University of Southampton OCS (beta), CAA 2012

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Digitalization of the Collection of Roman Republican Coins in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
Klaus Vondrovec

Last modified: 2011-12-17


In order to allow an automatic image-based coin analysis in line with the ILAC-project (TRP 140-N23) the Coin Cabinet of the Kunsthistorisches Museum is digitizing its stock of gold and silver coins from the “Denarius”-period of the Roman Republic (c. 227–27 BCE). The collection is among the finest in the world can be traced back for almost 500 years; today it holds c. 4.200 relevant specimens from this period.

Coinage is – and always has been – a matter of state authority, counterfeiting a capital charge. It served as the first media of mass-communication, consequently a lot of consideration has been spent on coin-design and on elaborating messages to be distributed – this makes coinage a primary historical source.

Only a minute percentage of ancient coins have survived and are available for research today. From the technical point of view coinage is a mass-product which comes from a production-line of industrial character. And yet coins were struck manually from coin-dies, individual specimens show substantial deviations and often have sustained further mutilations during their circulation which could last up to a few hundred years.

Despite those problems we can sometimes even identify the coin-dies only from the surviving coins. Be it from coins or the coin-dies, numismatic research is based on investigating on coin-types, this means distinct combinations of images and coin-legends, as they had been “issued” to be produced. Those issues must be grouped not by technical features, but by the historic interpretation of the information they reveal. This numismatic “detective work” enables us to establish when and where coins were issued in the first place.

The fundamental numismatic task of reconstructing the pattern of coin-issues for the entire Roman Republican period has basically been accomplished by Michael Crawford in 1974. The task at hand is not only to supply high-quality images but to process the numismatic data into a suitable model that can be reproduced or accessed by computer methods. So the individual character of coins needs to be carefully assessed in order to define a coin-type by its characteristic features and to eliminate certain elements such as bymarks or control-symbols as irrelevant for primary numismatic classification.

It remains to be shown if a tool can be developed that is able to identify coins (from the Roman Republic) just the way scholars do, or if identifying coins needs to be re-invented.


numismatics; history; computer aided classifications