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Greek and Roman Copper Alloy Coins (Fifth Century BC—Third Century AD): from Microstructures to Manufacturing Process

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Abstract

In this article, we are focusing on the manufacturing techniques of Greek and Roman copper alloy coins (fifth century BC—third century AD). Thanks to the metallographic analysis of the objects remaining today, it is possible to trace their metallurgical history and to reconstruct the different stages of the coin’s manufacturing process in antiquity. The 135 coins studied by various methods (X-ray fluorescence, scanning electron microscopy, Vickers hardness) show a large range of elemental compositions. The most represented alloy in our samples is a ternary alloy of copper, lead and tin, but other alloys were also used (Cu–Pb, Cu–Sn, Cu–Sn–Pb, Cu–Ag, Cu–Zn, and some ‘pure’ copper coins). Coins also show diversity in terms of microstructures, representing either a simple process (casting followed by striking) or a more complex process with a recrystallized microstructure (67% of our sample). The grain size of these recrystallized microstructures provides the metallurgical state of the material. Furthermore, Vickers hardness measurements taken on coins provided us information on the impact of the minting process on the coin but also, depending on the alloys, provides indications on the state of solidification and shaping of the material. The average hardness of cast state alloys is 97.5 HV compared to 119.3 HV for recrystallized samples. Some recrystallized samples with a hardness lower than expected suggest that annealing has probably been carried out before striking. The resulting alloy is easier to form and strike. Sessions of experimental archaeology allowed the production of samples representative of ancient conditions and the comparison of these samples with actual archaeological samples. Hardness measurements on these reproduced samples do not exceed 152 HV, with minimal recrystallization, whereas some archaeological samples (15%) may reach values between 150 and 214 HV. This hardness variation indicates higher deformations due to several cycles of hammering and annealing on archaeological samples that were not previously observed.

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Notes

  1. We are grateful to Maryse Blet-Lemarquand, Fai Tcha (IRAMAT—Centre Ernest-Babelon UMR 7065) and CEMHTI team for FNA measurement and equipment availability.

  2. Mean Hardness Value 154.7HV5 (26/10/2016). Issued by: EURO PRODUCTS LTD CALIBRATION LABORATORY. Certificate Number: 276196.

  3. Mean Hardness Value 162.4HV0.2 (17/02/2021). Issued by: EURO PRODUCTS LTD CALIBRATION LABORATORY. Certificate Number: 354360. HV0.2 Vickers Reference Hardness Block, EN ISO 6507–3: 2018, ASTM E92: 2017, ASTM E384 : 2017.

  4. Hammering then annealing to oxidize copper and remove these copper oxides with blanching process to have a rich silver layer [22].

  5. Flans are manufactured using the casting chaplet technique and are then subjected to a heat treatment (650 °C) for 30 min. When they are removed from the oven, the flans are then immediately struck (hot-state) to obtain a coin.

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Acknowledgements

The results presented here aggregates the work done by three Master degree students (Tobias Heal, Lucie Pichon, and Clarence Pambu) and one student of the Technological Institute of Bordeaux, Maël Gancel (IUT Bordeaux and I2M laboratory). This study is part of my PhD research held at the laboratory Archéosciences Bordeaux, to which I belong. I held there a research contract in the framework of the project “Frapper Monnaie”, directed by Dr. Thomas Faucher (Centre d’Etudes Alexandrines—UAR 3134 CNRS) and funded by the University of Bordeaux Montaigne and the Region Nouvelle-Aquitaine.

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Contributions

Various contributors have made this article possible: Corinne Arvieu (Institut de Mécanique et d'Ingénierie (I2M) de Bordeaux) for hardness equipment availability and discussion. Sophie Beurier-Rousset (English Teacher, Lycée Lavoisier-Mulhouse) for her corrections and advice. Maryse Blet-Lemarquand, Fai Tcha (IRAMAT—Centre Ernest-Babelon UMR 7065) and CEMHTI team for FNA measurement and equipment availability. Thomas Faucher (Centre d’Etudes Alexandrines—UAR 3134 CNRS) for his corrections and advices. Yannick Lefrais (Archéosciences Bordeaux, UMR 6034) for his help and advices with XRF and MEB-EDX measures and equipment maintenance.

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Correspondence to Alexandre BODET.

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This invited article is part of a special topical issue of the journal Metallography, Microstructure, and Analysis on Archaeometallurgy. The issue was organized by Dr. Patricia Carrizo, National Technological University—Mendoza Regional, and Dr. Omid Oudbashi, Art University of Isfahan and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, on behalf of the ASM International Archaeometallurgy Committee.

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Figure S1: Coins before cutting

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BODET, A. Greek and Roman Copper Alloy Coins (Fifth Century BC—Third Century AD): from Microstructures to Manufacturing Process. Metallogr. Microstruct. Anal. 12, 349–369 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13632-023-00947-1

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