Research: Goethean Observations: Roman Coin

Found in a test-pit during a dig in Iffley, Oxford on 11th June 2011.

Roman Coin

Part 1

The object is small, about 2.5cm across at its widest point and 2cm in height. The object's shape is irregular and flat. It's metallic and light in weight. The edges are fairly smooth to the touch, but rough to the eye. There are of course two sides. On one side one can see a number of marks. Around the outside are letters, some of which can still be read; P O S ---- S.

The main body of marks look like a head, the face of which - in profile - looks to the right. The face is bearded. The head wears a crown beneath which can be seen a few strands of hair.

As I turn the coin over on the table, I'm aware of the sound it makes - the sound of coins we have today. It's a hard sound.

On the other side of the coin there are more letters around the outside which are harder to see. There are marks in the centre which seem to be a figure, although it isn't clear.

The sound of the coin scraping on the table.

The colour of the coin is varied; predominantly grey with small patches of of silver. There are small patches of orange/brown, particularly on the face and patches of green - vivid green - on the left side of the coin surrounding the head.

On the other side, again its grey, or grey/green, but with more silver. There are more patches of orange/brown and green.

On both sides of the coin and around the edges is a pattern of dots. On the side of the coin with the head, they are only visible on the left hand side. The right side is rough and one can see where the dots might once have continued - giving the coin a more uniform, circular shape.

Holding it my hand, it feels rough. Looking more closely at the side of the coin with the 'figure' I notice a pinkish patch of colour on the figure itself, next to a patch of yellowish-green. On both sides, the head and the figure are raised above the surface of the coin.

It feels cool in my hand. Between my fingers I hold it up to the light and tilt it to see the head more clearly,

Outside crows are calling. The sky is blue with a scattering of clouds. Birds are singing, drowned out by the traffic when it passes below the window. The sound of brakes. Outside the window, I can see the buildings opposite; the sound of bottles. Windows are open. Someone laughs. Bins are being emptied.

10.47. The clock ticks - the second hand moves. The dustbin lorry's gone. A wasp lands on the window sill. It's body pulses. It flies. Almost comes inside but is gone.

Part 2

The coin sits on a piece of paper, in this room in the centre of Oxford. This time last week, it lay beneath the ground, undisturbed for almost 1800 years.

The sound of laughter again. The sound of a door closing. The sound of silence beneath the ground.

One can imagine the coin as new. Perhaps a more regular shape on which the dots around the outside made one continuous pattern. No vivid greens, orange/browns or pinks, but rather the silver colour which as I change my position in the chair still catches the light coming through the window. It reflects the light. Once the whole coin would have done as much, reflecting the light in Iffley in the middle of the 3rd century AD. Light before the city of Oxford had even been established.

The coin would have been struck somewhere along with many others. One can imagine a pile of them, all bright and shiny. It is of course an object of transaction given and received in exchange for goods, services etc. I wonder where the coin was minted and how it found its way to what is now Iffley. Through what exchanges did it makes its way there? Between how many people?

I can see someone sitting through the window opposite.

How was it carried as it made its journey? I can imagine hands, but not faces. I can see it as a part of a vast network. At every point when the coin was exchanged, the people involved would themselves have been points of a vast network of relationships, intentions, dreams, wishes, whims and so on.

If you take one of them, the man or woman receiving the coin, and draw a line from them to all they knew and so on; then imagine at the moment the coin was handed over what all those people were doing, thinking, saying... What has become of that vast network? It is lost - embodied now in a few random (and at the time everyday, sometimes irrelevant) objects; such as the coin.

We plot our lives today with GPS. We plan our journeys or record them. When the coin was found we measured its location with GPS. The exactness of its location set against the background of its movements, the vastness of the unknowable networks of which it was a part 1800 years ago is fascinating.

The sounds of the coin is dependent on what it comes into contact with. Here today, I can hear it when I move it on the table. When I move it I can hear the world outside - the birds, people talking, doors closing. What sounds did it make 1800 years ago, before it fell silent in the ground. The sound of the coin in contact with other coins. The sound of it on a table.

The sound of exchange.

How did it come to end up in the ground? To be discovered in a large garden in Iffley? Was it lost? One assumes it was - an incomplete exchange until we discovered it again What is the nature of that exchange? What do we give in return for receiving it?

The coin sits here on the table surrounded by my books, a plastic finds bag, a mobile phone. I pick it up and think about that space by which it is surrounded - what was the nature of that space 1800 years ago? For most of its existence, the coin was surrounded by soil. Years in the dark changed its shape, changed its colour. To all intents and purposes it didn't exist - yet it did exist; just as those who handled it all those years ago to all intents and purposes don't exist today. But they did exist. What's left of them, is in part, this coin.

Part 3

A single coin. Hidden amongst many other coins. Not of great value on its own, but as part of a number. Hidden but visible. Its value carried in the minds of people. A single coin dropped, lost. Was the loss felt? Hidden within the soil. Lost. Unknown. Found again. A single coin, its value great, not because of its monetary worth, but because of what it knows, what it recalls. Because of the nature of this last exchange.

Part 4

The coin's value is ever changing. 1800 years ago it might have been given on its own or as part of a group of coins. What it was given for can only be surmised; labour, a drink, a lost wager, clothing, food...

The coin is always balanced by something else. Imagine a pair of scales. On one side is the coin. On the other the item for which it was exchanged. Or a fragment of an item if it was exchanged along with other coins. Fragments of objects, services etc...

In its life 1800 years ago, it was always balanced with something else. Those who owned it, owned it because they had done something - given something, Now there is the coin, but nothing else. The other pan is empty.

We must try and balance it again. To picture the world from which it's been estranged. For the moment all we can do is balance the coin with soil. For 1800 years it was silent. Perhaps it's through its sound that we can rediscover its past? Through its texture, its weight?

How might we access the world between 269 AD and today? For the coin, that period was almost always dark; mostly silent. Processes nonetheless took place; chemical reactions which changed its shape and its colour; which in the dark painted it vivid green, orange/brown and pink.

In the time it took to change from being rounder, more silver to being irregular and dirty-green with patches of colour, the University city of Oxford was established and grew ancient.