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Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - Token Communities (Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean)

Reporting period: 2016-06-01 to 2017-11-30

"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 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.

Whether we realise it or not, tokens exist in many forms in our society: tokens are used by credit card companies like Visa, and token currencies (e.g. Bitcoin) are continuing to grow. Tokens are also used within small scale transactions (e.g. in local supermarkets, for lockers, even within Christmas 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 our society and human relations across time. 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; partivipants involved in crypto- or alternative currencies, for example, draw upon the classical world as a model that used tokens to enable political participation and a sense of community (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. particular cults, governmental systems) and contributed to the formation of different communities. The use of tokens automatically creates a feeling 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 groupings within the Mediterranean.

"The team has worked on token collections in The British Museum (UK), The Ashmolean Museum (UK), Liverpool Museum (UK), Petrie Museum London (UK), St. Albans Museum (UK), Athens Numismatic Museum (Greece), Athens Ancient Agora (Greece), The Ephorate of Athens Antiquities (Greece), The Ephorate of Antiquities of Eastern Attica (Greece), Münzkabinett in Berlin (Germany), The University Museum of Göttingen (Germany), Altes Museum in Berlin (Germany), Münzkabinett Dresden (Germany), Münzkabinett Gotha (Germany), Museo e Fondazione Mandralisca, Cefalù (Palermo) (Italy), Museo della Valle dell’Eleuterio, Marineo (Palermo) (Italy), Museo “B. Anselmi” Marsala (Trapani) (Italy), Museo Archeologico “A. Salinas”, (Palermo) (Italy), Museo Archeologico “P. Orsi”, Syracuse, (Italy), Museo Civico “A. Pepoli”, Trapani, (Italy). We have also begun gathering archaeological find data into an online database and held a major international, interdisciplinary conference on tokens in June 2017 entitled ""Tokens: Cultures, Connections, Communities"" (

We have begun to identify the particular characteristics of tokens in different regions of the Mediterranean. Although tokens appear to be a medium found across the Mediterranean, methods of manufacture and materials differed in different regions.Some preliminary observations are outlined below:

Britain: has some finds of lead tokens from the city of Rome, but otherwise seems to lack the token production seen in other areas. We are currently exploring the idea that the many ‘lead coins’ and lead monetiform objects (e.g. lead discs), found in watery deposits across Britain may in fact serve as ‘tokens’ in a similar way to tokens in other areas.

West Continent of Europe (France, Germany, Belgium): the study here is in its preliminary stages, but tokens from this region are of largely of lead. Tokens here have a civic nature, and may name a particular settlement or tribe; some tokens from the city of Rome may have traveled to the region. The north-west has numerous finds of lead discs, which again may have served as ‘tokens’ in particular contexts in this area, and may provide a parallel to the archaeological record in Britain.

Rome and Lazio: the city of Rome (including Ostia) has an enormous production of tokens in lead, created by using palombino marble moulds, a technique that currently seems unique to this region. Bronze and orichalcum (brass) tokens are also known (perhaps produced for private individuals by the Roman mint or a specialised workshop), and it is evident that the same groups were producing both lead and metal tokens, a connection not previously noticed before. The designs of the tokens in this region are extremely varied and carry reference to numerous private individuals, festivals (including festival chants), deities, emperors, as well as images that are playful or absurd. Many tokens carry letters or words. The bronze and orichalcum tokens of Italy travelled to different regions (perhaps as mementoes, they largely appear in funerary contexts), and some lead tokens appear to have traveled as well.

Sicily: Tokens here are mainly made from terracotta and appear to date to the classical/Hellenistic period. Tokens appear to be relatively rare and carry images that reference deities and local coinage. There is one reported find of a lead token in Sicily.

Athens: As with the city of Rome, tokens are relatively abundant. They carry a variety of designs and can be connected to government, as well as to private individuals. Unlike the tokens of Rome, they are struck with dies, not cast.

Egypt: In Egypt tokens either carry Egyptian or Greek motifs, with some imagery confined to particular cities (e.g. Athena with axe is only found at Oxyrhynchus) while other imagery is used more widely (e.g. Nilus). There are larger lead tokens and smaller ‘dumpy’ types (the latter fou"
Although previous scholarship viewed these pieces as merchants’ small change or alternative local currencies, close examination of the number and contexts of these objects suggest this was not their function. In Egypt, for example, the number of tokens is simply too small for these objects to have functioned as an alternative currency as proposed by previous scholarship (e.g. Milne). Tokens are simply too rare in comparison to other known ‘pseudo-currencies’ (e.g. those known in Pompeii) to have functioned as a more general-purpose currency. This represents a scholarly shift in how we should understand these artefacts.

In identifying what tokens 'look like' in different regions we are also progressing beyond the state of the art, since such a broad regional comparison has not been made before. Previously scholarship has considered bronze or brass tokens in isolation from lead tokens, which are again treated separately from tokens made of clay. But the broad approach of this project and our work examining previously unpublished specimens, has demonstrated that often tokens are made by the same types of groups in different materials (e.g. officers attached to the youth organisations in Rome made tokens of lead, and also of brass). Tokens of different materials in the city of Rome also carry similar imagery and designs, they should thus be considered together.

We will continue working on unpublished museum collections and archaeological finds for the rest of the project and it is anticipated that this will provide an even clearer picture concerning what tokens looked like in different areas, how they were used, and by whom.
"Image from the ""Tokens: Culture, Connections, Communities"" Conference, University of Warwick, 2017"
Roman lead token showing the emperor Nero.