Teaching Biblical Archaeology in a classroom is, in many ways, a superficial exercise. You can learn a lot about methodology and this or that artifact or site, of course, but there is no substitute for actually “getting your hands dirty.” With this in mind, I thought it might be good to start my Biblical Archaeology course this semester with a hands-on exercise to help students understand one facet of material culture: numismatics, or the study of currency.
I brought in a few small baggies of old United States coinage ranging in date from the 1840s to the 1980s. In my younger days I was into coin collecting, so I had a pretty good selection of vintage coins on hand (see image). But you could easily do this exercise with a handful of random change from a gas station.
When class started I split students into pairs. Each pair got a bag of coins and some instructions:
Empty the contents of your bag onto the desk, and arrange the artifacts you find in chronological order, oldest to newest. Examine these coins carefully, and on a sheet of paper, make a list of all the symbols that you find. Which symbols appear most often? Which appear least often? What “story” do these coins tell?
I gave them about ten or fifteen minutes to work, and then we reassembled for discussion. Overall I was quite pleased with what they found.
Their lists of symbols were impressive, all groups noting such prominent imagery as the eagle, stars, olive branch, arrows, shield, etc. And when I asked them about the “story” that these coins tell, they were eager to share some of the anecdotes that many of us learned as children.
The eagle on the back of the Kennedy Half Dollar, for example, has an olive branch in its right talon and a bundle of arrows in its left, and it gazes in the direction of the olive branch. If the olive branch symbolizes peace, and the arrows symbolize war, then the fact that the eagle faces the olive branch suggests that we value peace more than we do war. Yet the fact that he retains his grasp of the arrows suggests that we are also capable of violence.
Nearly every student had heard this “story” growing up. I asked them if they considered it to be “true”? Some nodded, but most shook their heads. One student noted that because our country has spent more years at war than we have at peace, our history would suggest that our preference is actually the opposite of the eagle’s. This astute observation gave us an opportunity to talk about coinage as propaganda, as something that instills and creates a sense of identity even more than it reflects it. That is to say that the symbols on our coins shape how we understand ourselves, and they frequently do so in ways that are incongruous with actual reality.
I also spent some time underlining the contextual nature of symbols. Nearly every group in the class noted, for example, that when there are stars on United States currency, there are frequently thirteen of them. When asked why, students respond almost instinctively: Because there were thirteen original colonies. If you asked a student in Europe that same question, they probably won’t have as quick of an answer. This is not because they’re stupid, but because the “thirteen original colonies” aren’t part of their narrative. And this is one of the many reasons why interpreting ancient coinage can be difficult. The “narrative” that is reflected, built up, and reshaped by numismatic symbols is frequently patchy and, in some cases, altogether foreign to us. So, when we interpret ancient symbols, we often do so with a degree of educated guesswork.
The payoff of this exercise for the remainder of the semester was enormous. Whenever we encountered talk of ancient symbolism in our readings, our discussion of US currency often served as a helpful, clarifying touchpoint. And students frequently brought up examples from this session as illustrations in their writing assignments and in class. A slightly modified version of the exercise proved valuable in my (introductory) Literature of the Bible course, where we spoke about such symbols before covering the Apocalypse of John.
Thanks for reading, and if you use this exercise, please let me know how it goes!