Historians and scientists collaborate to crack 2,500 year-old mystery
Historians and scientists collaborate to crack 2,500 year-old mystery


Historians and scientists collaborate to crack 2,500 year-old mystery

/ March 23, 2015

Researchers at the Faculty of Arts’ Australian Centre for Ancient Numismatic Studies (ACANS) have joined forces with scientists from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) to solve a 25 century old mystery behind the technology used to produce ancient ‘incuse’ 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 manufacturing technique has attracted a good deal of discussion but it has never been satisfactorily explained, despite the coins being minted for over a century.

There are no surviving contemporary accounts or illustrations of ancient coin manufacture, and only three or four of the dies once used for striking the coins in ancient mints have survived.

But by studying the coins themselves using the emerging science of neutron scattering our understanding of the techniques of ancient coin manufacture is improving.

“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 time.”

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.

The study lays the ground work 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.

Comments (4)

  1. William Markham

    The inscription on the coin looks like archaic Greek where the words run from right to left, as in archaic Etruscan language. It would be interesting to know what the inscription means.

    1. Martine Balit Post author

      Hi William,

      The inscription is the name of the town. It means “of the people of Caulonia”

      Kind regards


  2. Robert Morrison

    Interesting article. The age of the coin and the inscription seem to suggest that the coin is Greek origin/ made by Greek settlers living in the area.

  3. Vaughan Pratt

    I think you’ll find that the reverse is cruder than the obverse and is therefore not true incuse but rather a technique used in the process of stamping the coin whereby the more raised parts of the obverse, which may be as high as the thickness of the blank itself, are pressed into an incuse die, actually bending the blank in the process. The finer features such as the text, the daimon, etc. do not entail wholesale bending but rather the surface of the blank simply flows into the die under the pressure of the stamping. With neutron scattering it should be possible to tell which parts of the blank were bent and which parts merely flowed under pressure. (At Lysaght Bros. wire factory’s lab in Sydney in the 1960s we did this sort of metallurgical analysis with much more primitive tools, necessarily more destructively.)


Leave a Reply to Martine Balit Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>