Two Sides to Every Coin

by Alexandra Walsh ’18, intern in Byzantine Collections Catalogues

My fellow interns sometimes joke that it’s only a matter of time before I mistake a silver solidus of Theodosius III for a quarter as I pay for a can of soda at the nearest vending machine. My mind, they joke, has been boggled by the hundreds of Byzantine coins I’ve examined and catalogued over the past few months. But even with a caliper in one latex-gloved hand, and a gold nomisma hyperperon in the other, there’s no way that I will confuse my familiar American coinage with these expertly stamped pieces of Byzantine History.

As the intern for the Dumbarton Oaks Museum, I have had the chance to work on a number of projects, including compiling a functional bibliography for the new Byzantine Textiles project and sitting in on exhibition planning meetings for the 75th anniversary of the institution. These experiences have allowed me to witness the complex inner workings of the museum world.

Like most of today’s museums, Dumbarton Oaks is striving to digitize its collections to ensure that they are more accessible to scholars and visitors alike. Computers and databases may seem a bit out of place here—an eruption of modernity between the volumes of Sotheby’s catalogues standing in bookshelf and the hand written notes of Philip Grierson, the brilliant British numismatist who occupied a curatorial post here at Dumbarton Oaks from 1955 until 1997. While there are nine published catalogues of Byzantine coins from the Dumbarton Oaks and Whittemore Collections, many of the 12,000 coins, including more recent acquisitions, are still not included in print. Therefore, the museum’s current mission is to mount the post-catalogue acquisitions online.

Gold Solidus of the Empress Irene (797-802). Notice her bust is struck on both the obverse and reverse sides of the coin. (Accession Number: BZC.1948.17.2543)

Gold Solidus of the Empress Irene (797-802). Notice her bust is struck on both the obverse and reverse sides of the coin. (Accession Number: BZC.1948.17.2543)

That’s where I come in. Among my various projects, I have spent a great deal of time surrounding myself with money! Though I’ve catalogued over 140 coins onto the website, spot-checked, typed, and charted, the real fun comes when my magnifying glass and I head down to the two coins safes in the basement to do a little digging.

Every coin has an obverse and a reverse side. And I see every Byzantine coin in two distinct ways. Examining each precious face is the methodical means of preserving and tracking the past, giving true historical context. Flipping the coin over, each figure of Christ seated on a back-less throne and every Greek inscription stamped on a piece of copper tells its own story about the coin and its place in Byzantine society.

Some coins reveal political intrigue. For example, the practice of placing imperial busts on both the obverse and reverse sides of coins arose predominantly during the Isaurian-Amorian Period. And this relationship between fact and date also comes with a larger context: this pattern was a result of the iconoclastic controversy over icons. Apparently, coins were struck in this way because it was simply the polite way of removing offensive religious symbols from coinage.

Other coins demonstrate familial betrayal. Unlike most emperors during that period, who stamped figures of themselves on the obverse and their sons or heirs on the reverse, the Empress Irene, during her reign, printed her bust on both sides of coins. Was this a sign of importance? Or was this a reminder of the greed and power that led her to overthrow, imprison, and blind her own son with whom she first ruled jointly?

With each coin that I catalogue, I am afforded a fascinating glimpse of history. More than 1,500 years ago, these pieces of metal were passed around like small change from a vending machine. Now, though, they serve as reminders of the civilization through which Christianity found a voice and the daily lives of the people who formed a bridge between the Classical and Medieval worlds.

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