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.

A Short History of Indian Coins

The earliest references to coins in the Indian context have been found in the Vedas. Though Vedas are primarily religious texts, they are not solely concerned about Yoga, spirituality or after-life. Rather there are numerous references to ‘nishka’ and ‘nishka-griva’ which are believed to be earliest specimens of Indian coinage.

Another breakthrough in the Indian coinage can be traced back to 6th century BCE. Several small states emerged in the northern India during this period. The trading activities grew rapidly. We came across several terms such as the nishka, karshapana, shatamana, vimshatika which were coins of different weight and value. Interestingly, the weight-system of the coins was based on the red and black seeds of a particular variety of tree called Abrus precatorius. The coins of this age were mainly made of silver and copper. They are known among the numismatists as punch-marked coins. Punch-marked coins did not show any great instance of artistic expertise.

But the coins of the next age which was circulated in India were destined to be the best examples of artistic expertise. They were issued by the Indo-Greek kings of north western India. These coins were found in large numbers in various places of modern Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. These coins are significant because they carry detail information about the issuing monarch, the year of issue and sometimes even an image of the reigning king. Coins were mainly made of silver, copper, nickel and lead.

The reign of the Gupta dynasty is described by some historians and scholars as the ‘Golden age’ age. And this is quite evident from their coins. Numismatists have found number of gold coins of this dynasty. These coins are also rich in details of their issuing authority. The gold coins of the Guptas were known as dinaras. The writings on these coins were in Sanskrit. These coins depicted the reigning monarch in different poses.

Apart from the coins another major medium of exchange xxx in the early Indian market was the cowrie shell. Cowrie shells were used in large numbers by the ordinary masses for small scale economic transactions. It is said that the cowrie shells carried definite value in the market just as the coins.

With the fall of the Gupta dynasty in mid-6th century CE there was a marked decline in commercial activities in Northern India. This period is also significant in the history of Indian coinage because the decline of monetary system. The decline of coinage can be noted in their number, their appearance, and value.

However, the situation changed with the invasion of the Turks in 11th and 12th century CE. Vast areas of northern India came under the rule of the Sultans. Trade and commerce with West Asia was again flourishing. The various dynasties of the Delhi sultans issued silver and copper coins. The inscriptions on the coins were mainly in Perso-Arabic script. Interestingly the coins did not bear any image of the issuing monarch. The reason was the prohibition of idolatry in Islam.

Muhammad binTughlaq, one of the sultans of 14th century was famous for his monetary reforms. He circulated bronze and copper coins and token paper currency. However, his measures failed miserably as his subjects resorted to wholesome forgery of the currency notes. Ultimately he had to withdraw the currency notes.

The Great Moguls of 16th and 17th century issued coins closely resembling other Central Asian dynasties. Sher Shah, a ruler for a very short period of time in the mid-16th century was a bitter enemy of the Mughals. He is also remembered for his introduction of a kind of silver coin namely rupee. Interestingly, in India money is still known as rupiya.

The Moguls were succeeded by the East India Company’s colonial rule. The Company rule brought the monetary system of India in direct connection with the global economic system. However, the name of the Indian currency continued to be rupee under the Company rule.