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Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - Token Communities (Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean)

Reporting period: 2020-12-01 to 2021-08-31

"This project provides the first comprehensive analysis of the role played by tokens in the ancient Mediterranean. Tokens are frequently found on archaeological sites and are housed within museum collections, but are little studied and poorly understood. These objects played a central role in cultural, religious, political, and economic life in antiquity; closer study of these objects is thus imperative in gaining a fuller picture of the ancient world and its cultural legacy. The project focuses on tokens from the Hellenistic and Roman worlds.

Tokens exist in many forms in our society: tokens are used by credit card companies, and token currencies (e.g. Bitcoin) are continuing to expand. Tokens are also regularly used within small scale transactions (e.g. in Xmas markets). In the prehistoric period the invention of tokens coincided with the rise of civilisation as we know it, and led to the invention of writing and abstract number. In ancient Athens tokens enabled the functioning of the world's first democracy. Thus, although small and easily overlooked, tokens nonetheless have the power to shape human relations. We need a better understanding of how tokens operate and what their characteristics are. Understanding the tokens of classical antiquity can contribute to debates surrounding the use of tokens in the modern world; participants involved in crypto- or alternative currencies, for example, draw upon the classical world as a model (e.g. the example of ancient Athens and the modern 'Agorism' movement).

This project conducted research to better understand what tokens looked like in classical antiquity, and has since identified the very local nature of these objects, which were manufactured locally for use within small areas (e.g. a single town or by a small group). We have been able to identify what tokens look like in different regions of antiquity. We have worked to publish and update the catalogues of museum collections worldwide. Studying the find spots and imagery of these objects have also allowed us to better understand their roles; in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds tokens were multifarious, but appear to have strong connections to acts of euergetism. The use of tokens automatically creates feelings of 'inclusion' (""I have a token"") and 'exclusion' (""those people don't have a token""), which, combined with their imagery and design, contributed to different identities and social cohesion within the Mediterranean. The connection of tokens to different types of groups has been identified.
The team has worked on token collections across the world. Types and specimens are published online ( and in print (listed under publications). The tokens of the British Museum are now online (e.g. for the lead), as are the tokens of the BnF ( The findings below have been disseminated through various presentations and publications.

We have identified the characteristics of tokens in different regions, and proposed potential uses. Tokens are found across the Mediterranean, but methods of manufacture, materials, and use differed according to area. The tokens of Britain, Gaul and Egypt were examined by Wilding in her PhD thesis. She gathered together possible tokens from Britain for the first time, noting that the area is relatively poor in tokens. This may be due to the fact that tokens seem to be connected to euergetism, not as widely practiced along the Roman frontier (tokens are also relatively infrequent in Germany). In Roman Gaul, tokens have been found on cultic sites, and a series appears regional in character. One of the largest assemblages from Gaul are the tokens coming from the river Saône in Lyon, which may have had a commercial use, although a connection to cult or euergetism cannot be ruled out. In Egypt tokens are emblematic of both regional and local identities in the region. Milne's suggestion that these pieces acted as emergency currency has been brought into serious doubt by Wilding's study; it is more likely they played a role in contexts of cult or euergetism.

The PI's work on the tokens of Rome, Ostia and Italy has concluded that these pieces were used to facilitate acts of euergetism within different contexts: during festivals, within collegia, Roman bathing, etc. The lead tokens of Rome and Ostia were produced from palombino marble moulds, a technique that appears unique to this region. Bronze and orichalcum (brass) tokens are also known (likely produced for private individuals by a specialised workshop), and it is evident that the same groups were producing both types of tokens, a connection not previously noticed before. New die connections between the brass tokens have been uncovered, furthering our understanding of the so-called 'spintriae'. The designs of tokens in this region are extremely varied and in many instances form unique pieces of iconography. An interesting phenomenon is that the imagery on tokens often invites the user to identify themselves in the image (e.g. by portraying a worshipper or bather). A monograph, Tokens and Social Life in Roman Italy, has been submitted to CUP.

Crisà's work on the tokens of Sicily has demonstrated that they are relatively rare, mainly made from terracotta, and appear to date to the classical/Hellenistic period. They carry images that reference deities and local coinage, and in one case was repurposed to function as 'Charon's obol' within a tomb. This work has been published in a series of articles.

Gkikaki's work on the tokens of Athens has resulted in the publication of new specimens, and provided a reassessment of particular archaeological assemblages. While the use of tokens in the classical democracy has been established, Gkikaki's work suggests that tokens came to take on new contexts from the Hellenistic period, becoming associated with cults, prestige and acts of euergetism.

The research of the project, as well as the connections of ancient tokens with others across time, has been disseminated via the project conference (and resulting publication 'Tokens: Culture, Connections, Communities' with the RNS) and the workshop in Rome, Italy ('Tokens, Value and Identity').
The survey of unpublished collections within museums brought to light numerous new types and imagery, and has demonstrated that tokens of differing materials should be studied alongside each other. In identifying what tokens 'look like' in different regions we have progressed beyond the state of the art, since such a broad regional comparison has not been made before. Tokens can now be connected to regions in a way not previously possible, and archaeological contexts have been gathered together for the first time. The project has moved the focus of scholarship away from the idea tokens served as alternative currencies and instead suggests that they may have been used in contexts of euergetism. The project has also created an international network of interested academics and museum professionals, several of whom are now actively working on this material. The publications of the project act as a model for future scholarship in demonstrating how this material is to be used in research.
Image from the "Tokens: Culture, Connections, Communities" Conference, University of Warwick, 2017
Roman lead token showing the emperor Nero.