by Oliver D. Hoover
This article first appeared in The Anvil, the newsletter of the Classical and Medieval Numismatic Society, vol. 9, nos. 1-2 (1999). Reproduced here by permission of the author
Since 1961, New York University has been involved in the excavation of the ancient city of Aphrodisias, located in the territory of Caria (in what is now the southwestern portion of modern Turkey). The city, as we have it today, was founded as a synoikism of the two towns, Plarasa and Aphrodisias, in the late Hellenistic age, but did not rise to prominence until the Roman Imperial period.
In addition to a variety of well preserved public buildings, such as a stadium, theatre (fig. 1) and bouleuterion, the site is well known for the stellar examples of Graeco-Roman sculpture that have been discovered there over the years. The site is no less notable from a numismatic point of view. It was here that one of the most important copies of Diocletian's decrees on maximum prices and the revaluation of the Roman currency was found, as well as a host of Hellenistic and Greek Imperial coins issued by the civic mint of Aphrodisias from the first century BCE down to 268 CE.
The excavations at Aphrodisias in the 1998 season, led by Profs. R.R.R. Smith and Christopher Ratté, and in which I had the distinct pleasure of taking part, were exceptionally interesting from a numismatic standpoint. In this year alone, 434 coins were found in various parts of the site, thanks to the combined diligence of the field excavators and local Turkish workmen.
One of the most exciting discoveries was a small hoard of Late Roman AE 3's and AE 4's that was found in a niche of the arena that was built into the Aphrodisian stadium (fig. 2) excavated under the supervision of Peter de Staebler. The coins, which were uncovered in conjunction with several other small bronze objects and a bone flute (fig. 3), were primarily issued by Arcadius (383-408 CE). All the legible coins were struck by this emperor, with the exception of one coin of Valentinian II (375-392 CE) and three of Constantius II (324-361 CE). The common type of Victory dragging a captive to the left with the inscription SALVS REI PVBLICAE is predominant on the Arcadian issues. Based on the latest datable coin in the group, it seems likely that the hoard was closed in the first half of the fifth century of the Common Era.
In addition to the arena hoard, a vast quantity of coins was uncovered by Michelle Berenfeld and her crew of workmen in a stratification level of the North Agora of Aphrodisias (fig. 4). The area was so rich in numismatic finds that eighty-seven percent of all coin discoveries in 1998 were made here. The coins in this level ranged in date from a third century BCE bronze coin of Aeolian Aegae to a seventh century CE Byzantine follis. Large numbers of Greek Imperials struck in Aphrodisias and Late Roman bronze coins from the Asian mints were also present.
Some of the more interesting pieces to come out of the excavation trenches in the North Agora were two previously unpublished civic bronzes of Aphrodisias and two silver plated coins with Roman Imperial types. Of the latter, one was an issue of Septimius Severus (193-211 CE) and the other was a fourre of the famous "Tribute Penny" type (fig. 5) of Tiberius (14-37 CE).
Most readers can probably relate to the thrill of wandering through the bourses of the NY INC, the Torex, or some other coin show and discovering that special piece for inclusion in their collections. Likewise, most readers also know the excitement of sifting through a dealer's coin box to find a much desired coin mixed in with the worn and corroded dross. If you have experienced these things, you have experienced to some smaller extent how it feels to find coins in the field during the course of an archeological excavation.
During the summer of 1998 I had the opportunity to work on the dig at Aphrodisias where, in addition to studying and cataloguing the coins that were found by others, I also had occasion to do some excavation with the help of several local workmen drawn from the nearby village of Geyre. It may be of interest to some that prior to the major excavation campaigns begun by Kenan Erim in the 1960's, the village was actually built on top of the site. When the archeological importance of Aphrodisias was realized by the Turkish authorities, Geyre was moved to a new location with better housing a few kilometers away. Nevertheless, many of the workmen hired to dig at Aphrodisias still remember the old village and one of the villagers working with me. A man by the name of Mahomet, related that he had been born in a house that had originally been built on top of the Aphrodisian theatre (fig. 6).
With my small band of Turkish day laborers, Mahomet, Nuri, Mehmet, and Ahmet, it was my job to do some cleanup work in the ruins of a later Roman/Early Byzantine building (fig. 7) near the well-known Sebasteion. This involved clearing away a wide assortment of weeds and grasses that had grown up over time to obscure the site (fig. 8) as well as some shallow digging intended to help define the masonry that Sam Robinson, the architect for this area, would need to draw later in the season. While working with a small trowel and whisk broom in one of the rooms of the building I was fortunate enough to make the first numismatically related discovery of the area. I had been trying to define the remains of a wall which had been knocked down at some point, apparently to enlarge the room, when suddenly amid the dust I noticed what appeared to be a small flat stone. Upon closer inspection, while it still remained in situ, the stone seemed to have a man-made look to it. For a student of numismatics, this was a very exciting moment. This was exactly the sort of thing I hoped to find.
When a discovery of a small object, or indeed any object, is made in a controlled excavation it is important to be as precise as possible in identifying the exact find location. Therefore I measured the horizontal distance of the object from the walls of the room so that it could be plotted on a map. Because in archeology it is also key to know the vertical location of finds, I also measured the depth of the object with the assistance of Mahomet and a plum bob. With all of this information it would be possible to reconstruct it's location in three dimensions.
