Interesting Facts about Numismatics

One of the important methods to reconstruct our past is the study of coins. The scholarly discipline of studying the ancient coins is known as numismatics. Not only coins, numismatics also includes the study of all sorts of currencies be it paper money, coins, tokens, or other currency of relative significance. This term was taken from the French word ‘numismatiques’, which was again derived from the Latin word ‘numismatis’. This article enlists some interesting facts about numismatics.

  1. The first city in the world to mint its own gold coins was Florence, situated in Italy. This significant event took place in 1252.
  2. In Britain, the oldest Roman coin was found which was about 2,224 year old. This coin was minted in 211 BC. On one side of the coin, there is the image of Goddess Roma while the other side have the image of mythical twin horses Pollux and Castor.
  3. In the present time, collecting old coins is a hobby of a lot of people across the globe. But in ancient time, it was considered as a royal hobby. Coins were collected both by the kings, the queens, and the nobles.
  4. You can now procure the old coins on the price of its face value. For example, the cost of coins from the nineteenth century is under ten dollars.
  5. In ancient India, cowrie shells were used as important economic tool instead of coins. These had a great value at that time. In fact, Veda has the earliest reference of coins in India.
  6. In 1940 at Gorky in Russia, there was a rain of silver coins all over the city. This was caused by a Tornado which had lifted an old money chest consisting of silver coins. As the wind carried them on, coins were dropped all over the city.
  7. During the rule of Ming dynasty, China issued the largest currency note in the world. In 1917, Romania issued the smallest bank note in the world.
  8. After a scientific experiment, it has been found that coins do not have any distinctive smell of their own. Rather, the smell that you get from the coins is typical of human body odour. You get the smell of iron which your skin releases after oil is secreted from your body after touching the metal.
  9. The largest numismatic organization in the world is American Numismatic Association that was founded in 1891. This Association has the largest circulating numismatic material in the world. It’s headquarter includes the World Money Museum.
  10. Numismatics, or the study of coins began during the European Renaissance. It was a part of the effort to re-discover everything classical.
  11. In 1962, the first international conference for coin collectors was organized at Michigan. It was sponsored by American Numismatic Association and attracted almost 400,000 coin collectors from across the globe.
  12. You can buy coin collections directly from the mint. There are large catalogues filled with details of coins and sets and other information that might readily interest any coin collector. Although it will take some price more than that of the face value, the possession shall still be worth it.

The numismatic society of India

The Indian sub-continent has a long history of trade, commerce and financial activities. Thus, coins and bank notes are very important part of Indian public life from ancient times. This is evident from the archaeological remains of ancient civilizations and cities. As early as in 1790, some Roman coins were discovered in India. The Asiatic Society of Bengal which was situated in Calcutta started to study those coins. From then on, to study the ancient coins in a scientific manner and prepare information for the professional historians, there is a very well organized and learned body of numismatists in India. However, with the expansion of their activities and findings they felt the need of a centralized organization. To fulfil this need they established the Numismatic Society of India on 28th of December, 1910.

There were only six members at the time of the Society’s establishment. It was established in the north Indian town of Allahabad. Among the six founding members, five were British and only one, Framji Thanawala was an Indian Parsi. The then Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court, Sir John Stanley was its first elected president. R.B.Whitehead took the charge of the secretary and treasurer of the society. The membership fee was decided to be Rs. 5.

The Numismatic Society of India emerged from a coin conference. The conference was held at the house of either Nelson Wright or R. Burn. They decided to form the society to encourage the hobby and scientific study of coins. The society was a spectacular success among the scholars and the enthusiasts. Within one year, the membership of the society increased to 46. This is one of the largest scholarly communities in India today with more than 2000 individual life members and 300 annual members. More than 150 Institutes and Centers of higher learning are also its members.

The organizational structure of the Society has also seen some change over time. In 1947, the post of President was made honorary and the administrative charges were assigned under the newly created post of Chairman. Many eminent historians and scholars have adorned the posts of the society including A.S.Altekar and Prayag Dayal.

The location of the society also changed several times. It found its first permanent office in the premises of the State Museum situated in Lucknow. But later it shifted to the Banaras Hindu University Campus in Varanasi. In 1966, with the assistance from the Central Government of India and State government of Uttar Pradesh, the Society builds its own building. The members of the Society, too, actively contributed in this initiative to have a building of their own. Since then, the Society is housed inside the campus of Banaras Hindu University campus.

The Society maintained a large library of scholarly books and journals in its building. There is also a museum in the building which preserves the old coins found in India and the adjacent countries. 

