Download file in PDF format: TRAC 2007: Charon’s Obols? A case study in the role of coins in Roman Burial Ritual (pp. 121–130)
Charon’s Obols? A Case Study in the Role of Coins in Roman Burial Ritual
The study of coins in Roman burials is often limited to their dating value, with interpretation traditionally assumed to be payment to Charon, the ferryman, for safe transportation across the river Styx to the afterlife (Toynbee 1971: 49). One of the first references to the Charon myth is in Aristophanes’ Frogs (140), where the fee of two obols is mentioned by Heracles. This, combined with the beginning of the appearance of coins in Athenian burials in the Hellenistic period (Kurtz and Boardman 1971: 166), led to the supposition that these coins were payment to Charon. The subsequent inclusion of coins in Roman burials was considered an adoption of the Greek practice. There has been frequent discussion of the role of Charon and coins in Roman and Greek burial ritual (Sullivan 1950, Grinsell 1957, Toynbee 1971, Kurtz and Boardman 1971, Philpott 1991 and Stevens 1991) but few attempt a more specific analysis of this practice (Gorecki 1975 being a notable exception). Yet, across the space and time of the classical world, variation in the uptake and interpretation of this idea might be expected and therefore should be investigated.
As an initial step towards examining this issue, this pilot study has systematically analysed the coins and their context in the burial from selected areas in the north-west provinces. The aim is to see if any patterns emerge when one analyses the geographical and chronological spread of this practice. By gathering a range of data from the burials, I aim to analyse the frequency, differential adoption of, and variability in the custom. Although this initial work is inevitably limited geographically, significant variability in the habit over time, in metal type compared to other contexts, and in coin location in the grave have been identified, which show that this was not a unitary, unchanging phenomenon. It is not my intention to deconstruct the Charon’s obol myth but to present the argument that if one looks closely at the practice of placing a coin in the grave, the patterns that emerge are much more complex.
Methodology The main focus is Roman Britain, as the contextual data are readily summarised by Philpott (1991). This is compared with the evidence from the Rheinhessen and Pfalz regions of Germany, and with the more limited evidence from outside of the Empire, specifically Denmark and parts of NE Germany (Niedersachsen, Mecklenburg–Vorpommern, Brandenburg and Berlin). Analysis concentrated on the period up to the middle of the third century A.D., a time of rapid devaluation of silver coinage (Abdy 2002: 33), when the decrease in the precious metal content had a major effect on the usage of coins. The following aspects of the coins and burial were investigated: burial type, sex and age of the occupant, burial date, number of coins in each burial, date of issue, the position of the coin in the grave, metal type, denomination, obverse and reverse type, evidence of use (e.g. wear, piercing) and association with other grave goods. Data for Britain were gathered from Philpott (1991); for Germany the series ‘Die Fundmünzen Der Römischen Zeit in Deutschland’ (Chantraine 1955, Franke 1960, Laser and Stribrny 2003) was used, supplemented by some more recent publications. For Barbaricum, the ‘Corpus der Römischen Funde im Europäischen Barbaricum’ (Laser and Ulrich 1994, Laser and Schultz 1995, Ulrich 1998, Erdrich 2002) and Nielsen (1987–88) were used. This gave a dataset of 158 burials from Britain, 305 from Germany and 44 from beyond the frontier.
This dataset was then analysed to provide information on a number of questions. Firstly, the variability in coin deposition over time was examined in order to determine how the selection of coins for burials correlates with coin loss on settlements. Secondly, metal type was analysed to investigate whether higher or lower value coins were found in burial contexts. Thirdly, the location of the coin in the burial and possible reuse is explored, to consider the range of symbolic significance. In each case, the central concern was to ascertain whether the practice of coin deposition is constant or shows variability both within and between provinces. My hypothesis is that variability in depositional practices should provide insights into variations in the interpretation of the custom in different regions.
A number of problems must be taken into consideration. Publications often provided insufficient information about the archaeological context of coins in graves. For instance, the FMRD does not give contextual information, while for Britain, the numismatic detail was limited; within the constraints of this project it was not possible to chase all the original material / publications. Furthermore, there was a lack of detailed information from older excavation reports.
