Georgia Gold Rush coin sets new record

A coin struck in 1830 during the Georgia Gold Rush has sold at auction for a record price of $480,000. The previous record set in 2013 was $329,000. The gold coin about the size of a modern nickel valued at $2.50 (a quarter Eagle) has been in private collections in the Midwest and West Coast since the 1970s. The new buyer is a private collector who wishes to remain anonymous except for one detail: he or she is from Georgia, so the coin is going back to its home state for the first time in at least 50 years.

The Georgia Gold Rush was sparked in 1828 when gold was discovered in Dahlonega, north Georgia, then Cherokee territory. Mining operations cropped up everywhere, illegal  incursions into Cherokee land. The Indian Removal Act legislating the forced relocation of all Native American nations east of the Mississippi to Oklahoma was passed in 1830, a direct result of the gold strike and the flood of white prospectors.

The area was short of currency. It operated largely on a barter economy, with banks keeping the limited number of coins imported to the area out of circulation so they could use them to pay import duties. Getting good value from gold dust and nuggets by bartering them was challenging, to say the least. Impurities in the raw material made weighing and assay inaccurate.

When the first gold rush in the United States, the Carolina Gold Rush of the early 1800s, had taken off, the US Mint set up a federal branch in Charlotte to process the raw gold into gold coins, but the federal response to the success of the Georgia mines was slow. Miners had to transport unrefined gold to the only national mint in Philadelphia for processing, a long, dangerous journey, and pay a steep price in express shipment and insurance charges.

Enter Templeton Reid, a silversmith, machinist, inventor, clockmaker and gunsmith who lived and worked in Milledgeville, then the capital of the state of Georgia. He had the idea of starting up a mint to convert the raw gold into coins of $2.5, $5 and $10 dollars, matching the denominations of the US mint’s gold Eagles. To that end, he built an apparatus that struck coins from gold dust, boldly stamped “GEORGIA 1830 GOLD” on the obverse, and the minter’s name “T. REID,” the value and “ASSAYER” on the reverse. This was the first private mint since Ephraim Brasher of New York’s foray into doubloons in 1787.

Reid’s mint opened in Milledgeville in July 1830, moving shortly thereafter to Gainesville, about 10 miles from the epicenter of the gold mining district. His coins quickly went into circulation and things were going well for minter and miner alike until August 16th, 1830, when a letter to the Georgia Courier by an anonymous writer calling himself “No Assayer” claimed that he had had one of Reid’s $10 coins assayed at the federal mint and found that its real value was $9.38. The $2.50 and $5 coins were similarly short. He accused Reid of making what I guess he thought was a usurious profit of 7% which, even if true, would have been on the very low end of the costs incurred by miners to send their gold to the Philly mint, while offering enormous advantages in speed and convenience of the conversion.

Reid wrote an incensed rebuttal to these accusations which was published on September 11th, 1830. No Assayer came back at him on September 20th, this time upping the ante to accuse Reid of violating the Constitution of the United States and of offensively suggesting that “the Mint of the United States, managed by men of strictest integrity, and chosen for their knowledge in the science of mineralogy, and bound by the oaths and bond for their faithful discharge of the duties connected with the department of government, is beyond a doubt wrong.”

The anonymous writer never offered proof of his putative mint assay and the newspaper just printed the back-and-forth without investigation or comment. In truth, Reid put more gold in his coins than the federal mints put in theirs and to ensure the most possible purity, he never added alloys. Any purity issues were inherent to the raw material and the result of limited technology Reid had access to in the assay of the miners’ gold.

Still, the damage was done. The public fight had tarnished Reid’s reputation and banks and shops began to refuse his coin. Three months after it opened, the Reid mint folded. It would eight years before the federal government opened a branch of the mint in Dahlonega. Reid went back to his previous business endeavors, building cotton gins, manufacturing and repairing gin equipment.

Out of thousands minted in those few brief months, today there are about 25 or so surviving $2.50 Reid coins, and fewer than 10 of the $5 and $10 ones. The one that just set the record is the only example of its issue in mint condition and is indeed the finest graded Templeton Reid coin of any denomination.

Smithsonian releases 2.8 million free images and more

The Smithsonian Institution has released 2.8 million images from its digital collection for broad public use, and that’s just for starters. The Smithsonian Open Access initiative removes copyright restrictions from images and data, releasing its vast database into the public domain with a Creative Commons Zero license, meaning digital files can be used in any way, including for commercial purposes, without requiring permission or even attribution.

Museums like the Metropolitan, Getty and Rijksmuseum have been making high resolution images of their collections available online for personal or non-profit use in recent years, including the Smithsonian which already has more than 4.7 million images from its collection available for personal use. The Smithsonian Open Access program expands the scope of digitization by a cultural institution, extending the use license to CC0 for nearly 3 million of those images, plus much more.  Any digital asset owned by the Smithsonian — research data, text, sound recordings, 3D models and more — is being designated open access. More will be added on an ongoing basis, with more than 3 million images designated open access by the end of the year.

