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Coins and archaeology

-santosh kumar
m.a. history
The collection and study of money particularly the coin is known as numismatics. More precisely
‘numismatics is the science of classification of coins, and the unit of study is the coin-type a
differentiable category of coins possessing a unique appearance, metrology, metallic composition and
message content’. According to Geoffrey Crowther money is ‘anything that is generally acceptable as
means of exchange and that at the same time acts as a measure and store of value’. Coins provide
enormous information about varied aspects of economic history (exchange and trade, state of economy,
and production and circulation of coinage), political history (enlighten political events, names of kings,
their thoughts and actions, their titles, dates and biographical details) and other historical details of its
period. Coins altered the nature of exchange and economic transaction, and established impersonal
relations between consumer and sellers and between the state and its employees.

Coins and epigraphy have a distinctive quality in terms of their nature and historic relevance. That is,
both these sources transcends the boundaries posed by demarcation of sources as literary or
archaeology. Coins and inscriptions are material sources often found from their hoards and thus qualify
as archaeological sources which could be studied in different ways- by studying the material or
composition of these sources, the source of their material, based on its fabric (size, shape, thickness,
design, workmanship), on the basis of its metrology or weight standard, design, manufacturing
techniques etc. archaeology can never be segregated from coinage and together they form an
indispensible source for studying history of the period. Also how these coins are found and identified
has a history of its own. Often we find many coin hoards are found out of sheer accident and many a
times coins get lost, destroyed, depreciated due to natural or manmade factors. Archaeologically hoards
are important numismatic sources for monetary history and not only helps in unearthing the evidence
but hoards also are important for knowing the nature of certain coins and the reasons they must have
been hoarded (natural or manmade factors). Thus here we will introduce different way to study the
archaeological data in the form of coins to understand different facets of Indian history.
Coins are alternative source of history which gives us a corroborative picture and a departure from the
history offered by the literary sources. Hoards of coins are huge masses of coins lost for a certain point
of time or hidden from the public view and discovered at a later phase. These hoards can be analyzed at
different levels- the study of composition of individual hoards permits chronological ordering of
otherwise anonymous and unattributable series of coins; secondly it gives account of relative quantities
of different types of coins in circulation at a point of time. Thirdly these coins reflect rate of wear and
tear of particular coin types of circulation. According to nayanjyot lahiri the geographical position of
hoards is very important in knowing the source area of the raw material for these coinages. Mint town
are identified by analyzing the sites where coin moulds are found in large number which also helps in
analyzing the volume, and manufacturing techniques of the coins. Various techniques are used to
ascertain the chronology of these coins- the most common is by observing their color and luster or
testing the resonance quality of these coins. Chemically, X-Ray fluorescence spectrometry method is
used for analyzing the elemental composition of coins.

D D Kosambi has worked through his own unique method of statistical analysis of coinage, the economic
history of different regions and has tried to work out the mechanism of their growth through these
coinages in his work “Indian Numismatics”. Koshambi points out about the economic history of Taxila
on the basis of its two hoards found from archaeological stratification. The preponderance, at Taxila, of
coins assigned to Magadha- a phenomenon which contrasts sharply with the absence of Taxilan ‘bent-
bar’ coins in Magadha or elsewhere— argues for a balance of trade in favor of Taxila. The stability of the
Taxilan economy for more than two hundred years is further ‘suggested by a regularity of circulation
revealed through curves of weight-loss and absorption. It was this favorable trade balance which led to
Magadhan conquest of Taxila, but a rigid bureaucratic control eventually ‘strangled the long-established
trade’ and thus brought about its ruin. Conversely, kosambi characterize Mauryan economy in relation
to Taxilan hoards. According to him, there was a ‘far greater pressure upon the currency’ than in the
period of the Nandas. One positive symptom of it was heavy debasement of coins wherein “Copper was
more than half the alloy!”); another was indifferent minting, expressed through greater initial variation.
Not satisfied with the phenomenon itself, Kosambi looked for its explanation in terms of greater
bureaucratization, expansion in the army and proliferation of trading activities, which combined to
produce an acute shortage of currency which had to be met by debasing it.

The coins are very important to the reconstruct of the ancient Indian history. It is a part of
archaeological sources .Those with dates is probably very valuable for the framework of Indian
chronology. Coins are almost our sole evidence with regarded to the Indo Scythian and Indo Bactrian
King. The Bilingual coins had served as Rosetta Stones in deciphering the Ancient Indian writings. The
purity of the metal reflects the financial conditions of the Gupta Empire. The inscription on the coin
indicates territory over which the rulers ruled. Some coin throws significant light on the personal events
of certain rulers. The discovery of the same kind of coins at different places helps up in fixing the
coverage of various kingdoms in ancient India.

