This article first appeared in The Celator, Vol. 4, No. 5, May 1990, p. XVI
Controversy and debate over the
authenticity of a group of silver diobols from Apollonia Pontica and Mesembria,
known as the "Black Sea Hoard", have failed to dissipate in spite of
the nearly universal rejection of these coins in the marketplace. The
viewpoints expressed at a session of the Chicago International Coin Fair in
March of this year pitted scientific measurement against dealer scepticism. The
advocates and opponents of authentication lined up adamantly, refusing to back
down from their positions, with both sides steadfastly clinging to arguments
that have failed to convince.
The scientific defender of authenticity, Dr. Stanley
Flegler of Michigan State University, has conducted a series of tests using the
Scanning Electron Microscope as well as other techniques of evaluation. Flegler
claims that the results of his tests conclusively prove that the hoard coins
are not modern counterfeits. This conclusion is based on several points which
include corrosion analysis and radiation analysis of trace elements.
The numismatic fraternity, including the International
Bureau for the Suppression of Counterfeit Coins and most U.S. ancient coin
dealers, has condemned the coins for a number of reasons. Numismatists have
been unable to find die links between the hoard coins and any previously
recorded examples. The disparity between previously recorded weights and
lighter hoard coin weights also raised suspicion since the probability of an
official debasement in the metal content is arguable. Furthermore, the process
by which the hoard came into the marketplace is very unusual. Most
disconcerting, however, has been a general impression among professionals that
the coins look a little "off". Pressed to expound on the basis for this
feeling, dealers will often admit that they can't put a finger on it but the
coins just don't look "right". Of course this argument carries little
weight with the scientific faction. In his CICF presentation, Dr. Flegler
rather abruptly dismissed stylistic implications, stating that "style is
somewhat a subjective matter."
All other arguments aside, it is time that the stylistic
elements of these issues be considered.
Professor J.J. Pollitt, an art historian of some renown,
discusses fundamental forces of Greek art in his book Art and Experience in
. Pollitt explains that, "Greek artists tended to look for
the typical and essential forms which expressed the essential nature of classes
of phenomena..." He uses the
horse as an example. "A geometric statuette of a horse
is an attempt to get at 'horseness' which lies behind all particular
horses." This concept may be rather difficult to visualize, but it derives
primarily from the Greek search for order. In describing the essentials of
Greek art, Pollitt points out that "...whimsical innovations, fantasies,
and vagrant moods have no place. Consistency and limit are characteristics of
order; diversity is more often a characteristic of chaos."
Let us first consider the iconographic detail of the diobol
from Mesembria. The crested helmet was an armorial badge of sorts employed by
Mesembria as a mark of distinction. It appears as the dominant element on
several issues and also as a mint mark on others. The helmet itself may have
represented a cult-like militarism with deep social implications (see Kevin
Cheek's article about helmets on coins - The Celator
, November, 1989). Although
the helmet depicted on the "Black Sea Hoard" diobols is similar in
composition to helmets found on pre-hoard coins, the manner of representation,
, is quite different.
The helmet portrayed is of a classic Corinthian type with a
lateral crest. This type of helmet was made from a single sheet of bronze and
formed by pounding over a stake. The lines were typically straight and simple
(see fig. 1). While some of these helmets were decorated with crests and
sculptural or engraved scenes, the majority were plain. The lateral crest is
less commonly seen than its front-to-back counterpart, however, it was employed
as a helmet ornamentation at about this same time by Spartan soldiers (see fig.
A review of pre-hoard Mesembria diobols from a wide variety
of illustrated sources, including major collections in museums, confirms
certain commonalities within the series. 1.) a horsehair "tail"
hangs from the crest, of which it is an extension, on each side of the
helmet. 2.) the eye-opening cutouts are clearly recessed
from the flat surface plane of the forehead area. 3.) the nose protection plate
is elevated from the flat surface plane of the forehead area and is a
continuation of that flat surface 4.) the angular cheek protectors are flat and
linear, that is, unmodelled. 5.) the overall appearance is unemotional and
rather geometric (see fig. 3).
Examination of seven Mesembria hoard specimens, all from
different dies, confirms that they too have commonalities. 1.) the horsehair
tail is not in any case tied to the crest, but rather, eminates mysteriously
from the side of the helmet. 2.) the eye-openings are accentuated by using
"eyebrows" and "eyelids" of a human-like form which vary in
size and shape so as to give each of the hoard specimens a "facial"
character of its own. 3.) The nose protection plate is, in each case, rendered
not as a flat plate extending downward from the forehead area, but rather, as a
"nose" in itself. The appendage clearly originates between the eye
openings and the "nose" flares toward the nostrils, often widening
from the bridge to the base. 4.) the cheek protectors are modelled with high
and low relief areas which give the illusion of cheek bones. 5.) the overall
appearance of Mesembria hoard coins is that of a stylized human face, complete
with emotions, rather than that of a lifeless piece of armor (see fig. 4).
Comparisons of hoard coins with pre-hoard specimens from
Apollonia Pontica (see fig. 5) are somewhat more difficult, due to the scarcity
of the latter. A few general conclusions, however, seem justifiable. Pre-hoard
examples tend to be much less sculptural and less animated. For example,
eyebrows on the facing head of Apollo are not raised or accentuated to the same
degree as on the hoard coins, the brows on hoard examples rise abruptly from
the surface whereas pre-hoard coins reflect a gradual integration of the brows
into the upper nose and forehead area. This difference clearly reflects a
difference in technique of engraving. If the die-engraver of the Apollonia hoard
coins was to be given a moniker (like Master of the Bay Leaf) a fitting one
might be "Master of the Bungled Lips." The artist who engraved these
dies was poorly schooled in a number of areas, the worst of which was facial
features. The lips are grossly distorted, insensitive, and unexpressive
on hoard examples. Pre-hoard coins, regardless of specific
die, do not exhibit this crude workmanship. In general, the faces are more
round and plump on hoard examples with the temples extending well beyond the
outer corners of the eyes (see fig. 6). There is an amazing likeness of
treatment of the eyes on Apollonia hoard diobols and the helmet eye-openings on
Mesembria hoard coins. The nose on hoard examples is typically broad and
crudely executed. There is also a certain fullness of form found on both types
of the hoard coins that is lacking in pre-hoard examples. It is very
conceivable, if not likely, that all of these hoard dies (both Apollonia and
Mesembria) were carved by the same hand. The same cannot be said for pre-hoard
If style and execution were purely subjective terms, we
would not be able to distinguish a Rubens painting from one by Poussin or a
Roman sculpture from its original Greek prototype. We should keep in mind the
fact that stylistic analysis preceded scientific analysis by several centuries.
Indeed, the basis for detecting forgeries in the art world today is as often
found in stylistic analysis as in scientific evaluation. The stylistic
differences detailed here indicate not simply a divergent hand in the process
of execution, but a philosophical change that is inconsistent with Greek art of
the period. It seems very unlikely that the Black Sea Hoard pieces were struck
in the 4th century B.C.
The findings of Dr. Flegler are inconsistent with this view.
While we have yet to determine the conditions under which the incongruities
might be linked, there is sufficient reason to doubt the authenticity of the
coins as contemporary mint issues or for that matter contemporary forgeries.
That they might be more than 100 years old is a distinct possibility.
It is unlikely that the controversy surrounding these coins
will be solved until the truth of their provenience is known. It may be
possible for a well funded investigator to get at that truth, but sadly the
concern seems to have shifted more toward professional face-saving. In any
event, if the truth becomes known, we will learn a lot from this hoard in terms
of art, science, technology, and above all human nature.