The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 19, Number 19, May 8, 2016, Article 24


While I'm not a collector of ancient coins, I do very much look forward to Mike Markowitz's articles in his Ancient Coin Series for CoinWeek. I always learn something new. Here's an excerpt from his interesting May 2, 2016 article on coins for the dead. -Editor

Charon’s Obol Coins for the Dead

Offerings of food, tools, fresh flowers and red ochre (a mineral pigment) were carefully deposited in Neanderthal burials as far back as a hundred thousand years ago. We imagine that such “grave goods” were intended for the enjoyment of the dead in the afterlife. Within a century after the emergence of coinage in the seventh century BCE, coins begin to appear in ancient graves. One custom – but by no means the only one – was to place a single, low-value coin in the mouth of the deceased. Coins may be found in or near the hands of the deceased, at their feet, or scattered in the grave. Where cremation was the custom, burned coins are sometimes found with the ashes in an urn.

From literary sources, we know that such coins were called “Charon’s obols”.

In Greek mythology, Charon was the boatman of the underworld who rowed the souls of the departed across a river to their eternal destination. In most Greek texts the river is identified as the Acheron; in Latin works it is more commonly called the Styx. The dead who could not pay the fare were doomed to wander on the riverbank.

The Obol

Obol coin An obol was originally a small silver coin, valued at one-sixth of a drachma. After the Greek-speaking cities of the eastern Mediterranean were absorbed into the Roman empire, “obol” was often used to describe any low-value bronze coin. On the “Attic” weight standard of Athens, an obol weighed 0.72 grams. On the older weight standard of Aegina, an obol weighed 1.05 grams.

Obol coins are usually lighter than the theoretical weight. Ancient mints took a loss producing small change in precious metal, and often compensated by adjusting the weight downward.

The Greek word “obol” originally meant “roasting spit,” because bundles of iron roasting spits served as a primitive form of money before coinage. Such skewers are occasionally found in ancient graves and tombs, perhaps in expectation of feasting in the afterlife. Burial customs are highly conservative, so the small coin might have served as a convenient symbolic substitute for the iron skewer.

The Elusive Danake
Danake Small coin-like objects made of gold foil impressed with various designs occasionally appear in excavation reports or on the antiquities market. The terms danake (an Old Persian synonym for obol) or lamella (Latin for “piece of foil”) are typically used to describe such artifacts.

Numismatists describe these as “uniface” – because the design appears on one side. They usually weigh between a half and a quarter of a gram, and measure 6 to 12 mm in diameter. Again, burial customs are very conservative, and in the absence of any inscription, provenance or context such pieces can only be dated in the most general terms (“fifth to first century BCE”, for example). One type shows a “radiate” head, probably the sun god Helios or Apollo. Another type depicts a honeybee, perhaps expressing a wish for a sweet afterlife.

The author concludes with commentary relevant to today's numismatic market and regulatory environment. -Editor

Ethics, Numismatics and the Dead
I think most people would agree that the remains of the dead, regardless of their culture or religious beliefs, should be undisturbed. Even when a compelling scientific or social purpose requires that human remains be disinterred and studied, they should receive the same respect that we would wish for the remains of our own loved ones. Although it is possible that these artifacts may have been separated from their funerary context through the action of plant roots, burrowing animals, groundwater or construction, the most probable explanation for their appearance on the antiquities market is grave-robbing. Collectors might wish consider the ethical implications of purchasing such objects.

Those who seek to ban the private ownership and trade in antiquities would love to depict all ancient coin collectors as complicit with tomb robbers and looters of archaeological sites. The reality is far more complex[3]. Most ancient coins are found in hoards–ceramic pots deliberately buried at a distance from buildings and inhabited areas. Coins in graves were typically of low value when buried, and generally being common types in base metal, are of little value on the antiquities market today.

We show respect for remains of the deceased, not because they care, or because it benefits them in any way, but because this is simply one of the things that makes us human.

To read the complete article, see:
Ancient Coins – Charon’s Obol Coins for the Dead (

Charles Davis ad01

Wayne Homren, Editor

NBS ( Web

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