Ancient Coins of the Silk Road
(British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Many in ancient city Oc Eo of the 1st to 6th century Funan kingdom in Southeast Asia would sport costume jewelry made to look like Roman aurei, but where did they get their inspiration? Archaeologists believe the answer lies along the Silk Road.
You see, Romans had an immense desire and need for Chinese silk and Indian spices, and of course Romans had to use silver and gold coins from their own country to purchase these commodities. In the time since, more than 100 coins from Rome and Byzantium have been discovered in China. In India and Sri Lanka, many of these coins were used as jewelry, and sometimes comprised a considerable portion of a family’s wealth.
Archaeologists have also discovered imitations of Byzantine solidi in tombs across Central Asia. These pieces—made of gold leaf—were usually placed on the mouth and eyes of the dead, with the hopes that the deceased would recover these items in the next world.
But the ability to transcend the realm of the living was not the only supernatural quality attributed to ancient coinage.
When archaeologist Birgitte Borell learned of the Roman coins that were lost in the fall of Saigon in 1975, her interests were piqued. After some investigation, she discovered the coins in the Museum of Vietnamese History in Ho Chi Minh City. She offered the following:
“In addition to connotations of wealth and prosperity, the obverse coin design probably also transported the notion of a potent being with special powers… The importance for the wearer of the pendant lay in the profile head and the power embedded in this image. The foreignness of the design may have contributed to the magic power of the amulet.”
Discoveries in Other Parts of The World
In the mid-forties, an Australian man happened upon several coins from the 10th century Islamic Sultanate of Kilwa on Marchinbar Island (located in the Wessel Islands off of Northern Australia). Located in Tanzania, Kilwa’s economic system was dependent on the exchange of gold, ivory, and slaves before being destroyed by a Portuguese invasion in 1505.
In Iceland, five ancient Roman coins were discovered with the dates ranging from Philip the Arab (r. 244-249) to Diocletian (r. 284-305). Archaeologists believe that these pieces were taken as souvenirs by Viking thieves and deposited here.