Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Another varient of mystery Latin symbol for 'reverse'

We previously discussed Eckhel's decorative symbol for reverse, which looks something like a cross between an asterisk and )(.

Notitia elementaris numismatum antiquorum ... (1758), by Erasmus Fröhlich, uses a similar symbol.

The symbol can be seen in context on page 21. Like Eckhel, sometimes )( is used instead, such as on page 73.

I'd really like to learn what the symbol is called, and why it came to represent the reverse of a coin.

I spotted a 20th century use of the )( form, in Haeberlin's Aes Grave (1910). So use of the symbol died out less than 100 years ago. Aes Grave is in German, so it's another non-Latin usage of the symbol.

Upcoming coin talks in NYC

Alan Roche will be speaking on numismatic imaging at the ANS tomorrow. He is the ANS coin photographer. I believe the talk is open to the public.

I had planned to attend but may miss it.

The ANS has promoted Roche's talk, but has neglected to mention that the Summer Seminar is now open to members. The seminar schedule includes some important topics. Last year I saw Dr. Bates presentation on Money Before Machinery which was interesting. The purpose of these talks is to teach PhD students in classics about coins, so the material is simultaneously introductory and advanced.

I think the policy of opening the lectures to members is a big deal and I'm surprised that it wasn't mentioned in their email newsletter, amnumsoc-l, the ANS Magazine, the postcard for the Roche talk, or yesterday's ANS letter on the 100-year anniversary of the Saint-Gaudens gold pieces.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The most impressive numismatic book?

I recently saw E. J. Haeberlin's Aes Grave (1910) at the ANS library. The plate volume is the most impressive numismatic publication I've seen.

First, it's huge. The pages are folio size. I wish I had measured them. My recollocation is that each page was 3'x2', although that seems impossibly large. It is probably about half that.

Second, the printing. The book was printed with a collotype process. This makes each page near photographic in quality. No masking or pixelization. The paper may have changed color but the ink doesn't look faded at all. The black and white printing gives them a dreamlike quality.

Third, the 'coins'. Very large Roman cast coins. Coins weighing half a pound. The designs aren't complex or especially lifelike. The primitive casting technology forced the Romans to use very simple designs. Simplification gives the coins a powerful and primitive appearance. The coin's large size gives them an alien appearance.

Finally, the surfaces. I don't know if the rough surface represents a patina or the casting technology. The collotype process seems to have captured it perfectly. Lacking the coins, I can't be sure, perhaps the collotype process improved the texture making it look more like grainy art photography. Any, it looked cool.

Forni is offering a reprint for 460 euros. An Italian bookseller website says it's an 'anastatic reprint'. I don't know what anastatic means. I assume the quality will be much lower than collotype.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Der interaktive Katalog des Münzkabinetts

As reported by cogito on ancients.info, the Berlin state museum
(Staatliche Museen zu Berlin) ancient coin collection is now online.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

New strategy for OCR

Ben Maurer is proposing a new way to 'OCR' old books. Words the computer can't OCR will be turned into CAPTCHAs.

A possible problem is that OCR programs often can't distinguish a word from a smudge, decorative gylph. Books often contain occasional Greek letters, nonsense, etc. So if the CAPTCHA implementation isn't good, Ben's strategy will add to the 19 person-years already wasted every day filling out annoying CAPTCHAs.

Still, it is a good idea and worth considering.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

A numismatic commentary on Pausanias (1887)

Microsoft's scanning effort is starting to bear fruit.

A numismatic commentary on Pausanias (1887) by Percy Gardner and F. Imhoof-Blumer. Unlike Google, the PDFs include OCRed text, and thus are searchable.

Five more BMC volumes

Google has given us five more volumes of BMC:

BMC Thrace (volume 3, Head and Gardner, 1871)

BMC Seleucid (volume 4, Gardner, 1878)

BMC Thessaly (volume 7, Gardner, 1883)

BMC Central Greece (volume 8, Head, 1884)

BMC Phyrgia (volume 25, Head, 1906)

At this point they aren't downloadable as .PDFs. Sometimes fresh titles can't be downloaded for a week or so, I'm hoping these will be available soon.

I've been working on a web page for BMC volumes. The goal is to reverse-link the plates, so that one can flip through plates and get Sear numbers and hyperlinks to Google. This is my own project, I don't think the BM even knows I do it. I emailed them once about rights to a book and got no answer, so I assumed they were too busy and took initiative myself.

Perhaps I'll find time to index Google's latest, although this month I'm very busy getting caught up with digitizing the ANS Magazine. (The current issues, with their support, for their website!)

It costs Google about $30 to scan a BMC volume, so the five volumes means they spent about $150 to greatly improve my hobby. I appreciate that. I often wonder why this job falls on Google. The institutions that paid for the writing and publishing just 100 years ago lack the interest (or will?) to scan their own books. These institutions don't even link to Google's editions from their web sites!

It isn't just institutions; for years I begged people to send me particular old coin books for scanning. I got a few emails but no books ever arrived. Somehow I'm misjudging what people will think is a good idea....

Saturday, May 12, 2007

May 2007 Celator

The May 2007 Celator arrived yesterday. I was pleased to see a lot of material on literature for Greek collectors.

Part 2 of Reid Goldsborough's article on Greek attribution guides appears. Reid is kind enough to mention this blog and my web site. His complete list of SNG volumes and parts, with their sizes, is very useful. (It is also online).