Once the numbers had all been recorded in a field notebook, I picked up the object and took a close look at it. Although it was encrusted with dirt in parts, it appeared to be a coin of some description with the facing head of a bearded man (fig. 9). This was all I could make out. Despite the immediate desired to rub off the dirt with my hand, I obeyed the injunction of the site to leave it in place and continue with the recording procedure. There is always a risk that in rubbing off the dirt an excavator might also rub off or otherwise damage the coin type.
Next to the measurements, I made a tracing of the piece and gave it a number so that after the conservators had cleaned it properly it could be traced back to its place of origin. With the object completely recorded it is then placed in a small plastic Ziploc bag which is in turn inserted into a paper coin envelope. The latter is also marked with all the important details from the field notebook.
Once the conservators had done their work on the object it was returned to me for detailed cataloguing. It did not turn out to be a coin after all, but rather a lead bulla of the Early Byzantine period. One could seven see the holes where the string had gone through the lead and with the dirt and encrustation removed it was clear that the reverse type was a Greek monogram. In addition to this lead bulla, which I was lucky enough to personally find, the four Turkish workmen uncovered three Late Roman coins. One of these was a well-preserved AE 3 of Gratian (fig. 10) clear and perfectly legible right out of the ground!
While all the necessary measuring and recording offers little difficulty in an area of the site such as the Late Roman/Early Byzantine building where a total of four coins were found over the entire season, in other parts of Aphrodisias it could become somewhat more troublesome. Just such an area was the North Agora, a virtual treasure house of ancient coins. In this location, which was excavated by Michelle Bergenfield and a large team of workmen, hundreds of coins were discovered, sometimes coming in batches of more than thirty in a day. To speed up the work and increase efficiency, she organized the workers so that whenever any of them found a coin they would be able to do the measuring themselves and shout out the numbers for her to record in the notebooks. On one day near the end of the season I oversaw the work in this trench and was very impressed with the skill of the workmen and the vast amount of numismatic material that they pulled from the ground. It also became a crash course in Turkish numbers, since it briefly became my job to record the measurements that they were calling out.
In general, the main philosophy of conservation for coins and much of the other material found at Aphrodisias is to conserve them using the least intrusive techniques presently available. What this means for the coins in that there is a gradual escalation in the harshness of cleaning processes used to deal with dirt and corrosion products that have obscured the types and legends of the coins. The good conservator does not immediately turn to electromechanical cells and cleaning agents when a new coin is brought in from the field. These are the last resort, to be used only when simpler and more labor intensive cleaning techniques have proven insufficient in providing a legible coin.
When coins are removed from the ground it is best to leave them in the shroud of dirt that encases them in order to protect them in the field, despite the temptation to brush them off and try to figure out what they are before they are brought in for proper cleaning. At the end of the workday, all such coins are brought in to the Dig House and handed over to me for cataloguing. Once all the coins have been traced and their find spots have been entered into a notebook, I take the coins to Aphrodisians' conservators, Kent Severson and Naomi Kroll. Then the real work begins.
To remove most of the dirt the conservators give the coins a thorough washing with water. Following this, the conservator must work on each coin individually with a scalpel to remove the corrosion products that not only obscure the coin but also make it chemically unstable. While most collectors will probably cringe at the thought of a scalpel coming into contact with a coin, it should be understood that the conservators work with the utmost care using a microscope to aid in distinguishing corrosion and surface accretions from the metal surface of the coin. This work is especially tricky and requires a great deal of skill, as it is not unknown for details of type and legend to be preserved in the corrosion products when they have been entirely effaced in the bare metal. Cleaning coins in this manner is also very time consuming. On many occasions, Kent and Naomi had to work late in order to keep up with the steady and heavy influx of coins from the North Agora and elsewhere.
When simple scalpel cleaning was not enough to reveal a legible coin type, sequestering agents such as alkaline Rochelle salts were applied to soften recalcitrant surface accretions. Thus they could be removed more easily.
Only in cases of extremely corroded material were coins cleaned through the use of an electromechanical cell. In this form of cleaning, know affectionately as cooking, once the problem coin has been covered with zinc particles it is immersed in a pan filled with a sodium hydroxide solution and heated outside using a small camp stove. Once the coin has been cooked in this manner it is then taken back inside and again subjected to careful cleaning with the scalpel.
The pictures of the cleaned coins speak for themselves in indicating the extremely high quality of results that can be obtained from the above mentioned cleaning processes.
It is also well worth noting that the actual procedure of slowly stripping away the dirt and corrosion of centuries to reveal the coin beneath is very exciting in itself. One is never sure whether the hidden coin will ultimately be shown to be a beauty or a smoothly worn dud. Perhaps the most thrilling, however, is the rare occasion when a coin initially believed to be of base metal (as were ninety-nine percent of all the coins discovered in 1998) is suddenly shown to be silver. It is in the instant when the smallest area of precious metal is revealed on the otherwise still dirty and encrusted coin surface that one has a slight glimpse into the hearts of some of the most famous archeologists of the twentieth century. It is impossible not to have some small understanding of how men like Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon must have felt when they broke through a small portion of a dusty tomb wall and peering into the darkness beyond with the help of a lantern saw "everywhere, the glint of gold!" For the numismatist at Aphrodisias, the conservators are our lantern and the few silvered pieces along with the usual bronze material that they helped reveal are just as beautiful and important as any gold.
The annual report of new discoveries at Aphrodisias is published in the American Journal of Archeology. For more information on the site and the work done there, please visit the Aphrodisias Excavations web site.