Authenticated ancient coins reveal a Roman emperor lost to history

History is full of artifacts that later turn out to be fakes, but very occasionally the opposite can happen. New analysis of ancient Roman coins long dismissed as forgeries has found they appear to be authentic, revealing a previously unknown Roman emperor.

The coins in question were unearthed in Transylvania in 1713, and feature a portrait of a man’s face with the inscription “Sponsian.” That name doesn’t match any known Roman emperor or any other historical figure, and that, along with the crude craftsmanship and mismatched design features, led historians to dismiss the coins as poorly made fakes since the mid-19th century.

Now researchers at University College London and the University of Glasgow have investigated the strange coins’ origins more closely. The team examined one under powerful microscopes in visible and ultraviolet light, and with scanning electron microscopy and spectroscopy, and compared them to other coins confirmed to be genuine.

This comprehensive analysis revealed that the coin’s surface bore patches of minerals that were cemented in place by silica – evidence of a natural process that occurs when something is buried for a long time. On top of that is a layer of oxidation products, which occur only after something has been re-exposed to air. The coin itself also showed microscopic scratch marks, the kind of wear-and-tear expected from having been in active circulation at some point.

All of these signs point to the coins being authentic, dating back almost 1,800 years. Based on these findings, the team developed a hypothesis on who this Sponsian was, how his face ended up on coins and why we’ve never heard of him.

Professor Paul N. Pearson and Jesper Ericsson examine the Sponsian gold coin under a powerful microscope
Professor Paul N. Pearson and Jesper Ericsson examine the Sponsian gold coin under a powerful microscope

The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

The area in which the coins were originally discovered was once the Roman province of Dacia, known for its gold mines. Prior archeological studies have indicated that around the year 260 CE, Dacia found itself cut off from the rest of the Roman Empire. Sponsian may have been an army commander who took control to guide the region through the tumultuous time, and had coins bearing his likeness made to keep the local economy running while the official mint in Rome was inaccessible.

As such, Sponsian may not have been influential enough on a large scale for his name to have made it into surviving written history. It could also explain the crudeness of the coins.

“Scientific analysis of these ultra-rare coins rescues the emperor Sponsian from obscurity,” said Professor Paul Pearson, lead author of the study. “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.”

Only two Sponsian coins are currently known to exist – a gold one housed at the Hunterian collection at the University of Glasgow, and a silver one in Brukenthal National Museum in Romania, near where they originated. After the studies on the gold one, the second was examined with powerful microscopes too and revealed similar signs of authenticity.

The research was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Source: University College London

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