World of Coins

Research and reference => Numismatics => Topic started by: Bimat on September 11, 2016, 08:39:28 AM

Title: Deciphering History through Coins
Post by: Bimat on September 11, 2016, 08:39:28 AM
Deciphering history, one coin at a time

Pankaj Tandon, a Harvard-trained economist, is a numismatist by calling. Poring over inscriptions and icons on old Indian coins, the academic has gathered enough evidence to put one forgotten dynasty on the Silk Route—the ancient trade route between the East and West—back on the map. And he is working on finding details about well-known dynasties as well—all from coins.

The detour into history was unplanned. Originally, the economist viewed ancient Indian coins simply as an investment. The price of cultural memorabilia is relatively low in developing countries, says Tandon, who teaches economics at Boston University.

“As the country becomes wealthier—its value skyrockets,” he says.

Back in the 1990s, India looked to be poised for growth. In 1998, Tandon bought his very first coin, which was probably issued around the time of Asoka the Great. But he learned that the Maurya dynasty had minted millions of coins, and many survived—so the coin was not as rare as he had thought.

As Tandon learned more, he created the virtual museum to promote an appreciation of coins from the subcontinent. Indian coinage goes back a long way—the first coins appeared about 2,500 years ago near present-day Patna. The designs, which evolved over time, reveal many influences—from Ancient Greece, Rome and Persia. So, plenty of variety here.

Upinder Singh, head of the history department at the University of Delhi, says that in the virtual museum, the quality of the images is excellent and the text is reliable and informative. Cataloguing close to 2,000 coins for CoinIndia was a good learning experience, says Tandon.

But serious collectors don’t just want to know about coins—they want to be able to read the inscriptions by themselves. That can be challenging.

Unlike today’s machine-made currency, coins struck by hand could be missing critical parts of the inscription that reveal who issued it, when and why. A scholar of ancient Indian coins would have to read inscriptions in Greek, the extinct Kharosthi script and Brahmi, the mother of most modern Indian scripts.

Mystery coin

All this could make deciphering ancient coins akin to solving crossword puzzles. Tandon happens to be a crossword aficionado.

“I never consign my copy of New York Times to the recycling bin till I have solved the puzzles,” he says.

Thanks to his training in mathematics, Tandon knew the Greek alphabet. “We all do, from studying mathematics and science in school,” he says matter-of-factly. He taught himself to read Kharosthi and Brahmi.

So, what can old coins tell us? Details that corroborate recorded facts and, occasionally, lead to a rewrite of some chapters in history textbooks.

Take, for instance, a numismatic puzzle that Tandon cracked recently. In 1851, a hoard of gold coins was found near the holy city of Varanasi. They were issued by the Guptas, who ruled from the 4th to the 6th centuries CE. The Guptas stamped coins with their given names on the front and an assumed name ending with “aditya” on the back.

On two of the coins in the hoard, scholars were able to read only the king’s assumed name—Prakasaditya—but they assumed that these, too, were Gupta coins. Without the given name, however, they were left with a bunch of questions. Which Gupta king was this Prakasaditya? When did he rule?

Other specimens of the coin have been found since, but not one had that particular king’s name in its entirety.

Six years ago, when Tandon took on the challenge of finding the king’s identity, colleagues gave him the best images they had. He pieced the puzzle together—a missing letter here, another clue there—but it wasn’t quite enough.

Then, Tandon spent the 2011-12 academic year in India on a Fulbright-Nehru fellowship, teaching microeconomics at St Stephen’s College, his alma mater. One weekend, on a hasty, behind-the-scenes tour of a museum in Uttar Pradesh, he took pictures of their coin collection. Later, he realized he had some pictures of the mystery coin as well. One image had the missing letters.

The king was no Gupta; he was Toramana, the Hun ruler.

In light of this unexpected find, there are new questions for historians to grapple with. What were the coins of an arch-rival doing in the heart of the Gupta empire? How were the Huns responsible for the precipitous decline of the Guptas, in the second half of the fifth century?

The economist in the numismatist

Sometimes, coins spell out clear-cut answers that have resonances in today’s world. Take the case of the hoard of coins found in Balochistan, in present-day Pakistan, issued by the Paratarajas. These kings, who issued copper coins with legends in Kharosthi, and silver coins with legends in Brahmi, have won a mention in the Mahabharata.

Tandon soon drew up a list of the Parataraja kings who, in all likelihood, ruled from around 125 to 300 AD. The discovery of the hoard had put the all-but forgotten kingdom of Paradan back on the map, but his work turned it into a living breathing place.

