Hoarding Narrative, Nominal and Real Values

19 March, 2012

This week On the Reading Rest I have an article from 1956, no less, because I glanced through a catalogue from a recent exhibition of prehistoric gold objects from Niedersachsen in Germany and saw a picture of the hoard from Ellerbeck exhibited in Niedersächsisches Landesmuseums in Hannover. It may be looked up at:
http://www.urgeschichte.de/artikel/museum/museum17.htm .

There was nothing definitely wrong with the text in the catalogue or on the net, but I thought they were both so cautious that they missed a number of facts in a probable micro history. This led me to the open stacks in the cellars of the nearest university library and a fact-filled article from 1956:

Berghaus, Peter. 1956. Der römischen Goldmünzenfund von Ellerbeck, Lkr. Osnabrück. Die Kunde, N F 7:1/2, pp 30-40.

There are three roots to the micro history of the hoard from Ellerbeck in Osnabrück, the character of the coins, the composition of the hoard and its time and place.

The coins in the Ellerbeck hoard in time and space. The diagram to the left shows the first and often only year in which the coins were minted. The lines go to the different mints and the dotted lines indicate that the imitations were propably minted somwhere in Gaul.

The hoard is made up of 25 gold coins; 22 official Roman solidi and 3 contemporary and probably equally valuable imitations. Two of the imitations are almost flawless, in mint condition, and stamp identical. They are imitations of a type of coins minted for Valentiniaus represented in the hoard by a another pair of stamp identical coins, again in mint condition. These coins, the youngest ones in the hoard, were minted in the mid 360s AD.

In the 4th century AD, Ellerbeck is situated outside the declining West Roman Empire in a region where people had access to Roman gold coins. Still, it is very unlikely that anyone circulating coins in the Osnabrück area could by chance get hold of these two pairs of stamp identical coins. Gold coins are produced at certain occasions to pay for expenses and they come in many series of identical coins. Since these series are relatively short, circulation will rapidly disperse the coins on so many hands that only few have two or more identical ones. In Ellerbeck, therefore, the stamp identities and the mint condition among the coins from the 360s indicate that these coins were never widely circulated. Instead they went more or less directly, i.e. through a few transactions only, from the official and unofficial mints to their last owner.

The oldest coin and five others minted around 350 AD, were pierced with an awl just above the emperor’s head, i.e. pierced from the obverse with a technique that doesn’t deprive the coin of any weight. When you add a loop to a coin it becomes a pendant and a charm, but since piercing, apart from creating a semi loop, is also a form of testing (is the coins solid gold?), pierced coins are not necessarily pendants. Nevertheless piercing indicates some sort of circulation characterizing the coins from the 350s.

The money box and coins from Ellerbeck. Based on a photo from Landesmuseum Hannover.

These 25 coins were found in a cylindrical money box, approximately 5 by 4.3 cm. Its bottom was a hinged lid and just below the top there was a slit . Since the Ellerbeck piggy bank would have contained more than 25 solidi, we may suspect that instead of rattling around in the box, the coins were stored in small a parcel. A black powder that fell out together with the coins when the farmer, who found the box, destroyed the slit to get out the contents, may have been the remains of the wrapper.

Formally speaking, the coins were minted between 346 and 364+ AD (the ‘+’ indicates that the imitations were perhaps, but not necessarily minted a few years later). Because all the coins were produced during very short periods a diagram of the first year of their minting gives a good impression of the chronological composition of the hoard: in the mid-360s a small series of mostly uncirculated coins were added to a large series of circulated coins from the early 350s (346-47; 350-3 AD).

