What is this beautiful weird thing?
May 15, 2007 1:44 PM   Subscribe

Weird thing I found. Any idea what it is? Possibly a coin or button or.... Has some bird on one side... the other side has a ???

I found this in my Grandmother's jewelry box, though I don't believe it's from any sort of jewelry. Could have been my Grandfather's... or belonged to their parents, etc.

It's the circumference of a penny, almost exactly. About 2.5 - 3 x the thickness of a penny. And it's heavy. Maybe iron.

Any ideas?

Thanks very much.
posted by LadyBonita to Grab Bag (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Slide show pictures
posted by LadyBonita at 1:48 PM on May 15, 2007

It looks like a seal to me. What was your grandmother's ethnic/cultural background?
posted by nasreddin at 1:58 PM on May 15, 2007

Grandma was Scottish. Gramps was German.
posted by LadyBonita at 2:02 PM on May 15, 2007

Actually, I lied. There appears to be a vaguely Greek-style profile on the obverse, so it's definitely a coin. Maybe an ancient Greek drachma (birds were a popular motif in Greek coinage).

But the bird itself looks very familiar, possibly Near Eastern.
posted by nasreddin at 2:05 PM on May 15, 2007

I thought their might be a profile, too, but only if the 'thing' is turned. If it's flipped over exactly in the same position then the 'profile' isn't straight. The last two photos show it flipped exactly. Exactly being if the bird side has it's feet on the bottom.

In any case, I have no idea if the 'profile' has to be exactly opposite the bird. The bird resembles a peacock to me.
posted by LadyBonita at 2:16 PM on May 15, 2007

Yeah, definitely a coin. Is it necessarily a bird? It almost has the form of the rose used on Rhodian coins. Some examples here. See especially the Rhodian Mercenary drachm.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:18 PM on May 15, 2007

The animal is a hippocamp. Possibly this coin? Seen here (number 24).
posted by thinman at 2:22 PM on May 15, 2007

I don't think it's the rose used on Rhodian coins, but it does look remarkably like the hippocamp. Difficult to tell if the other side matches, but it doesn't seem to.
posted by LadyBonita at 2:33 PM on May 15, 2007

Sure looks like some version of an ancient Syracuse coin to me. Here's one that looks pretty close to what you have.
posted by thinman at 2:47 PM on May 15, 2007

Thanks so much everyone. I guess it'll be impossible to tell for sure which coin it is since the one side is so worn out. I am VERY happy just to know that it's a coin and that the animal is called a Hippocamp. Now the mystery is why in the world Grandma had such a coin!

It does look similar to the Syracuse coin, too, almost but not quite.

I'm curious if the old coins are supposed to match up on each side - should the images both be positioned the same way when it's flipped over?
posted by LadyBonita at 3:06 PM on May 15, 2007

I doubt that ancient casting techniques were advanced enough to make every coin line up exactly.
posted by luriete at 3:30 PM on May 15, 2007

Ancient coins weren't made by casting, they were made using punches and hammers. A lump of ductile metal (copper, silver, and gold are all ductile) was placed on a carved place and solid punch with the other side's carving was placed on top. The workman pounded on the top piece until the ductile metal had spread out enough.

Generally they didn't make much effort to keep the top and bottom pieces aligned, nor did they worry too much about the rotational orientation of the top piece when they did it.

That piece in the photo looks like it might be bronze, which is definitely NOT ductile. That might explain why it's not flat.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:38 PM on May 15, 2007

Actually, I think bronze would technically be considered to be ductile, but it's very hard and doesn't work easily.

That's why bronze was a good alloy for swords. It's a little known fact that it was better than iron for swords (though not better than steel). The reason iron largely ended up replacing bronze in the Classic era was that tin was scarce and thus expensive; iron ore was common.

Bronze weapons used by the Greeks was made using tin imported from Spain -- or from England. (Tin was one of the most valuable trade items moved around by the Phoenicians.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:43 PM on May 15, 2007

I think thinman and some others are right on target with the Crested Head of Athena (i.e. Athena with a crested Corinthian helmet) on one side and the Hippocamp on the other.

Take a look at this pristine version of a very similar coin, lot 41 on a recent Malter Gallery auction. The Coins from Sicily, Syracuse page that thinman linked already has several slightly different versions of this coin (Calciati 31-34).

The slight bulge on the really worn side of your coin would match very well with the Crested Athena, like on on this coin, for example.

When I worked as an archaeologist, this was the kind of thing that people would bring in to be identified during our annual "community show and tell day". You might check to see if any universities or CRM firms around where you live do something similar, by the way.

Most things that people brought in that were not of U.S. origins would be small mementos brought back from someone's trip overseas. Did your grandma and grandpa take a trip to the Mediterranean at some point, say after the war? Even if you/your parents don't' know, check out any old photo albums to see if you can spot any photos that might be from such a trip.

Good luck! Also, enjoy! It's a nice piece.
posted by gemmy at 4:53 PM on May 15, 2007

Ancient coins are pretty common - there are usually a few up on E-bay under antiques/antiquities.

Coins are not really my thing, but some things to remember about anything from more than a few hundred years ago are that they are essentially hand made by guys who were trying to crank out as many as possible. There will be a lot of slop in the process.

The two guys who I've talked to who have played around with this technology used a line scribed into the top and bottom die to line them up. They also used a piece of cord tied around the two dies so that the set up person could yank the dies out from below the hammer just after the blow landed to prevent a double strike (which would cause a funky shadow effect). When one guy is swinging a big enough hammer bronze is plenty maliable, though I'm not sure how long your dies would hold up using Roman era steel (or what passed for steel).

As for casting (which is my thing), trust me when I say that they could line things up remarkably well when they thought it was necessary. When they didn't think it was necessary they made some butt ugly castings.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:21 PM on May 15, 2007

Gemmy, that pristine version is very similar. Mine doesn't have the mane on the hippocamp, but I can tell that the bulge on mine is very similar to the Athena side.

I think #34 on thinman's link is the closest match. I don't know if anyone can tell from the photos I linked, but the tilt of the head, the curve of the neck and the chin of Athena all line up. #34's Hippocamp is not as detailed as mine, but it has two 'feathers' between the right foot and the large 'tail' (wing?) - and I've not seen those 'feathers' on any other coin yet.

Grandpa did serve in WWII - in New Guinea, Bismerck Archipelago, So Phillippines. An uncle served in Vietnam. I'm a genealogist and, as far as my research shows, this family line did no other foreign traveling. Grandma was a teacher and I suppose it's possible that one of her students gave the coin to her.

The casting information is all very interesting, fascinating really. Everything I've learned today about these coins has made me glad I asked this question.

And thanks for the info about universities and CRM. I'll look into that.

Thanks again everyone!!
posted by LadyBonita at 6:07 PM on May 15, 2007

I asked my cousin, who collects ancient coins, for his input. His reply:
It is a Greek coin from Syracuse on the island of
Sicily minted around 390 BC. Here is an image of one in better condition.
Sounds like the same response as above.
posted by jdroth at 2:24 PM on May 18, 2007

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