Byzantine Coinage conference draws a world of numismatists to Princeton

May 2, 2024

"From Solidus To Stavraton: Coinage And Money In The Byzantine World" assembled numismatists from around the globe and drew participation from disciplines across campus including classics, history, and art & archaeology. Opening the conference, participants heard from Deputy Head of Special Collections Dan Linke, Chair of the Friends of Princeton University Library Bruce Leslie, and Dimitri Gondicas, director of The Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies before hearing from the collectors responsible for elevating Princeton’s Byzantine coin collection to the largest in the world. Stahl read comments from 97-year-old Peter Donald, whose coins entered the collection in 2016 and Pamela Theodotou represented the collection of 11,256 Byzantine coins collected by her parents Chris and Helen Theodotou, which arrived in 2022.  The first-hand accounts made clear the degree of care and devotion with which these collections were cultivated as well as the connection between the two collectors. Pamela Theodotou and her brothers Andrew and Basil, who were all in attendance, maintained the relationship with the Donald family over the years.  Seeing the reverence given the Donald collection, reinforced by conversations with Curator of Numismatics Alan Stahl, the family had no doubt that the right place for the collection was Princeton.

Alan Stahl lectures at podium to a full audience with coins in the projected screen behind him

Alan Stahl presents the opening Keynote address (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Stahl noted that these two new additions to the holdings of Byzantine coinage, together with those already in Princeton collections, put the University in the forefront of such collections worldwide.To mark this achievement, and to further collaborative research on this important area of coinage history, he organized the forces of the University to sponsor what is believed to be the first conference ever devoted to Byzantine numismatics, bringing together the leading scholars of the field in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America, with a hybrid component opening the proceedings up worldwide.

Sam Moorhead gestures in conversation with Alan Stahl over a table with coins displayed

From left Woodson Toliver Besson '67, Sam Moorhead and Alan Stahl (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Byzantine Numismatics Cataloger and Linked-Open-Data Coordinator Elena Baldi in Special Collections organized the conference with Stahl. Baldi, who is cataloguing the impressive new Byzantine holdings, brings a rich background in Byzantine coinage, which includes stemming from Italy’s Byzantine center, Ravenna, herself. 

“This was a tremendous opportunity to reconcile scholarship investigating so many parts of the Byzantine Empire and following Byzantine coins throughout their areas of influence,” said Baldi.  “The exchange of numismatic evidence between participants brought new insights to the field, prompting debate and inspiring further research.”  

Stahl’s opening keynote “The Contexts of Byzantine Coinage,” showcased some of Princeton’s impressive new Byzantine additions while setting the stage for Byzantium’s numismatic landscape. Co-sponsored by A&A, the Friends of the Princeton University Library, the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies, the Committee for the Study of Late Antiquity, the Princeton Humanities Council, the Program in the Ancient World, the Department of Classics, and the Center for Digital Humanities, the conference drew participation from across campus, including Jack Tannous, Helmut Reimitz, and Teresa Shawcroft of the history department, and Emmanuel Bourbouhakis of the Classics department and A&A's Charlie Barber. 

Cecile Morrisson holds microphone and listens intently surrounded by three men

Cécile Morrisson in discussion following a panel (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Among those joining the conference from abroad was renowned Byzantine coin expert Cécile Morrisson, Director of Research emeritus at the French National Center for Scientific Research and adviser for Byzantine numismatics at Dumbarton Oaks, who was previously the director of the department of coins, medals and antiquities of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Morrisson delivered the second keynote address, “From coin finds to monetary history: Byzantine monetization in the long run (6th-15th c).”  Morrisson, who has fond memories of traveling to Princeton over the past 30 years, was especially impressed by the diversity of topics, and of presenters, from established scholars to current graduate students. “Some had chosen important primary research on a new object and with new ideas,” said Morrisson, pointing, for example, to Hasmik Hovhannisyan, Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia, who presented Byzantine Coin Finds from Armenia. Morrisson called it “Highly original and highly interesting material which I confess I had not been aware of.” 

Morrisson noted that the conference truly represented an “international network of colleagues working in former Byzantine countries,” with presenters coming from Tunisia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Armenia, and Italy.  They were joined by colleagues from Germany, England, France, and the Czech Republic, along with representatives of Dumbarton Oaks, Yale University, and the American Numismatic Society. From Princeton, history graduate student Massimiliano Dalmasso presented a paper, as did Ilia Curto-Pelle ’22, mentored by Stahl, who will return to Princeton for his graduate studies in the fall.

Alan Stahl and Julian Baker sit at table, Baker speaks into a miscrophone

Alan Stahl, left, and Julian Baker in roundtable discussion (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Pagona Papadopoulou, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and Getty Research Institute, noted “Of particular interest were presentations that focused on Byzantine coin finds outside the limits of the empire, because they raised important methodological questions: how can we establish the use – monetary or not – of a pierced or looped coin? How should we approach imitations of Byzantine coins found/issued in other countries? Should we consider all Byzantine finds outside the empire’s territories as medieval losses?”

Julian Baker of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum presented as the final keynote The Byzantine monetary system from Michael VIII to Manuel II (1261-1425). Imperial, local, and foreign coins, moneys of account, regional variations,” which explained the monetary changes of Byzantium in its later century as it went from being a Mediterranean-wide empire to a relatively small nation-state. 

On the final day of the conference, the group convened to discuss the Nomisma linked-open-data Byzantine platform, led by Baker, Baldi, Deputy Director of the Berlin Münzkabinett Karsten Dahmen, Curator of Numismatics at Yale University Benjamin Hellings, independent researcher Tine Rassalle, Dumbarton Oaks’ Curator of Coins and Seals Jonathan Shea and Postdoctoral Fellow Ivan Marić, Chief Curator of the American Numismatic Society Peter Van Alfen, and Stahl. 

Peter Van Alfen speaks seated at table with four other people

Peter Van Alfen explains the Nomisma linked-open-data Byzantine platform as Elena Baldi and Jonathan Shea look on (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Dahmen called the conference, “the first step into the digital age of Byzantine numismatics."  Papadopoulou agreed, "In my view the highlight of the conference was the advance of the field of Byzantine numismatics to a digital era."  Several participants including Morrisson and Sam Moorhead, former National Finds Adviser for Iron Age and Roman Coins, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, British Museum, commented on the importance of gathering scholars for in-person discussion. Dahmen found this format especially productive, noting “The big conferences are important but with these dedicated groups, the outer corona breaks away leaving muscle and brain that contribute to a profitable enterprise.”

Presentations over the course of the three-day conference spanned from utilizing numismatic evidence on archaeological sites, to examining silver Byzantine coins using XRF, from revealing new imitative coins, to discovering a new Palaiologan mint.  There was unanimous agreement on the fruitfulness of the conference—and on the need for a future one.

“What we’ve done points to a lot of new directions,” said Stahl. “We anticipate that this conference will be seen as a signal moment in the development of Byzantine numismatics and monetary history.”

A large group sits around a large white table and fills the perimeter around the table

A roundtable discussion explores the new digital era of Byzantine coinage (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)