The total weight of the hoard is 108.55 gr or approximately 1/3 of a libra, the Roman pound [1]. In theory, when it comes to Roman pounds, 1/3 of the Canonical libra equals 327.45/3 = 109.15 gr, while 1/3 of the Logarikē libra, i.e. the ‘counting pound’ referred to in matters of economy and coinage equals 322.24/3 = 107.41 gr. In theory, therefore, 72 solidi make up a counting pound, but in the present hoard the average coin weight isn’t up to that: instead of 4.475 gr, in theory what we expect, the average weight is no more than 4.342 gr. For being a hoard of 25 coins with little time depth this average weight is exceptionally low and that explains why the total weight is close to and a little above 1/3 of a Logarikē libra. Generally speaking, in Barbaricum one third of a pound cannot be composed of 24 coins because among barbarians north of Limes, the Roman border, only a few coins weigh 4.475 gr or more and that explains why there are 25 coins in the hoard, instead of the theoretical 24. The Ellerbeck hoard is the result of a wish to hoard a money box with 1/3 of a pound in minted gold, rather than just gold. Take away any one of its 25 coins and the collection will be underweight.

The emperor’s bust on the obverse is a sign of the purity of the metal, and makes solidi prestigious objects. The money box too indicates status, because only outstanding actors on the economic scene need a handy way to box and carry around a fortune. Systematically piercing coins above the emperor’s bust sends a message too signaling barbarian knowhow, suspicion and caution when dealing with solidi.

Given all this, the 25th coin in the Ellerbeck hoard indicates that in order to be sure of having composed 1/3 of a pound of high quality gold the collector added the 25th coin. If he had striven to form 1/3 of a Canonical libra, then the 25th coin wouldn’t have helped. His 108.55 gr would still have been 0.6 gr below the 109.15 gr needed. Since the average weight is very low, and below 4.366 gr that would have matched the Canonical libra although it is still a low average weight in a barbarian hoard, we can be quite sure that the collector wanted to compose a hoard of 1/3 of a Logarikē libra by means of 25 coins.

Since the weight of most of the coins, which the collector had access to, were very close to the correct weight (i.e. 1/72 of Logarikē libra or 4.475 gr), the 25th coin threatened to create overweight. To compensate for this risk he put in the three exceptionally lightweight solidi. In the diagram they stand out as dropouts weighing 3.69, 3.78 and 4.0 gr respectively. Together these coins save the collector 1.929 gr of pure gold presently worth 10.5 $. With 1.93 gr of gold one could also have made 8 small gold foils, fragile, but loaded with ideological contents – at least in upper-class Scandinavia.

Figure foils, guldgubbar is Scandinavian terms, are popular pictures of human beings and some creatures. They are not easy to interpret.

If, for the sake of the argument, we disregard the three lightweight coins and recalculate the weight of the hoard on the basis of the 22 heavier coins, 25 of those would have weighed 110.32 gr. This overweight could perhaps have been tolerated had it been a matter of composing 1/3 of a Canonical libra, but since that is not the case, the hoard would have been 2.7 gr to heavy and we may venture to say that a 2.7 gr difference, at the expense of the collector, is too much. This difference is in other words unacceptably wasteful among the rich in 4th century Lower Saxony. Although we weren’t invited to their cocktail parties, it nevertheless feels good to know that had we been invited, we would now have been able to say something perfectly acceptable concerning ‘overweight in money boxes’ and ‘Roman currency’ (on the ‘perfectly acceptable’, see Gustave Flaubert: Dictionnaire des idées reςues) [2].

One may of course clip a coin to bring down the weight, but putting in 25 coins instead, just to demonstrated that we are fully aware of the character of the Roman coinage and its problems, is also a sign of quality, and the acceptance of a 1 per cent overweight in a sum as ‘small’ as 1/3 of a pound is not alarming given the fact that the gold is coined. A wealthy man, to quote the cocktail party, can always find the lightweight coins he needs to adjust the total weight. Although in reality access to a range of different solidi is pivotal for the composition, the impression it gives will balance skill against inability, perfection against largess or sense against fixed ideas eventually highlighting the collector and his ability to solve a problem.

Twelve of the coins are struck for the short-lived usurper Magnentius and his caesar Decentius (350-353 AD). They had their rapidly shrinking power base in Gaul and spent the whole of their three years on the road to defeat and suicide campaigning. They would have minted as much as they could to cover their expenses, and for a short time in the northwestern part of the Empire, notably Northern Italy and Gaul, their money would have been abundant.

