On Counting Coins

On 12 December Robert Bracey led a discussion organised by the Beyond Boundaries project on questions around Feudalism and money supply in sixth century India. This discussion included presentations by Gethin Rees and Daniel Balogh from the team and was one half of a piece of research work undertaken in the summer.

The other half of that work was a survey of coinage in the sixth century which was shared with the research team in advance. That covered the tri-metallic coins of the Alchons in Gandhara and the Punjab which seems to have ended in the mid-late sixth century; the small 1g local issues of Kashmir Smast, the transition from gold dinars to silver drammas in Sindh/Multan early in the century; the copper ‘Toramana’ coinage of Kashmir; and the debased gold dinar DNNVY series recently attributed to the Punjab; the silver ‘central provinces’ types issued by the Alchons, Maukharis, and then Harsha, from Kanauj; the gold dinars of the late Guptas and the ‘later’ Guptas; the gold dinars initially imitating Kushan and the Gupta types in Samatata which probably began in the late fifth century; and the silver coins of the Candras, Pyu, and Mon, issued along the coast east from Bengal whose inception different numismatists attribute anywhere from the first to the eighth century; then the silver dramma coins of Western India which include posthumous issues of Kumaragupta; Krishnaraja; the Maitrakas; and Nadol; and the copper and lead issues which seem to have accompanied them; the silver ‘Indo-Sasanian’ types of Rajasthan which seem to begin in the early sixth century and in the seventh and eighth dominate north India; the few attributed issues of the Aulikaras; and the Vakatakas; the widespread copper coins of the Vishnukundins; and the recently discovered small coins of the Chalukyas of Badami; the Pallavas; local anonymous issues of South India; and the Roman nummi and their imitations in Sri Lanka. And if that sounds like a lot then it will be understandable why the talk itself focused on a different aspect.


Silver Drachm of the Alchon Javukha, (3.53g, 21mm, BM 1894,0506.206)


Early Pratapa type coin attributed to Kanauj  (BM 1928,1018.12 7.26g, 21mm)


Pyu coin (BM 1983,0118.10)


Posthumous issue of Kumara Gupta (OR.9497 2.09g, 12mm)

How do you count those coins? A great deal of post-Gupta historical study is dominated by a theory known as ‘feudalism’. Propounded in the greatest detail by R S Sharma, he argues that after the Gupta Empire there were profound social changes. Specifically, for coins, that market exchanges (in the technical economic sense rather than the mundane physical location sense) diminished dramatically in favour of exchanges tied to land and social/political obligations. As a result there was markedly less need for money – and thus (the two are often conflated) coins.

So, assuming that you accept that coins represent the bulk of ancient money (that money of account, deposit banking, fungible loans, and commodity monies, are either modest or non-existent), how do you count the number of coins in circulation to test this? Do you count in absolute values or rates per year, the number of types, the number of hoards, coins in collections, or from archaeological sites, or the number of dies that were used to make them? And do you count the number of coins, the value they represent, or how frequently they were used?




Large gold dinar of Vainyagupta (9.37g, 21mm, BM MAR.1051) from NE India and a small copper/debased silver coin from W India, perhaps Nadol, (0.86g, 9mm, BM 1908,0702.45), what relative value in money do you assign these?

The talk tried to explore these different questions and also what sort of data you might be able to extract from the survey in order to answer the questions. One of the difficulties in this kind of research is trying to marry the detail which is where all of the useful analysis takes place with the broad sweep which is where all of the interesting questions are.



Charts showing counts of coins in collections and references to coins in inscriptions, earliest on the right.

Daniel Balogh illustrated this by talking about a fifth century inscription which has been read as involving a transaction using gold bars, but which has in fact been misread and probably does not mention money at all. The question of how you ensure large amounts of data are robust enough to answer big questions was an important part of the discussion.

Gethin Rees also spoke at the end about modelling that has been used to identify the degree of market integration in the Roman economy, and thus about how you can measure economic activity independently of coins.

This was very much research in progress, warts and all, and a somewhat experimental attempt to engage people from different disciplines with the details necessary to answer a larger problem. The presentation is now available on You-Tube with the comments section opened up to allow further discussion of the topics this link:

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