Basic attribution guide
This is a handy guide to get you to understand the main types of coins, and how to identify different starting origins so then you can focus on specific attribution. Often when people start collecting un cleaned coins it can be difficult for them to get any kind of idea as to what they are or where they are from. This basic guide shows some of the major differences in order to get you started. However it should be noted that it is more often than not an art rather than a science until you decide to spend some time fully attributing your coins.
Materials that ancient coins were made from
Green = Bronze normally
By far most of the ancient coins that you clean will be bronze, however with some time you will get to see that different regions or countries had vastly differing qualities of bronze. Some coins go really crusty while other coins look like they came out of the ground just a few hundred years ago not a few thousand. In fact you can have two coins out of the same hoard that are almost completely unrecognisable condition wise. One that has a far higher brass or copper content in the bronze, that will clean up wonderfully. It’s features will still look fantastic. It will have barely any crust on it and often newbies to ancient coin cleaning will get one of these and automatically assume one of two things. Firstly they will either think that they have struck Gold if the alloy had a particularly high brass content. Or alternatively if a particular coin looks a lot better than the rest with relatively no effort, they assume it is a fake or someone has already cleaned it. The fact is condition is based on the quality of the original mix that the coins were struck from. The second example would be a very poor grade mix of bronze made to use the same type of coin. It will have a very thick crust, the bronze will be more porous and the coin will have been virtually destroyed with pitting and fatigue that was a result of the poorer quality mix. The bad bronze coins were produced extremely commonly, in ancient times a lot of making high quality bronze came down to luck and the availability of the required materials. Often again and again metal would be recycled and re used, as an example an old broken brooch that went out of fashion might be recycled into coins. Late Roman coins as an example are often made of a very poor quality bronze.
Gold = Brass Bronze normally
You really don’t need to ever worry about a coin being Gold, it will be a high brass bronze mix. Gold comes out the ground the same as it goes in “noticeably Gold’ at point of discovery it is clearly visible. We have never known anyone to find a Gold coin in un cleaned lots. However we have had several customers “think” they have found gold coins until they have them checked. Very early Roman coins often look like they are Gold because of their very high brass content.
Black = Silver normally
Silver = Silver normally
Silver on the other hand can often appear to be Black and can even be a bit crusty to start off with, if it was a lower purity silver. Or silver coins can have spots of green on them where impurities have been in the production mix. As a rule non corroded but extremely black coins after cleaning will normally be silver or at least have some silver content in them. Some high grade silver coins will normally be shiny silver at least in parts so you will know straight off the bat that they are silver.
Copper = Copper Bronze
Sometimes you will see un cleaned coins that have a pleasing patina, that as you clean them quickly become a copper colour. This is based on the fact that the particular bronze they were made out of was high in copper content. The patina on these coins often comes off very easily when being cleaned and generally they will have a slightly lighter coloured crust on them before cleaning.
Now we have discussed the basic types of materials used, you will notice that when cleaning all of your coins certain types of coins generally clean up in a certain order. These are based on the fact that certain types of coins were always made with a far higher copper content in them. When I have coins soaking in Olive Oil for a while, I generally find that the majority of the first ones to clean up are Islamic or Byzantine ones as the raw materials used were generally of a high standard, and had a high copper content. So after getting in the swing of things you will start to recognise not only the types of coins, we are about to discuss but also the quality of the materials used.
Size shape and weight of coins
Once you clean enough coins you will be able to identify the basic types of coins by getting a feel for the size weight and shape of coins. Let us start with the easiest ones to recognise because they have very distinctive traits.
These wonderful coins can normally be easily distinguished because they are very very thick in appearance. They are heavy and often have a domed feel to them on the top and when cleaned often reveal a small dimple in the middle. Typically they will have a face on one side and an eagle on the other. Also they tend to clean quite easily as they are generally made out of a very high quality bronze.
These coins often have serrated edges; they are often fairly small and pretty thick and retain good detail. The bottle top type coin edges are a very quick giveaway to coins being Seleucid. Also they are generally made out of a high quality bronze so are heavy for there size. Most of these that you find will be smaller examples; larger examples of these serrated edge coins often turn up in our hoards but are a lot rarer. Our advice would be to get a feel for the serrated edge Seleucid coins and then you will start to get a feel for the non-serrated edge ones as they have a similar style to them.
Roman coins did differ considerably based on a number of factors; the earlier examples were much thicker and can initially be mistaken for ancient Greek coins in some circumstances, as the characteristics can be similar in a number of regards. But for the purpose of this basic attribution guide lets look at more generalised ways to easily spot most Roman coins. Firstly the word “legend” comes from the writing around the sides of Roman coins. Typically Roman legend can be found around the circumference of the coin, normally around the head of the emperor. As silly as it sounds it looks a lot more like the “English” alphabet than when you find writing on other coins. The coins are often a pretty uniform width and generally the larger and thicker examples were earlier coins. The later coins were often quite small and quite often were made of a thin bit of low quality material. The letters S C are often also found on early examples of Roman coins.
Generally speaking ancient Islamic coins are easily identified by a number of factors. A lot of Islamic coins do not have any portraits with legend on them unlike a lot of other coins. They have Islamic stylised text on them that is very decorative and extremely distinctive. Some of the coins are also oblong in appearance giving them a distinctive appearance. Silver Islamic coins are fairly common in some of our hoards, but often appear to be black.
Generally speaking most ancient Greek coins will be fairly thick and heavy, they often come with wonderful pictures on and no writing unlike a lot (but not all) Roman coins. Depending on the age they can often have wonderful pictures of the Greek Gods on them and after a short time you will soon get to know what a Greek coin feels like. Generally the base metal they used was fairly heavy so they tend to clean up well providing the coin was not excessively worn before it went in the ground.
The most common Byzantine coins that you will find will generally be among the first coins to clean up. They are generally made of a good metal and normally they still continue to carry some detail. A very simple way to identify these is generally (most) of the ones you will find will have a large letter on the back of them like an “M” or a “K”. And often they have pictures of crosses on them.
Often a lot of amateurs when they get these coins think they are actually broken coins before cleaning, as a lot of them are unusual shapes. But once they are cleaned they often reveal very interesting coins with a good deal of historical value. A good “basic” way for beginners to identify some of these coins is to note that a lot of them have the silhouette of two heads side by side. On the reverse you can see two crossed horns.
You will often find some really small coins measuring no more than a few mm. These are often either Roman Minims or Greek fractional coins. Both types are actually sought after by a lot of collectors. The Greek are normally a lot thicker than the Roman coins of the same size and can sometimes display a “legend”. Some collectors go nuts for these coins because of the fantastic detail that you can get on them.