When Constantius defeated Magnentius and Decentius (353) he sent Claudius Silvanus as his magister militum to Cologne to check the Germans. This Silvanus did with bribes funded by the taxes he collected, and taxes, as it happened, had to be payed in minted gold. Spending taxes was a short-run solution and his only option because Trier, where the mint was situated, closed its gates to him. In 355 AD he revolted and was promptly killed by an envoy from Constantius whose agents knew of the revolt in advance. The envoy was the loyal general Ursicinus and he simply succeeded Silvanus as magister militum. Ammianus Marcellinus, who else, has the whole story.

Two thirds of the money in the Ellerbeck hoard link-in with coins from Trier in the early 350s and with Magnentius, Dencentius and Constantius, in that order. It seems plausible that this part of the hoard mirrors payments and bribes to Germans in the 350s. In the process these benefactors seem to have acquired some knowledge concerning the weight of Roman coins as well as the political games of the deteriorating Western empire. In the end, they were able to feed their piggy banks and put aside or part with well-composed round sums of money, attesting to wealth as well as cunning calculation.

Generally speaking, the composition of the hoard mirrored the coins that would have been available in this part of the world when sometime in the latter part of 360s the collection and its peculiarities were put together, wrapped up and boxed. Probably more than 25 coins were looked upon and read, while figuring out their weight and searching for low-weight coins. When the task was finished, the collector would have looked back upon a short period in the history of the declining Roman Empire and his own life. He was probably satisfied with his solution alluding to the 350s and happy to get rid of the usurper’s coinage and of lightweight and pierced coins as well as some modern imitations that were difficult to circulate. Imitations may always be doubted because, unlike the emperor’s picture on his own coinage, the picture on an imitation doesn’t guarantee that the coin is pure gold. Heavy coins are obviously a drawback if we try to make 25 coins equal the official weight of 24, but perhaps also a sign of good measure, needed when you pass on three extremely low-weight coins.  Imitations, not surprisingly, entice with overweight coins and let in the low-weight dropouts.

The Ellerbeck collection is hardly a random sample that makes up someone’s 25-coin fortune. Instead, it seems to be a round sum cunningly composed to become a gift to god or man, a payment, a dowry, a due, a cro etc.  In the chaotic monetary situation of the 360s, the composition highlights both a wish to pay nomore than 1/3 of a pound in minted gold, and a wish to get rid of coins that were difficult to circulate on a nominal basis.  The result was a money box of assorted coins. Let’s hope it satisfied the receiving end.

On the Reading Rest 12 December 2011, a similar preoccupation with solidi was touched upon. In a letter from the 590s Gregory the Great pointed out to his vice deacon Peter, that Peter exerted too many solidi per pound when he collected taxes and dues by weight in solidi. Peter demanded 73 and ½ solidus per pound instead of 72 and Gregory understood that 73 1/2 was far too much to compensate for the slightly underweight coins of the 590s. Peter’s scam consisted in cheating on the peasants when, referring to the underweight of coins, he exerted too many per pound. This allowed him to compose payments similar to the sum in the Ellerbeck money box and keep the change for himself. Gregory wasn’t pleased.

We have no reason to think that the man who composed the Ellerbeck hoard was dishonest, he just knew his business and showed it in the composition of the sum. He might have told someone about his toil or given the box to someone who would understand, but probably he just composed his sum, his complex material narrative, and parted with it. Be this as it may, everything was lost until in 1933 the box was unearthed by Landwirt Schürmann. And little by little, not least owing to Peter Berghaus’ article, the money box started once again to become history.

[1] Although in Romanian, there is a handy dictionary at: http://hartacomorii.blogspot.com/2010/12/dictionar-de-numismatica-pentru.html
(keyword ‘Libră’).

[2] More on Flaubert’s Dictionnaire des idées reςues—Dictionary of Received Ideas, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dictionary_of_Received_Ideas for some translated examples

or download at http://pdfsearchonline.com/search.html?wm=153&sub=1&choose=checkout_directlink&search=dictionary%20of%20received%20ideas%20pdf


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