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Holed Ancient Coins

Click here for a gallery of holed coins Every now and then you can come across an ancient coin with a hole in it. Coins which were holed in antiquity are intriguing. Why was this done? It takes time and effort, and reduces the metal content of the coin and therefore its value. Sometimes a reason can be found, sometimes not. Many holed coins will have been used as decoration, or a keepsake. Some may have been deliberately defaced.

Some might have been kept on a pin for use in emergencies. Or in some cases, holed coins of low value may have simply been used in some utilitarian way as a handy piece of metal. Examples like these, and more, are shown here.

Coins Holed as Jewellery

A holed silver trihemiobol of Eion in Thrace, 500-437 BCE. A silver trihemiobol of Eion in Thrace, 500-437 BCE.

Most holed coins look a bit like this one from Eion, enlarged on the left. The actual coin is only 11 millimetres across. The careful placing of the hole, avoiding any damage to the design, makes it obvious that this was pierced for use as a decoration, maybe as personal jewellery.

There is a rim around the edge of the hole on the reverse, which shows that it was pierced from the other side, as you would do if you were being careful not to spoil its appearance. This is a really archaic coin, from a time before it was common to have designs on both sides. My Hellenic holed coin gallery page has several examples of quite beautiful little Greek coins which have been pierced in this way.

A Greek coin from Cyrene used as a pendant, 4th century BCE. A coin of Cyrene used as a pendant, 4th century BCE.

To display one side of a coin reliably, normally a small metal loop would be fixed through the hole and used to attach the coin to (for example) a cord or necklace. Simply looping a cord through the hole to hang round your neck would display either side at random.

You might think that it seems obvious that if a coin has been pierced, it is to make it into personal jewellery. After all, if a modern coin has been holed, this is inevitably the reason. For example, in the United Kingdom, Maundy money was often pierced to be attached to a charm bracelet. And, in fact, I think that most of the ancient coins on my holed coin gallery page were pierced for just this reason.

On the right is an illustration from Ian Carradice's "Greek Coins" showing a coin from Cyrene in North Africa, made into a pendant in ancient times; proof that this happened at least once. You can't see how the coin is attached, but in this case it might have been soldered on.

That example is a gold coin on an elaborate necklace. Most coin pendants and chains will have been much simpler.

Centred Holes

Coins which have been used as pendants or as lucky charms have a hole placed near one edge to make this easy. But when you see the variety of ways that ancient coins have been holed, you might agree that it is better not to make assumptions, but to start from scratch by examining the evidence.

Holed copper as of Caligula with a Vesta reverse A copper as of Caligula with a Vesta reverse, 37-41 CE.

This coin of Caligula, on the left, may have been nailed to a shrine of Vesta. It was unlikely to have been used to glorify the emperor, looking at the way the hole has defaced his head. This is a relatively large coin, almost 30 millimetres across, and therefore a good choice for a display.

Holed bronze of Gordian III from Singara A bronze coin of Gordian III from Singara, 238-244 CE.

The chunky coin on the right is also big and showy, a full 33 millimetres, and the hole in this one looks made to have a nail holding it in place. It even looks as though the head of the nail would have been countersunk into the surface of the coin, for a smooth finish. Even though the hole partly defaces Gordian's head, it must have been there to show off the emperor and his wife Tranquillina.

Multiple Holes

Silver antoninanus of Severina pierced with two holes. A silver antoninanus of Severina, wife of Aurelian; 274-275 CE.

This antoninianus of Severina is certainly an elegant choice as jewellery. It has two small holes at opposite ends of the coin. Perhaps it has been fastened to something, or perhaps it formed part of a more elaborate construction. It could have been chained together with other coins to form a heavy necklace. Certainly two holes would not have been needed for a simple pendant.

Silver siliqua of Arcadius pierced with two holes. A silver siliqua of Arcadius, 393-394 CE.

In this smaller and much lighter silver coin of Arcadius on the right, the two holes are next to each other at the same end of the coin. It may have been sewn onto a piece of clothing, perhaps one of many such pieces in a glittering display.

Many late Roman bronze coins are discovered to have been holed. One theory is that soldiers may have threaded them onto their armour, where they would have served as a combination of decoration and extra protection. Their value as currency was low, so this is feasible.

Cast copy of a bronze coin of Honorius pierced with three holes. A cast copy of a bronze coin of Honorius, around 400 CE.

Some examples have several holes, so they may have served some utilitarian purpose. On this site is a quote from Marvin Tameanko, author of "Monumental Coins," saying "Checking some notes I made a long time ago, (sources unrecorded) I found ancient holed coins, 2 or 3 holes, which were used sewn in overlapping fashion to a leather tunic to make scale (mail) armour. I also saw a multi-holed coin used as a strainer in the bottom of a clay funnel. This was used to strain grain out of beer."

