A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

Note: Comments are moderated. If you include a link, your comment will not be published. As you will note, I do not accept ads on my website and that includes in comments.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Unsung Artisans of the Ancient World

A coin from ancient Sicily circa 400 BCE.  This decadrachm features the
signature of Euainetos on the reverse.  The woman is Arethusa, a nymph
and a Nereid (daughter of Nereus).  To protect her from unwanted attention,
Artemis transformed her into a spring, and she became a fountain on the island
of Ortygia in Syracuse.  Her image is a common one on ancient Sicilian coins.

Kimon, Euainetos, Eumenos, Euthymos.  Famous artists whose work command exorbitant prices.  Most people have never heard of them nor are aware of their work.  They lived and worked over 2,000 years ago.  They were celators, master engravers who did the engraving on the dies used to make coins.

Silver decadrachm signed by Kimon, circa 404-400 BCE.  Obverse shows a
quadriga with Nike flying to crown the charioteer.  Under line below in minute
letter is "KIMWN".  Reverse is head of Arethusa with hair bound in front with
the letter "K", and bottom dolphin with "KIMWN" on body.  Syracuse, Sicily.
Image courtesy www.kimoncoins.com.

If you look at a group of the same type of ancient coins you will notice that each is unique.  Because they were struck by hand, uniformity was not possible.  Two coins struck at the same time, at the same mint, by the same person, will vary.

Silver tetradrachm with bust of Arethusa bearing "KIMON" on band above
headband.  Reverse shows Arethusa driving quadriga about to be
crowned by Nike. Syracuse, Sicily, circa 405 BCE.  Image courtesy kimoncoins.com.

No ancient mints have been found, and extant dies are extremely rare.  But scholars and numismatists have come to some conclusions about how the coins were made.  Depending on the mint, the metal for coins would have been pounded or rolled into sheets, then stamped into disks.  Some coins were made from molds.

Silver tetradrachm of Syracuse circa 415 BCE signed by Eumenos and Ekleidas.
The obverse says EV between horses' legs, reverse says EV beneath neck.

The interesting part are the dies.  Scholars believe that the dies came from rough designs engraved into iron.  The iron was annealed, cooled, then stamped onto a die.  Here's where the celators came in.  These master engravers would detail the design with the use of fine tools.  Each coin had a pair of dies made - one for the obverse and one for the reverse.

Silver tetradrachm of Athens circa 454-404 BCE.  Head of Athena wearing
crested Attic helmet; reverse owl with olive twig over shoulder.

One of the dies would be set into an anvil.  The other would be set into a punch.  A heated metal blank would be placed over the die in the anvil with tongs.  The punch would be placed on top and struck with a mallet, perhaps several times. Once the coin cooled it would be put into the treasury for circulation.

"New Style" silver tetradrachm circa 133/2 BCE.  Helmeted head of Athena on
obverse; reverse has owl standing on amphora with winged caduceus at left.

These coins were made quickly.  At first it is estimated that 1/2 million were made in a month, graduating to 2.5 million a month once they got into the swing of things.  This fast pace contributed to the lack of uniformity in the coins.

Silver tetradrachm of Aetolian League, circa 239 BCE.  Obverse has Herakles
wearing a lion's skin; reverse shows Zeus with eagle in right hand and a scepter
in his left hand.  Below his right hand is a boar's jawbone.

The actual making of the coins most probably was done by slaves.  But the celators most likely came from engravers - artisans who once made seals and intaglio gemstones, which were popular before coins became so stylized.  Some of the early celators, particularly the Greeks, achieved such a fine degree of excellence in their work that many collectors think of these coins as the consummate art.  The detail, perspective, anatomical correctness, musculature (human or animal) is impeccable.  The art reached its height during the classical period, the late 5th to late 4th century BCE.  Then, for the most part, there was a decline in quality.

A silver stater from Pamphylia, (now in Turkey) circa 420-370 BCE, shows two
wrestlers grappling on obverse.  Reverse shows a man with slingshot, the forepart
of a horse to his right over a spear.  Check out the six-pack on the wrestler to the left!

Who were these celators?  The artists began at an early date to sign their works. Quite a number of celators subtly incorporated their names or initials, and these coins are highly valued.  Scholars are discovering that the practice was more widespread than previously thought.

Silver stater from Euboian League circa 375-357 BCE.  The cow was the badge
of Euboia; reverse shows head of eponymous nymph.  This is a very rare coin.

How they did such tiny, detailed work with primitive tools and without magnification is a mystery.  The first written mention of magnification was by Seneca, the Roman politician and philosopher, who died in 65 CE.  He wrote, "Letters, however small and dim, are comparatively large and distinct when seen through a glass globe filled with water."  But would this have worked with metal?

Silver stater from Aegina circa 455-431 BCE.  A land tortoise with segmented
shell on obverse.  Reverse has incuse square with skewed pattern.

A plano-convex magnifying lens with a corroded, now opaque surface was discovered, aptly enough, at the House of the Engraver in Pompeii.  In fact, there were many discoveries by archaeologists working at ancient sites of pieces of glass.  Glass lens-shaped crystals were discovered by Schliemann at Troy. Because of the crude nature of ancient glass (Corning came along much later!) the glass made then would be cloudy and crusted today.  Which means any type of magnifying device would not be recognizable, if any remain unbroken.

The Nimrod Lens, a 3,000 year old rock crystal piece found at the Assyrian palace
of Nimrod.  It may have been used as a magnifying glass.  The discoverer of the
lens also found minute inscriptions on other artifacts that he suspected were
made with an optical aid.  Image courtesy of the British Museum.

Since celators were so skilled and it is generally assumed that they were already engravers we can take a clue from the engravers of cylinder seals of Mesopotamia. Since these were important marks of property identification, it was germane that they be unique.  To authenticate a stamp, one would have to look for the fine identification marks on them.  To do this, they would need some magnification device.  Because of the secretive nature of these, and the secrecy practiced by trade artisans, the knowledge of magnification would be limited to a small circle of trusted individuals.

Silver stater circa 369-358 BCE of Alexander of Pherai, Thessaly.  Head of Ennodia,
an ancient Greek goddess associated with Artemis, Hecate, or Persephone on obverse.
Reverse shows Alexander of Pherai riding.  A very rare coin, this sold for $661,421 last month.

Also, in 1918 the British numismatist Munroe Endicott noticed tiny letters in the locks of a lion's mane on a Cypriot coin of Alexander the Great (336-323 BCE), who is most often depicted as wearing a lion-skin headdress like Heracles.  The letters spelled the name Nikokles, the local king of Paphos in Cyprus at the time. The name was not meant to be easily visible.  (A proclamation of independence from Macedonia?  An attempt to function like a watermark against fakes?) Another numismatist later confirmed the name on other coins.  Since it took a powerful magnifying glass to read these tiny letters, it follows that it took some kind of optical aid to engrave them.

Silver tetradrachm of Alexander the Great under King Nikokles, circa 325-317 BCE.
This one has no mention of his name on the coin.

However they did it, it is sad that so few people are aware of these small, exquisite works of art.  Most dictionaries don't even have an entry for the word "celator", nor do art encyclopedias.  A lost art, making many ancient coins worth much, much more than their weight in gold.

Unless otherwise stated, images courtesy of www.coinarchives.com.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting these. It is wonderful to see such artwork.