Monday, December 09, 2013

New discovery?

An article posted December 2, 2013 in The Times of Israel caught my attention among many articles of interest in issue #825 of David Meadows' "Explorator".  The headline "Oldest reference to Bohemian king found in Acre" was bolstered by a coin image purportedly representing a four-year-old archaeological excavation find that has suddenly become a stunning revelation.  The coin in question is a medieval denier, a small silver coin of the Crusader era.  It bears an image of St. Christopher on the obverse and of a Bohemian king on the reverse (at least as described and illustrated).  As the article goes on to explain, this is quite an anomaly both historically and art historically.  Unable to properly attribute the coin in-house, the Israel Antiquities Authority called upon experts at Oxford and in Poland for assistance.  The expert conclusion was that the coin is a completely new and unexpected combination of types and may be tentatively assigned to the reign of King Premezi Ottokar II (AD 1253-1278). 

(IAA photo)

The article does not state whether these expert numismatists examined the coin in hand or whether they merely worked from a copy of the IAA photo that was published along with the article.  One might presume in this day and age of high definition photography and electronic transmission that the latter could well have been the case.  The article photo is credited to Clara Amit, IAA photography department.  The expert commentary quoted in this cited media report deals mainly with general historical background, coin circulation and trade patterns.

Having photographed literally tens of thousands of ancient coins in my 50 years as a professional numismatist, and stitched together twice that number of images, it doesn't take a monumental change in content for me to sense that something may be out of place.  It's a survival instinct of sorts, because collectors tend to get a little miffed (and rightfully so) if the coin they receive in the mail is not the exact coin pictured in a sale.  When I saw the IAA image in this article that instinct raised a red flag.  Something seemed wrong. 

Upon closer examination, one will note that the obverse appears to be pierced in the lower left field but there is no corresponding hole nor sign of even partial penetration on the reverse.  Copying the reverse image, inverting it, reducing the opacity, and placing it over the obverse image one can see immediately that the obverse and reverse are different sizes.  That in itself might simply be a case of the separate obverse and reverse photos not being sized correctly, but rotating the overlay image reveals that the two images are not of the same shape either.  One might therefore be inclined to conclude that either the obverse and reverse photos are of two different coins or that there has been some alteration of the images—something that would not be expected from professional archaeologists.  Another small but confusing aspect of the dissimilar obverse and reverse illustrations is the appearance of the metal itself.  While the obverse seems to have relatively good surfaces and the look of good metal, the reverse is quite different.  It has a crystalline appearance, corrosion and coarse encrustations.  This again might suggest either two different coins or possibly soil variations within the context of the find.  The closely matching color might argue for veracity, but could also be an indicator of obverse and reverse from two different coins found in the same context.  Granted, these are all elements of circumstantial evidence.  In any event, there are some perplexing questions raised here that are worth asking about a coin of this importance. 

Hopefully another photo will appear in the press that eliminates any possible doubt.  Or, maybe one of our readers has actually seen the specimen cited and can confirm that the published image is representative.  Meanwhile, that red flag is still there.


Cultural Property Observer said...

Mr. Barford goes on and on about this suggesting the questions you have only raised these questions out of malice for archaeologists. But I see no evidence of that in your post. And even assuming he explains away much of this the shape of the obverse and reverse don't seem to match.

I also wonder if you typically get such crisp images on two sides of what art typically very thin coins. Also, I'm no expert in this series, but isn't it unusual to have a Christ Head/Saint combination rather than a Shield or some sort of device on the reverse during this period? It would be interesting to look for others in the trade, but it would be easier if based on the questions you raised if someone went back and looked at the find that was pictured in these posts.

Wayne G. Sayles said...

The following was received by email to WGS:

Dear Sir,

I was notified of your blog item on the Bohemian coin

The coin does exist...I am actually holding it in my hands (IAA No. 106546). Obverse and reverse belong to one and the same coin. The coin is not pierced. That puts your worries to rest.

The coin will be published scientifically in the upcoming volume of the Israel Numismatic Review 8.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Robert Kool | Curator, Coin Department
National Treasures Department

Wayne G. Sayles said...

Thank you to Dr. Robert Kool for the kindness of a reply and for allaying my professional concerns. In the world that we live in, one cannot be too cautious of things that seem quite unreal. This, apparently, is a case of caution satisfied.

Wayne G. Sayles said...

Regarding the comment above by Mr. Tompa about Mr. Barford criticizing my questions, perhaps Paul Barford would prefer that we question nothing and simply march to whatever drum is within hearing range? My questions were numismatic concerns,not an attack on archaeology, but some people in their myopia are probably not able to understand that. And, admittedly, Mr. Barford is not a numismatist by any definition of the world. This blog post was not critical, it was exploratory — is that not the nature of academia? And, did it not ultimately allay reasonable and demonstrable concerns?

Alexander said...

Wayne, your concerns about the new discovery were perfectly well taken, given the evident discrepancy of the obverse and reverse images; Robert Kools message was also to the point, and the matter is resolver. What is not understandable is he abuse and invective heaped upon you by Barford, someone who is well known within his own coimmunity as an individual of diminished achievement, and who incessantly complains that he is a) abused b) misunderstood c)taken out of context, d) insulted, even as he chooses to insult all those who do not agree with him or who may have the misfortune in his eyes to be American.

I would not be concerned about someone who is a laughingstock in his own community and who, every day it seems, shows us all why that is.

Best wishes,


Cultural Property Observer said...

Thanks for sharing Dr. Kool's reply. That responds to many of the questions you raised. I do still wonder about the attribution as this coin does not appear to be anything like others of this rule in the trade. See

You will note most of this ruler's coins are bractates. The others are very poorly designed and struck coins unlike the crisp design on this coin. I suppose that supports the view that this may be a special issue, but, if so, it was done by much more talented engravers than otherwise used.

With respect to Mr. Barford's most recent observations, I don't get them. The wonderful thing about numismatics is that it still draws the interest of independent scholars as yourself who learned a lot by reading and handling the coins themselves. I'm not sure what's wrong with that. In fact, it would seem to be nothing but more snobbery from Mr. Barford, who as I understand it today is a translator and not an academic as such.