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V13 2010 INDEX       E-SYLUM ARCHIVE

The E-Sylum: Volume 13, Number 45, November 7, 2010, Article 4

BOOK REVIEW: ASTRONOMICAL SYMBOLS ON ANCIENT AND MEDIEVAL COINS

Bradford S. Wade and Michael E. Marotta submitted this review of Marshall Faintich's book on astronomical symbols on coins. -Editor

Faintich Astronomical Symbols on Ancient and Medieval Coins Astronomical Symbols on Ancient and Medieval Coins by Marshall Faintich (McFarland and Company, Inc. 2008. pp v+219. $55. ISBN 978-0-7864-3178-6.)

We met in a class in “Ethics in Physics” in the winter 2010 semester. Brad is an undergraduate physics major. Mike is a numismatist. The initial reviews of this book here on E-Sylum (v13n20.html#article4, v13n26.html#article6, and v13n29.html#article5) were compelling. We both enjoyed our first reads, but closer examination revealed much to be validated. Our final analysis is that this book offers at best a catalog of facts and assertions that can launch further study. For instance, any collector who wants to assemble an array of coins with comets (or those commemorating solar eclipses) should start with this book.

Nonetheless, the author’s thesis is far from proved. According to Dr. Faintich, coins carry celestial symbolisms to validate the ruler’s claim to a divine mandate. The author sets good standards for determining which coins support that theory:

“First, the date of a coin bearing an astronomical symbol must be ascertained. Second, the astronomical symbol must be the first such occurrence for that coin design or a re-introduction of the symbol after a substantial period of time to rule out immobilization of the design. Third, the occurrence of the astronomical event must be established. Fourth, and most difficult to ascertain, historical evidence must be presented that supports the observance and importance of the event. Without the latter, any correlation between a design symbol and an astronomical event is merely speculation.”

The story of Philip Augustus of France and the Five-Pellet Denier (pp. 22-24) does support the thesis by following those four steps. It is one of the few that do. Overall, the book is replete with confusing, inconsistent and self-contradictory explanations that switch between symbols representing the five visible planets, sun, moon, comets, solar and lunar eclipses.

When the author bounces around chronologically it makes the argument difficult to follow. Jumping back and forth from three-pellet to four-pellet to five-pellet configurations and jumping from 7th century to 4th century, 3rd century, 1st century A.D. to 15th and 17th century B.C.(pp 27-30) is undisciplined, no matter how interesting the facts may be in isolation. Most citations do not adhere to the author’s own standards. He simply shows coins near a time and place when a celestial event was shown to have occurred based on modern astronomical software.

Dr. Faintich says that he used four programs. Unfortunately, he does not identify them. We also used four programs – Celestia, Starry Night Pro, Stellarium, and Night Vision – and we relied on a NASA database of eclipses (http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov). We checked 60 of Faintich's claims and found 21 disagreements with our resources.

Dr. Faintich writes about regal coins as if they all came from the same central mint. He does acknowledge the Christmas 1124 mutilation of the moneyers at Winchester, but he never separates the outputs of the mints. Moreover, on the Continent, a plethora of independent mints operated for centuries. Controls were important. And these marks, even if they commemorate celestial events, could also serve the needs of the mint.

Dr. Faintich refers repeatedly to “the divine right of kings,” seemingly unaware that it is a Protestant idea, unknown in the Catholic Middle Ages. If the purpose of celestial symbols on coins is to show divine favor, it would be helpful to examine closely the coins of the Papacy, the Archbishopric of Canterbury and other ecclesiastic authorities. Similarly, the coins of dukes, counts, and independent cities could be examined, though they, too, are passed up.

The author denigrates the Church as an institution of anti-scientific superstition, never acknowledging the importance of astronomical computations to setting the days of feasts, especially Easter, which falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. The hours of prayer were also set by astronomical observation.

Chapter 5, “Complex and Unusual Designs,” which offers conjunctions and constellations depicted on coinage is very convincing and well-paced. The complex celestial events are nicely depicted and clearly explained. The data supports the thesis. Chapter 10, “Beginnings,” delivers a very sound conclusion to a somewhat shaky text, putting the nine previous chapters into perspective. Appendix A, “Accuracy of Analyses,” addresses the technical problems in running the clock back over the centuries to redraw the sky.

Finally, as the authors here met in a class in “Ethics in Physics,” we must go on record to question whether Dr. Kavan U. Ratnatunga actually read this book closely and checked its data before publishing here in The E-Sylum.

I forwarded the review to Kavan Ratnatunga for comment. -Editor

Kavan Ratnatunga writes:

I checked only the Eclipse records since I know that Fred Espenak's GSFC catalog to be very reliable. I am unable to comment on the specific programs Wade and Marotta have used, but know that some which were developed for predicting recent events fail when projected back to the distant past. If, for example, the disagreements are concentrated with the oldest records then that shows only a difference between the precision of the programs that were used by Faintich and these reviewers.

