Coins for Moo: A Cosa Story

By: and Jordan Rogers

October 22, 2018

The obverse of the first find of the 2018 Season. Photo by Dr. Andrea De Giorgi.

Cosa has been featured a half-dozen times in the Summer Fieldwork blogs over the past few years. Penn has sent a sizeable contingent of archaeologists, historians, and philologists to the site to participate in the excavation of the bath complex at the Mid-Republican colonial site in Central Italy. The mere existence of the Bath Complex at Cosa is puzzling; the site itself is waterless, and therefore boasts a complex system of cisterns and drains to collect rainwater for all purposes. One of these purposes, apparently, was to supply the luxurious baths in the center of the colony.

The author in repose during a break. Photo by Melissa Ludke.
The author and Mark Van Horn excavating at Cosa. Photo by Allison Smith.

This was my second year at Cosa, which meant a second attempt at grappling with the complex chronology and stratigraphy of the bath complex. Like any Roman building, the bath complex went through a series of phases that prove, in their current state, to be difficult to interpret. We usually date walls based on building technique, unless associated finds such as diagnostic pottery—think pot rims or bases—are located in a direct relationship with the architecture. There is, however, another way—coinage.

Now, coins are not a foolproof way of dating anything. Scholars have spent centuries attempting to establish a chronology of coin issues for the Roman Republic and Empire, and their work allows us to know the exact date that each coin was minted and circulated. If coins are included within the fabric of a structure, like a wall or floor, or found directly on top of the floor, they can tell us a point by which the floor or wall was built. For example, imagine you found a 1925 quarter on top of the floor in your bedroom. You would know, for a fact, that that floor was built at least by 1925, since the coin sits on top of it. Obviously the 1925 quarter could have been put there in 1926 or 2006, but as archaeologists that level of information is impossible to know. So, though coins can provide abundant information for dating, they cannot tell us the entire story.

Coins were a theme for me this year. Besides the coin that I found on the first day of excavation—a surprising occurrence—several others popped up in our second trench. I had jokingly promised the co-supervisor of the trench, Melissa (lovingly nicknamed “Moo”), that I would find her a coin, maybe even two. And even better, that they would be legible and found directly on top of the floor! Melissa, along with Penn alumna Liz Palazzolo, is responsible for identifying and studying the coins found in the excavations of the bath complex. She, of course, was hopeful that we would find some coins to date the different phases of construction in our trench, but was not expecting anything from my half-serious promise.

What a surprise then that I came across not one coin, but two legible coins in close proximity to one another, and both on the floor surface that we had recently discovered. Melissa was ecstatic, as was I—even if I had found a coin on the first day, I had found little else besides pottery in the last three years of excavation. Finding multiple coins was a good feeling, to be sure. And I cannot wait to hear from Melissa what they might tell us about the different lives of our Bath Complex at Cosa!