Coin deposition over time Focussing first on the British data, their chronological distribution was compared to Reece’s British average (Reece 1991), to see if the deposits of coins in burials mirrored general patterns of coin loss. The issue of how long coins were in circulation before burial is considered below. Of course, neither reflects the coinage in circulation, and the taphonomic pathways are very different, with one representing losses and the other deliberate deposition, but the site finds provide an initial benchmark to throw up the contrasts between the two.
The graph illustrates that the burial data loosely mirrors the overall trends noted by Reece; however, there are irregularities (Fig. 1). Throughout the first century, coins are preferentially deposited in burials, with the habit being proportionally less common throughout most of the second century. Chi-squared testing of this data has shown it to be significant (see appendix 1).
The German evidence shows some differences from the British (Fig. 2). It does of course start earlier, with a substantial early peak indicating, as with Britain, a rapid adoption of the habit. After the early peak, the two graphs follow similar trends, with only slight differences. The number of coins from burials in Free Germany and Denmark are rather few, and must be used with caution. Subtle differences are unlikely to be statistically significant, but overall a great deal of the examples are second century in date: 49% for free Germany (data from Laser and Ulrich 1994, Laser and Schultz 1995, Ulrich 1998, Erdrich 2002) and 56% for Denmark (data from Nielsen 1987–88). This may be comparable to the other evidence of coins from these areas, notably the hoard data, as the evidence for hoards stops in this period (Berger 1993). The graphs show that within the provinces there is a notable early adoption of this practice, which declines in the second century. In Barbaricum, the practice is concentrated in the second century, probably linked to the availability of coins at this time.
Figure 2. Germany – Percentage of coins in British burial compared to Germany (data from Chantraine 1955, Franke 1960, Laser and Stribrny 2003). Germany Britain 0 5 10 15 20 25 Up to 41 41- 54 54- 68 69- 96 96- 117 117- 138 138- 161 161- 180 180- 192 193- 222 222- 260 Period Percentage Reece Britain
Figure 1. Britain – Percentage of coins in burials compared to average site loss (data from Philpott 1991). 0 5 10 15 20 25 30 Up to 41 41-54 54-68 69-96 96- 117 117- 138 138- 161 161- 180 180- 192 193- 222 222- 260 Period Percentage Germany Britain
Metal Type The metal type of the coins in the burials was analysed for trends and anomalies. Two graphs were created using the British data; one dividing the coins by the date of the burial (e1 is early first century, l1 is late first century etc.) and a second dividing the evidence by coin date. The graph using the burial dates clearly shows a steady increase in copper alloy coins through time (Fig. 3), which could represent attempts to retain the silver coinage at the beginning of the period of devaluation.
0% 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60% 70% 80% 90% 100% e1 l1 e2 l2 e3 m3 Date of burial Percentage Gold Silver Copper Alloy Figure 3. Metal type of coins used in burials in Britain (data from Philpott 1991).
0% 20% 40% 60% 80% 100% Up to 41 41-54 54-68 69-96 96-117 117-138 138-161 161-180 180-192 193-222 222-260 Period Percentage Gold Silver Copper Alloy Figure 4. Metal type of coins used in each period in Britain (data from Philpott 1991).
Although sample sizes are rather small for certain periods, the graph dividing metal type using the date of the coin (Fig. 4) shows a dominance of copper alloy coins from each period, with the notable exception of some Republican denarii from the period up to 41A.D. This was compared to coins from Richborough to see if the metal types from burials follow a similar pattern to site finds (see Fig. 5). There is a clear contrast in the lack of any substantial increase in silver use in the later periods. In Germany (Fig. 6), on the other hand, copper alloy coins dominate until the early third century when silver was more readily available.
0% 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60% 70% 80% 90% 100% Up to 41 41-54 54-68 69-96 96-117 117-138 138-161 161-180 180-192 193-222 222-260 Antoniniani Silver Copper Alloy Figure 5. Metal type of coins from Richborough (data from Reece 1968).
0% 20% 40% 60% 80% 100% Up to 41 41-54 54-68 69-96 96-117 117-138 138-161 161-180 180-192 193-222 222-260 Period Percentage Silver Copper Alloy Figure 6. Metal type of coins used in burials in each period in Roman Germany (data from Chantraine 1955, Franke 1960, Laser and Stribrny 2003).
