One of the less well known of the cast gallery’s holdings is a collection of electrotypes* of Greek coins. Amongst this pretty little set, my favourites have to be the decadrachms of Syracuse: large silver coins of about 35mm diameter struck in the Sicilian city in the late 5th century BC. I don’t normally find coins all that pretty (despite being a numismatist!), but these are real miniature masterpieces.
The reverse (left) shows the head of Arethusa, the nymph of the spring which flowed from the ground in Syracuse. She is surrounded by dolphins, the symbol of Syracuse. On the obverse (right) is a man in a four-horsed racing chariot, being crowned by Nike who flies above him. Below are some spoils of war, identified by the word ΑΘΛΑ at the very bottom. These seem to be the spoils taken from the Athenians after the Syracusan victory in 413 BC, and the charioteer would therefore be competing in the games that were established to celebrate that victory.
This coin has two numismatic oddities. Firstly, the side bearing the head was actually struck by the reverse die, the one that is loose and hit by a hammer. The image of a head, being more important, normally appears on the obverse die, since that is fixed and wears out less frequently. This in itself would be little more than a curiosity, were it not for the fact that the reverse is signed by a die engraver, KIMON (you can see his name on the dolphin below Arethusa’s head). Very few coins from antiquity bear the signature of their die engravers, and it is doubly interesting that Kimon chose to sign the die that would wear out more frequently.
As beautiful and interesting as the coin itself is, I actually find the copy, and its later history, more interesting. The set of electrotypes was given to the museum by a man named A.H. Lloyd in 1927. Despite being an avid collector of Greek coins himself, the copies do not come from his own coins, but from those of the British Museum. The set was intended to accompany Barclay V. Head’s book A Guide to the Principal Coins of the Greeks (London, 1880); every coin illustrated in the book’s plates is also represented in the set of electrotypes. This is a wonderful learning aid – illustrations are good, but being able to handle a 3D object is much to be preferred.
Lloyd himself was an interesting man, and moved in interesting circles. He was a successful business man who became interested in the coinages of Magna Graecia whilst working in Italy. He returned to Cambridge in 1922 and commenced a PhD (on the coinage of 5th century Athens) in 1926, at the age of 62. He is best known in Cambridge circles for his book on the early history of his (and my) college, Christ’s, where he became a fellow commoner upon completing his PhD. His coin collection was given to the British Museum on his death.
Whilst in Cambridge, Lloyd was in contact with a number of other scholars with numismatic interests. There was A.B. Cook, Laurence Professor of Classical Archaeology (and hence director of the Museum of Classical Archaeology) from 1931 to 1934, whose magnum opus on the religion on Zeus makes frequent use of the evidence of coins.Charles Seltman – like Cook a fellow at Queens’ – was also involved in the running of the Museum of Classical Archaeology at this time, and is best known for his book on the temple coins of Olympia. Finally, and most importantly in relation to Lloyd, was Sidney Grose. Grose was also a fellow at Christ’s and was good friends with Lloyd. His best known scholarly monument is his catalogue of the McClean bequest, which forms the basis to this day of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s holdings of Greek coins. Looking back upon a time when there were four numismatists in and around the faculty makes me feel very lonely as the only current representative of that breed!
This object encapsulates so many things that fascinate me about ancient art. It is, in itself, a beautiful piece, but on top of that it is layered with history, both ancient and modern. I love how it tells us countless stories, and acts as a window onto so many different aspects of the past.
* Electrotyping is a particular method of making copies of coins. In order to produce an electrotype, a plaster cast of one side of the coin is placed in a bath of acidic copper sulphate solution, along with a small sheet of copper. The two objects are connected by copper wires, and an electric current is passed through them. This forces copper from the surface of the sheet to reappear as a coating on the plaster cast. The process is repeated with the other side of the coin, the two halves are joined together and the piece is coloured, creating a near perfect replica.