In 1713, when a collection of Roman gold coins was unearthed in Transylvania, researchers thought they had struck gold. But by the mid-19th century, experts began to doubt the authenticity of the coins due to their odd, relatively sloppy design. The general consensus since then has been that they are forgeries.
But now, researchers have decided to re-examine four of the coins, which are kept at the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum, using modern imaging technology. In a new paper published in PLOS One, the team found that the coins display “features indicative of authenticity,” including evidence of “extensive circulation-wear” and a “history of prolonged burial then exhumation.”
These findings breathe life back into a man named Sponsian, whose image is depicted on some of the coins from the 1713 collection—and who is not a recognized historical figure. However, the researchers now hypothesize that Sponsian was an army commander of a Roman province, and that coins depicting him were once in circulation.
Fascinating day of numismatic sleuthing at the wonderful @hunterian museum collection today in Glasgow with Jesper Ericsson and Jacek Olender. The Roman "emperor" #sponsian - fake or real? tbc... pic.twitter.com/OJCj0LfXhO— Paul Pearson (@paul_n_pearson) September 16, 2021
“Scientific analysis of these ultra-rare coins rescues the emperor Sponsian from obscurity,” says lead study author Paul N. Pearson, an Earth scientist at University College London, in a statement. “Our evidence suggests he ruled Roman Dacia, an isolated gold mining outpost, at a time when the empire was beset by civil wars and the borderlands were overrun by plundering invaders.”
Only four coins featuring Sponsian are known to exist today, all of them from the 1713 discovery, per a statement from the Hunterian Museum, which houses one of them. Another is kept in Romania’s Brukenthal National Museum. In light of the Glasgow discoveries, researchers at the Brukenthal performed microscopic analysis on their coin, which “has revealed similar evidence of authenticity,” according to the Hunterian Museum.
“This has been a really exciting project for the Hunterian,” Jesper Ericsson, a curator at the museum, says in a statement. “Not only do we hope that this encourages further debate about Sponsian as a historical figure, but also the investigation of coins relating to him held in other museums across Europe.”
Some critics remain skeptical about the coins’ authenticity. “It’s circular evidence,” Richard Abdy, the curator of Roman and iron age coins at the British Museum, tells the Guardian’s Hannah Devlin. “They’re saying because of the coin there’s the person, and the person therefore must have made the coin.”
“[T]here is still very powerful evidence that they are fakes,” writes Mary Beard, a classicist at the University of Cambridge, in the Times Literary Supplement. The coins are “made with a mold, not die-stamped as Roman coins usually are,” she adds, and they are also “nowhere near the metal standard of Roman coins of this period.”