The scholarly activities of the Society claimed to be mentioned. They supervised the collection and preservation of old coins all over India. The Society also organized annual conferences where scholars came from all over India and even abroad to discuss their findings and new technologies in the field of numismatics. More than 90 such conferences had been taken place till date. The Society also published scholarly books, journals and monographs on numismatics. The most respected and famous journal on India- Journal of the Numismatic Society of India- is regularly published by the Society since 1939. In this way, the Numismatic Society of India upheld the scientific and scholarly study of coins in India in a very good manner.

The Punch-Marked Coins of Ancient India

South Asia is the cradle of human civilization for a very long period of time. The river basins of north and north western India have experienced human occupation since 5000 BCE. These people did not live isolated. They engaged in trade and commerce with people from other regions such as Central Asia and Arabian Peninsula. The earliest trading activities were conducted through barter. But with the advent of more complex economic transactions the coins became the medium of commercial exchange.

The earliest reference to coins in the context of south Asia can be found in the Vedas. However, the archaeological findings suggested that the earliest instances of coin circulation in India can be traced back to 6th-5th century BCE. These earliest coins are known as the famous ‘punch-marked’ coins.

The punch-marked coins were mainly made of silver. There were copper punch-marked coins too. These coins are mostly of rectangular shape, occasionally square or round. These coins have been found in large numbers in various places of northern India ranging from the Taxila-Gandhara region of north western India to middle Ganges valley.

The process of making these coins was quite interesting. The coins were cut from large metal sheets. Sometimes metal globules were also flattened to shape them as coins. Next, the symbols were inscribed on the coins using dies or punches. These coins did not show any great artistic or aesthetic excellence in their appearance. This was because they were the earliest attempts of coin minting in India. There shapes were also mostly irregular, but they showed excellence in maintaining the weight standard of the coins. The majority of the punch-marked coins made of silver weighed about 56 grains or 32 rattis. The weight-system of the punch-marked coins as well as all the other ancient Indian coins was based on the red and black seeds of a particular variety of tree called Abrus precatorius. The weight of these seeds was known as the rattis. The uniformity of the weight system was one of the main reasons behind the long usage of these coins over a vast area of South Asia.

These coins did not bear any inscriptions on them. Instead they carried symbols of geometric designs; natural bodies such as sun, moon, mountains; depictions of different animals and plants, etc. Some of them also carried human figures. These punch marks are not properly inscribed in all the coins and some of them have become illegible by now. The significance of all these symbols inscribed on the coins could not be ascertained by the numismatists with certainty.  They may have some political or religious importance.

The coins of this variety which were circulated in northern India were categorized into four main series by the numismatists. They divided the coins in different series based on their weight, the nature of the symbols inscribed, and their area of circulation. In the distant hilly terrains of Taxila-Gandhara, the punch-marked coins were a little heavier and carry a single symbol. In the Kosala region of middle Ganges valley, the coins were also of heavy weight nature but came with multiple punch-marked symbols. In the Avanti region of western India light weight single punch-marked coins were in use. Magadha, a powerful state in eastern India issued their own punch marked coins with a light weight standard carrying multiple symbols. With the political ascendancy of Magadha in the 3rd and 2nd century BCE, the Magadhan punch-marked coins became the most circulated coins in South Asia. It also shows the importance of studying the numismatic trends in grasping a proper understanding of ancient Indian history.

The Golden Age of Indian Coinage: The Gupta Coins

According to some scholars, the most glorious period of ancient Indian history is the rule of the Gupta dynasty. They ruled large parts of northern India from early 4th century CE to mid-6th century CE. The Guptas started their rule from a small state in eastern India. Gradually their rule extended over a large part of south Asia. The first of the significant Gupta rulers was Chandragupta I. The most famous ruler of this dynasty was Samudragupta. India prospered in almost every sphere of life during this period. The flourishing state of economy can be ascertained from the large number of gold coins circulated by different Gupta rulers.

The Gupta monarchs were famous for their gold coins. They also issued silver coins. However, coins made of copper, bronze or any other alloy metals are scarce. The abundance of gold coins from the Gupta era has led some scholars to regard this phenomenon as the ‘rain of gold’.

The Gupta gold coin is known as dinaras. The gold coins of the Gupta rulers are the extraordinary examples of artistic excellence. The coins depicted the ruling monarch on the obverse and carried legends with the figure of a goddess on the reverse.

The artists depicted the ruler in various poses. The study of these imageries is very interesting. Mainly the images celebrated the martial qualities and the valor of the ruler. In many coins of Samudragupta, he is depicted as carrying an axe. In others, he is carrying a bow in his left hand and an arrow in his right hand. The coins of Kumaragupta I (c. 415-450 CE) depicted him riding an elephant and killing a lion. Another very interesting image of Samudragupta depicted him as playing a ‘veena’, a stringed musical instrument. There are also some instances of Gupta coins which were jointly issued by the king and the queen. The ‘king-queen’ types of coins were issued by Chandragupta I, Kumaragupta I, and Skandagupta. These coins depicted both the figures of the king and queen in a standing pose. Kumaradevi, the name of the queen of Chandragupta I is known from these coins. But the other two kings did not mention the name of their queens in their joint issues.

