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Thousands of ancient tokens (labelled tesserae, spintriae, symbola, ‘monetiform’ objects, etc) today sit largely forgotten within museum collections worldwide. Tokens continue to be found on archaeological excavations across the Mediterranean, although their poorly understood status often means they are consigned to the miscellanea of excavation reports. But this neglect belies the role tokens have had in antiquity and beyond, constituting social relations and forming the material fabric of society. Tokens of various designs enabled economic, political, religious and cultural life within ancient society. Their proper analysis is a prerequisite for understanding how ancient society was materially constituted, but little research has been done in this area; even the definition of a token in the classical world remains uncertain. Given that tokens in various guises have been used throughout history, a proper understanding of these objects is important for the understanding of antiquity as well as past societies more broadly. Moreover, as the world becomes increasingly concerned with alternative currencies (e.g. Bitcoin, the Bristol pound), and how these media create communities and value systems that operate alongside or beyond ‘official’ governmental infrastructure, an analysis of this older media becomes important for contextualisation.

The Token Communities project will provide the first extensive, multi-regional analysis of tokens or ‘monetiform’ objects in the ancient Mediterranean. We will examine the active roles of these objects in constituting numerous aspects of social life, as well as their importance to economic, political, social and cultural history. The project will focus on the Hellenistic world (c. 323-30 BC), and the Roman world prior to late antiquity (first century BC - AD 284). Combining a close analysis of the objects and their known archaeological contexts with a theoretically informed approach to the past, the project will focus on the following questions:

  • What were the defining characteristics of tokens within the ancient world?
  • What political, economic, religious, cultural and social roles did tokens play in the Roman and the Hellenistic worlds?
  • How did these objects enable and actively contribute to social life and the formation of different communities?
  • What can the study of ancient tokens contribute to the study of alternative currencies more broadly?

The project, which is cross-regional and multi-period in its approach, will also investigate why tokens appear at particular moments in time and within particular areas; for instance why they may have been most widely used in the Roman imperial period. By working inside of an interdisciplinary, international research network the project will raise the profile of tokens and their historical potential, forming a foundation for their use in research across numerous disciplines, and their display within museums, bringing these objects into wider public focus.

The Token Communities Project is divided into several sub-projects, each assigned to a different member of the reseach team.