From Alexandria to Canopus and Heracleion: the coins
Over the centuries since they were deserted by their last inhabitants, it has been the fate of many ancient city sites to be stripped of their contents and identity. Usable stone is quarried; the great buildings of the past tumble, streets fill with debris to become unrecognisable. These are the most obvious effects of decay, but the depredation occurs at much lower level too, for it is there, in amongst the debris, often beneath the original ground level of the city, that the real treasure lies. And slowly, by a process of chance discovery, illicit digging and even amateur excavation, the ground is leached of the wealth of the inhabitants of old.
Archaeologists, when invited to study the coin finds from the excavation of ancient city are often presented with a mass of poorly preserved, base-metal, low value coinage. The stuff of day-to-day transactions, to be sure, this is important material for the interpretation of the ancient economy, but it is only one half of the story. So often the precious metal finds, the silver and gold coins that formed the main-stay of another part of the economy are absent from excavated finds. In part this may be because their ancient owners took far better care of their high value coins, than the lower. It is also the result of centuries of opportunistic burrowing by poorer modern inhabitants in search of the imagined wealth of their richer predecessors.
From the coins presented in the pages that follow, it will be clear immediately how the picture offered by the Canopic sites differs from the norm. Hidden for centuries under the sea, and undisturbed by the prying hands of intruders, the cities of Canopus and Heracleion have retained the full range of the ancient coinage used and lost there. The result is a golden opportunity in more ways than one.
We find, on the one hand, the spectacular evidence for the wealth of these cities and their inhabitants, in the gold coinages that circulated from the early 4th century BC, to the 8th century AD. These were high-value, and once prized possessions. The gold aureii from the period of the Roman Empire represented about a month’s wages to the soldiers who once owned them. The silver from the 4th century BC, imitations of the coins of Athens, the tetradrachms of the great Macedonian general Alexander are less in value, perhaps a week’s pay, but demonstrate how these two Egyptian cities were linked to a broader economy, where silver was the popular medium for monetary exchange. Merchants from around the Mediterranean could call at the harbours of Canopus and Heracleion, and conduct their business in silver coin, and undoubtedly did.
Heracleion and Canopus are uncharacteristically rich in the finds of precious metal coins they have yielded, but the base metal coinages should not be forgotten. Here we are in the realm of everyday exchange. The Ptolemaic kings, who succeeded Alexander as rulers of Egypt, closed their borders to foreign coinage and stimulated the use of bronze currency. This trend would continue for over 500 years, through to the Roman province of Egypt. The vast majority of finds from the two sites bear witness to the busy economic activity of this period, and offer a glittering prospect of a reconstruction of the vibrant economic life of the two cities that their appearance belies.
As a whole the coinage from Canopus and Heracleion bears witness, more clearly than any other form of evidence, to the political vicissitudes of the two cities. From their origins in the Pharaonic Period as important trading centres, through the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, through the rule of the Macedonian dynasty of the Ptolemies, ending with the fall of the last of their line, the famous Queen Cleopatra, the history is laid out in the coinage. Then came the Empires of Rome and Byzantium, continuing the remarkable blend of local productivity and foreign rule that has been the fate of Egypt at so many times in her history