Gold coins belonging to the Gupta period have been found at Ahiran in West Bengal Murshidabad
district. The coins found during a road construction, date around fourth century A.D. according to
archaeologists, the region’s chronological history may have to be rewritten following this find. It is the
second such discovery in the State since the early colonial era and is considered significant; as according
to historians, it can present new evidences of the reach of the Gupta Empire The coins depict a king
along with a Garuda Stambha on his right and with a fire altar. On the other side of the coin there is an
image of goddess Lakshmi,” he said. Historians hold varying opinions about the original homeland of the
Guptas and the discovery of the coin horde can throw some light on the issue and according to
dr.sengupta, the discovery of the coins will help us revisit the original homeland of the Guptas as well as
the extent of presence of early Guptas in the area. Similarly, excavation by renowned scholar B.N.
Mukherjee, archaeologists feel the exhibits belong to the sixth century AD, which is generally known as
the end of Gupta period in ancient history. It is also known as King Shashanka's reign in the history of

The study of coin weights has lend gravitas to different statistical and graphical analysis to illuminate on
the metrological system of coin issuing authorities. Statistical analysis of normal distribution of coinahge
has helped particularly in the study of medieval coinage in Indian subcontinent which is beyond the
purview of our study. A. Cunningham’s Coins in Mediaeval India was the first classical work of
numismatic research of the early medieval Indian coins from 600-1200 CE. His work deciphers the early
medieval coins and associates the series of coin types with dynasties which issued them. He also records
the weight, quality and quantity of the coins which helped in the study of their metrology, fabric and
metal content. His analysis proved that Indian coins of the early medieval period in northern India were
of varied kinds chiefly of silver, copper plated or those which were only washed with silver. Only one
gold coin was found. It was on the basis of statistical analysis of coins from different museums that R.S.
Sharma postulated his Indian feudalism theory delving into the issue of paucity of coins from the
statigraphical layers of the period of 5th-9th century Ce. Though such an approach has been criticized by
D.C. Sircar who has pointed out that the Muesological modality of Indian museum works in a
problematic way as in they are more interested in having different types of coins rather than more
quantity of similar coins, thus it becomes more and more problematic to know the exact quantity of
coins based on its quantity found in museums. Hoards of coins are much more reliable source of coinage
though even they are not flawless, because often the nature of hoards are difficult to determine
because as nayanjyot lahiri points out that often the coins found in hoards are unused, discarded,
imitations or counterfeit coins and thus are not the real indicators of the conditions. Thus a comparative
historical analysis of coinage is very important to analyze the real economic condition of the period.

Thus what we find in our analysis is that archaeology is an equally determinant factor for analyzing the
numismatic evidence not only because archaeology is the origin source of hoards of coinage but also
because the real material context of the coins can be unearthed only with reference to archaeology. By
their very nature certain hoard analysis requires much more expertise in terms of historical
methodology as well as technical expertise. Archaeology, Anthropology and history agree that the
money use of cowrie is recorded only in historical times, but, on a careful check, the monetary use is
found to be by no means coincident with Pre-historic sites. But coins need not be seen in isolation. for
example from the moghalmari coin hoard, underneath the mound lay the state's oldest Buddhist
monastery, which might even beat the Raktamrittika Vihara of Murshidabad (erstwhile Karnasuvarna) in
age. Chinese scholar Hiuen Tsang had mentioned the existence of an old Buddhist monastery in Bengal
that was older than Raktamrittika. However, this was never found and historians felt the excavation
might finally bring the age-old mystery to an end. Gradually, a tri-ratha structure, typical of Buddhist
monastic architecture complete with innumerable cells for the monks was unearthed. What this
suggests is that not only the site of the hoards are in itself a historical trajectory, the identification of the
site also makes it plausible for the scholars to analyze the purpose of the hoards like in a monastery.
Thus we need to juxtapose different facets of coinage and link them together to build a more
compatible picture of the period. D.d. kosambi points out the study of coins thus needs patience,
superior eyesight, long practice, and a powerful imagination which adepts rarely control. The problem
then is to rank these groups in chronological order. This can be done only by treating numismatics as a
science. Every set of coins, as minted, have variation in weight that is characteristic of the minting
technique; no two specimens have exactly the same weight on sufficiently accurate balances — even
when new. The effect of circulation upon the coins is to wear off a very small amount of the metal at
each handling. Also he adheres to certain caution while dealing with the statistical analysis of hoards of
coinage and dealing with its linear regression rate , the circulation must be regular enough to have the
proper effect, which excludes gold coins in general, almost always hoarded with the minimum handling,
but liable also to be clipped or, in India, rubbed on the touchstone. Finally, the groups must have
sufficiently large numbers with comparable history. Also the shape of the coins needs to be accurate to
avoid huge differences in general weight of coins. Only then we will be able to juxtapose archaeology
and numismatics efficiently.