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Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - Token Communities (Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean)

Reporting period: 2019-06-01 to 2020-11-30

"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 by regulating jury duty and other citizen activities. Thus, although small and easily overlooked, tokens nonetheless have the power to shape society and human relations. Given their potential power to change society, 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).

The project seeks to better understand what tokens looked like in classical antiquity and the roles they played. To do so we are working with different museums across the world to publish their collections, and are examining where tokens are found within the archaeological record. By examining tokens closely (their images, materials, find spots) we can better understand how this category of object enabled particular types of social formation (e.g. cultic groups, governmental systems) and contributed to the formation of different communities. 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 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 (

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, which was 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 (with shared imagery carrying the ethnics of different areas). 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 either carry Egyptian or Greek motifs, with some imagery confined to particular cities (e.g. Athena with an axe is only found at Oxyrhynchus) while other imagery is used more widely (e.g. Nilus). The imagery on these tokens is 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).

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.

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.

Tokens also had secondary lives: several occur in secondary contexts or are pierced. Many of these objects may have thus been saved as mementos of a particular occasion, or attracted personal value for an individual.
The survey of unpublished collections within museums has 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 is moving 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.
"Image from the ""Tokens: Culture, Connections, Communities"" Conference, University of Warwick, 2017"
Roman lead token showing the emperor Nero.