Roman emperor pulled from obscurity by authenticating 300-year-old coins

"Scientific analysis of these ultra-rare coins rescues the emperor Sponsian from obscurity."
Sade Agard
Coin of the ‘emperor’ Sponsian, currently in The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, UK,
Coin of the ‘emperor’ Sponsian, currently in The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, UK

Pearson et al., 2022 

Several Roman coins unearthed in 1713 - long thought to be forgeries - are indeed authentic, suggests a new study published today (Nov .23) in the journal PLOS ONE.

The discoveries offer proof that the leader portrayed on one of the coins was indeed in power during the 260s CE (over 1700 years ago). Significantly, they prompt further investigation into other coins relating to him held in museums all over Europe.

Until now, a Roman emperor named 'Sponsian,' was somewhat of a mystery

Roman mints produced coins with images of the reigning emperors during the majority of ancient Roman history. A specific collection of those coins were unearthed in Transylvania in 1713 with portraits labeled as "Sponsian."

However, no other historical records existed for a Roman emperor named Sponsian, making him somewhat of a mystery. 

Based on the new study's fresh evidence, the researchers propose that Sponsian was indeed an army commander in the Roman Province of Dacia during a conflict in the 260s CE.

Modern spectroscopy and microscopy examined the Sponsian coin alongside two 'unquestionably' genuine Roman coins

Roman emperor pulled from obscurity by authenticating 300-year-old coins
Evidence of 'casting' suggests coins are authentic

The team led by Paul Pearson at the University of College London, UK, used various techniques to study the physical characteristics of four Transylvania coins- including the Sponsian coin- to assess their validity thoroughly.

They examined the four coins with two unquestionably genuine Roman gold coins for comparison using: visible light microscopy, ultraviolet imaging, scanning electron microscopy, and reflection mode Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy.

"Scientific analysis of these ultra-rare coins rescues the emperor Sponsian from obscurity"

The team discovered deep micro-abrasion patterns, generally found on coins that have been in use for a long time.

The researchers' analysis of clay deposits on the coins revealed proof that they had been extensively circulated, buried for a long time, and then unearthed. Significantly, all of this additional information points to the coins' authenticity.

"Scientific analysis of these ultra-rare coins rescues the emperor Sponsian from obscurity," stated Paul N. Pearson in a press release.

"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."

An analysis that warrants further investigation into Sponsion coins held in museums all over Europe

"Not only do we hope that this encourages further debate about Sponsian as a historical figure, but also the investigation of coins relating to him held in other museums across Europe," revealed Jesper Ericsson, curator of Numismatics at The Hunterian.

Why were the coins thought to be fake initially?

While the Transylvanian coins generally resemble Roman coins from the middle of the third century, they differ in several stylistic elements and how they were made. This led many experts to consider them as forgeries made to be sold to collectors.

Still, the coins also differ from the forgeries that would have been desirable to earlier collectors.

Ultimately, Roman coins hold an extraordinary place among archaeological finds. It would be interesting to see how the Sponsion debate unfolds. In the meantime, wouldn't you agree that it is quite the refreshment to imagine an ancient province's politics, economy, and art?

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