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Imperial Roman Coin Attribution 101 - The Short Course

Original Article by Carmen J. Scoppa

You can identify or “attribute” your coin with knowledge of the following characteristics of it.  These six points will help you to pinpoint the ruler it was issued under, the type of coin, the denomination and possibly the time and place of its minting.

Physical Characteristics

Obverse Legend

Obverse Device

Reverse Legend

Reverse Device

Mint Mark and/or other markings

 

Physical Characteristics

Weight:  Usually given in grams with an accuracy of at least 1/10th of a gram, but it is better to have figures to 1/100th of a gram, this weight data will help with your determination of the denomination of the coin in question.

Diameter:  Usually given in millimeters with an accuracy of at least 1mm, but it is better to have figures to 1/10th of a mm, this dimensional data will help with your determination of the denomination of the coin in question.

Die alignmentDie alignment is expressed in degrees and describes how the obverse and reverse dies were aligned to each other when the coin was struck.  The best way to look at it is to put a straight edge on the face of the coin with the edge at the top (0 degrees) and the bottom (180 degrees) through the center.  While holding the straight edge to the coin turn it over and note where the “top” of the reverse device is.  If it is in the same place as the top of the front device it is called 0-degree alignment. If the top of the reverse is at the bottom it is called 180-degree alignment.  Another way to examine die alignment is to hold the coin on the edge with the obverse facing you, your index finger at the top of the obverse design (0 degrees) and the thumb at the bottom of the design (180 degrees); then rotate the coin horizontally maintaining your index finger and thumb fixed on the same spot on the rim.   The 0-degree alignment is called Metal Rotation, while the 180-degree alignment is called Coin Rotation.  Now for the “real world”; Roman coinage was made using dies that were movable, so true 0 or 180 degree rotations were not always made.  You must guess at the rotation, to the nearest 15 degrees, if it is not at the 0 or 180 degree mark.  If you turn the coin over with the straight edge on it and the top of the obverse at the top of the rotated coin you must observe where the “top” of the reverse device is. If you observe that the top of the reverse device is pointing towards where the 3 would be on a clock face this is said to be 90-degree rotation. Or if it is pointing to the spot where the 9 would be on the face it is said to be 270-degree rotation.

Color:  Color could help to determine the material the coin is made from, this material data will help with your determination of the denomination of the coin in question.  Also by knowing the material you will know in what section of a reference book to look for your attribution references. The most likely materials are Gold (AU), Silver (AR) or Bronze and/or Copper (AE). There are several alloys of Bronze ranging from a high content of silver (alloy called Billon) to very little different metals except copper. Most are intermediate types with various metals alloyed with the copper to make the bronze, all are called AE in the nomenclature.

Obverse Legend (the wording on the front of the coin)

Spelling COUNTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  Note length of the legend, note breaks in the legend, the whole legend is a big key in the attribution.

Name of the issuer -  This name is the single BIGGEST KEY to the whole attribution process.  Without this name the whole process is much more complicated if not made almost impossible in some cases.

Titles or descriptors -  These words or abbreviations attached to the issuer’s name will help to finalize the attribution.  There are a lot of abbreviations that could be attached within the legend, such as IMP, AVG, COS, P, F, DN, GAL, VAL, A, M etc.  Just one title could change the whole coin’s attribution.

Known legends -  There are several places to find lists of legends like:

- Moneta or other software

- RIC, Sear, Van Meter or other books

- Web sites like the FORVM, WildWinds, Dirty Old Coins, etc.

These known legends are most of the time able to be attached to the various mints. One legend may be only used at a single mint. This is important information when you are looking for the various available places where a certain coin was made.

Partial legends - There are several places to find search engines of legend’s characters if you can only see a few of the letters.  These are found in places like:

- romancoin.info

- WildWinds

- Moneta or other software 

Note: some letters are very common and will produce a long listing of possibilities. Examples of those letters are AVG, IMP, DN CAE, and NOB. While other combination of letters like POTXXXVII are very unique and return a short list if not a single hit when they are used.

 

Obverse Device (the picture on the front of the coin)

For an Imperial issue it will most likely be a head (this is where we get the slang term Heads from) or a bust.  There are various types of these figures. Each could have different types of head gear, be holding different types of other gear, be wearing different types of clothing and facing various directions.

Type -  Types are head only, bust, two heads or busts (facing each other), conjunctional heads (one right next to the other with only the profile of the one behind showing).  After a while the issuers will be recognizable by their profile or other features.

Head Gear -  The various types of head gear are bare head, laureate, diadem, pearl diadem, diadem with rosettes, radiate, helmet, radiated helmet.

Clothing -  There could be none, draperies, cuirass (breastplate), imperial robes, armor and various combinations of these. Some issuers have standard types of clothing or equipment that they use more frequently than others.

Other Gear -  The other gear could be spear(s), arrow(s), shield, mappa, globe, plus various other handheld objects.  These items may appear alone or in combinations.

Direction -  The direction that the head/bust is facing (right, left, forward etc) is a main point.  Some of the descriptions get very complicated with wording like as seen from the rear or from the front.

An important note: the RADIATE will not only help with the description, but will help with the denomination (most likely it will be double).

 

Reverse Legend (the wording on the back of the coin)

Again, spelling COUNTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! One letter can throw off the whole attribution.  Note length of the legend, note breaks in the legend, the whole legend is a big key in the attribution.  The wording of this legend will most likely tie into the Reverse Device.

If you are using a book like Roman Imperial Coinage (RIC) knowing the issuer and cross referencing the reverse legend from its index to the pages where the issuer is listed one can cut down the amount of different pages that need to be looked at.

