Using coins to reconstruct past

An interview with Prof. Osmund Bopearachchi


By Saman Indrajith

A leading authority on Central Asian, Indian and Sri Lankan numismatics and art history, Prof. Osmund Bopearachchi drew heavy flak over his recent lecture at the Post-Graduate Institute of Archaeological Research, where he referred to instances of counterfeiting of foreign coins, especially of punch-marked coins in Lanka, when the country was a centre of international commerce in the then known world.

While not denying what was reported, the French trained and educated academic says that the media did not do justice to his in-depth lecture and had somewhat misled the public by cherry picking sections thereof out of context. Having graduated in 1978 with a degree in Sinhala, French and Western Classical Culture from the Kelaniya University he first worked as a French teacher because there was no opportunity to study Archaeology at the time. "I studied French with the intention of going to France for further studies, but the French government did not offer long-term scholarships to Sri Lankans. Thereafter I worked as a French-speaking tour guide. I left Sri Lanka with my return ticket and 1,000 Francs. I worked hard and had to start from my BA in Archaeology in Paris as I then had no archaeological background."

As for those critics who tore into him following his lecture he says they were simply criticising him without knowing numismatics or the contents of his lecture. Therefore the allegations made against him were purely unethical.

Prof. Bopearachchi says he does not own a single ancient coin though he may have touched and studied thousands of those coins. "I still follow advice my French teachers gave me when I started learning numismatics not to purchase any coin. I never buy a coin. I see them, take their pictures or measurements but never buy them. I have touched thousands of coins but do not own a single one". For the benefit of those who do not have any elementary knowledge about sciences, a numismatist is a scholar working on coins scientifically; it does not mean that he is a collector.

Q: Following a newspaper report on a recent lecture you delivered in Colombo you came in for severe criticism from some quarters. How did you feel?

A: The news report was based on a lecture I delivered at the Post Graduate Institute of Archaeological Research (PGIAR) in Colombo. It highlighted only one or two points I mentioned during the course of the lecture which was not reported in its entirety. It is usual in news reporting. But, I should not be held responsible for what newspapers say or choose to leave out. Some people faulted me on the basis of what was reported. Anyone who wants to discuss my work is free to do so with reference to the research papers or books that I have written. A scholar is responsible for what he has written, but not of what has been written about his work! Those who have criticised and blamed me in the opinion columns of newspapers unfairly do not have any knowledge on numismatics or they do not know the ethics guiding academics. It is unfortunate that a scholar has to counter such baseless allegation, diverting the attention of the intelligent reader from the debate. Some of my detractors have proved with their venomous outpouring that they are being consumed by hatred.

Numismatics is a discipline popular in other parts of the world and courses are offered by leading universities. But unfortunately, Sri Lanka does not have courses of study on numismatics at the postgraduate level. There are no teachers who could teach numismatics at the Ph.D Level. In other Asian countries such as India and Pakistan there are courses of study on numismatics ranging from four to six years. Only those who have a thorough knowledge of numismatics could have understood or commented on the matters I presented in my lecture.

Q: Could you elaborate on this particular lecture you delivered at the PGIAR?

A: I was first invited to deliver this lecture titled "Ancient Sri Lanka: Centre of the Global Economy: Archaeological Evidence" at the Centre for Banking Studies (Central Bank auditorium) in the English medium and then I was invited to deliver the same lecture in Sinhala to the postgraduate students of the PGIAR. The lecture was about archaeological and literary evidence which proved that Sri Lanka was the centre of the ancient maritime trade network. Sri Lanka, especially from the First Century AD to the Fifth Century, was the centre of world trade. In both places those who have listened to me, believe me there were professors, bankers, members of the Numismatic Society, economists and post-graduate students, but none of them had anything negative to say about my lecture. They were all enthusiastic about the new data that I shared with them.

On the world map prepared by Greek geographer Claudius Ptolemaeus (c. 90 - 168 CE), Sri Lanka is ten times bigger than its normal size. This shows the importance given to the island by Greek and Roman historians at the beginning of our era. Cosmas Indicopleustes (literally "Indian voyager") of Alexandria, who was a Greek merchant and later monk, probably of Nestorian tendencies of 6th century bears witness to the presence of traders from different countries in Sri Lanka. According to a description in his Christian Topography, Sri Lanka played an important role in transmitting merchandise between East and West, a role once performed by Western India. Cosmas (XI, 13-15), demonstrating the central position that the island held in international commerce, said: "This is the great island in the Ocean, lying in the Indian sea, called Sielediba by the Indians and Taprobanê by the Greeks...." Cosmas further says that from the whole of India, Persia and Ethiopia the island, acting as intermediary, welcomes many ships, and likewise despatches them.

Cosmas calls Sri Lanka the mediatrix - meaning the centre.