This example, oddly, seems to be a cast copy of a coin, and its seller conjectured that it had been used as a button. I think that is a fair guess. There would be no point in making a cast which could only have been meant to have a decorative function and then hiding it inside a funnel. But it is far from being fine work. The lugs at each end are typical of an unfinished cast, and you can see where two more holes have been started and abandoned. Of course, it could be a rejected piece that has been recovered in modern times from some ancient waste heap.

Bronze obol of Hadrian from Alexandria with the remains of two nails. A bronze obol of Hadrian from Alexandria, 129-130 CE.

There is no doubt about the way this Alexandrian obol of Hadrian was attached. The remains of two bronze nails are still in place. It looks as though the heads are on the obverse side. Doug Smith has conjectured about another nailed coin that it could have been fixed to a soldier's coffin. That's a nice romantic idea, but as he says, there's no way of proving it.

You can see from the different colours that the bronze of the nails is a different alloy from the bronze of the coin. In fact, Alexandrian coins often contained a proportion of lead in their mix, giving them a soapier feel and often a smoother surface with less well defined details than bronze coins of similar age from elsewhere.

Battered denarius of Septimius Severus with two holes. A battered silver denarius of Septimius Severus, 202-210 CE.

This battered old coin has two holes. Their positioning, and the way the metal of the coin has been stressed and bent around them, suggest strongly that this coin has been on a pin or fibula. Could this have been a way of storing the coin for emergencies?

Roman coins threaded on a fibula. Roman coins threaded on a fibula.

The picture on the right is from another ancient coins site, and shows coins strung on a Roman fibula, supposedly so that they could be pinned to a tunic. The site doesn't show any evidence that this is actually ancient, and the setup seems rather clumsy. It's not that easy to make a hole in a coin, and then, these must have hung awkwardly or dug into the wearer. So, I don't think my own example was pinned with others like this. This particular coin celebrates the arrival of the emperor Septimius Severus into Rome, and I think it might have been made into a crude brooch. If you look at the hole on the left of the coin, you can see a groove which suggests that a pin passed over the edge of the coin and then behind the emperor's bust, possibly to display it. My romantic imagination shows it to me pinned to the tunic of a loyalist, shining out in the cheering crowd as the emperor made his formal entry into the city. My imagination then goes on to show it being ripped from his tunic by a thief, then dropped in the chase and trampled by the hob-nailed sandals of the soldiers. Coins like these may be in poor condition, but that only enhances their interest.

Almost Holes

Billon centenionalis of Constantius II with an attempt at a hole. A billon centenionalis of Constantius II, 348-350 CE.

Some coins show an attempt at a hole which has not been carried through. On the left is a centenionalis of Constantius II with just such an attempt on the reverse. The inside of the depression has the same patina as the rest of the coin, so it is pretty certain that the attempt was made in ancient times.

Silver drachm of Corinth with holes started on both sides. A silver drachm of Corinth, 350-206 BCE.

This silver drachm of Corinth has holes started on both sides. There's no evidence of what stopped them being completed, but they do look like separate attempts. They are in different positions, so the hole-borer could not have expected them to join up.

Could these be test holes, dug into the coin to see if it is really silver all the way through? The possibility is there, but it is low. Test cuts and holes were normally made in a thicker part of the coin, and they are usually dug into the coin, not carefully bored as these seem to be.

In neither case is there any indication of why the hole was not completed. The boring process seems to have started well; neither coin has cracked or broken under the strain; so these coins are mysteries.

Drilled Holes

Holed siliqua of Constantius II. A silver siliqua of Constantius II, 355-260 CE.

Most of the holed coins on this page and in my gallery have been pierced with a punch. This is evident from the crudeness and sometimes the irregularity of the shape of the hole, sometimes by the deformation of the metal around it, and often by the lip of metal which has formed on the side away from the point of entry, pushed to one side by the punching tool and sometimes flattened around the hole. But sometimes, there is evidence of a little more workmanship, and perhaps the use of a drill.

On this coin, for example, the hole is countersunk from both sides, leaving no raised edges. A punch could not do this. Though it is possible that the hole was made with a punch, and tidied with a small knife.

One benefit of using a drill or a knife like this, from the point of view of the workman, is that he gets to keep a small amount of silver, the metal shavings from the drilling. I wonder if the person who made this rather large hole, with its extravagant countersinking, had that in mind?

Plugged Holes

Silver siliqua of Constantine II with a plugged hole. A silver siliqua of Constantine II, 351-355 CE.

Some holed ancient coins have been repaired, by plugging the hole. The plug is usually the same metal as the coin, or at least the same in appearance. Repairs are more common in the most valuable coins, so it's easy to find gold coins with plugged holes, though I don't have one here. This silver siliqua of Constantius II, the same type as the coin just above, has been plugged with a silver-appearing metal and the finish of the repair is moderately rough, so it may well have been both holed and repaired in ancient times.

Bronze follis of Licinius II with a plugged hole. A bronze follis of Licinius II, 317-320 CE.

