Sometimes I tell myself I’m too obsessed with the connection between gems and coins. And then one of my hunches pays off and the obsession comes back full swing. In case the above image doesn’t set off exciting alarm bells in your head, allow me to remind you what the coins of Signia, a Latin Colony, during the Pyrrhic War looked like:
[I show this particular specimen just so I can point out that it reappeared back on the market with a brand new patina, all nice and shiny and toned just one year later, and fetched a much higher price. I think it looked just lovely before some one decided to ‘fix’ it.]
Let me assure you that the gem above is by no means a one off.
And based on descriptions without images the Thorvaldsens Museum has a number more similar gems, Inventory numbers: I1537, I1539, I1722, I1536. The last two are of particular interest as they are glass pastes which suggests the image had resonance with members of a variety of different social classes.
This particular type even made the BBC!
What the heck does it mean? Was it the badge of some particular noble? Or like grylloi is it a humorous, apotropaic emblem? Or a philosophic meditation on the theme of man and beast? Or all these things? or something else entirely?
OR! the penny drops! Is it a visual pun?! Signia in Latin is also the plural form of the neuter noun meaning: standard, seal, sign, signal, proof, indication from the verb signo to mark, stamp, designate, sign, seal. The type chosen is a very very common seal type. [This is why I blog by the way. It took writing the whole damn post for that penny to drop and me to make the obvious connection.] This is a really exciting idea to me. Name puns are all over Roman Republican coinage to show its early early adoption is Latium is especially good. I think it provides a missing link of sorts between the ideas I explored in this earlier post discussing Republican habits, the Abdera series, and Timeaus. [I’ve talked about puns a lot on this blog, but that post is the best of the lot I think.]
For follow-up later: Henig has some clever things to say about gems usually. There are two possibly related gems (CG72 and CG 354) in the Fitzwilliam that he’s written up in his 1994 catalogue. Must get those pages from ILL… Strangely none returned in BM, Met, or Boston MFA searches all of which have robust gem collections.
As an aside, I find it funny that Mercury on the obverse is wearing a necklace or similar band. At first I thought at first it might be an unfortunate die break, but it shows up on a different die as well, but not all of the dies. Also what the heck does Mercury have to do with dolphins? Could it have anything to do with bizarre composite deity on the coins of Bursio who has wings and a trident (RRC 352/1)? I doubt it. But finding any representation Hermes or Mercury with any nautical attributes is tricky.
Update 4/11/2014: If more canting types from Italy are sought, consider Rutter’s note at HN Italy 446, an obol of the Saunitai with a javelin head on the reverse, σαύνιον = javelin. He gives a date of c. 325.
Another example of this gem type from Gori:
cf. also this other Gori plate.