Figure 5 shows that copper-alloy coinage dominates the Richborough sequence until the late second century but, as is common in British sites, there is increasing loss of silver (and thus presumably increasing use of silver) from the late second century. This is in marked contrast to the burial data: while both datasets are dominated by copper-alloy, in the burials the use of silver drops in the late second century.
Outside of imperial boundaries, the numbers are too few to consider change through time but copper alloy coinage is markedly rare. In Denmark all the coinage within the period of study is silver, with one gold exception (data from Nielsen 1987–88). In free Germany, the metal type was more diverse but still with a high proportion of silver (50%) – although there is evidence for copper alloy coins (45%) (data from Laser and Ulrich 1994, Laser and Schultz 1995, Ulrich 1998, Erdrich 2002).
It seems clear that valuable coins were being placed in the graves outside of the imperial boundaries. This contrasts to my study areas within the Empire – here it was the presence of the coin, not its value, which was significant. This argument is supported by a comparison with the range of grave goods in the burial: coins show no clear correlation with wealthier graves, and represent a habit unconnected with any expression of status.
Deposition of old and new coins One key issue is how old were the coins when they were deposited in the grave: were they current coinage or heirlooms? Using the British data, table 1 plots the date of the burial (divided into early and later first, second and third century) against the issue date of the coins. As not all of the coins have been accurately dated, they have been divided into possible (P) and definite (D). The trend in the table shows that, whilst most coins come from the expected circulating average of 30 to 50 years (Sutherland and Carson 1984: 10), there are some exceptions that may be significant. The burials dating to the late second and early third century show a broader chronological range of coins, with the continuation of earlier examples being placed in the grave. The later the burial, the wider the range of coins are available for deposition. However, it can be noted that the earliest two examples from burials dating to the early third century are pierced (a Claudian copy and a post-reform coin of Nero) and therefore may indicate that the coin had more than simply a monetary value. Is it possible that the older examples are representative of a symbolic or sentimental value attached to the coin, perhaps. as a family heirloom? This hints at a trend that can be further analysed through a closer inspection of the wear patterns on the coins themselves.
Up to 41 41– 54 54– 68 69– 96 96– 117 117– 138 138– 161 161– 180 180– 192 193– 222 D P D P D P D P D P D P D P D P D P D P e1 1 1 l1 1 4 2 4 6 9 e2 2 4 6 3 7 2 3 2 l2 1 1 2 1 1 4 1 16 5 3 2 1 2 e3 1 1 2 2 1 1 4 1 1 4 4 2 Table 1. Table comparing coin issue date with burial date for Britain (data from Philpott 1991).
Different patterns can be identified in areas outside Imperial boundaries. The Danish evidence in particular has a very different picture, as Nielsen (1987–88, fig. 2) has shown. Most coins lived long lives before burial, often being buried centuries later.
Location in grave Key to understanding the significance of the coin in burial practices is its location in the grave, the normal assumption being that the coin was placed in the mouth as part of the ritual to pay Charon for transport across the river Styx. A number of factors can affect the position of the coin, including decay of the body and later disturbance . Therefore, in some cases, it is difficult to ascertain the original position. Distressingly few burials have the coin position recorded, but of this small dataset, the British evidence shows that 50% of the coins were indeed found in the mouth (Table 2); if those from the chest area are included, this rises to 56%.
This was not, however, the only location for the deposition of the coins; they have also been noted in a purse, around the arms/ hands, around the legs/ feet and elsewhere in the coffin fill. It is entirely possible that these were also payment to Charon, but could different positions of the coin represent alternative ritual beliefs? They may simply have been seen as appropriate provision for the afterlife, a necessity much as food and drink were. Alternatively, could they represent different stages of the funerary process? The presence of a number of coins in the grave fill, rather than directly associated with the corpse, is of interest here. While accidental inclusion cannot be ruled out, it is tempting to interpret these as offerings cast into the grave by mourners during the burial ceremony, a reminder of the important role of the process of the burial ceremony rather than simply the event of burying the corpse (see Toynbee 1971 for the description of the burial as a process).
