Mola Visit
British Museum’s Numismatic Summer School Class, 2016

            In April (2016) I had applied to the British Museum’s Numismatics Summer School. Numismatics pertains to the study of coins, banknotes, and medals, among other things. For the summer school the context was purely coinage. A chapter of my dissertation is solely focused on Roman (Imperial) coinage of Vespasian’s reign. As a student of the New Testament, my background work in Second Temple Judaism had been cultivated from day one while my skills in Classics (Roman and Greek) had nearly been neglected entirely. Numismatics also falls under this banner of missed opportunity. So when I was accepted into the summer school I was elated. The school comprised a week of lectures and interactive components.

Exterior of the British Museum

            I arrived a day early to settle myself in before the sessions began. Thankfully, the school had not only paid for my plane ticket, but also my lodging. However, I was surprised to find my accommodation was the dorm rooms of University College London, which quite reminded me of a prison cell. Needless to say, the room was less than stellar and equipped with a communal bathroom in tow. But, beggars can’t be choosers…and as a student, I’m certainly a beggar! In any case, after waking up in my cubicle-sized room, I was headed off to the first session. I left early knowing that I would get lost in the hustle and bustle of a morning commute in London. After finding my bearings, I finally stumbled upon the British Museum and was floored by its beautiful structure…this place was enormous! The summer school program was open to students of all levels, though I found myself being the oldest, by far. The gap between the next oldest and me was nearly 10 years. For me, the gap was tangible. Though, I made friends with a couple of other students in the program, and they were great! Nonetheless, the staff was nearer to my age and I made good friends in them.

Interior of the British Museum.

              As I fear of boring those reading this blog, I will only discuss my highlights and avoid some scholarly jargon while still sharing insights. In any case, the highlights of the week were the lectures explaining how and why coins were produced as well as the visit to MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology). As I’ve noted already, my background is not in numismatics and so understanding the mechanics behind coin making was quite helpful. One example is “die studies.”

This is an ancient die, which would have been struck by the “hammer-man” to make the impression on a coin.

               A die is a metallic piece used to strike a coin. A die has the engraved inverse of the image that will appear on a given coin. Production of a single coin requires two dies, the front (obverse) and the back (reverse). One die is attached to the workspace while the second is held in place by a suppostores (see picture below). Once the dies are centered, then the malliatores (literally, “hammer-men” [think “mallet”]) strikes the die, leaving the impression on both sides of the coin. Each die is individually handcrafted by a signatores (think “signature”). What this means is that every single die has a unique mark, which is (usually) identifiable. For my study, I am looking at coins that were most frequently used. Die studies helps quantify coinage output of a particular coin by examining those coins which share unique die markings.

Coin-making in action.

               Another interesting part of the summer school was our visit to the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA). Here they store thousands of ancient treasures found in London. Most recently MOLA uncovered (News article here) some 405 wooden stylus-writing tablets in the swampy underbelly of London. As part of our MOLA tour, we were able to handle and examine these wooden tablets (which are not yet available for public viewing). Due to their find location, many of the wooden tablets were waterlogged, which inadvertently preserved them. Most of the tablets found were rectangular panels of wood, which would have been overlaid with a coating of wax. A scribe would then write a letter, business transaction, or legal document with a stylus (stilus), impressing his message onto the wax. These tablets were made for reuse and one simply wiped the previous text clear with a spatula. However, the lettering on the wax created by the stylus was often pressed through to the wood revealing what was written on the tablets. However, the multiple usages of the tablets make them difficult to read. From the 405 tablets less than 100 are readable. However, these tablets have shone a new light on early Roman London.

Bloomberg Stylus
Writing Stylus
Spatula for clearing the wax on the tablets.
Spatula for clearing the wax on the tablets.
One example is the confirmation of the historian Tacitus who discusses “Londinium” (i.e. “London”) as an “important centre for business-people and merchandise” (Tact. Ann. 14.33). Most of the tablets reveal Londinium to be a bustling city with an active business life. Another example is the Londinio Mogontio tablet (see tablet image below). The Latin reads, “In London, to Mogontius…” confirming the earliest written evidence we have of Roman London. These are among some of the contributions MOLA has made to the academic world. This aspect of my trip leant little to my project, though I was quite fascinated with the tablets. Overall, I was very thankful to be apart of the British Museum’s Numismatic Summer School and feel more competent to produce a qualified thesis on the issue of Roman coinage. Stay tuned for my blog on Rome, Pompeii, and Herculaneum in the coming week.