Monday, February 22, 2010

Foraging in Firestone: Money, Money, Money

Did you know that before 1909, there were no images of people on American coins? In fact, there was a bit of a scandal when Lincoln was placed on the first coin in 1909. Did you know that the dime does not display its value? You have to know intuitively that a dime is worth ten cents. I learned both these facts and much more when I visited the Princeton Numismatic Collection.

Princeton is one of three universities that has a comprehensive numismatic or coin collection. Located within Firestone Library, the collection consists of over 100,000 coins, the oldest of which is a Lydian coin from the 7th century BCE. The collection is taken care of by specialist, Alan Stahl, who — although an expert on medieval period — possesses a vast knowledge of the history of currency. During our discussion, he answered my questions about Ancient Greece, Elizabethan England, and the American Confederacy.

Image: This paper money was made according to a process designed by Benjamin Franklin to transfer the veining pattern of a leaf to a printing plate as an anti-countefeiting device.

The Princeton collection dates from the 19th century and was founded by a gift of an alum. Although Stahl does have a limited budget for acquisitions, most of the collection consists of bequests. An additional 40,000 coins come from an archeological dig Princeton conducted in Antioch in the 1930s.

While often overlooked, coins can serve as an important historical source. The average peasant in the Roman Empire never saw the splendors of the “Eternal City.” Instead, his conception of imperial power was based on the image of the emperor on the coin.

One of the collection’s most recent acquisitions, a Byzantine coin from the 7th century, is an important source for studying the debate over iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire. This coin has an image of Jesus Christ on the obverse (see right), where traditionally the Byzantine emperors had chosen to represent themselves. This coin is the first instance of Christ appearing on currency. As a result, the emperor, Justinian, has moved himself to the back. As Stahl informed me, the Islamic caliph responded to the emperor’s bold statement by removing all human images from the coins. Thus, the coin allows scholars to study the conflicts over the depiction of humans in both religions from the point of view of a contemporary source. In contrast, most written records of these struggles date from a later period.

Amazingly, the numismatic collection is very accessible to undergraduates. Stahl does presentations for classes, one of which I recently attended. Along with my classmates, I had the chance to handle gold and silver coins from the 7th century. Stahl also employs students as catalogers and makes an effort to give them work within their academic interests. If you’d like to see a part of the collection for yourself, there will also be an exhibit on paper money from August through the fall which will incorporate Princeton’s large collection of American paper currency with an alum’s collection of international currency.

Image credits: Princeton University Numismatic Collection