On the other hand, this bronze follis of the boy emperor Licinius II is of low value, and has been plugged with copper, which looks fresh and new, totally different from the heavily patinated bronze around it. If this were done when the bronze was still shiny, it would still have looked different; polished bronze is much yellower than this metal. The crudity of the repair is consistent with the low value of the coin, but the reason for it is still a mystery, especially if it was actually done in modern times, which seems very likely given the clean condition of the plug.

Contemporary Fakes

Holed fourree republican denarius. A fourrée Roman Republican denarius, about 100 BCE.

I have come across several holed coins, apparently for use as jewelry, which are obvious fakes. Not modern fakes, but made around the same time as the originals. Why would anyone use an obvious fake as a decorative item? Well, it's one way to make use of it when you know it can't be passed on as currency. It would obviously be the cheaper end of the market, but might make a nice item for someone with a low income, maybe a household slave.

The coin on the right is a fourrée, a contemporary fake of a Republican denarius, and you can see where the silver coating has worn off to reveal the base metal beneath. It would have been quite a surprise if this only became apparent when the hole was first made!

There is another holed fourrée, this time of a denarius of Augustus, on my Republican holed coin gallery page.

Holes with Loops

Holed bronze coin of Honorius with a loop in place. A bronze coin of Honorius, 408-423 CE.

Sometimes, holed coins are found with metal loops still in place though the holes. The first coin in this section is a small bronze of Honorius from early in the 5th century CE, and has a brass loop through its hole. Although the coin is heavily patinated, the brass loop is not. It does not look new, but might not be ancient. This is the sort of loop you might expect from a competent metal-worker of any time since this coin was struck.

Holed bronze coin of Maurice Tiberius with loop and chain. A bronze Romaion follis of Maurice Tiberius, 586-587 CE.

This worn old coin is a Byzantine bronze follis of Maurice Tiberius from 586-587 CE. Most unusually, it has both a loop and a chain! Unfortunately, the chain is absolutely modern. It is a machine-made modern plated brass chain with a modern fastener. It is very worn. The silver(ish) plating has come off all the exposed parts, and the fastener is stuck shut. This must have been a well-loved pendant in fairly recent times, and it is likely that the coin also received most of its considerable wear relatively recently.

This modern fastener does not hold to the coin. It is linked to an iron loop which looks somewhat older. It's hard to tell the age of this loop. Iron can corrode and degrade very fast in some conditions. This loop is worn and the surface is etched or eroded, but even so it is not likely to be ancient. It's a pity that these attachments don't come with date stamps as so many coins do!

Permanent Fixtures

Silver drachm of Yazdgard I with an attached loop. A Sasanian silver drachm of Yazdgard I, 399-420 CE.

Sometimes, instead of looping wire through a hole in a coin, a loop was attached. The loop on the Sasanian silver drachm of Yazdgard I appears to be silver, and has been soldered into place. This gives a harmonious effect, and the coin would have made an attractive pendant. The coin is quite worn now. It is impossible to be certain whether it was already worn when the loop was attached, but it is likely. Once attached, the loop would have protected the area just around it from contact, and thus from wear; and there is little evidence of such protection. So it is quite possible that the coin was already an ancient relic when this loop was made. As the coin is about 1600 years old, this still gives a wide range of possible dates for the loop.

Silver denarius of Hadrian with an attached loop. A silver denarius of Hadrian, 128 CE.

Instead of a silver loop, this denarius of Hadrian had a loop of base metal, probably iron in this case, attached with a rivet. This looks clunky and unattractive now, but when it was new, this would have been at least partly offset by the loop having a dull shine. You can see the broken ends of a silver wire passing through the loop, on which it would have been hung.

I tested these attachments with a magnet, and Hadrian's loop is attracted at about half strength. It could contain any ferromagnetic material, not just iron but also cobalt or nickel. But given the rusty appearance, it is probably half iron and half rust.

Silver siliqua of Valens with an attached hook. A silver siliqua of Valens, 364-378 CE.

The siliqua of Valens on the left has a hook instead of a loop. Like the denarius, the attachment is of base metal, this one probably bronze, and is fixed with a rivet through the coin. This was certainly made to display the head of the emperor, and may have been fixed to a shrine of the imperial cult. One advantage of the hook is that the display could have been changed as easily as the emperors were in those times.

The attachment does not respond to a magnet. When it was made, it would have shone a bright yellow, almost like gold.

You can find almost any combination of holes and attachments on ancient coins. These few illustrate some of the possible range. You can see more, as well as some more recent examples, in my holed coin gallery. These are my holed coin gallery pages:

Hellenic CoinsRoman Republican and Augustan CoinsFirst Century Roman CoinsSecond Century Roman CoinsThird Century Roman CoinsFourth Century Roman CoinsFifth Century Roman CoinsByzantine or Romaion Coins of Later CenturiesOther Holed Coins of Varying Origins and Times

The content of this page was last updated on 5 January 2009.

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