Subject:      ancient coins found in America
From: (Yuri Kuchinsky)
Date:         1997/07/21
Message-ID:   <5r090m$n99$>
Newsgroups:   sci.archaeology.mesoamerican,sci.archaeology,


Since we've been discussing ancient Mediterranean coins in America
recently, I've looked up a very interesting and relevant debate about this
subject that took place in 1980. I believe this is probably still the best
all around discussion of such evidence.

Jeremiah F. Epstein, in CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY, 21:1 (1980), pp. 1-20.

Epstein has done a pretty good job trying to sort out fact from fiction in
this area. This publication in CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY consists of the main
article by Epstein, a number of responses by different participants
inclined both in favour and against trans-Atlantic contact theories, and
the final response by Epstein.

In the main article Epstein tries to be fair to his evidence. He has
collected all credible reports of such finds he could find at the time,
and he also includes his comments on others that may not be so credible.

"I have been able to collect information on some 40 coin discoveries" (p.

All these 40 or so he considers quite credible reports. He evaluates most
of them one by one. They include Phoenician, Roman, Greek, and Jewish

Also, more reports of coin finds are provided in the replies to the main
article. All in all, Epstein covered a fair bit of ground. Of course there
are a lot more reports of such coin finds that came up since the article
was published, and also there were quite a few more existing ones that he
wasn't aware of. In particular, only one coin from the possible Roman
shipwreck off Massachusetts (discussed in sci.archaeology recently) is
mentioned by him. (That site with many coin finds just came to light
around 1979.) Apparently quite a few more (all from a rather narrow time
span) have been found there since then, as Barry Fell and others reported.

Epstein himself says:

"My research uncovered 31 reports for this century, but I am convinced
that many more lie hidden in the files of the nation's newspapers." (p.

He tried to sort out coins by georgraphical location. Most of the finds
came from Eastern and South-Eastern States. Many of them were made from
inland, as opposed to from coastal, locations. He says:

"... slightly more than half of the coins reported come from interior
states" (p. 5)

Why so many coins would have been reported from the interior? The answer
may be, as some respondents suggested, that many of the finds came from
sites along major waterways. The hypothesis here is that, if the coins
indeed indicate the presence of Mediterranean explorers, these explorers
would have been likely to look for minerals deeper inland. They would have
sailed up the rivers to explore the interior of the country. Epstein did
not consider this possibility in his main article, but this was suggested
by a number of respondents.

He also says:

"... the distributional evidence is inconclusive" (p. 5)

In other words, no significant consistent patterns of distribution were
found, according to him. But this is not quite so, as others pointed
out later...

In his first summary, Epstein's conclusions are quite negative to the
theories of transoceanic contact. He admits that most of the finds that he
analysed may be genuine, but his main explanation for these finds is loss
from modern collections. He says that modern American collectors lose
ancient coins all the time, and most of the finds can be explained by

Well, this is only one possible explanation... I don't know how persuasive
it really is.

And here's what some of the pro-contact respondents said:

Warren Cook:

"The most significant pattern in ancient coin finds, as Epstein admits, is
their nonrandom distribution [Cook points out that almost no reports came
from the West Coast, for example], which belies the collectors' losses
theory. That many were found far inland ... from Texas eastward argues
against modern loss and in favor of penetration of North America's great
rivers..." (p. 13)

Norman Totten:

"Having studied coins for many years, I know that most coins (wherever
found) are never officially reported, much less published. The same is
true for other kinds of ancient artifacts discovered outside archeological
excavations." (p. 18)

Totten has a publication where more coin finds are analysed, but it is
not available to me at this time. The reference is in the article.

Many of the replies by anti-contact respondents are not really worth
quoting here, since they mostly make general statements about how it is
important to educate the public against "cult archaeology". But some of
the questions raised by these critics were certainly pertinent. For
example, Why no coin hoards were found in America, whereas in Europe they
can be numbered in tens of thousands? Meanwhile, one possible hoard in
Venezuela was discussed in the article, but there admittedly were a number
of problems with it.

Also, I've posted in sci.archaeology previously about a report of one
possible hoard of medieval Arab coins found in the North-East in the
1700s. This hoard was not discussed in the article.

As we all know, the great majority of ancient coin finds in America were
not made in a controlled setting, during professional digs. This is
certainly a problem for contact theorists. Nevertheless, there's one
important exception. Information about one coin that was found by
professional archaeologists is given in this article. This is a find of a
Roman coin during a controlled dig in Iroquois territory. It was brought
to Epstein's attention after he wrote the main article.

Epstein says in his final summary statement:

"Throughout these discussions, I have stressed that no Roman coin has been
excavated under controlled acrchaeological conditions. Recently I have
found that I was mistaken in this. Thanks to [a number of people's help]
... it is now possible to talk about the discovery of such a coin at the
Great Gully site, a historic Upper Cayuga Iroquois village first described
by Skinner (1921:55-68). ... In 1928-29, excavations were carried out
there by Harrison C. Follett and George Selden.... The clear association
of the coin with historic materials is evident from Follett's field notes.
(1929: 12-13):

[[At the head of [skeleton] 33 a small chunk of hematite, an earthen or
clay ball, near this a large brass button with pieces of apparent beaver
hair mass around it, one long red glass bead lay over the button, In the
soil on the north wall two iron nails, two small glass beads, and a small
unknown iron implement. In the southeast corner of the grave and next to
the wall a horn spoon.]]"

Further, Epstein comments:

"The coin, later identified as commemorating Emperor Antonius Pius, was
minted about ad 165. Since this village was located only 2 mi. from the
Cayuga Mission, it is speculated that Fr. Rene Menard (1605-61) may have
given the coin to one of his charges. ... In summary, even when we have an
aboriginal archaeological context for a Roman coin in America, the
associations are all post-Columbian. (p. 19)

Here I will beg to disagree with Epstein. I don't think these associations
are so clearly "all post-Columbian". He may have dismissed this find too
glibly. All of those other objects found in the grave may well have been

In light of its unique status, this find should really be looked at again.

I have no idea if these items are still available for laboratory testing.
If they are, they may be tested to remove all doubts. Apparently it never
occurred to Epstein to look into this possibility. So what if a missionary
may have been in the area in the 17th century? Why would he have been
distributing Roman coins to his Indian contacts? Didn't he have plenty of
American or contemporary European coins for this? The coin is apparently
brass, and it would have been of relatively little value to the Native man
buried there -- if it came from a missionary in postcolumbian time. On the
other hand, if it was precolumbian, its value would have been much
greater. And no mention is made that this burial was Christian. This could
have been expected if the coin was given by the missionary to one of his

Best regards,


Yuri Kuchinsky in Toronto -=O=- [22]

It is a far, far better thing to have a firm anchor in nonsense than
to put out on the troubled seas of thought -=O=- John K. Galbraith

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