Roman Coins Thought for Centuries to Be Fakes Get a Fresh Appraisal

In 1713, a medals inspector documented the acquisition of eight gold Roman coins that had been buried in Transylvania. For centuries, experts believed them to be forgeries — and poorly made ones, at that.

The coins featured the image of an otherwise unknown leader and characteristics that differed from other mid-third century Roman coins. But now researchers who have re-examined the coins, which were in a collection at the University of Glasgow, say they may, in fact, be authentic.

The design on the coin was irregular for the time period, and the man depicted on them, Sponsian, was mostly lost to history. The coins included references to “bungled legends and historically mixed motifs,” experts said.

Research published on Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE posited that the coins — and Sponsian, the man depicted — deserved another look.

Using modern imaging technology, the researchers said they found “deep micro-abrasion patterns” that were “typically associated with coins that were in circulation for an extensive period of time.” In addition, the researchers analyzed earthen deposits, finding what they called evidence that the coins had been buried for a long time before being exhumed.

The coins are also “uncharacteristic” of the forgeries from around the time they were found, the researchers said.

“If the coins proved to be fakes, they would make a particularly interesting case study in antiquarian forgery,” researchers wrote. “If authentic, they would be of clear historical interest.”

The name Sponsian would not have been an obvious choice to forgers centuries later, as he was an obscure figure, the research team found. It hoped the research might bring him back into focus as a minor historical figure. On the coin, he is depicted wearing a crown like those worn by emperors.

“Nothing can be known about him for certain, but the coins themselves, together with the provenance recorded by Heraeus, provide clues as to his possible place in history,” researchers wrote in reference to Sponsian and Carl Gustav Heraeus. It was Heraeus, an inspector of medals for the Imperial Collection in Vienna who documented the acquisition of the coins in 1713.

Early writers considered Sponsian a historical usurper, who potentially made a bid for power during civil wars that ended the reign of another emperor, Philip. Now, the researchers hypothesize that Sponsian may have been a commanding officer of a province during a period of military strife.

“Our evidence suggests he ruled Roman Dacia, an isolated gold mining outpost, at a time when the empire was beset by civil wars and the borderlands were overrun by plundering invaders,” Paul N. Pearson, the lead author of the paper, said in a statement.

A fraudster in Vienna frequently duped collectors in the 18th century, when the coins were found in Transylvania, or modern-day Romania, the researchers said.

Forgers at the time used artificial aging methods, such as abrasion, to make artifacts like coins seem older. Superficial scratches and earthen deposits led investigators, including Dr. Pearson, an earth sciences professor at the University College London, to determine that the treatment seemed natural, prompting them to think the coins were authentic.

“We suggest that the Sponsian series coinage was used to pay senior soldiers and officials in gold and silver by weight and then traded down at a high premium for regular imperial coins that were already circulating in the province from before the time of crisis,” the research paper said.

Despite the researchers’ conclusions, some experts saw holes in the findings.

In her Times Literary Supplement column, Mary Beard, a professor of classics at the University of Cambridge, pointed to the coins’ composition among factors that raised questions about their authenticity. “There is still very powerful evidence that they are fakes,” she wrote.

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