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Volume1, Issue 2
The Technical Obverse: Another archaic convention   By: Wayne G. Sayles

I was recently chided by a colleague that my decision to illustrate Corinthian staters with the head of Athena as the obverse instead of the reverse is “too tacky for words and is an unacceptable insult to [my] numismatic readers.” Fortunately, this comes from a friend, my enemies would not have been so kind. So it goes in the world of numismatic semantics.

In A Dictionary of Ancient Greek Coins, Professor John Melville Jones tells us that the words obversus (turned toward) and reversus (turned away) describe “the more and less important sides of a coin” He further explains that in Greek coinage “the obverse bears the head of a deity or ruler, or the recognised heraldic emblem of the city, while the reverse bears an obviously less important type...” In other words, the "head and tail" of the coin. Let us call this

explanation the art historical approach. Jones goes on to say that when in doubt it can be assumed that the obverse type was struck by the lower or anvil die. Let us call this the technical approach. There normally is not a contradiction between these two approaches to determining the obverse, since most Greek coins were struck with the predominant motif engraved into the anvil die.  However, there are exceptions to the rule—aren't there always?  Certain coins, notably the staters of Corinth and its colonies and some silver coins of Sicily, were struck with the primary motif engraved into the punch die.  This does not present a problem when one holds the coin and turns it with admiration—as the artistry of both sides is enjoyed. 

It is in the process of illustrating coins that we run into a quandry.  By convention, numismatists illustrate the obverse of a coin to the left and the reverse to the right.  So the art historian sees a Corinthian stater differently than the technical numismatist.  One might ask what difference it makes whether the obverse is set to right or left?  The answer is that conventions ease our ability to communicate about coins. 

Few disciplines are more deeply rooted in tradition than numismatics.  We call coins of the Romaioi “Byzantine” even though it is widely acknowledged that the term is a complete misnomer.  Why?  Tradition.  We catalogue Greek coins in a completely irrational and confusing way rather than simply by alphabetical arrangement.  Why?  Because it has been the accepted convention since the 18th century—more tradition.  These are not issues of real substance, but they are defended tenaciously by some who value the conventions of a certain scholarly tradition.  At the root of this is a sort of ultra-conservatism that rejects external influence or innovation. 

Taking the silver stater of Corinth as an example, it is obvious to the most casual observer that the image of Athena is the “head” side of the coin, while the image of Pegasus is the “tail” side.  In terms of importance, Athena could never be relegated to a status lower than that of a horse, even if it were a very special horse.  Why should we portray a coin of Athens with the head of Athena on the left and then portray the same basic iconography at Corinth with the head of Athena on the right?  Because a die engraver in antiquity felt that the image was struck up better if it was engraved into one die or the other?  In reality, it does not matter which image is engraved into the anvil die.  Either way, the result is a coin with two sides, bearing two images, one of which takes precedence over the other.  It is this precedence of imagery which should in every case distinguish the obverse from the reverse.

Numismatists working in the field of Islamic coinage face a similar situation  Most Islamic coins do not bear images at all, but they still have an obverse and reverse.  By convention, the side of a coin bearing the Kalimah or profession of faith is always considered the obverse—the predominant side of the coin—regardless of whether it was engraved into the anvil die or the punch die.  We would do well to adopt such a practical approach in the field of classical numismatics.  What is wrong with heads to the left tails to the right?  Oh, I forgot, it is too tacky for words.

We have been burdened with some archaic conventions in numismatics for too long.  At a time when only academicians and nobility pursued the hobby, some of these conventions may have served as a mark of learning and erudition.  However, the growth of ancient coin collecting as a hobby of all classes has opened new opportunities for common sense to challenge irrational traditions.  Portraying staters of Corinth with the image of Pegasus to the left  does not follow any rational scheme.  Anyone who knows enough about these coins to care which side is struck from the anvil die will already know the answer.

It is important that we have standards to guide us in presentation and in such tasks as cataloguing.  But, it is not productive to slavishly stand by outdated terms, centuries old logic and arcane methodology just for the sake of tradition.  Even the fiddler on the roof knew that tradition is an evolving characteristic of the human experience.
First published in The Celator, November 2000; reproduced by permission of the author
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