Curious about the source of the kingdom’s wealth, Tandon scoured ancient texts and concluded that the Paratarajas owed their prosperity to international trade. One export was a fragrant plant that grew in abundance in the arid desert. It was prized by Romans for perfumery.

Around 225 AD, civil wars raged in Rome. As if on cue, the coinage of the Paratarajas went from silver to copper, signifying declining fortunes.

The Roman economy was the biggest in the world, just like the US’s is today. A recession in Rome must have led to recession in India, Tandon hypothesizes. “Globalization may not be the modern phenomenon we think it is,” he points out.

The crossover has happened—Tandon has transitioned from collector of coins to a researcher. And as he had predicted, the price of ancient Indian coins is going up in the market. Indian dealers, who once came to sell coins at top New York auctions, now buy coins instead, as they fetch a handsome price back home.

These days, when Tandon can’t get a coin he has set his sights on, he tells himself that all he needs for his research is a high-resolution image. Truth is, though, he doesn’t seem entirely convinced by his own argument.

Much after they outlived their original use, coins—sturdy pieces of metal that they are—are like snapshots of history, waiting to be deciphered. When diligent scholars get access to coins, we could end up learning interesting things about our collective past.

The British Museum in London and the National Museum in New Delhi have the largest collections of coins from some of the greatest empires of India. Many coins from ancient India now belong to private collectors and are all but inaccessible to the world at large.

Someday, Tandon hopes, his coins will be displayed in a brick-and-mortar museum, ideally in India, their place of origin.

Source: Live Mint (
Title: Re: Deciphering History through Coins
Post by: Figleaf on September 11, 2016, 06:26:27 PM
His page on the site of Boston University is here ( Scroll down for a list of numismatic publications (quite a few can be dowloaded.)

Title: Re: Deciphering History through Coins
Post by: THCoins on September 11, 2016, 07:00:04 PM
Tandon has done a great job to popularize Ancient Indian numismatics ! We'll just forgive him that he initially saw it as an investment, nobody is pefect  ;)
Title: Re: Deciphering History through Coins
Post by: Rajagopal on September 15, 2016, 10:59:29 AM
Thanks Bimat for sharing the write up and Peter for sharing the link...Just finished downloading the papers uploaded on the site... I am sure, i wont understand even 1 percent of what he has written but will surely try to comprehend what my small brain can catch hold of...Just look at his CV given in the link...As THcoins pointed out, nobody is perfect.. >:D >:D >:D
Title: Deciphering History through Coins
Post by: Bimat on September 15, 2016, 04:57:44 PM
Since I'm no expert in ancient Indian coins (or rather, any types of coins!), I can't say much about his numismatic literature. How would you rate it?

Title: Re: Deciphering History through Coins
Post by: Enlil on November 11, 2016, 01:55:05 AM
Since I'm no expert in ancient Indian coins (or rather, any types of coins!), I can't say much about his numismatic literature. How would you rate it?


There are not many people doing research on coins, a lot of it is on hoards and a few specific coins but not categorizing them, that is left for others. Indian numismatics is few and far between as most of the research is coins from the European area. China is starting to increase research. But in all fact, there will never be a large body of researchers as this does not really impact current societies a great deal, like medical or archaeological research does.  It is easy to read, look on Academia and Researchgate for articles.
Title: Re: Deciphering History through Coins
Post by: Figleaf on November 11, 2016, 12:18:53 PM
Maybe there will never be a complete typology of coins, but I think it is safe to say that 90% of the coin types are described in some book or catalogue. That leaves pro numismatists looking beyond the typology.

An obvious path is to do statistical analysis of hoards and the places they are found. Despite the progress that has already been achieved, this is still in its infancy. The work is nationally oriented, along modern borders. International co-operation is hindered by language issues (Julius Ceasar in English is Jules César in French, Aachen is Aix-la-Chapelle in French). Note that Google would have no such problems: the solutions are out there. Misguided treasure trove laws hinder reporting. Past due date archeologists find it difficult to work with metal detectorists at best. This work would lead to more insight in trade routes and, ultimately, balance of payment issues.

Another path is non-destructive metal analysis. Hitherto ignored small portions of exotic metal are a "signature" for where the metal was coming from - provided that it was newly found metal, but even re-melted metal can give clues on minting (financing) activity, especially in times of financial stress.

A third path that comes to mind is research into minting, especially the durability of dies. This could give a rough insight in money supply, which in turn would provide a valuable background into political developments, now considered as driven solely by the will of political leaders.

Nevertheless, numismatic research is indeed considered a luxury product, so there is a lack of funds, trained pros and even computer power. Let's be grateful for what we have.