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Pioneering technology gives new insight into ancient Greece

Researchers from Macquarie University brings science and ancient history together by using new non-destructive technology to analyse artefacts from ancient Greece.

Early Attic coinage and the 'Spring of Silver' project

The ancient incuse coinage of South Italy: a joint study between ACANS and ANSTO

Researchers at the Australian Centre for Ancient Numismatic Studies (ACANS) have joined forces with scientists from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), on a joint research program to solve a twenty five century old mystery behind the technology used to produce a special variety of ancient Greek coins. First minted around 540 BC in the cities of Southern Italy (modern Basilicata and Calabria), incuse coins show the same image on the front and back - but the image on the back is sunk into the metal so that it appears as a negative or incuse version of the front. The mysterious technique of manufacture, which appears to be quite difficult to execute, has attracted a good deal of discussion but it has never been satisfactorily explained.  We do know, however, that these cities continued to mint these coins for over a century.

Silver-smithing: Phase two of the Incuse Coinage project

Research Team: Associate Professor Ken Sheedy (Macquarie University) Scott Olsen (ANSTO) Talia Knowles (Macquarie University) and Carl Toppler (ANSTO).

Phase two of our investigation into the ancient incuse coinage of South Italy focuses on ancient techniques of annealing and striking. In partnership with our colleagues at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), our researchers took half a kilo of silver to the metal-working facilities at Amor Badge Co. The aim was to produce a control group of silver flans with a silver purity comparable to the incuse coins of Metapontum (i.e, 98-99.9% purity). The silver was heated, rolled, chopped into pieces of approximately eight grams in weight and Liquefied. We wanted a variety of flans in order to understand the impact of different annealing processes on the crystallography of the metal. Some of the silver was poured into moulds, some globules, and some just scraped right out of the crucible.

A portion of the mould-made flans were then inserted into a steel press and stamped.

Our colleagues at ANSTO are now preparing their Kowari machine to apply Neutron Scattering to the combined sample of specimens. This technique examines the level of stress applied to the specimens by fluctuations in temperature and pressure, during the minting process. From this analysis, we hope to extrapolate the ancient manufacturing techniques employed to mint the ancient incuse coinage of Metapontum.

The coins of Pythagoras: Phase one of the Incuse Coinage project

The Metapontum Coinage Project. Jointly undertaken by the Australian Centre for Ancient Numismatic Studies and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. Research Team: AP Ken Sheedy, Scott Olsen, Dr. Vladimir Luzin and Floriana Salvemini.

There are no surviving contemporary accounts of ancient coin manufacture, and no illustrations. Only three or four of the dies once used for striking coins in ancient Greek mints survive today. Therefore, what we know about the earliest history of coin minting is derived from a study of the coins themselves. With the emerging science of neutron scattering, the use of neutron diffraction to improve our understanding of the techniques of ancient coin manufacture is just beginning, and the ANSTO/ACANS study is among the first. "Our aim is to explore the technology behind the production of one of the world's first coinages," explains Dr Vladimir Luzin, Instrument Scientist at ANSTO. "In particular, our objective is to explain the very singular technology and processes for minting incuse coins."

Bringing the past into the future

"ANSTO's neutron scattering texture measurements will provide insight into the mechanical processes undertaken to create the coins," explains Associate Professor Kenneth Sheedy, Director of ACANS. "Numismatists from ACANS will then infer the production steps undertaken to produce these coins using knowledge of ancient materials and equipment that were available at the tme." ANSTO's Bragg Institute leads Australia in the use of neutron scattering and X-ray techniques to solve complex research and industrial problems in many important fields. Although measurements of coins using neutron texture analysis have been implemented before, a systematic and full-scale study to set a benchmark is unique to this project.

Mutual partnership benefits

Macquarie University's Numismatic Centre holds one of the finest collections of South Italian coins in the world (there are 1267 coins specimens in the Gale donation). This research partnership with ANSTO will help to enrich the Centre's knowledge of this important university resource. There is also the opportunity for ANSTO and the Faculty of Arts to partner on future research ventures engaging both staff and students, and also projects linked to Faculty of Arts' new Bachelor of Archaeology degree. Besides providing a solution to a twenty five century old mystery, it is anticipated that this collaboration will benefit the community in the area of cultural heritage. There is a strong Australian and global interest in the ancient world and in particular, a fascination with the material culture of antiquity. "By collaborating with enterprises such as ACANS, ANSTO can help to further the understanding of ancient civilisations which enables us to better understand how the human race interacts with the world around it," reveals Mr Scott Olsen, Scientific Operations Group Leader and Quality Coordinator for the Bragg Institute.

This project is now entering its third phase. For updates, connect with ACANS on facebook.

Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum Australia

ACANS administers the SNG Australia project. The secretary of the SNG Australia committee and the editor of the proposed volumes is the director of ACANS, Assoc. Professor K. A. Sheedy. The project goal is to publish all ancient Greek coins in Australian public collections. Volume I, published in 2008, presented the W. L. Gale Collection of South Italian coins. Volumes II (now in preparation) will contain the combined collections of other museums in Australia.

The SNG Australia project has been endorsed by the Australian Academy of the Humanities and by the Union Académique Internationale.

The Taranto 1911 hoard project

Assoc. Professor K. A. Sheedy is currently working on a new publication of the 1911 Taranto Hoard (IGCH 1874). It will feature unpublished material from the holdings of the British Museum and the Athens Numismatic Museum. A special study of the ingots, to be included in the volume, has being prepared by Dr J. H. Kroll.

Jebel Khalid

Associate Professor Ted Nixon, a board member of ACANS, continues his work on the coins discovered in the Australian excavations of Jebel Khalid in Syria.  This project is directed by Professor Graeme Clarke. Reports on this important excavation have now been published as a series ‘Jebel Khalid on the Euphrates’, (and appear as supplementary volumes of Mediterranean Archaeology).

Tenos excavations

Dr Nota Kourou, the director of the University of Athens excavations on the Cycladic island of Tenos, has invited Kenneth Sheedy to participate in this project with a study of the coins.

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