Coin study suggests ‘false emperor’ was real, scientists say | Archaeology

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A hoard of gold coins once thought to be fakes has been confirmed by researchers who say the objects reveal a long-lost Roman emperor.

The coins bear the name and image of a shadowy historical figure, Sponsian, whose existence was previously questioned by experts who suggested the coins were the work of sophisticated 18th-century fraudsters.

But a scientific analysis has concluded that the coins are genuine artifacts from the third century, and the researchers claim that Emperor Sponsian was also the real thing.

“We are very confident that they are authentic,” said Professor Paul Pearson of University College London, who led the research. “Our evidence suggests that Sponsian ruled Roman Dacia, an isolated gold-mining outpost, at a time when the empire was plagued by civil wars and the borderlands were overrun by marauding raiders.”

The hoard of coins is said to have been unearthed in Transylvania, in modern-day Romania, in 1713. Several depict recognized Roman emperors from the third century, including Gordian III and Philip the Arab. But four coins bear the name and image of Sponsian, which does not appear in any other historical records.

When the coins were discovered, they were initially thought to be genuine. However, from the mid-19th century, attitudes changed due to the coins’ crude designs and messy inscriptions. One expert suggested they were the work of a sophisticated Viennese con artist who had invented an emperor to appeal to collectors, and this became the prevailing view.

Pearson, an earth scientist, learned about the coins and the “false emperor” while researching a book on Roman history as a lockdown project. He began corresponding with Jesper Ericsson, curator of numismatics at the Hunterian museum in Glasgow, who has a coin in his collection, and the pair decided to carry out a full scientific analysis.

This revealed that just based on their weight in gold, the coins are valuable – the collection would be worth $20,000 (£16,700) in modern value. “If they’re a fake, that’s a big outlay to start with,” Pearson said.

When examined at high magnification using optical imaging and electron microscopy, the coins showed similar wear patterns to genuine coins, indicating that they had been in circulation for several years. Minerals on the surface of the coins were consistent with having been buried for a long period of time, and the researchers discovered sulfate crystals, which typically form when an object is deprived of oxygen for a long time and then re-exposed to air.

“I think we’ve established with a very high degree of confidence that they are genuine,” Pearson said, adding that the question of Sponsian’s identity was “more speculative.”

It is known that the Dacia region was cut off from the central command during a period of military strife in the 260s AD. Writing in the journal Plos One, the authors speculate that Sponsian was a military leader who assumed authority over the Roman enclave and established a local mint.

“He assumed the title of imperator – supreme military commander – which was reserved for the emperor,” Pearson said. “There are other precedents for regional emperors. If we allow Roman emperors to identify themselves, he was a Roman emperor.”

Dr. Adrastos Omissi of the University of Glasgow, who was not involved in the research, described the analysis as “a brilliant piece of work”. “I think they’ve made a really compelling case for the existence of Sponsian and for him to be a real emperor,” he said, adding that the late 3rd century was a period of such turbulence and turmoil , that “the bar for being an emperor was very low”.

Others, however, were more skeptical. “They’ve gone full of imagination,” said Richard Abdy, curator of Roman and Iron Age coins at the British Museum. “It’s circular evidence. They say because of the coin, there’s the person, and therefore the person must have made the coin.”

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