February 3, 2023

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Roman coins thought to be counterfeits for centuries are being re-evaluated

In 1713 a medal inspector documented the acquisition of eight Roman gold coins buried in Transylvania. For centuries, experts thought they were fakes—and badly made at that.

The coins featured the image of an otherwise unknown leader and features distinct from other mid-third century Roman coins. But now researchers who have re-examined the coins, which were in a collection at the University of Glasgow, say they may in fact be authentic.

The design on the coin was irregular for the period and the man depicted on it, Sponsian, was mostly lost to history. The coins contained references to “botched legends and historically mixed motifs,” experts said.

A study published Wednesday in PLOS ONE magazine says the coins — and Sponsian, the man pictured — deserve another look.

Using modern imaging technology, the researchers said they found “deep micro-abrasion patterns” that are “typically associated with coins that have been in circulation for an extended period of time.” In addition, the researchers analyzed soil deposits and found evidence that the coins were buried for a long time before being exhumed.

The coins are also “uncharacteristic” of the forgeries from the time they were found, the researchers said.

“If the coins were proven to be forgeries, they would make a particularly interesting case study for antiquarian forgeries,” the researchers wrote. “If they were authentic, they would be of clear historical interest.”

Centuries later, the Sponsian name would not have been an obvious choice for counterfeiters because he was an obscure figure, the research team found. It hoped the research would bring him back into focus as a minor historical figure. On the coin he is depicted wearing a crown such as that worn by emperors.

“Nothing is known for certain about him, but the coins themselves, together with the provenance recorded by Heraeus, provide clues to his possible place in history,” researchers wrote in reference to Sponsian and Carl Gustav Heraeus. It was Heraeus, medal inspector of the Imperial Collection in Vienna, who documented the purchase of the coins in 1713.

Early writers viewed Sponsian as a historical usurper, possibly struggling for power during civil wars that ended the rule of another emperor, Philip. Now the researchers hypothesize that Sponsian may have been a provincial commanding officer during a period of military conflict.

“Our evidence suggests he ruled Roman Dacia, an isolated gold-mining outpost, at a time when civil wars ravaged the Empire and marauding invaders overran the frontiers,” said Paul N. Pearson, the paper’s lead author statements.

A scammer in Vienna often duped collectors in the 18th century when the coins were found in Transylvania or present-day Romania, the researchers said.

Back then, counterfeiters used artificial aging methods like abrasion to make artifacts like coins look older. Superficial scratches and debris prompted investigators, including Dr. Pearson, a professor of geosciences at University College London, concluded that the treatment appeared natural, leading her to believe the coins were genuine.

“We propose that Sponsian series coinage was used to pay high-ranking soldiers and officials by weight in gold and silver, and then traded at a heavy premium against regular Imperial coins, which were already in circulation in the province before the crisis period were in circulation,” the research paper said.

Despite the researchers’ conclusions, some experts saw gaps in the results.

In her column in the Times Literary Supplement, Mary Beard, professor of classical studies at the University of Cambridge, pointed out the composition of the coins among factors raising questions about their authenticity. “There is still very strong evidence that they are fake,” she wrote.