I do not disagree with their comment about the three pellets - I did comment on it as well in a more diplomatic way.

I also forwarded the review to author Marshall Faintich. His comments are below. -Editor

The use of astronomical symbols on ancient and medieval coinage as representing actual celestial events has been debated for well over a century. More than 100 years ago, it was a popular topic and well supported by some of the leading numismatists of the time, including P.W.P. Carlyon-Britton, who at that time was the president of the British Numismatic Society. Unfortunately, numismatists of that period did not have the benefit of modern computers and modern data to support many of their hypotheses.

There was at that time, and it still persists today, some who do not agree with the hypotheses that I present in my book. However, there are also many who do agree with what I have written. Several problems exist that are difficult to defend with precision. First of all, many of the ancient and medieval coins are difficult to date. Second, parameters such as Delta-T that are used to compute geographic eclipse paths are not well-known prior to about 1600. All modern computers use different approximations for these parameters, and one can only assert approximate results. Finally, no one can be absolutely sure what was in the mind of the engraver when a die was made more than 500 years ago.

However, I have spent most of my career investigating patterns in data, and that is precisely what I have described in my book - a collection of examples of symbols on coins that can be associated with actual celestial events that is far from random chance. Those who have studied ancient and medieval history know very well that the heavens played an important role in decisions made by ancient sovereigns, and that there was on-going conflict between pagan beliefs and the teachings of the church.

Wade and Marotta wrote:

"If the purpose of celestial symbols on coins is to show divine favor, it would be helpful to examine closely the coins of the Papacy, the Archbishopric of Canterbury and other ecclesiastic authorities. Similarly, the coins of dukes, counts, and independent cities could be examined, though they, too, are passed up.

The author denigrates the Church as an institution of anti-scientific superstition, never acknowledging the importance of astronomical computations to setting the days of feasts, especially Easter, which falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. The hours of prayer were also set by astronomical observation."

The coins of the Papacy would not use pagan symbols on their coins, and coins of many dukes, counts, and independent cities are described in my book. It appears to me that the reviewers are confusing astronomical computations used by the church with astrological beliefs that were practiced outside of the church. There was no intent on my part to denigrate any religion, and I do not understand why the reviewers believe this to be true.

Finally, the reviewers are stated to be a numismatist and an undergraduate physics major. I do not know these reviewers, and cannot comment on their qualifications other than what has been stated. However, parts of my book were peer reviewed by Bruce Brace, president of the Classical and Medieval Numismatic Society and the honorary curator of the numismatic collection at the McMaster Museum of Art, and by Owen Gingerich, senior astronomer emeritus at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and research professor of astronomy and of the history of science at Harvard University. Victor Failmezger, author of Roman Bronze Coins, provided detailed comments and expert opinions on the historical and numismatic aspects of Roman coinage, and Steve Ford, one of the world’s experts on Anglo-Gallic coinage, co-authored a portion of chapter 9 and provided detailed comments on the rest of that chapter.

There will always be some who will disagree with what I written in my book, and others who will agree. Most of the readers who have either responded to me personally or posted comments elsewhere have given favorable reviews. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I don't know what else I can say about the review by Wade and Marotta, other than each reader should judge my book on its merits and come to their own conclusions.

Thanks to everyone for their work, thoughts, and participation in this interesting discussion. Astronomical symbols on ancient and medieval coins are three subjects about which I know very little, but I've learned a lot from reading Faintich's book and everyone's comments. Very interesting subject, and a fascinating area for collecting. -Editor

To read the earlier E-Sylum articles, see:
NEW BOOK: ASTRONOMICAL SYMBOLS ON ANCIENT AND MEDIEVAL COINS (www.coinbooks.org/esylum_v13n20a04.html)
BOOK REVIEW: ASTRONOMICAL SYMBOLS ON ANCIENT AND MEDIEVAL COINS (www.coinbooks.org/club_nbs_esylum_v13n26.html#article6)
BOOK REVIEW: ASTRONOMICAL SYMBOLS ON ANCIENT AND MEDIEVAL COINS (www.coinbooks.org/esylum_v13n29a05.html)

THE BOOK BAZARRE

DAVID SKLOW - FINE NUMISMATIC BOOKS offers the Q. David Bowers Research Library Sale Part IV on February 12, 2011, including: A long run of Chapman Auction catalogs . www.finenumismaticbooks.com. PH: (719) 302-5686, FAX: (719) 302-4933. EMAIL: numismaticbooks@aol.com. USPS: Box 6321, Colorado Springs, CO. 80934. Contact me for your numismatic literature needs!


Wayne Homren, Editor

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