Vassar Today

Old Money on Campus

By Jessica Winum

Until very recently, a collection of 1,500 ancient Greek and Roman coins reposed peacefully in the archives of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. Thanks to grants from the Frances Lehman Loeb Foundation and the efforts of Vassar Assistant Professor of Classics John Lott, those coins will soon be available for study by the Vassar community and to scholars and numismatists all over the globe through an online exhibition.

Left: Two sides of a Roman coin struck in 137 BCE show the goddess Roma (left) and the she-wolf nursing the twins Romulus and Reums.

Acquisition records for the coin collection don’t exist, said Lott, so no one knows for sure how the coins ended up at Vassar. The collection had never been cataloged because the coins are not particularly rare and the effort required to catalog them is great and depends upon specialized knowledge.

"It’s a teaching collection—not one the museum has to sequester away," explains Lott. But its plebeian character is what makes it so "valuable in a liberal arts environment," he says. "It provides a chance for people to come together from art history, economics, history, and classics," and study different aspects of money and how it affects societies and cultures.

Lott and his student assistant, Nathan Hensley ’00, began the tedious process of identifying and cataloging the coins last year. After Hensley’s graduation, Kirsten Graper ’02 took over the assistant’s job of building the database—taking multiple digital photographs of each coin and mounting them in that database.

As of December 2000, the team had roughly 315 coins fully cataloged. By December 2001, Lott says he will have the full collection—a total of 6,000 images—recorded and available online.

When the project is complete, anyone who has access to the Internet will be able to visit the Website and search for coins by type, material, or era. Each record will be accompanied by a digital image, a few of which will be presented in a three-dimensional format that will allow the viewer to manipulate the image with a computer mouse, as if the coin were being held in the hand.

The completion date is set to coincide with the beginning of the spring semester in 2002, Lott says, when students will be able to study the coins in a seminar, Classical Civilization 300: Ancient Money. The new course will investigate "ancient coins from an economic, political, and artistic standpoint," explains the course description. Students will question how and why so many coins have survived from antiquity and will learn how coins are cataloged and displayed in museums today.

Research projects completed during the course will be added to the online database, expanding the information available from type, era, and material to more scholarly analysis of the coins and the cultures that left them behind.

The project is exciting on many levels, says Lott. "It’s so rare that you can teach a whole collection and have the physical pieces accessible as well. You can work on a broad scale or on a deep scale with one piece. And it’s a chance for the college and for the museum to put the collection out there for people to use even if they are not here."