Coins and the treachery of images

Science Museum

Coins
are a physical piece of a specific time and place in history. Their diverse
iconography epitomises the society in which they were created. The stories they
tell are ones of exchange, not just in monetary value, but of cultural, technological
and political development. Appearances can be deceiving. On the face of it
these coins affirm social acceptance, mythical powers and political strength, but
some are merely for show.

Parthian coin of the Sasanian dynastyScience Museum

Selling
the East India Company

The British presence in India was proclaimed with the creation of the East India Company. Set up to create trade between Britain and India, in around 1670 Charles II granted the Company rights to autonomous government in India, freedom to command troops, create laws and, importantly, mint money. Portuguese and Dutch mints imitated established currencies for the purpose of facilitating commerce, and the British followed. However, the money was not intended to benefit the Indian rulers.

Parthian coin of the Sasanian dynastyScience Museum

Southern Indian states were more likely to accept their own currency than give credence to a foreign royal stamp. This coin exemplifies the adoption of numismatic forms already accepted by Indian society, with only a subtle allusion to Charles II with two linked Cs.

Parthian coin of the Sasanian dynastyScience Museum

On the reverse is the image of a Hindu deity. Tactics to secure British coinage's legitimacy included inscriptions in Persian and Indian rulers' names. Despite being a non-government entity, the Company became sole issuer and controller of India's circulating money until 1858.

19th Century Half-Doubloon or Four Scudos coin of EcuadorScience Museum

Coining
an Independence

South American countries underwent massive cultural change in the 19th century. In 1819, República de Colombia, which encompassed parts of present-day Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Panama, Peru and Venezuela, was founded. However, just 11 years later in 1830, Ecuador secured its place as an independent country. The first Ecuadorian coins were struck in 1833, replacing "EL ECUADOR EN COLOMBIA" with "REPUBLICA DEL ECUADOR", and exchanging political portraits for symbols of liberty, helping to construct a unique national identity.

19th Century Half-Doubloon or Four Scudos coin of EcuadorScience Museum

This currency cleverly legitimised Ecuador as a geographic location on the equator, but also aligned it with the mythology of the zodiac beyond the Earthly realm. The icons of the mountain and condor would become key elements for the Ecuadorian flag.

Touchpiece coin of AnneScience Museum

Curing
the King's Evil

The Angel has a special place in English history, starting as a coin but later becoming an amulet. First struck in 1465, the Angel ceased to be currency by 1642, but continued to be minted from 1660 as a 'touchpiece'. The heavenly touch of the monarch could imbue a coin with healing powers and was particularly associated with curing scrofula, also known as the 'King's Evil', a disease of the lymph nodes. It was usually worn on a ribbon around the neck.

Using the Angel, an official currency, in state-sanctioned ceremonies combined Pagan magic, Christian sanctity and political propaganda in a unique way. The coin's imagery depicts Archangel Michael, the spiritual protector of royalty, slaying the Devil (depicted as a dragon).

Touchpiece coin of AnneScience Museum

Crucially, Michael replaces the monarch's portrait. It is therefore strange that the Angel completely escaped re-design during the Edwardian Reformation (1547–53) because of its popularity, when other royal emblems were scrutinised, and the cult of saints was under sustained attack.

(Pictured: reverse of coin)

Birmingham halfpenny token for a tavernScience Museum

One of the last people to be touched, in 1712, was two-year-old Samuel Johnson, later an eminent writer and author of the first dictionary. Despite having no discernible effect on his scrofula, Johnson wore his touchpiece throughout his life.

Tetradrachm coin of Athens (Ancient Greece)Science Museum

Athens and the Owl

The Athenian 'Owl' tetradrachm is unquestionably one of the most influential coins of all time. This distinctive coin was a solution to the problem confronting trade everywhere: how to pay for goods using a compact medium with a universally recognised value. During 5 BCE, Athens emerged as the greatest of the Greek cities, treating its currency not only as a way of facilitating commerce and trade but projecting its image abroad.

Tetradrachm coin of Athens (Ancient Greece)Science Museum

In Greek mythology, the owl is Athena's mascot. The species depicted on this coin is the Mediterranean native Athena Noctua, also called the Little Owl. The owl then, as today, was a symbol of wisdom.

Minerva of the Airopoli in Athens (1820) by Abraham Rees, D.D.F.R.S.F.L.S.S.Science Museum

Owls were the first widely used international coin and popularised the practice of a portrait on one side and a tail (animal) on the reverse. They remained thematically unchanged, for half a millennium, through great changes in the ancient world.

Roman Coin of Julius CaesarScience Museum

Caesar's victory through strength

The 'Elephant' denarius represents the most eventful year in Julius Caesar's life, 49 BCE. Caesar had just made his famous crossing of the Rubicon into Italy, defying Senate orders and catalysing civil war against his rival general, Pompey the Great. Unable to pay his troops, Caesar stripped the State of its wealth and minted the Elephant. More than a means for exchanging goods and services, this coin influenced the course of history.

Roman Coin of Julius CaesarScience Museum

The Elephant was a perfect opportunity for Caesar to advertise his own achievements and the shortcomings of his opponents, mocking Pompey's attempt to impress the populace by driving an elephant-drawn chariot through Rome's gates, failing as the gates were too small.

(Pictured: reverse of coin)

Roman Coin of Julius CaesarScience Museum

Caesar's choice of iconography was deliberate, since this was not supervised by the senate. The crushed serpent may allude to the battle between good and evil, but the coin's fundamental message was unquestionably a statement of Caesar's confidence in his political and military strength.

One Cent coin of the United States of AmericaScience Museum

Caricature of a Nation

One of the first coin types produced in America was the one cent penny. The Native American head penny is one of the most divisive. First appearing in 1859, it is not a Native American depicted but a Caucasian woman wearing a traditional First Nation headdress. Instead of championing the native people of America, this image uses symbolism of a community without granting any genuine sympathy beyond mythic representation.

One Cent coin of the United States of AmericaScience Museum

Native Americans were neither bloodthirsty savages nor the noble 'red men' of popular imagination. The former caricatured on this coin is part of the material culture of the European-American narrative that ignores the genocide, disease and cultural devastation brought to Native American communities.

(Pictured: reverse of coin)

One Cent coin of the United States of AmericaScience Museum

The image of the 'American Indian' and the stories sold to the new settlers of America was the fiction that endured, enhanced by dime-store novels, shows such as Buffalo Bill's Wild West, and eventually, Westerns on TV and film.

Credits: Story

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