A ROMAN COIN FOUND AT SEIP MOUND?


Seip Earthworks as mapped by Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis (1848). The Seip Mound, or the Seip-Pricer Mound as it is sometimes called to distinguish it from the Seip Conjoined Mound excavated by William C. Mils between 1906 and 1909, is the large loaf-shaped mound at the center of the large circular enclosure.

In 1928, just after Henry Shetrone had completed his excavation and restoration of the large Seip Mound, Isaac Abrams and another man whose name has been lost to history found a small, black, metal disc on the surface somewhere near the mound. Some authors have argued that the disc was an ancient Roman coin proving that Romans had something to do with building Ohio’s magnificent earthworks. Was it a Roman coin? And, if so, does that mean that Romans had something to do with building Seip Mound? Clyde Keeler, a medical geneticist and avocational archaeologist, examined the artifact in question in 1969. He published his conclusions in the New England Antiquities Research Association Newsletter in 1972. According to Keelers account, Abrams and a companion walked over the site “kicking rather aimlessly with sticks at the earth last thrown from the mound.” In the loose earth they found a black disc: “it appeared to be metal covered with a thick granite-hard corrosion.” At some point they sold the disc to Ottice Stookey, a jeweler in Washington Court House who gave it to Bennett Kelley. Kelley noticed a winged figure on one face of the disc “in a pose common to Roman coins of the era of Maximinus, who ascended the Roman throne in 235 A.D.” Kelley showed the coin to Keeler who subsequently identified fragments of an inscription on the coin as TOLINUS and TA E ELOIN, which he thought could be Latin and might be translated as something like “Tolinus beware from afar.”

Elgin Watch Company token

Later, Keeler learned from Robert Leonard, Jr. that the coin was not Roman after all. It was, in fact, a merchants token commemorating the 1874 Chicago Inter-State Industrial Exposition. The inscription actually was in English: THE ELGIN WATCH COMPANY OF ELGIN ILLS. The winged figure was not Roman Victory, but a winged and bearded Father Time. The editor of the New England Antiquities Research Association Newsletter declared that now that the “alleged Roman artifact in a Hopewell (Mound-Builder) context” had been determined to be a 19th century advertising token it no longer had any meaning or value. The “elimination of spurious items” from the record of pre-Columbian Old World coins in America, however, was thought to be “of equal value with the finding of genuine ones.” Keeler certainly performed a valuable service in reporting the results of his investigation, but I disagree with the editors assessment of the tokens supposed loss of meaning or value. The 19th century medallion has precisely the same meaning and value for archaeology that it would have had were it an authentic Roman coin, which is to say, practically none.

Seip Mound under excavation in 1925. Note the visitors observing the excavation

It was found on the surface of the ground next to a mound that had been visited by hundreds, if not thousands, of people over the preceding four years. The excavation of Seip Mound was a big story and people came from all over the country to be a part of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the wonderful things being unearthed from the mound by the Ohio History Connection archaeologists. The very best that could be said regarding the context of the alleged Roman coin was that it had been found adjacent to a Hopewell mound. Had it turned out to be an actual Roman coin it would no more have pointed toward a connection between ancient Romans and the Hopewell builders of Seip Mound than the medallion indicates a connection between the Hopewell and the makers of Elgin watches. The late Jeremiah Epstein, an archaeologist at the University of Texas at Austin, reviewed all of the documented discoveries of pre-Columbian coins across North and South America up to 1980 in a paper for the journal Current Anthropology. He concluded that “insofar as coins are concerned, no case can be made for pre-Columbian contact between America and the Mediterranean. When one examines the dates of the coin discoveries, the distribution of the finds, and the times when the coins were minted, the most plausible interpretation is that the coins were lost recently. In fact, most of them appear to have been lost since World War II.” For Epstein, and for archaeologists generally, “the heart of the matter is the absence of a pre-Columbian archaeological context for the putative evidence of Romans in America.” The absence of such a context for the Seip medallion was obvious from the beginning. Yet for Keeler and the editor of the NEARA Newsletter, as well as for other proponents of pre-Columbian Old World contacts, the heart of the matter appears to be something other than the artifacts archaeological context for they were fully prepared to accept the Seip disc as valid evidence for Romans in ancient Ohio until it became clear that it was a 19th century merchants token. Keeler was a scientist, though not an archaeologist, and the publication of his analysis of the Seip Mound coin is, indeed, an important contribution for at least two reasons. First, as the NEARA Newsletter editor observed, it removes from consideration a claim for a link between the Ohio Hopewell and ancient Romans. (Of course that claim was already fairly ridiculous based on the complete absence of any sort of documented Roman influence on the indigenous cultures of America, the absence of any mention of America in the voluminous Roman histories, and the lack of a meaningful archaeological context for the coin.)

Ceramic sculpture of a human face excavated from the Seip Mound. (A 957/123)

Much more importantly, however, Keelers account shows just how easy it is for pre-Columbian contact enthusiasts (or anyone really) to see what they want to see. It only took a little wishful thinking for Father Time to become the Roman goddess Victoria and for a few barely legible letters to become a Latin inscription. Keelers surprisingly candid account of his early studies of the disc reveals how anyone, even a trained scientist, can talk themselves into accepting data of dubious quality if it can be made to support their cherished beliefs. Science requires us to be open to new facts and new ideas even if they dont conform to our expectations. At the same time, however, it requires those new ideas to be subject to careful scrutiny and evaluation before they are accepted. Epsteins review of pre-Columbian Old World coins in America is a textbook example of the proper balance of openness to the consideration of new ideas coupled with a rigorous evaluation of their validity. Context is (almost) everything in archaeology. And the discovery of a coin on the surface of a field, regardless of its antiquity or whether there is also a mound in the same field, “proves nothing other than that it was once lost there.” Brad Lepper References Editor 1972 NEARA News and Editorial Comment. New England Antiquities Research Association Newsletter 7(2):21. Epstein, Jeremiah F. 1980 Pre-Columbian Old World coins in America: an examination of the evidence. Current Anthropology 212(1):1-20. Keeler, Clyde E. 1972 The Seip Mound coin identified. New England Antiquities Research Association Newsletter 7(2):22-24.

Posted December 29, 2014
Topics: Archaeology

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