Friday, February 29, 2008

Natural Beauty

Have a look at this coin

AR Denarius (18mm, 2.85g) Struck A.D. 222-228 Rome
Obv: IVLIA MAMAEA AVG Diademed, draped bust right, hair waved and tucked at back of neck
Rev: VESTA Vesta, veiled, standing left, palladium in right hand, vertical scepter in left
RIC IV ii 360

It’s a pleasant example of a relatively common denarius of Julia Mamaea, mother of Severus Alexander. It’s a bit porous and has a “desert patina". The coin without the “desert patina” would be attractive enough. The portrait is of good style and the reverse is also pleasing. What more could be said?

At least to me, the porosity and the red clay patina add another layer of interest. For me the porosity adds some character and interest to the coin, helping me appreciate its sheer age. (Julia is lookin’ good for being 1800 years old!) The red clay adds some highlights to the coin. On the reverse it helps bring to life the figure of Vesta. On the obverse it has an even bigger impact. The tiny bit of clay in the eyes animates the expression of the portrait. The coin just wouldn’t be as interesting to me without these random and natural enhancements. Julia Mamaea isn’t in my collecting area, but the coin had such eye appeal I had to have it.

One of the things I love about ancient coins is the variety. Even in the same issue of a coin you will find a ton of variations. Portraits can range from the sublime to the down right goofy. Minting errors, engraving errors, and the flaws in the flans also add other elements of interest.

So the title of this post was “Natural Beauty” what do I mean by that? Well, on top of the aforementioned minting process variations, the “man made” elements, coins are subjected to natural processes as well. Patina, the encrusting of dirt, leeching and crystallization are some of the processes that work on the coins over the centuries. They can have a profound effect on the appearance of the coin. They can make a run of the mill “Fel Temp” into a visually more interesting and beautiful, (or in some cases, entertaining) coin. Here is an example of a common Votive coin of Constantius II.

AE 3 (15mm) Struck 347-348ad Antioch
Obv: DN CONSTANITIVS P F AVG Diademed bust right
Rev: VOT XX MVLT XXX Vows in wreath. SMAL(gamma) in exergue.

It’s a common enough issue and all indications point to a coin in nice condition under the dirt. It would clean up nicely and easily in just a short time. However I won’t clean it because, at least to me, it is more interesting the way it is. The earthen highlights on the portrait are appealing to me. I fear the coin just wouldn’t be as “pretty” if it were to be cleaned.

Those of us that enjoy ancient coins, do so for a multitude of reasons. For me it’s the history, and the connection to the past, but it is also the variety. Modern coins are massed produce and lack the “human touch” of ancient coins. Each ancient coin is a handmade piece of human endeavor and a work of art in its own right. Let Mother Nature work on the coin for a few centuries and you can end up with a true “Natural Beauty”. Thanks for reading.

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