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  • Coins Out of Time October 17, 2012

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Modern , trackback

    ***Dedicated to Lehmansterms, whom Beach owes an email…***

    An underdeveloped post on the wrong time use of coins. Any other examples gratefully received: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com The following passage comes from a book describing the adventures of an Allied serviceman in Italy in 1943: the serviceman in question had escaped from prison camp and had found himself in the wilds of the central Italian countryside where he made an unlikely alliance with an Italian farming family.

    And although all of this was what [the Italian family’s] vision of London conjured up for me after they had spoken about it as la citè [sic] d’la fumarassa, the city of smoke and fog, not what they knew about it themselves, they all knew about the golden sovereign, and one night when we were talking about the miraculous properties possessed by sterlina d’oro which neither moth nor rust could corrupt, nor mice consume, or become waste paper as bank notes could overnight, Agata went away to some secret hiding place and returned some time later with a whole handful of them, some embossed with the head of Queen Victoria (obit 1902), others with that of Edward Seventh (obit 1910) and George the Fifth (obit 1936), the even one or two with George the Sixth (obit 1956) on them, and on the obverse of all of them was the spirited figure of St George on horseback killing the dragon with a lance and the horse trampling it disdainfully underfoot, a currency which it had been illegal for any inhabitant of the British Isles to possess for as long as I could remember. ‘They are real sterline d’oro, aren’t they Enrico?’ she asked anxiously. I said that there was no doubt they were and that they were very good things to have, especially in times like these, better than Italian lire, German marks, French francs, English pounds and even American dollars…

    Sovereigns are relatively rare, of course. And they are minted according to the die not according to the year. So there may be some confusion of dates here. Still the fact is that an Italian peasant family in the mid 1940s was hoarding coins that stretched back a good half century.  The key, as the author above averts, was the gold content, that meant that the coins retained value so much better than the useless bits of papers on which our lives are terrifyingly built. Long ago Beach read an even more impressive proof – but where? – of the longevity of coins. A nineteenth-century English traveller found himself in an Arabian oasis. There he made a purchase in coin and was given a handful of coins in exchange, coins that included some Roman coppers! The most bizarre version possible of receiving a foreign coin out of a modern till.

    ***

    19 October 2012: First up Lehmansterms writes: Interesting that you quote from a (nontheless, unknown) 19th century traveller’s journal of the use of Roman coppers in Arabia. I have also tantalizingly heard of but never been able to locate travellers’ memoires written in not too much earlier an age (early 19th century) in which Roman coins were observed passing current (in the incident I have heard referred-to) as the toll a farmer paid a rural French ferry operator to transport his wagon full of goods across a river to market. The traveller’s journal supposedly comments on the impression made when seeing coins of Constantine the Great (307-337), fully 1500 years out of time, in daily use. I have a number of Roman-era coins dependably sourced from the Alsace region.  Sold to me by the 2nd generation (American) descendent of an Alsatian wine merchant family in which “unusual” coins which came across the counter over a period of many years were evidently put aside becoming a sort of proto-collection.  There were some odd coins which were far less old as well, but still well out of time and place, like heavy coppers from 18th century Russia, Bolton’s British “Cartwheel” pennies and two-pence, etc. The majority of these coins, however, were of Roman vintage and spanned about four centuries in their dates of issue – from the late Republican era through the mid-late 4th century.  Overwhelmingly copper, bronze or very low-silver billon, there were a few silvery-looking pieces from the era of debasement and inflation in the mid 3rd century, but no significant quantity of precious-metal pieces.  The wear-pattern on many of these coins is unusual in that they show evidence of having been buried (at least) once and accumulating the sort of verdigris over areas of ancient wear which one would expect to result from a millennium of diagenesis. Atop this, there is observable evidence of having been cleaned and smoothed, with yet another generation of wear atop remnants of verdigris incompletely removed in the cleaning and the sort of patina coins in circulation for a few decades might exhibit. I would have to guess that in some rural areas – perhaps many rural areas if they were far enough removed from centers of economic action – the clutches and hoards of ancient coins, buried by their owners for safety and never retrieved for any of a number of reasons - occasionally and inevitably found by those digging ditches or turned-up by the plow – would regularly be cleaned and put back into circulation in places where the supply of regal coin of the era was chronically inadequate.  One imagines some old pensioner (an easy task for me, being my job description) who having found a number of ancient coins cleaned them up as best as he was able then hied himself off to the local tavern where, evidently, any good, solid chunk of copper was as good as any other for a cup of wine. This is, of course, far removed from the “erratic finds” of ancient Roman, Greek, Byzantine or early Islamic coins in the Western hemisphere, which open up a different kettle of controversy altogether. KJ writes in next: Getting a foreign coin from the shop till may sound bizarre to you, but  it is not at all uncommon. For my entire life, getting Canadian change instead of American has been one of the minor inconveniences of life in New England. When I was very young, it was exciting to get a Bluenose dime or a penny with the Queen on it. Now, it’s annoying since we are reduced to trying to pass it on to the next unsuspecting Yank. I have a small bag filled with Canadian change. In years past, when I travelled more frequently to Canada, I would bring all the money with me and dump it into the first counter-top charity cup I saw. Now, Canada will no longer mint pennies, so I may inadvertently have the beginnings of a type collection.      I have also received foreign money in change from vending machines, all small coins and all but one dating from the pre-Euro era. I would be surprised if other Americans living near the border don’t have similar stories. Now I’m off to check my change from Dunkin’ Donuts for a denarius…. Then Rabbit Hole: Beach, I think you might not realise how long coins survive. Take, for example, the pre decimal British penny. The design for this changed relatively little in the nineteenth century with the result that coins from seventy or eighty years before remained in circulation.’ Thanks KJ, Lehmansterms and Rabbit Hole!

    13 Nov 2012: Doug writes: ‘Here in Oz, ten or fifteen years ago you used to see the ghost of the British Empire alive and well. Before both Britain and New Zealand downsized their coins you used to get UK and Irish 5p and 10p coins, as well as Kiwi 10c and 20c coins in your change as they were all the same size as our 10c and 20c coins dating back to pre decimal times when we all used the pound. As well as these you also used to get coins from related currencies which must once have been closely related to the pound.  Malay and Singapore coins turned up, doubtless picked up by travellers changing planes, along with the occasional Fijian coin. Probably the most exotic I ever found was a Malawi 5 Kwacha doing service as a 10c coin and all more or less the same size as their Australian equivalents. Given that the Kiwi coins were more or less worth the same as our coins, and the UK coins were worth a little more no one seemed to mind very much if they ended up in their change. These days are gone – since New Zealand downsized its coins there seems to have been concerted push to weed out the exotica from the circulating coinage and these days you hardly ever get anything exotic in your change.’ Thanks Doug

    31 Dec 2012: Jonathan Jarrett from A Corner writes ‘I’ve actually got a paper coming out about this in a volume dedicated to the memory of the late and lamented Mark Blackburn. There’s an argument in it that I step gracefully around about how long Roman coins stayed in use in Northern Spain, which gets very tangly because the texts that seem to refer to them refer to `solidi’, which is in most contexts almost certainly a unit of account. (I step round it because I’m writing about the livestock value standard some scholars have argued was in use instead.) Certainly it seems unlikely that enough of the old coins still existed to make a running currency (if that’s not tautologous, given the etymology). But as to the long survival of individual specie, oh yes, absolutely; the number of third- or fourth-century Roman coins in Anglo-Saxon graves tells that tale perfectly well. One such, belonging to an old colleague of mine, can be found in this article of mine along with some reflections on Nero that may amuse you’ Thanks Jonathan!