Reused coins In a small number of cases, the coin had clearly ceased to be an item of exchange by the time of burial. This is seen in pierced coins, which, in Britain, total less than 4% of all coins. When worn on the body as an item of jewellery, they were often linked to other amulets. This suggests that they were worn for aesthetic and/or for protective or symbolic purposes. One example is burial 278 from Butt Road in Essex, which contained two coins of Claudius that were connected to other charms on a chain link, including a head of an African male, a pierced dog canine and a phallic amulet (Philpott 1991: 368). Another example of a similar practice is grave 81b from the Joslin collection, Essex, where the coin was suspended on an armlet with beads and a phallic amulet (Philpott 1991: 289). In such examples, it appears that the coin was not present as a payment, but perhaps was believed to offer protection to the wearer.
Mouth Hand By Legs Foot Torso Clavicle Bag/purse Sacrum Coffin Fill e1 l1 4 1 1 1 e2 6 1 1 1 l2 8 1 1 2 3 1 e3 1 1 1 2 2 m3 Table 2. Number of coins in each period plotted against the date of the burial in Britain (data from Philpott 1991).
Specific coin choice? An intriguing but difficult area to analyse is that of specific coin choice. This topic was touched upon earlier when analysing the issue of possible heirlooms; were particular coins being selected? There are occasional clear examples such as a child cremation from Colchester, dating to the early first century, which contained 36 coins of only two types, 11 of Agrippa and 25 of Claudius (Philpott 1991: 289; Eckardt 1999). Hilary Cool suggested that if the coins are viewed as ‘discs with images, the striking feature is how many of the reverses have single standing figures’ (Cool 2000: 37). This does reflect the data from the areas studied, although it could also argued that overall there is a greater frequency of single standing figures on coins. Further study on this issue is required.
Another interesting route of analysis was suggested by MacDonald (1979). He proposes that the eye visible on the profile of the Emperor on the obverse may have had apotropaic powers (MacDonald 1979: 409). This could be tested if the side of the coin that was facing upward was recorded during excavation.
Conclusions Although these are preliminary results, a number of initial conclusions can be presented. A key one is that the burial evidence does not appear to mirror the site loss. Both Britain and Germany show a rapid early adoption of the habit, which than declines in the late second century. An analysis of metal type in Britain and Germany shows that copper alloy coins were preferred – comparison with site coin loss indicates this is significant, and it seems the important thing was the inclusion of a coin rather than its value. In Britain, it appears most coins were drawn from circulating currency, although occasionally long-lived heirlooms can be noted. The location of the coin around the mouth is often linked to the Charon beliefs and in Britain, 50% (56% if including those on the chest) were found in this position. However, the other locations may represent other roles, or different stages of the funerary rite, while the presence of pierced coins indicates a more general amuletic or protective role.
Although this practice is rare outside the Empire, the patterns are very different. Principally, it was silver and gold coins that were deposited, suggesting status was a key issue. In addition, many coins were circulating for a long time before burial.
Further work This paper represents the preliminary work of a much larger study. It would be valuable to look at the origins and spread of this custom from Greece and early Italy into the rest of Europe, analysing the evolution and adaptation of this custom by the different groups that adopted the practice. Further work should assess what percentage of burials contain coins and, provide a more detailed analysis of specific coin types to see if the suggestions made by Cool and MacDonald about the symbolism of coin imagery hold true. There is no suggestion here that the Charon interpretation needs to be discarded; but although it is a large part of the symbolic function of the coin, it cannot account for all instances of coins in burials.
Archaeology, School of History, Classics and Archaeology, The University of Edinburgh
Acknowledgements I would like to thank Dr Fraser Hunter (National Museums of Scotland) and Dr Eberhard Sauer (University of Edinburgh) for their comments and guidance in this work. In addition, I am particularly indebted to Jenny Hall (Museum of London) for her assistance in obtaining details for the coins in the London burials. Thanks also go to Dr Niall Anderson (University of Edinburgh) for his assistance with the statistics. I would also like to thank Genevieve Close and Kim Robertson for the coffee and suggestions.