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First dismissed as fake, ancient Roman coins now deemed genuine

Modern analysis of ancient Roman coins initially considered forgeries suggests they are not only authentic but are the only record of a Roman leader previously lost to history.

(CN) — Ancient Roman coins were imprinted with a portrait of the emperor of the time, not only for security and authenticity but also as a form of propaganda, to disseminate a godlike image of the emperor to the masses. But counterfeits of these coins, made to sell to collectors in recent centuries, make it difficult for experts to determine authenticity.

Experts in the 18th century dismissed four coins first discovered in eastern Europe 300 years ago as fake, but new analysis suggests that they may be authentic. Researchers in the United Kingdom presented their determination in the journal PLOS ONE on Wednesday, and revealed the coins may come with with a unique history.

The four coins, housed at The Hunterian Museum in association with the University of Glasgow, were reportedly first uncovered in Transylvania in 1713. The coins, like previously authenticated third century Roman coins, feature portraits of various Roman leaders in profile with lettering stamped on. Three of the coins feature known third century Roman emperors — two depict Gordian III and one features either Philip I or Philip II — but the fourth coin had perplexed experts since its discovery for its depiction of the unknown possible emperor "Sponsian."

Paul Pearson of University College in London and colleagues investigated the coins by subjecting them to imaging and spectroscopy tests along with two genuine gold Roman coins for comparison.

The team found the coins are indeed distinct from the typical Roman coin of the third century; they were found to have impure compositions with significant quantities of silver and copper mixed with gold, and tests indicated that the coins had been cast from molds, rather than the striking method used by official Roman mints. At the same time, the coins are unlike forgeries of the early counterfeit industry.

"Our initial hypothesis was that the coins are sophisticated forgeries from the early 1700s. We know forgers were in operation since Renaissance times. But nothing quite like this forgery is known. People of the time were much more interested in famous classical figures like Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, not oddly named obscure emperors. Historical forgeries usually fit a known classical aesthetic, or are casts of real coins, not like these strange designs," Pearson said in an email interview.

Furthermore, the researchers said the name Sponsian does not correspond to any known Roman leaders of the time and would certainly not have been known to any theoretical forger of the time, as the only other documented instance of the name would not have been unearthed until after the discovery of the coin.

The oddity of the name and inconsistencies between the composition and manufacture of all the coins initially led specialists up until now to write the collection off as simply as forgeries.

But evidence from the analysis led Pearson and his colleagues to conclude that the coins were authentic but were the product of an unofficial regime during a militarily contentious period of the Roman empire.

The investigation showed that deep abrasions on the coins consistent with wear and tear from coins genuinely in circulation. Deposits of soil and other material on the surface of the coins also indicated that the coins had been buried for a significant period of time before they were unearthed.

The region where the coins are believed to have been discovered would have been a distant province of the Roman empire, roughly the same area as modern-day Romania, called Dacia. Dacia in the third century was marked by frequent raids from nearby populations and hosted several Roman legions.

"The Third Century crisis threw up a string of rebels, most very short lived. But Sponsian is rather different from the rest because he made gold coins that were evidently used repeatedly, probably for years, and yet they are only known from Transylvania," Pearson said. "All this evidence led to our suggestion that Sponsian may have ruled in the distant and exposed mining Province of Dacia - where there was plenty of gold - during the 260s to early 270s when we know Dacia became cut off from the imperial centre, but before the legions and people were evacuated in the early 270s."

This unrest in the region may be the reason for the atypical development of these coins that attempted to use portraits of emperors and a local leader to inspire confidence in the empire, the study authors said, adding this new analysis will prompt more investigation into Sponsian himself.

Pearson said, "We'd love to debate the hypothesis with historians, especially specialists from Romania where he is potentially an interesting part of their history."

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