We should not forget the fact Greeks or Romans of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries did not know of the Americas, or Pacific Ocean. Even of the Atlantic Ocean they knew only a part of that connected to the Europe. The world trade took place mainly in the Indian Ocean. Those traders from Rome first came to Red Sea ports like Berenike and Myos Hormos using the Mediterranean Sea and then crossed the desert on camel back, and from there they came to India and Sri Lanka by crossing the Indian Ocean. Although religious and political relationships with China date back to the fourth century BCE, Chinese traders were very active in the Indian Ocean only from the eight century onwards as revealed by Chinese coins and ceramics of Tang and Song dynasties found in the archaeological excavations from Anuradhapura, Manthai, Polonnaruwa, Yaphuwa and Dambedeniya. What I was trying to say was made on the basis of archaeological evidence and of ancient writings that appeared in Greek, Latin, Indian and Chinese sources.

Q: What is the actual situation with regard to the counterfeiting or minting imitations of the Roman coins? Was that a trend then? Could that be seen in other parts of South Asia too?

A: I was talking about two separate groups of coins. One was the counterfeiting of punch-marked coins and the other was issuing of pseudo Roman coins. Any serious numismatist with through knowledge of ancient coins knows that the counterfeiting was practised in the ancient world from the day the earliest coin was issued. There are various ways of counterfeiting. For example, we know that in the ancient Greek and Roman world coins were die-struck (using two dies, one obverse and the other reverse) in gold, silver, bronze, led, cupro-nickel, etc. If the coin is in gold it has to be of solid gold.

However, we come across gold plated in another words with a copper or silver inner core. I have written about many such coins and explained how they were made. In my talk I was showing Roman gold coins (aurei) of the Late Republican and Early Imperial periods in circulation in India. Most of those coins have cut or chisel marks showing that they were tested by the Indians before they did their transactions. The other way of making fakes is to use the coins in good condition and make terracotta discs and pour smelted metals in between two discs, we call them cast coins. The Imperial Punch-Marked coins issued during Mauryan Period and in circulation in India, Sri Lanka and beyond were made by making five or more punches over the virgin flans. When these coins were no more issued after the fall of the Mauryan Empire, people started making fakes with the method that I have explained before. These terracotta discs were found in thousands in India very particularly in Rohtak in Haryana, India, Taxila in today's Pakistan. Such discs were also found in Anuradhapura and Tissamaharama. I was referring to them. No one should have got upset. Although, technically speaking they are considered counterfeits, these coins had legal tender. They were circulating with the other genuine coins as they were found together in archaeological strata.

I also spoke about the great abundance of the Roman "third brass" or the Late Imperial coins in Sri Lanka which may be a result of the revival of western powers through Axumite, Himyarite and Persian middlemen, which coincided with the foundation of Constantinople as the seat of the Roman empire on the one hand, and the gradual shift of the focus of trade from the south Indian coasts to Sri Lanka on the other. Likewise by the 5th Century Sri Lanka became the main centre of trade in the Indian Ocean. The shifting of the starting points, from the Red Sea to the Arabian Sea of the sea voyage and the evolution in the speed of ships made the journey to Sri Lanka and beyond easy. The Roman coins found in the island can be divided into two groups: the genuine coins minted in the mints of Alexandria, Constantinople, Rome, Lyon, etc. and their imitations or pseudo-Roman coins. According to my research until now more than two hundred thousand coins of these two types have been found in the island. The Beragama hoard (close to Ambalantota) alone contained 60,000 coins. Most of the coins belong to the second category. The Lunama hoard found in 1990s contained 5,500 coins and apart from two genuine coins all the others were pseudo-Roman coins.

Those known to us as Roman coins of yore bore the bust of the Roman Emperor on the obverse with his name and titles in Latin. On the reverse they had the Emperor dragging a captive, Cross within a wreath, two soldiers with one or two standards in the middle and so on. The name of the type and the mint were also given. But, even after the fall of the Roman Empire these coins were in circulation in Sri Lanka, where whenever the available number of coins was not enough, the ancient Lankans used the actual Roman coins as prototypes and produced their own ones. They ones had the face of the Roman emperor but did not have Latin legend of the name. On the reverse they printed type in the manner they understood it. Likewise, the cross became a swastika. Since those who made them did not know the Latin language, the legend was converted into dots, asterisk, crosses, etc. These have been amply discussed by many world renowned scholars such as H. W. Codrington, John Steel and R. Walburg et al. The latter should be credited for publishing a complete book on the genuine Roman coins and their imitations. I have also written two books and fifteen articles not only on the Roman coins but also on the other coins which were in circulation in the country. Those who wrongly blamed me were ignorant of these publications in English, French and German. This shows how little they know about this subject! Coins are unearthed from archaeological excavations. It was I who studied the coins from the British-Sri Lankan Excavations at Anuradhapura Salgaha Watta 2, (British Archaeological Reports (BAR), edited by R. Coningham,Oxford, 2006, pp. 7-26).

