Ancient Coins in Out of the Way Places: When a Group of Scientists Looked at “Anomalous” Coin Claims

From stamps to guitars and cards featuring sports icons, many people over the years have engaged in the hobby of collecting. Everything from motor vehicles to historical artifacts and seashells have at various times been eyed by professional collectors, although one of the most commonplace items that virtually everyone comes across at one time or another that also remain popular collector’s items are coins.

Numismatics, which involves the study or collection of coins and other kinds of currency, also has its occasional anomalies as well. Of particular interest are the stories of “out of place” coins, which involve metallic currency from ancient Rome and other locations and periods from antiquity that appears in unlikely locations.

Of particular interest, claims involving the appearance of ancient coins from the Old World being discovered along the coastal regions of the Americas begs the worthy—and controversial—question of whether ancient sailors did, in fact, make their way across the Atlantic before Columbus.

Several such claims have appeared over the years, offered by proponents of the idea these discoveries could represent evidence of pre-Columbian transatlantic voyages. However, the idea has not been relegated solely to fringe historians and those advocating “alternative” ideas about history.

In February 1980, an article appeared in the journal Current Anthropology that examined several of the most notable and compelling of these discoveries involving “out of place” coins, particularly those found in South America. The paper, titled “Pre-Columbian Old World Coins in America: An Examination of the Evidence” by lead-author Jeremiah F. Epstein, also saw contributions from a wide cast of researchers that included respected historians the likes of Donal Buchanan and Warren L. Cook, to even George F. Carter, whose ideas expressed in books like Earlier Than You Think formed the very essence of what many academics would deem “fringe” archaeology, with its suppositions about evidence for the earlier arrival of man in the Americas.

A collection of Roman-era coins (Public Domain).

Drawing from a diverse cadre of researchers, Epstein and his company looked at what the evidence for discoveries of ancient coinage in the New World might actually convey about the exploits of ancient mariners and whether they had made their way to the Americas well before Columbus did.

“Does the occasional find of a Roman, Greek, or Hebrew coin in America indicate ancient transoceanic contact?” Epstein asked. In his study, he and his coauthors examined no less than 40 instances involving the discovery of coins in unusual locales, with one primary objective in mind: whether they had any bearing or pointed strongly to evidence for the idea of “the diffusionist position.”

In essence, this deals with the notion of trans-cultural diffusionism which, although not particularly controversial in and of itself, boasts elements like the theory of hyperdiffusionism that are far from having gained wide acceptance from modern anthropologists. While supposing that ancient Roman or Greek coins might have made their way to South America in pre-Columbian times doesn’t necessarily rely on the idea of hyperdiffusionism, it does still require one to have to accept that there are missing chapters in our known and accepted history.

Hence, Epstein and his team looked at what the evidence appeared to say. By examining a range of factors that ranged from the dates and locations of the discoveries, to the minting periods of the coins that were recovered, as well as factors like their geographical distribution and the apparent absence of supporting evidence for such pre-Columbian contact, the research team concluded that virtually all instances where out of place coins appeared to have been found likely represented recent losses, not ones that occurred centuries ago.

As Epstein noted, the factors he and his colleagues weighed “all suggest that the coins were lost very recently,” adding that “For those who argue that coins found in fields and farmyards may have special significance, an examination of counterfeits reveals that frauds and their prototypes have similar distributions.”

What is more, Epstein and his colleagues found that Roman coins in particular “are far from rare in the United States today,” adding that these seemingly coveted historical items “are lost frequently.” Add to this the fact that what appeared to be claims of fraud also peppered the cases that Epstein and the team examined, and the case for pre-Columbian contact with the Americas—at least using the discovery of ancient coins as a basis—appeared fairly flimsy.

“It is concluded, therefore, that as of this writing no single report of a classical-period coin in America can be used as evidence of pre-Columbian trans-Atlantic contact,” Epstein concluded. Of course, not everyone agreed with such conclusions (and in likelihood, some of his coauthors like George Carter had likely been among those with dissenting opinions). American physicist William R. Corliss, who collected several volumes worth of archaeological anomalies of this sort, pointed to commentary provide with the article from other researchers, noting that “The advocates of Pre-columbian diffusion naturally take issue with Epstein, claiming that there is a residue of cases not adequately explained.”

“Shades of UFOs, sea serpents, the Kensington Stone and of course ancient humans in America,” Corliss wrote of the ensuing controversy. “It is all so familiar.”

Could some of these numismatic discoveries actually represent legitimate losses of coins in the New World by ancient mariners who made their way to the Americas well in advance of Columbus? Even if so, it would seem difficult to find any way to prove this, apart from the discovery of such items in situ alongside material remains that could be conclusively dated back to such early times.

Hence, the questions, and controversies surrounding various “out of place” artifacts will no doubt rage on, as it has for now for centuries already.

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