Countermarked Coins

Greek coins with added interest

A coin that has been stamped or marked with a design after it was originally struck is termed 'countermarked'. Countermarks were sometimes applied to certify a coinage for circulation in an area, to revalue an issue or to guarantee that the coin had been tested for proper silver content. The mark could also have been applied to show the coin had been accepted as a gift to the god. This page is adapted from one of my earliest 'Featured Coin' postings. In the time elapsed, I have learned very little about countermarks in general but will expand this page with examples of marked coins and discuss the points of interest that each demonstrates. For the purpose of this page, countermarks will be distinguished from test cuts whose intent was to reveal the inner part of a coin as a guard against fourrees.

Aspendos, Pamphylia - 370-333 BC - AE18
Wrestlers / slinger - bull countermark

Silver staters of 4th century BC Aspendos, Pamphylia, frequently bear countermarks; sometimes several on one coin. This example shows a bull walking right with the letters 'LUY' (Aramaic for Ba'al) above. Of the several marks found on these coins, this bull is perhaps the most commonly found. While purely a matter of conjecture it would seem possible that this mark was applied to certify the coin as appropriate for donation to the temple of Ba'al. This example shows the countermark applied over the coin's beaded border which shows through the body of the bull. Placement of the mark and the off center original strike allowed the mark to be placed so that little design of the coin was lost either by the countermark itself on the reverse or by the corresponding flat spot behind the right wrestler on the obverse. From a collector's point of view this is truly fortunate.

Another stater of similar date but from Tarsos bears the same countermark of the bull. the Aramaic letters 'LUY' for Ba'al are much less clear on this strike but are still present. Between interference from the coin design, weak or hurried application and the effects of time on the fine surface details, many countermarks will be found in less than perfect condition. A student will need to apply great care to determine if two countermarks were applied by the same stamp. Differences in strike and angle could make very different marks from the same punch. This coin also bears two test cuts showing that someone was testing for a copper core (not guilty, this time). We can not say if these cuts were made by the same authority that applied the countermark.

A silver tetradrachm (c.300 BC) of Side, Pamphylia, bears an oval countermark of an anchor neatly placed on Athena's helmet. The anchor is the personal symbol of the Seleukid kings of Syria and is found on a number of silver coins from this period. It would seem likely that this commonly found mark was applied officially to 'foreign' coins that were sanctioned to circulate in the Seleukid kingdom. An interesting study could be done by recording the types and weights of coins found with this mark. Still we would not know if the coins were stamped for some particular use or simply to give them equal footing with the normal tetradrachms of the kingdom. This is a rare example of a countermark that can be attributed to a known authority. Most we show on this page belonged to persons who remain unidentified.

Persian Empire - Silver siglos - 450-330 BC
Archer running right / incuse punch
Several countermarks on each side

Persian sigloi are frequently found countermarked with decorative punches. Some coins bear several marks. Some of the marks overlap but there are at least eight countermarks and three plain punches on this coin (a record?). To be correct, some of these marks are plain punches and may not be properly termed 'countermarks'. The exact line between a plain punch and one decorative enough to be considered a countermark may be a matter for personal opinion. Sigloi are often marked with several different designs suggesting in this case that the marks were applied by bankers or merchants who certified the coin as good. The central government was not in the business of testing coins and the bankers did not accept the word of others. This coin was struck crosswise on the oval flan and apparently was made suspect by its oddity. Each mark showed the coin to be good silver (not fourree). Of the group, the owl at the extreme left is most attractive. Unfortunately , it was applied over another mark that makes the design less clear than we might hope. No coin with this many countermarks can be expected to be perfectly clear.

This siglos bears all three of the major types of stamps. The owl and the three pointed pinwheel (stylized triskeles??) as well as most of the other marks shown on this page are 'positive' or 'raised' countermarks. They are cut into the stamp so that the final design is raised above a recessed field. The shape on the obverse upper right and both ends of the reverse are 'negative' or 'incuse' with the design below the surface of the coin. In the middle of the reverse is a pattern of punches which should not really be called countermarks if we consider them as means of exploring the center of the coin rather than marking the result of that search. Whether a collector included these punches in a collection of countermarks is a matter of personal choice. They exist as an intermediate between the knife or chisel used for a test cut and a true countermark which bears a design.

Pergamum, Mysia - 2-1st cent. BC - AE18
Asklepios / snake on omphalos - owl c/m
This AE18 of Pergamon is an example of a this mark with unknown purpose. Certainly it does not certify metal quality since it is a bronze coin. Perhaps it validated the coin for circulation in a different region; perhaps it indicated a new value to be placed on the coin. In either case, I would expect to have seen more of this type. Note the flat spot on the face of Asklepios caused by the strike of the reverse countermark.

The smallest bronze I have seen with a countermark is this third century BC AE14 of Ephesos, Ionia. The strike is not very strong but I believe it shows a top view of a bee in a circle (head at 2 o'clock). The leg of the stag from the original coin design crosses the body of the bee making the whole effect rather a jumbled mess. The obverse bee on this coin is also a mess. If nothing else, this coin points to the fact that students of countermarks can not be condition snobs. The percentage of weak and partial strikes on countermarked bronzes is exceedingly high. Bronze is harder to strike than silver and the low value of the coin probably required the countermarking process to be carried out at a hurried pace. Assembling a collection of perfect countermarked coins will be no easy task.

A countermarked diobol of Messembria is unusual but makes an interesting point. The reverse of the coin bears a counterstamp of a fancy 'H'. When listed in the auction catalog, this mark was called a Cyrillic N and explained as a modern collector's mark. In all cases we must be careful to remember that a countermark can be applied to a coin years after the coin was originally struck. In this case it was probably to indicate ownership by a modern collector but fake countermarks exist to attempt to raise the value of a coin. Does anyone know of this mark and who used it? I would appreciate hearing from anyone who has this answer. The coin is not one of the Black Sea Hoard coins.

Pantikapaion, Tauric Chersonese - AE20-AE18 - 4th century BC
Pan head - star c/m / Bull head, sturgeon beneath - bowcase c/m

Finally we have a particularly strange pair of countermarked coins. Both bronze coins of Pantikapaion of the fourth century BC show the head of Pan on the obverse and a lion head on the reverse. A two sided countermark was applied adding a star pattern to the obverse and a bow case to the reverse. The left coin shows a sharp countermark applied in the normal manner. The right coin, however, was produced from a master coin that was already countermarked. The mark is less clear and every specimen from this master shows the countermarks in exactly the same place. My specimens are not high grade but the difference is obvious. Whether the right coin was struck from dies cast from a countermarked coin or whether it was itself a cast is a matter on which I have never been completely certain. The edge of my coin appears to lack a seam that would be found on a cast. The fuzzy detail could be explained by either method. I would like to examine other coins from this master before making up my mind on the matter. It would seem that the need for countermarked coins exceeded the supply of originals so coins were produced with the mark. Another possibility is that counterfeiters were producing small bronzes and chose this method to produce their fakes. Certainly this is a coin type that deserves more study. As with other countermarked coins, we can ask the purpose of the marks and who applied them?

This page seems designed to show off my ignorance; countermarks are a field of Greek numismatics that will require decades of study to achieve even minimal understanding. Up to now most students have chosen easier and prettier subjects so the challenge here remains for a student willing to dedicate a lifetime of study. The few coins on this page are only a tiny sample of what exists ... and we didn't even mention Roman or Greek Imperial countermarks. This is no small challenge and the book that does justice to the subject will be very thick.

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1999 Doug Smith