Monday, 30 November 2015

The silver coins of Taras: part nine

Calabria, Taras, ca. 281-272 BC, stater, Vlasto 1016 (this coin)
Campano-Tarentine series
Now and again I identify finds for a British metal-detecting forum. These finds are almost always examples of early Celtic art because even Celtic coin finds are usually correctly identified by its metal detectorist members by the time I get there. Early Celtic art is understood by very few people at all. Imagine my surprise when I saw an example of the coin type on the right up for identification. As my first specialty about fifty years ago was ancient Greek coins, I knew what it was at once.

A metal detectorist usually finds quite a range of finds in any area with a long history, and a nice example of early Celtic art will almost never have anything even remotely connected with it nearby. Instead, there will be (typically) a fragment of a Medieval shoe buckle; a twentieth century penny; a watch key; a badly corroded late Roman coin... Not only that, but  the twentieth century penny might well be at a greater depth than the Roman coin. Agricultural machinery acts like a giant food-processor! The most extreme case of that phenomenon I have seen was when I fourteen years old, and it was not on a ploughed field but actually at an archaeological site: I was walking with Malcolm Hay (my best friend at the time, and the one who got me interested in Greek coins) through the grounds of Prittlewell Priory in Essex when we saw an archaeological excavation underway that was very close to a modern building. We found this quite hilarious because, even at the age of fourteen, we were aware that putting in a foundation for a building disturbs quite a lot of ground around said building. This fact finally dawned on the excavators after they started finding beer bottle caps and a few other remains of the builder's lunches at Palaeolithic depths. This was also the first time that I started wondering about the observational abilities of some archaeologists. I am still wondering about that, more than fifty years later.

There was nothing that the finder of the Greek stater could connect with his find in that area and I told him of  a couple of possibilities: the coin might have been a souvenir brought back from Italy by a Celtic warrior who had served In Pyrrhus' army. The closest tribe whom we know did serve at Taras was the continental Ambiani who were also the first of the Belgae to mint their own coins following the design of a gold stater of Taras (with the head of Amphitrite or Hera on the obverse), or the coin might have been lost by a collector who had just purchased it and was taking a short cut across the field on his way home (its paper envelope which was used before the modern plastic "flips", having long turned to pulp). Or could it have been something from a burglary which was thrown away as it was too identifiable? One could come up with any number of possibilities. Metal detecting might be an excellent pastime for the fiction writer looking for ideas for a new story!

Evidently, there was some sort of an alliance between Taras and Neapolis in Campania to explain this unusual type, but its details are uncertain. There are a few possibilities, though: one is described here, and this nineteenth century encyclopaedia might give other clues. Merely recounting what happened in the past, like entries in a ledger is a sterile activity, but cultures and their objects can inspire and culture is an ever-changing and ever-inspiring phenomenon that, by its very nature, has no boundaries (what would have Picasso's  career have been like if he had seen no African masks brought back from French Africa?). Keats, certainly, was so inspired.

John's Coydog Community page


  1. "This was also the first time that I started wondering about the observational abilities of some archaeologists. I am still wondering about that, more than fifty years later..."

    Me too, and you can add in "mental abilities".

    1. Someone told a friend of mine that he studied archaeology at university. My friend replied to him: "Was the basket-weaving course too full?"