Daniel Koppersmith's article briefly discusses the auction catalogs of all the major firms selling Greek coins for about the last 100 years. He gives each firm 1-4 stars, and mentions catalogs of particular importance in each series. Koppersmith's efficient format covers a lot of information in just four pages. I learned a lot, but the article left me wanting to know more, especially about the 3 and 4-star catalogs, such as their availability and cost.

Ursula Kampmann's press release on the James Joy collection of Greek bronzes is a mini-review of the upcoming M&M auction. Kampmann neglected to mention Mr. Joy is that guy who has been running classified ads in The Celator for at least the last ten years looking for coins of Greek islands. I always wondered what kind of response he got....

Friday, May 11, 2007

Kolbe auction 103

Kolbe auction 103 arrived in the mail today. The catalog is also available on the website. 770 lots. Not a lot of material related to ancients in this auction.

The Kolbe publishing arm has released a new book on “Comitia Americana” medals. Details are available on the website.

How to use ISEGRIM

ISEGRIM is searched using an ISEGRIM-specific query language (rather than simple web forms.) Learning a bit of the language is necessary to use ISEGRIM.

When searching for matches to an unknown coin, the most important search parameters are the obverse type, the reverse type, the metal, and the city. ISEGRIM uses the following database field names, based on German abbreviations:

  • VT Obverse Type
  • VA Obverse Attributes
  • RT Reverse Type
  • RA Reverse Attributes
  • M Metal
  • PO City / Poleis

ISEGRIM uses the colon (:) as the equals sign. The colon means exact match. (Actually, it's a 'regular expression' match).

For example, suppose we are looking for silver coins with a boar on the obverse. The ISEGRIM query for this is

vt:boar m:ar

This isn't a very good query. Although it matches against 'BOAR', it doesn't match 'BOAR WINGED'. To search for anything beginning with 'BOAR...' on a silver coin, append ".*", like this:

vt:boar.* m:ar

The ".*" is a 'regular expression'. It means "any amount of any character". (I recommend appending ".*" no matter what you are looking for.)

Sometimes I want to search for a phrase, such as 'BOAR WINGED'. The obvious query 'vt:boar winged' wouldn't work, because ISEGRIM doesn't see a join between 'boar' and 'winged'. Use a period (.) instead of the space:


The period is a regular expression meaning "any character" (including space).

It is also possible to prepend ".*". So to search for anything flying right, use

vt:.*flying.r.* m:ar

ISEGRIM describes types at multiple levels of specificity. So a coin depicting Athena is listed using both 'WOMAN' and 'ATHENA'. This is incredibly useful because sometimes it is impossible to identify the particular diety or person without knowing the city. This principle is what makes ISEGRIM far more useful than other query systems.

ISEGRIM lists 'attributes' such as clothing and objects in the 'attribute' fields, not the type fields. So to search for a helmeted Athena use

vt:athena.* and va:helmet.*

The ISEGRIM format is very similar to the format in Otfried von Vacano's book Typenkatalog der anitiken Münzen Kleinasiens (1986), and Vacano works on ISEGRIM.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Mionnet's Scale

I always thought that Mionnet invented his scale, but it seems to be merely improvements to a scale by Charles Combe. Here is Mionnet's scale and Combe's scale (from 1782!) together.

Many of the circles are the same size. Combe uses letters, and in tables gives sizes as a letter, often with a + or -.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Symbols meaning 'reverse'

The great English numismatist Barclay Head used the symbol (Rx, the “prescription symbol” to mean “reverse.” For example, in his 1911 work Historia Numorum, p. 13, he says “Symbol on ℞. Club” while describing a coin with a club on its reverse. What is the name and origin of the symbol as applied to numismatics?

The Unicode standard calls the symbol “Prescription Take”. The Wikipedia page for Rx says that Rx is the symbol for medical prescriptions. (Wikipedia also gives a numismatic meaning: Rx means “tens of Rupees”).

The Straight Dope, Cecil Adams’ newspaper column, gives the medical history of the Rx symbol. There is controversy among pharmacy historians. There are three theories. 1. “Rx is an abbreviation for the Latin word ‘recipere’ or ‘recipe,’ which means ‘Take, thou.’”. 2. Rx is the astrological symbol for the god Jupiter. 3. Rx comes from the Egyptian symbol for the left Eye of Horus.

None of these sources explains why ℞ would be used in numismatic works to mean “reverse”. Barclay Head isn’t the only writer to use the symbol, it was also used by French writers Mionnet and Babelon in the 19th century. It is always followed by a period.

Another odd symbol was used in the 18th century. J. H. Eckhel used a symbol that looks like a cross between mismatched parenthesis, )(, and an asterisk to mean “reverse”. For example, volume 2 page 209 of Eckhel’s Doctrina numorum veterum (1792). I don’t know the name for this symbol, or if it was ever used non-numismatically. Eckhel also used )( without the decoration – perhaps his publishers didn’t have enough of the rare symbol to set type? At least one English-language author used the symbol in the reversed parenthesis form, R. S. Conway (The Italic Dialects (1897), for example p. 14).

Speculations: Eckhel’s reverse symbol is 1. a decorative version of actual mismatched parenthesis, 2. a decorative version of the Roman ‘Denarius Sign’ (an X with a line through it), or 3. a version of the Pisces astrological symbol without a space between the fishes. The problem with these theories is that the symbol doesn't look much like any of them. Pisces makes the most sense, as the Pisces symbol is supposed to represent two connected fishes swimming in opposite directions.

I would enjoy corresponding with anyone on this topic.