The ‘Asvamedha’ or horse-sacrifice coins were issued by both Samudragupta and Kumaragupta I. Horse sacrifice is an ancient Hindu ritual in which a very powerful monarch sacrificed a horse after some elaborate rituals to demonstrate his political power. A very few among the ancient kings of India had performed this sacrifice as it was allowed for only those with enormous power and wealth. The fact that two of the Gupta monarchs performed it is evident from their coins. It also showed their immense power and wealth.

Almost every Gupta coin carried the figure of a goddess and an inscription in the reverse. Sanskrit was the language of the inscription. The goddess posed in either sitting or a standing position. There were many goddess depicted in these coins. The most common was the image of Laxmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth. Other goddesses who featured in the Gupta coins included Durga, the Hindu goddess of valor; Ganga, the goddess of the river Ganges; etc.

Some of the Gupta coins, mainly the silver ones, carried the images of Garuda, a mythical bird of Hindu tradition.  These coins are found in large numbers in western India. In some cases, the Garuda is replaced by a peacock. This variety of coins is extremely rare. And thus, carry a great value for the numismatists.

The first hoard of the Gupta coins was found at Kalighat, in Calcutta in 1783. The coins were handed over to Warren Hastings, the British governor-general who sent them to London. Now, many of the coins of this collection can be seen at the British Museum.

Numismatics: The Study of Coin

Now-a-days most of our economic transactions are controlled by electronic technology. However, the importance of hard cash has not been diminished. Since c.700 BCE human beings are using pieces of metals in exchange of goods or services. We called these pieces of metals as coins. Coins are everywhere in our daily life even in this age of plastic money. We used them in malls, markets, restaurants, and in numerous other places. The scientific study of coins is known as Numismatics. Also the hobby of collecting various types of coins is included within the discipline of numismatics.

The term ‘numismatics’ is derived from Latin numismatis which means coin. Its earliest use in English can be traced back to 1829.

The numismatists analyzed the materials of the coins. Their study also included the identification of the source of metals used, the classification of the coins according to their shape, time period and issuing authority. Ancient coins are generally found in hoards, or sometimes as stray individual finds. The numismatists study those coins and prepare their report. These scholarly reports are of immense importance to the historians. Numismatists provided the historians with the raw data about the material condition of people of the past. The historians used those data in writing his accounts of the past. On the basis of the information supplied by the numismatists the historian can determine the chronology of a particular ruler, the extent of his rule, the material condition of the common people under his rule, the condition of trade and commerce, etc.

The numismatists used several scientific methods to study the metal content of the coins. These included the use of modern X-ray Fluorescence spectrometry. The increasing use of modern technologies in the field of numismatics is greatly beneficial to obtain accurate results quickly.

The Renaissance in Europe witnessed an enthusiasm among the people to collect antiques of the Classical age. This is the same age when we met the first of the numismatists. Although there must have been earlier instances of collecting coins, they were not sufficiently documented. The famous Renaissance personality Petrarch is often credited as the first of the coin collectors during Renaissance. Guillaume Bude wrote the first authoritative text on coins in the year 1514. His book came to be known as ‘De Asse et Partibus’. Several famous royal personalities were interested in numismatics. Even the Pope Boniface VIII (1230-1303) was a collector of coins. Some of the famous modern numismatists included Charles Seltman, the British archaeologist; David Hendin, the American expert of Jewish and Biblical coins; and Guido Bruck, an Austrian numismatist specializing in late Roman period.

In modern days, both the professional scholarly activities of the scientific study of coins and  the amateurish enthusiasm of collecting coins is largely dominated by organized bodies. Most of these organizations came into being during the 19th century or early-20th century. Some of the famous organizations dealing with numismatics are The Royal Numismatic Society and The British Numismatic Society in Britain and The American Numismatic Society. The Royal Numismatic Society published a renowned scholarly journal, the Numismatic Chronicle. The American Journal of Numismatics is also a critically acclaimed scholarly journal. It was first published in 1866.

Besides these bodies almost all the governments patronized numismatics through their respective Archaeological departments. As numismatics is an integral part of the archaeological explorations, almost every archaeological department has separate sections to deal with the coins.

Numismatics is growing in its popularity worldwide. Many local societies and clubs all over the world are facilitating its growth. Certainly, the “hobby of the kings” is no more confined only within the palaces and among the royalties.