A Coin Hoard at Lechaion is not the Real Story

Some more Corinthian clickbait hit us last week in a series of news articles about a coin hoard from Lechaion. We have heard quite a bit in the past about the Lechaion Harbor Project (LHP), a Danish and Greek operation to document the underwater remains at Lechaion since 2013. Their press releases, which come at the end of each calendar year, find their way into media outlets around the world just in time for Christmas and New Year’s Eve. We covered the work of the 2014 and 2015 seasons herehere, and here (2015), and press releases of their work in 2016 and 2017 can be found here and here.

The coin hoard, however, was found by the other Lechaion Project. Yes, that’s right, the other project. There are two separate, ongoing archaeological projects at Lechaion these days. While the Danish-Greek project has been investigating the underwater remains since 2013 and has received global coverage, the American-Greek Lechaion Harbor and Settlement Land Project (LHSLP) has been studying all the remains on land since 2014 and only begun excavation more recently. The results of their work are just beginning to circulate in archaeological conferences. It was this project that discovered the coin hoard.

Now, coins and coin hoards are always exciting to discover in an excavation, but they are not particularly mysterious, even (especially?) when discovered beneath the floors of collapsed buildings. LiveScience and Newsweek headlines suggest otherwise:   “1,500-Year-Old Coin Stash Leaves Archaeologists with Mystery”  and “RARE DISCOVERY OF 1,500-YEAR-OLD BRONZE COINS IN GREEK HARBOR PUZZLES SCIENTISTS”.  Archaeology magazine and Neos Kosmos toned down mystery and exception with more descriptive titles  “1,500-year-old bronze coins found at Greek harbour” (Neos Kosmos) and “Coin Hoard Unearthed Near Corinth’s Harbor” (Archaeology). According to these reports, the hoard includes coins from as early as the reign of Constantine century and as late as the reign of Anastasius, so it is interesting to think about the curation of coins and the longevity of circulation over nearly two centuries–and another reason for a little skepticism about dating excavation contexts from coins alone.

But there should be some bigger and more interesting stories to come out of the work of the LHSP, especially if results are coordinated with those of the LHP. As the LiveScience article reported, based on recent talks at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America and interviews with Paul Scotton and Michael Lerardi, the hoards were found in a putative work yard, which includes slag, iron, a basin, and animal bones. The Neos Kosmos  piece reports the discovery of “two large Roman civic basilicas….Believed to have been government buildings, one dates to all the way back to the end of the 1st century, meaning they are likely from the early Roman colony founded by Julius Caesar.” The work of the LHSLP, which includes survey, excavation, remote sensing, and geophysics, could contribute eventually to outstanding debates about Lechaion and, indeed, about Corinth herself, including: the origins of the harbor and the history of the visible works; the growing importance of Lechaion during the century-long interim period following Rome’s devastation of Corinth in 146 BC; the patterns of land division documented by David Romano dating to the third quarter of the first century AD that point to planned neighborhoods; the role of the harbor and its refurbishment during the visit of the emperor Nero and the reign of Vespasian; the relationship between Corinth and Lechaion in the Roman era; the environment of the famous Lechaion basilica church, an early Christian church excavated long ago by Dimitrios Pallas; and the “abandonment” of the harbor in the Byzantine period (there is an ongoing debate, after all, among geomorphologists and geologists about whether Lechaion was destroyed by tsunami or not, but that’s another story). And I will also note that in a region characterized by archaeological fiefdoms–where individuals, institutions, and ambitions lay claim to particular buildings, sites, and classes of material–it would be a great (touching even) human story if these projects found a way to share their data and build a complementary study of the harbor over the period of a millennium.

So, we can celebrate the finds that make clickbait, but hold out for a better story or two. Not any time soon, mind you, as archaeological study takes years, even decades, and the real significance and results of programs of fieldwork are even then not always obvious.

For more information on the work of the Lechaion Harbor and Settlement Land Project:

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Categories: American School Excavations, Interim, Isthmus, Late Antiquity, Periods, Roman, Roman, Sites, Canal, Sites, Lechaion

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