In those layers belonging to the Sixth and Seventh Centuries, we found genuine and imitation coins. The same observation could be made regarding the coins found in all the excavations at Sigiriya. I have spent thirty years studying ancient coins found in India and Central Asia but I have never come across any Roman imitations similar to the ones found in Sri Lanka in these countries. In fact, John Steel labelled them as Naimana type referring to a village close to Matara. So you could see that these people who commented on the news story had no knowledge of history or numismatics and the research on the subject. As the Buddha said ignorance is man's worse enemy.

Q: How do you think numismatics has helped reconstruct Sri Lanka's past?

A: Reconstructing the past situation is different from India to Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka we have literary evidence including chronicles such as Mahavamsa, but in India there is a scarcity of such evidence except for Rajatharangani. They have Mahabharatha and Ramayana which are epics but not chronicles. In such a situation, epigraphy and coins help reconstruct India's past. For example, I have written about eight books and more than fifty articles pertaining to the period of Alexander the Great in India. The conquest by the Macedonian king of the eastern satrapies of the Persian empire, e.g. Bactria, Sogdiana, Paropamisadae, Archosia, Seistan and Gandhara, between 329 and 326 BCE, changed the geo-political map of the region with far reaching consequences. When Alexander the Great conquered the territories as far as the Indus valley in present-day Pakistan, he had a single-minded goal-to conquer the whole Achaemenid Empire. Sailing down the Indus he reached Patala, and from there he began a long and tedious march towards Babylonia, where he died on June 10, 323 BCE.

After the death of Alexander, his empire was divided among a number of his former generals and associates. Seleucos I, who defeated Lysimachos, another General of Alexander at Korupedion, in 281 BCE, became the Governor of Babylonia. After him, 48 Greek kings ruled in Bactria (present-day West Afghanistan) and North -West India (present day Pakistan). If we read all the Greek, Roman, Chinese or Indian literary evidence such as Milindapanha we could find only seven names of such kings. Today we know, thanks to the coins, there had been 48 kings because on the coins of those times names of 48 kings are engraved. But for these coins we wouldn't have been able to reconstruct Indian past during this period. I wrote my Ph.D thesis and had extensively studied that subject. I think my work should be good since I received a First Class Upper Division Pass (Mention tres honorable, avec les felicitations du jury) I have taken up evidence from other archaeological records including epigraphy for that purpose.

In Sri Lanka, we have chronicles such as Deepavamsa, Mahavamsa and Rajavaliya etc. But coins come in handy when we study the relationships between Sri Lanka and other countries in the past. We know, we have found thousands of Roman coins from Constantine to Arcadius and Honorius. A coin issued by the Roman Emperor Trajan at Dora in Phoenicia found in the Jetavanarama excavations is very significant. We have found Greek coins here especially in the excavations conducted at the Jetavanarama. I am not talking of the coins one would find in the possession of the collectors. I am talking of the coins that had been unearthed by digging more than 15 metres from the ground surface. We found a coin belonging to the period of an Indo-Greek King called Menander (Milinda). We have also found many other coins in many other archaeological excavations. Thanks to these coins today we know that Lanka had relations with South India, North India, and Bactria. We had had Greek, Kushan, and Indo-Scythian visitors as evident from their coins discovered in Lanka. Coins had come from Sassanian Iran. We find Chinese coins of tang, Song dynasties, coins from other countries such as Arabian and South-East Asian countries. This is irrefutable evidence of foreign relations we had with those nations.

These coins were used as a medium of exchange. As I happened to mention in my lecture, the Chinese coins have a hole in the middle, because the coins were strung together to create higher denominations, as was frequently done due to the coin's low value. The number of coins in a string of cash varied over time and place but was nominally 1,000. However, in Sri Lanka these strings were broken and the coins used separately. Again in Lanka the pseudo Roman coins were used while Rome was not known to them.

Q: What are the research and academic work you are engaged in currently?

A: I have written about 15 books and currently and I am working on four books. Of them one has been completed and it contains 600 pages; I was helped by the Berkeley University of California. I am also in the process of revising very first book that I wrote on Greek kings in Bactria and India. When I first wrote that book, I visited all the museums in the world with coins belonging to the post-Alexander period. I could study only 30,000 coins. But recently another deposit of coins has been found in Afghanistan. This treasure of coins weighs around four tonnes and I have written with my colleagues two books on this fabulous discovery. I was one of the rare eyewitnesses. Having studied them, I am planning to incorporate more material into my first book and writing a new one. Apart from that I am working on a book on plaques of Amravati, Nagarjuna Konda found in Anuradhapura and Tissamaharama. The fourth book is to be published by the Singapore University. It comprises 60 out of 150 research papers I have done so far. It contains about 2,000 pages. There will be two volumes.



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