The main aim of my project as part of the Bilderfahrzeuge group has been to examine the use of Byzantine coins across a wide geographical area. The recognisability of Byzantine coinage and its extensive distribution in the late antique and medieval periods makes it an extraordinary medium for exploring how people across huge swathes of territory (with consequent cultural and economic differences) responded to an identical set of images and their materiality. While my own research focus has been on India and, more broadly, the use of Byzantine coins in jewellery, and their interaction with Sasanian Persian and Aksumite east African coins, a comparative perspective inviates collaboration with scholars working on other regions. With the help of the Bilderfahrzeuge group and the Universities’ China Committee in London (UCCL), July 2015 provided a golden opportunity to pursue such comparisons.
Leeds International Medieval Congress
The Leeds International Medieval Congress (IMC) held annually at the University of Leeds is one of the most significant gatherings in the calendar of European medieval studies. It has been my pleasure to attend and present three times, and to be part of a growing presence by researchers working on Byzantium, the Islamic world and China. The conference is a great place to meet a diverse range of researchers, raise awareness of research work and generate lasting discussions. It presented the ideal chance to open a network of discussions about Byzantine coins used in contexts beyond the empire, beginning with a panel of three speakers all addressing the issue of Byzantine coins far beyond imperial frontiers. The panel looked something like this:
Chair: Dr Jonathan Jarrett (Keeper of Coins, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham)
Speaker One: Professor Lin Ying (Sun Yat-Sen University, China) ‘Byzantine gold coins in Chinese contexts: three approaches’
Abstract: Since the 1950s, over one hundred Byzantine gold coins and their imitations have been found in China. These findings fall roughly into three categories: first, official solidi struck in Constantinople, bearing clear images and legends and weighing 4.5 grams; second, imitations of solidi resembling the real ones in weight and image, whose prototypes thus can be established; third, gold bracteates, struck on a very thin flan (unstamped metal disk) or with only one die, weighing less than 2 grams, and unlikely to have had a monetary function. The classification of coins shows approaches for further study. The first group, i.e. official solidi came out of the tombs of royal family members and high officials, indicating that only elite class had access to these real coins. The second group displayed are closely related to Chinese Sogdians, while most coins from the third group were unearthed from Turfan, Xinjiang. Fortunately, most coins are from scientifically excavated graves and so can be connected with other details in the funerary space, such as date, information about the tomb’s occupant, and above all, the rich written sources from the same period. In this paper, the author will present some new finds of solidi, discovered in China and Mongolia since 2009 (a Turkic tomb near Tura River, Mongolia (7th century), two tombs in Guyuan, Ningxia province, where quite a few official solidi and imitations have been found (late 6th century to early 7th century) and a tomb from Shanxi province (early 7th century to mid 8th century) where a very interesting new type of imitation of solidi has been unearthed). The three approaches of study raised by the author in 2004 are still helpful for explaining these recent findings, while some new questions are also provided with their appearance.
Speaker Two: Florent Audy (Stockholm University, doctoral candidate) ‘Scandinavian responses to Byzantine coins’
Abstract: More than 700 Byzantine coins are known from Viking Age Scandinavia (c.750-1100). These coins, mostly consisting of miliaresia minted between 945 and 989, appear in different kinds of contexts. They occur mainly in hoards, but they are also found in graves, settlement remains and ritual deposits.
The Byzantine miliaresia are very few compared to the tens of thousands of Arabic, English and German coins circulating in the North. However, they seem to have been especially valued by their owners, as is indicated by their frequent use as ornaments. While, in the Viking world, the normal rate of transformation for coins is around 5%, almost 30% of the Byzantine coins have been pierced or looped for suspension.
In this presentation, special attention will be paid to the intricate biographies of the re-used miliaresia and to the contexts in which they occur. I will focus more particularly on the presence of Byzantine coin-pendants in some unusual contexts, like trading centres, graves, churches, or ‘female’ hoards. The purpose is to better understand the symbolic meaning attached to the Byzantine coins in Viking Age Scandinavia.
Speaker Three: Me ‘Decoration and commodification in Indian responses to Byzantine gold’
Abstract: Byzantine gold coins found in India in many respects form a postscript to the better-known occurrence of Roman silver and, later, gold of the first to third centuries discovered in the sub-continent. Exchanged in return for silks, slaves, animal products and, above all, spices, these coins have been interpreted therefore as economic tools, and material verification of the textual accounts of Roman trade with India. Nevertheless, there are important continuities and disjunctures between the use of Byzantine and Roman coins within south India, which suggest gradually developing local significance. Above all, there is evidence in the form of high levels of imitation (ranging from almost indistinguishably similar to original prototypes, to vaguely inspired copies), and piercing for suspension, for an increasingly commodified use of Byzantine gold. Coins were not, in other words, being exchanged for Indian goods because an unbalanced trade meant that the empire had nothing to offer India in exchange – rather, coined gold was precisely what the west had that India wanted, and could, if necessary produce for itself. This impression is heightened by the occasional incidence of hoards of coins being discovered with jewellery, and by the association of finds of coins in the landscape with sites of ritual significance, weak as these correlations often are due to difficulties with archaeological provenance.
Outcomes and future directions
It was a great provilege to share this panel with Professor Ying and Florent, both of whose work has been important in shaping my ideas about the movement of coins through diverse cultural landscapes. The panel brought together, moreover, an audience of historians, archaeologists and numismatists with productive results. Above all, the three papers highlighted the differences between the treatment of Byzantine coins far outside their monetary context even when the contexts of use and discovery (jewellery, burial and ritual) were often similar. Ways of combining coins with other objects and of modifying them for display demonstrate the priorities of users in ways which can be read more clearly as a result of comparison. The emphasis within coins found in India on displaying the imperial bust in preference over any other visual information, for example, is not paralleled in either Scandinavia or China, even though both cultures also used Byzantine coins as display objects. Important questions were also asked about the methods by which modifications could be identifed as having taken place in the region where a coin was found rather than in the Byzantine Empire prior to export.
It is hoped that this comparative discussion of Byzantine coins Beyond Imperial Frontiers will continue at Leeds IMC 2016, with contributions by scholars working on regions closer to the Byzantine Empire, in Central and western Europe and the Caucasus. While Byzantine coins travelled laden with a complex set of political and economic information intimately related to Byzantine society it is clear from the treatment of the images on them that their movement generated a range of distinct translations and re-appropriations. How far these were determined by cultural and physical distance from Byzantium is the next theme for exploration.