Captivated by crusader coins

Posted September 27, 2016 2:53 pm by Abigail Turner under Collections Impact Volunteering

This summer Flora Raybould joined the Bearers of the Cross team for five weeks to take on the mammoth task of sorting, identifying and cataloguing the Cyprus coins from our crusader coin collection.  She approached the task with great enthusiasm and quickly got to grips with the extensive collection, making impressive progress and a significant contribution to the project.  Here Flora gives an insight in to her experience.

As a volunteer my task has been to sort, identify and catalogue the Museum of the Order of St. John’s crusader territories coin collection, in particular the Cyprus coins. This vast collection was donated to the museum in 1935 by Colonel King, a high-ranking member of the order, along with his own catalogue of them. Numbering in the hundreds, the collection is a veritable treasure trove, rivalling even the famous collections at the Ashmoleon and Fitzwilliam museums. As you can imagine, sorting this many coins is quite a big job, so I was very happy to help the museum out!

Flora hard at work

Flora hard at work

Think I’m a bit crazy for getting so into coins? Don’t worry, me too! I really didn’t expect to become this absorbed in the Cyprus coins project, especially after I told my coin-loving Anglo Saxon history tutor in my first year of university that I thought numismatics was fiddly and pointless…. But the experience of getting to hold these coins in your hand is so different compared to just looking at a picture in a book. Not only are many of the coins fantastic works of craftsmanship, but they also represent a very tangible and relatable sense of the past. Admittedly, the first day was a bit tough; getting to grips with obscure coin terminology and all their tiny differences took a bit of time, but after that trying to put your knowledge into practice is extremely satisfying. I guess you could say it runs in my family (shout out to my amateur lepidopterist Dad), but those ‘Eureka!’ moments when you realise you’re looking at an incredibly rare coin are completely worth the effort.

A quick example of identifying a Cyprus coin would be the Type 1a and 1b gros grands of Henry II. Type 1 is different from Type 2 as the king’s cloak is closed by a brooch at the shoulder. Determining whether it is 1a or 1b is dependent on whether the ‘u’ in IERUSALEM on the reverse is a V (type 1a, produced at Nicosia) or a U (type 1b, produced at Famagusta). Can you work out which type the example shown here is?

LDOSJ C58. Museum of the Order of St John and University of Birmingham 2016.

LDOSJ C58. Museum of the Order of St John and University of Birmingham 2016.

Having now gone through every Cyprus coin and tried to identify each one to a king and specific type, I have spent the last week or so using the high-definition pictures supplied by the project’s inventory officer, Dickon, to compile a record of each’s weight, diameter, legends and imagery. This will make it a lot easier when I come to match the coins with Colonel King’s catalogue and input them on the database.

On this year’s Day of Archaeology I spent a lot of time identifying the thirty or so denier coins I had been putting off tackling. Nearly all bear the same imagery of a lion rampant on one side and a cross patee on the other, meaning that the only mark of differentiation is the legend (inscription) around the outside. As they are so small, and often quite worn, it is very difficult to separate them into specific reigns and types (although considering that some of these coins are over 700 years old, however, they are in pretty good shape!). Here the HD pictures are especially useful, as even if I can only make out a few of the letters in the legend I might be able to match it up with another specimen. In the example below I only managed to see the letters GV easily, but could identify it as a Hugh III denier as I knew the proper inscription of the ruler’s name would be ‘HVGVE’. It’s basically a kind of detective work!

LDOSJ C125 Museum of the Order of St John and University of Birmingham 2016.

LDOSJ C125 Museum of the Order of St John and University of Birmingham 2016.

As part of the Bearers of the Cross research project into material religion in the crusading world, Dr Rosie Weetch and her team are particularly interested in the use of iconography on the coins. Luckily imagery is one of the most important steps to identifying coins, so I’ve become very familiar with the motifs popular among 13th and 14th century rulers! Without a doubt my favourite in this regard so far has to be the early Cypriot white bezants (issued from about the reign of Guy of Lusignan to Hugh III). These are quite large, shiny silver, dish-shaped coins with intricate obverse and reverse images.

This is a white bezant of John I, of which there are probably only two other known examples! On the obverse is Christ seated in majesty, holding the Book of Gospels on his knee and raising his right hand in the Orthodox manner, and on the reverse is the King wearing a crown and highly decorated chaplys, holding an orb and sceptre.

LDOSJ C40 Museum of the Order of St John and University of Birmingham 2016.

LDOSJ C40 Museum of the Order of St John and University of Birmingham 2016.

Having the opportunity to get involved with the Bearers of the Cross project has been very rewarding, and the fact that I’ll have my name on a small part of it is exciting. I’m going into the third year of my undergraduate degree and just starting to explore whether I would be interested in a job in the heritage sector, and my experience at the Museum of St. John has definitely helped me in that process. I’ve also gained some valuable additions to my CV, having been able to organise the Cyprus coin collection as well as organise a ‘Holy Grail Trail’ exhibition. Everyone here is friendly and welcoming here, and the 900 year long history of the Order means that opportunities for volunteer work at the museum are constantly varied. Getting to take on your own personal projects like I have is very fulfilling, and certainly something that not all museums offer to volunteers. I would definitely recommend volunteering at the Museum of the Order of St. John to anyone who wants to explore options in heritage or archival work, or just loves history!

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