Checking in from Ann Arbor!

Hello, everyone! My name is Irene Soto Marín. Welcome to my blog, The Social Lives of Coins: Archaeology and Numismatics at the Kelsey. In this initial post, I hope to tell you a little bit about who I am, what I work on, and slowly introduce you to the blog, where together we will be exploring aspects of the ancient world through the wonderful coin collection at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. 

I am a new assistant professor of classical studies and assistant curator of numismatics here at the Kelsey Museum at the University of Michigan. Originally from Costa Rica, I am a historian of ancient economies with a focus on the Late Antique Egyptian economy. I have been excavating in Egypt since 2008 at the site of Amheida (ancient Trimithis), and have also worked on excavation projects in Turkey. I am interested in long-distance trade in the Eastern Mediterranean and North and Sub-Saharan Africa. I use coins, papyri, ceramics, textiles, and other materials to explore questions of ancient trade, globalization, and economic integration in antiquity. 

An appropriately sized niche in a fourth-century wall at Amheida. (Don’t worry, I am not actually sitting on it! )

There are many reasons for starting this blog. First, as a new hire at the Kelsey, part of my job this first year is to get to know the collection. This is no small feat! The Kelsey Museum has been sponsoring excavation projects since the 1920s and has over 100,000 objects in storage and on display. These artifacts were carefully excavated and entered the museum collection legally and safely prior to the UNESCO Convention of 1970. (I’ll discuss the history of the excavations and what it means for modern museum collections in a later post!) There are currently over 40,000 ancient coins in the Kelsey collection. Weekly posts will allow me to not only study the coins but also write about them, albeit briefly, so that I may highlight interesting aspects of the collection as I work my way through it.

Another important reason for starting this blog is that the museum is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Kelsey’s collection is sadly not on view to the public. It is my hope that a weekly snapshot of some of the Kelsey’s objects will alleviate this lack of access somewhat.

What is particularly exciting about this collection is that the majority of the coins have an archaeological context. Coins are social objects and have never existed in isolation. They were created, utilized, and passed on under different and specific social, political, economic, and cultural circumstances. When coins have an archaeological context, we are able to learn more about the environment and time period in which they were utilized. It is one of my aims that through this blog we may explore the richness of the histories that we can obtain when we study coins in their context. I also want to highlight the importance of preserving contextualized archaeological material.

And not to leave you completely coin-less during this first post, I share with you a special coin, KM 42290, which I came upon this week from the Graeco-Roman site of Karanis. Located in the Fayum region of Egypt, Karanis was excavated by the University of Michigan from 1924 until 1935.

obverse and reverse of ancient coin
Roman tetradrachm of Philip I (r. 244–249 CE), Isis depicted on the reverse. 2.4 cm diameter. Part of Hoard 1, excavated at Karanis, Egypt. KM 42290.


The obverse (front) of this coin shows a bust of the emperor Philip I laureate, draped and cuirassed, looking right and seen from rear. Philip I ruled for five years, from 244 to 249 CE. During a time when emperors came and went every year — or even more often — his reign was remarkably long, and he managed to stabilize the currency after a heavy debasement (–48%!) of the denarius by Gordian III in 241. Although part of the Roman Empire, Egypt had a separate currency system, which was based on a Greek system of denominations. (Stay tuned! I’ll be posting about closed currency systems in Week 3.) This means that coins, namely tetradrachms, were made of billon (an alloy of silver and copper), with lower denominations in bronze, and with some exceptions were minted only in Alexandria. The Emperor still had control over what was placed on the Alexandrian coins, however, and there even seems to be evidence from the reign of Aurelian (270–275) that the Alexandrian mint was used as a trial mint for new currency debasements in the rest of the empire.

black and white photo of archaeological excavation in 1920s Egypt
A general view of excavations in progress at Karanis, ca. 1927, with expedition director Enoch E. Peterson at left. KM 5.2927.

We will be learning much more about Karanis and the Alexandrian mint in due time, but I want to draw your attention to the reverse (back) of this coin, depicting Isis. This is one of only two known specimens of this issue, according to the Roman Provincial Coinage. The coin was published in 1964 along with the hoard in which it was found (Haatvedt and Peterson). I have chosen it to end this post because it depicts the kind of cultural, social, and linguistic syncretism and cosmopolitanism known of Graeco-Roman Egypt, an aspect that particularly drew me to study its economy. Isis is an Egyptian deity who was already a well-known reverse type for centuries prior, but while Philip I’s coins tended to place emphasis on the militaristic aspect of the change of power, the reverse type seems to indicate a call to religious and cultural tradition and unity. A Roman coin, with a Greek legend, and an Egyptian deity.

photo of woman standing on a rock with with arms up
Selinute, on the southwestern coast of Sicily.

That’s it for this post! But stay tuned for next week, when we will talk about the in-person and online numismatic tools I am using as I go through the collection.

¡Hasta luego!

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Some Bibliography

Bricault, Laurent, and Miguel John Versluys, eds. 2010. Isis on the Nile: Egyptian Gods in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. Proceedings of the IVth International Conference of Isis Studies, Liège, November 27–29, 2008. Religions in the Graeco-Roman World 171. Leiden: Brill.

Christiansen, Erik. 2004. Coinage in Roman Egypt: The Hoard Evidence. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.

Geissen, A. 2012. “The Coinage of Roman Egypt.” In The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage, edited by William E. Metcalf, 561–83. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haatvedt, Rolfe Alden, and Enoch E. Peterson. 1964. Coins from Karanis, the University of Michigan Excavations, 1924–1935. Ann Arbor: Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, no. 836, pl. IV.27.

Parsons, P. J. 1967. “Philippus Arabs and Egypt.” The Journal of Roman Studies 57 (1/2): 134–41.

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