If you are using a book like Van Meter or Sear knowing the issuer and then looking for the reverse legend in alphabetical order under the proper denomination works here. Knowing your reference book and how it is set up helps you find what you are looking for quicker.

Titles or descriptors -  These words or abbreviations used will help to finalize the attribution.  There are a lot of abbreviations that could be attached within the legend, such as IMP, AVG, COS, P, F, DN, GAL, VAL, A, M etc.  Just one title could change the whole coin’s attribution.

Known legends -  There are several places to find lists of legends like:

·         Moneta or other software

·         RIC, Sear, Van Meter or other books

·         Web sites like the FORVM, WildWinds, Dirty Old Coins, etc.

These known legends are most of the time able to be attached to the various mints. One legend may be only used at a single mint. This is important information when you are looking for the various available places where a certain coin was made.

Partial legends -   There are several places to find search engines of legend’s characters if you can only see a few of the letters.  These are found in places like:

·         Moneta or other software

·         FORVM

·         WildWinds

Note: some letters are very common and will produce a long listing of possibilities. Examples of those letters are AVG, IMP, DN CAE, and NOB. While other combination of letters like COSXXIX are very unique and return a short list if not a single hit when they are used.

 

Reverse Device (the picture on the back of the coin)

For an Imperial issue it will most likely tie to the reverse legend.  Expect certain devices with certain legends. For example; the “FEL TEMP”s will be a “fallen horseman”, a “Phoenixtype (either on a mound or on a globe), a hut (with spear point up or down) type or a Galley (with either Phoenix or Victory) type.

Type -  There are many different types of reverse devices on these coins. These run from the common “two soldiers that are flanking one or two standards” to special one of a kind architectural depiction of a building that could even be shown in 3D. The device most likely will be a noun a person(s) place or thing.

·         Person(s) -  Emperor(s), Deity(s), family member(s), soldier(s), combinations, etc

·         Place -  Harbor, on a boat, in the clouds or another type of scene

·         Thing -  Altar, wreath, building, animal, etc

Description -  What is going on?  Is someone-

·         Walking

·         Standing

·         Holding

·         etc

Items - There could be many different items held or just in the scene such as:

·         scale

·         cornucopia

·         scepter

·         rudder

·         globe

·         whip

·         the list goes on and on and on…………..

Number in the scene - How many figures make up the complete scene and where are they in relationship to each other. Such as:

·         Four Princes in front of………..

·         Emperor and a Deity facing………….

·         Two Soldiers flanking…………

“Extra” items -       Are there “extra” parts to the scene? If so what are they?  Items like:

·         Eagle at the feet……….

·         Holding Victory on a globe….

·         Captives being speared.

·         Etc

 

Mint Marking(s) and other control marks

Placement on the coin - Where on the coin are the various marking: ·         Exergue - the space below a line on the reverse of the coin most of the time at the bottom of the reverse device

·         Fields:

·         Center

·         Right

·         Left

·         Other places:

·         Above- as in: star above the She Wolf or Campgates

·         Behind- as in: (delta) behind bust

·         After- as in: pellet after legend

·         Under- as in: pellets under Bust

Type of markings - Letters, symbols, characters and other types of marks

From these marks and the placement along with the right references you can even know the timing of the striking of the coin at a certain city.

 

Putting it all together…………….

Now all six of these points need to be brought together to form the complete attribution.  The reference book, if any, that was used must be cited and an “attribution” must be written.

Most common descriptions of imperial coinage start off with the ruler or issuer of the coin in question and then list the descriptors to pull all of it together.  For clarity and brevity some of the exactness may, and should, be left out of the written attribution.

Here is a “typical” attribution written for a coin.  Common name of the ruler and the time frame of rule, denomination, physical characteristics, mint with coin striking timing if known. Next the obverse legend (in capital lettering and bold characters), obverse device description, reverse legend (in capital lettering and bold characters), reverse device description, with the placement of mint and control marks and finally the citing of reference numbers.  Sometimes you can even put a picture with it to help in the visualization of the attributed coin and/or a quick visual description.

Aurelian (270–275 A.D.) 

AE-Antoninianus, 22 mm, 3.26gm, die alignment 180 degrees, struck at Siscia in 274 or 275; obv- IMPCAVRELIANVSAVG Radiate bust, cuirassed, right; rev- CONCORDIAMILITVM Aurelian standing right facing Concord standing left, clasping right hands, with XXIVI in exergue.  RIC 244 (vol. V part II page 292), VM 7 page 257, Sear 3258 (1988 4th ed.) & C. 60.  This coin exhibits an even toning on both of the silvered (nearly complete) surfaces. There is some damage form the lower part of the Emperor through the exergue, that obscures some of the mint mark.

 

A much shorter version would be:

Aurelian (270-275) ANT. CONCORDIAMILITVM  This gets you close, but very little help is given to the reader, who could be a buyer for a coin you are looking to sell.  Don’t get me wrong, each of these attributions have their place as well as the spectrum of all of those in between them.

If you can’t find all of the information, give as much of it as you can. If you are asking for help in completing an attribution make sure you give as much information as you can. Asking someone to help ID a coin that is described by saying, “it has a head on one side and two figures on the other with some lettering around both” will be a waste of your time and no one will be able to help. While on the other hand if you post a picture of both sides of the coin and tell all the letters that can be seen, together with any book  or Internet references that you feel may apply, your chances are much better for someone to be able to help you.

HAPPY ATTRIBUTING………………














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