretti and Enotri, in the southern Italian town of Cosenza, illustrates the process for manufacturing ancient coinage. Photo by Douglas Boin, 2016.

One of the things I love most about my work as a historian is the travel that takes me to museums, ancient collections, storage facilities, libraries, and even occasionally grand palaces with archival material, like handwritten letters and other documents from periods of more recent history, like albumen print photographs. The graphics on the walls or in museum exhibitions are always especially fascinating to me because these are usually collaborative efforts, produced by academics, curators, and graphic designers, to help the broader public make sense of the perhaps overlooked labor or lost context or the history that accompanies a lonely museum object. I like creative efforts to pull people into a new story or a different time, especially if they otherwise would never think to do so based on the arcane nature of the material or its perceived staleness. I also don’t remember seeing anything like this one in any textbook or handbook I ever consulted in school.

I’ve been scrolling through photos recently from some study trips I took between 2016 and this year, which were helpful to me while I worked on my book on Alaric, and this image–from the southern Italian Museum of the Bretti and Enotri, in Cosenza, where Alaric died–seemed like a good illustration of the kind of fortuitous learning that takes place when you visit someplace new. The poster shows how to make ancient coins through striking, an age-old process quite similar to that still used in our own industrial mints. A blank metal disk is placed on top of die which has a design carved into it; a second die, also bearing a carved image, is positioned over it; then a hammer is used to strike the images onto both sides of the blank coin. One side of this coin from the Cosenza collection, although badly aged, shows the image of the Roman she-wolf, who raised Romulus and Remus, with the name of the capital city above it. You can see how it’s slightly raised off the surface of the formerly blank disk–the result of the die’s carved image having been struck against to the metal surface.

A coin of Roma from the Cosenza collection. Photo by Douglas Boin, 2016.

I have a lot more photos to share from my study of cities and material from Greece, Italy, and (with the help of some generous friends) Romania, which I assembled while pursuing the pieces of Alaric’s life and which I have been holding onto (should I say “embargoing?”) during the writing of the book. But now that publication is nearing, I’ll finally be sharing more of those images, so if you’d like to see them, be sure to follow my author Facebook page and Twitter in 2020. Until then, I just wanted to close this year by acknowledging all the staff at all the museums who helped me while I was researching my book. Thank you and happy holidays!

Alaric, Cities, Italy, Teaching, Technology