The Anglo-Ethiopian Society
Lecture - Tuesday 5th April 2011
Ancient Ethiopian Gold Coinage - not only a demonstration of might and statehood
Given by - Wolfgang Hahn
Reviewed by - Gill Davies and Anne Parsons
Twenty two members of the Society visited the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to view the exciting collection of early Aksumite coins housed in the Heberden Coin Room. We were hosted by Dr Julian Baker who is an Assistant Keeper with responsibility for the Medieval and Modern Collection and the study visit was led by Professor Dr Wolfgang Hahn, Emeritus Professor of Numismatics in Vienna.
There are 110 ancient gold coins from Aksum in the collection and Professor Hahn has extensively studied and catalogued them. We were privileged to receive detailed explanations of the history and significance of the coinage and especially to be able to handle them.
This is the best collection of gold Aksumite coins anywhere in the world and most were acquired in 2004 from the Bent Juel-Jensen legacy. Juel-Jensen was born in Denmark, but came to the UK in the 1940s to study medicine. A specialist in infectious diseases, he was the medical member of the Oxford University Travel Society and first visited Ethiopia in the 1970s on an expedition to the rock churches of Tigray. His interests in Ethiopia developed and eventually encompassed antiquities, manuscripts, and coins. During the 1990s he built up a wonderful collection of gold Aksumite coins mainly bought on the London and international coin markets. Stuart Munro-Hay also studied these famous coins. Together, Juel-Jensen, Hahn, and Munro-Hay have published widely and made very significant contributions in this field of study.
Because most of the coins are very small Professor Hahn projected enlarged images on screen during his talk but then we were extremely lucky to have the real items passed around for us to handle and look at in close detail with a magnifier. But it was certainly a case of the coins being counted out and counted back in!
The existence of gold Aksumite coins has been known since 1838 when some were brought back by various travellers. Gold, silver and copper in different proportions were used in the manufacture of the coins and the gold is usually of very high purity. Although Roman models were crossed with Hellenistic traditions, Aksumite coins are important for being the first native African coinage to be minted without direct outside control.
We saw coins dating from about 300 to 610 AD, starting with those of Endubis who was the first King to mint coins. These bear Greek legends and pre-Christian symbols. As Endubis is not known from other sources these coins are an important key to Aksumite history. After Endubis came Aphilas, Ousanas, and Ezanas. Ezanas is possibly the most famous of all the Aksumite kings as it was during his rule that the Kingdom converted to Christianity in about 330. This can be demonstrated by comparing coins where the cross has replaced pagan and pre-Christian symbolism. Some interesting examples included silver/copper coins with gold inlays which were applied on each coin individually by hand. The end of the empire featured coins with inscription in Ge'ez.
On behalf of all those attending, Dorothea McEwan offered thanks to both Dr Baker and Professor Hahn for their generosity in allowing us access to these valuable collections.
Professor Hahn gave a lecture in London a few days later, thus giving those who could not go to Oxford a chance to hear about Aksumite coinage. Here he considered the main pattern of the Aksumite coin typology and compared it with Roman perception.
We believe Professor Hahn will soon publish an article about the collection in the Ashmolean and look forward to learning more.