Serrati. A rant cut from the book.

I’m rather silent at the moment as I’m in editing mode.  This just got cut from the Intro.  too nitty gritty, too negative.  Anyway I thought I’d throw it up here to say I’m alive.

Students more used to humanistic approaches should not be “blinded by science” or other technical details.  Not all new analysis is good analysis.  Two teams have used SEM technology to look at serrati.  Both separately concluded that the serrations were manually added to the flans by a knife or similar slicing tool prior to their striking (Balbi de Caro et al. 1999; Kraft et al. 2006).  Separate confirmation gives confidence in the result, but the Anglophone team seems to have been unaware of the Italian published work some seven years earlier and thus does not interact with that data in anyway.  The Italian team also used energy dispersive spectrometry (EDS), a non-destructive procedure similar to XRF, and concluded that the serrati used a purer silver alloy than standard issues that was more brittle and that the serrations applied to the flans prior to striking made them more stable (Balbi de Caro et al. 1999; Pancotti and Calabria 2009).  This goes against basic engineering principles: each cut introduces a new possible failure point.

Moreover, these conclusions were based on the EDS readings from only four serrate specimens and those readings were compared with data from just three specimens analyzed in 1964 by Caley.  Caley used traditional wet chemistry to analyze physical samples  thus his results are in some ways more accurate than the more sweeping analyses of Walker and Hollstein et al. using types of XRF technology (1980 and 2000). Comparison of Balbi de Caro’s data EDS with results of the XRF analysis suggests those serrati are very much in the normal range of fineness with their contemporary coins.  Balbi de Caro’s higher readings than Caley’s samples are better explained by surface enrichment or small size of the samples used in each study.

These studies demonstrate more than anything the limits of metallurgical analysis to answer the question “why”.  Kraft’s team shows that forgers knew to emulate the same technique on foil-covered based metal flans.  Perhaps serrati were preferred because they were perceived as less likely to be forged. It would have been a costly, labor intensive technique, so there must have been some perceived benefit beyond any questionable esthetic value. It is tempting to connect the height of their production with the monetary anxieties reflected in contemporary legislation (see p. XXX below chapter; chapter 6).  Good technical studies can provide insight into “how” and “what” of coin production, but need to be based on a wide enough body of data to have meaningful conclusions and take into consideration pre-existing data.

65 out of 410 days: Countermarks



It makes me really irritated I couldn’t get MS Word to make the whole table into a picture only a half at a time.

Yesterday I wanted to add something to chapter 6 about the coins of the mid 80s, that irritating in-between-time where the coins are full of strange gods we can’t quite identify. As I looked at them, I realized that I just did’t have a big picture regarding countermarks on coinage in my head.  [That’s not for lack of opportunity.  I’ve supervised a masters thesis die study of a countermarked issue and chaired academic panels with papers on the subject.]  Taking a no-time-like-the-present approach, I did a down and dirty survey of RRC, taking notes as I went.  The picture above is the result of those notes.  There are much better charts and analyses in many publications, but if I didn’t do one myself no matter how crude I’d never get the material stuck in my head properly.   I’m sure there are inaccuracies and missing elements, but I hope it captures the overall trends. Pink are were Crawford thought countermarks were die specific. Blue where they are not. Light pink is for apparent attempts to be die specific with known inaccuracies. Hashed pink is where some sub types are die specific, but others are not.  Dark pink is where countermarks indicate die pairs. Dark blue are for where die pairs are present, but the pairs are represented by multiple dies. Grey is for too little information.  The dates defer to Mattingly and Hollstein’s adjustment of Crawford’s chronology.

The use does not perfectly map onto the use of serrated edges BUT it does follow the same trend.   Early isolated experimentation in Sicily.  A little recurrence in the mid/late 2nd century, and then a much more serious adoption around 104/103 BC.   The difference is that countermarks stay in use almost continuously.  They taper off a bit in the mid 90s, are steady in 80s with a HUGE effort to use them right over the 83-79 period, and then they tale off in the 70s with a revival at the very end of the 60s early 50s.

Serrating each flan is a huge amount of effort and is likely to have drastically slowed production.  Countermarks, especially per die or coordinated applications, also require significant efforts, but are more logistically challenging, rather than man-power challenging.  What the chart above doesn’t capture are trends in types of systems: letters, numbers, symbols, combinations thereof, variations with dots and Greek letters, or double letters, or consonants with vowels.  No one system is dominant.   The hope has been that die studies of countermarked issues can tell us more about the operations of the Roman mint.  Many such studies have producing tantalizing insights and likely hypotheses.   All the different systems mean that countermarks can’t have served a single administrative function.  Like the serrati their popularity and also the experimentation with new systems and revivals of old systems may be about inspiring confidence in the money supply — to be seen to be producing GOOD coin.  45 out of 66 issuers who used them managed some degree of die-countermark coordination.

As a historian I’m most interested in what caused the 104/103 adoption.  The intensity during the time of the Sullan return and dicatorship is not unexpected, if it is about creating confidence in the money supply, but certainly not worth that such systems are applied even to camp coinages presumably made in less than ideal conditions under serious pressure.   Similarly the tail end.  Why the revivals?  Why the complete cessation?  More of a whimper than a bang…

I am also curious about its application to some quinarii.  The quinarii is never serrate.  And it is usually associated with particular applications and especially associated with Cisalpine Gaul…