All of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research centers, libraries, archives and the National Zoo contributed images or data to this launch. The program includes content across the arts, sciences, history, culture, technology and design, from portraits of historic American figures to 3D scans of dinosaur skeletons.

Visit the Smithsonian Open Access portal to search the digital collections for high-resolution 2D and 3D images. You can also browse by platforms like Learning Lab for K-12 educational resources and Figshare for research datasets. The Smithsonian has also published open-source tools for the creation of 3D content. Use Voyager to view one the museum’s 2,200 3D models or to author and publish your own.

Open access furthers the Smithsonian’s mission which has been the same since its founding in 1846: for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.“ Remarkably, the Smithsonian’s founder James Smithson, an English chemist and mineralogist who died in 1829, provided some blueprints for the initiative. His biographer Heather Ewing talks about Smithson’s view that the natural world could only ever be understood with many people participating in, assembling, and sharing information. Smithson used commonly found objects when conducting his experiments so others could replicate his experiments as he sought to understand everything from snake venom to ancient Egyptian pigments to improved methods for making coffee.

“It is only by exchange and mutual assistance that naturallists [sic] can possibly ever succeed in assembling together a collection of subjects of their study, which nature has made so numerous, and disseminated in such various and distant parts of the world,” James Smithson

Mystery of the Breton inscription still mysterious

The case of the mysterious inscription on a boulder on the Breton coast may have been cracked, but it still continues to puzzle. Visible only at low tide, the boulder in the village of Plougastel-Daoulas is inscribed with 20 lines of text in capital letters. There are also two dates, 1786 and 1787, and two drawings, a sailboat and a sacred heart. The dates seemed to indicate the age of the inscription, but the text itself was undecipherable. The letters were mostly from the regular French alphabet, but some were upside-down or reversed and there also appeared to be some Ø vowels found in Danish and Norwegian.

Local historians and archaeologists were stumped, so last year Mayor Dominique Cap of Plougastel launched a competition, appealing to historians, polyglots and cryptographers around the world to decipher the inscription. The entries would be judged by a jury of academics and an expert from Brittany’s archaeology department, and the most plausible solution awarded €2,000.

The competition caught on like wildfire. Thousands of emails were sent by would-be decipherers, with a final tally of 61 complete translations submitted from France, the US, Romania, Spain, Norway, Russia, Italy, Brazil and Thailand, among other countries. On Monday the municipality announced that two winning submissions had been selected by the jury: one from Celtic expert and retired English teacher Noël René Toudic and the other from local author Roger Faligot and artist Alain Robet. The winning solutions tell a similar story, but they’re quite different in their particulars.

Toudic departed from the premise that the inscription was written by a native Breton of limited literacy so he wrote phonetically. It is a memorial to a soldier named Serge Le Bris, engraved by his comrade Grégoire Haloteau. The key part of Toudic’s translation: “Serge died when, badly trained to row, last year his boat was overturned by the wind.” The years mark the date of Serge’s death and the date of the inscription.

Faligot and Robet’s proposed solution is also a memorial to a fallen friend. It is a more complex account of a tragedy and one not written in Breton.

Their translation does not contain names, but speaks of a somebody who was “struck and died” while “at sea at the heart of this violent storm” at a place “near the fortified beach”. The engraver also speaks of having “come to this country” and being taken prisoner.

“Because of the war situation between Britain and France over to the independence struggle in America, there were lots of naval battles just outside the bay,” explains Faligot, author of 50 books, including a history of Brest published in 2016.

“You had lots of prisoners from Wales, Cornwall and England. Not necessarily English-speakers, but also speaking Celtic languages.”

Faligot believes the engraving may be the work of a Welsh prisoner who spoke a language very similar to Breton in order to honour a companion.

“He wanted to do something to say that his friend had drowned that way, and it was extremely sad. He’s also furious with the navy or the army, because he thinks they’re responsible for what happened.”

Neither winner was able to translate the entirety of the inscription, so there’s more work to do. The town also wants to research the names in Toudic’s solution to see if there are any records of a Serge Le Bris and Grégoire Haloteau from the late 18th century.

The not-tomb of Romulus: Part the Third

In 2019, Boni’s “crate” captured the attention of Patrizia Fortini, an archaeologist with the Parco Archeological del Colosseo, who was studying his turn-of-the-century excavation records. Boni’s description and the drawings he made, like a cross-section illustrating the stratigraphy of the casket and cylinder in relation to the curia and other finds, underscored that this simple tufa box must have held great importance to be located in the very heart of Rome’s political and religious life. The shrine is in a direct line to the Lapis Niger only yards away, another indicator of its symbolic importance. Fortini also deduced from the drawings that the box was inside a designed structure, ie, a hypogeum or an underground temple.

In November 2019, the excavation began. The Bartoli staircase was dismantled, revealing the nucleus of the ancient staircase Boni had found and structural elements of the portico that had once faced the Curia Julia. Behind a brick wall built by Bartoli to protect the site, the team rediscovered the tufa sarcophagus and cylindrical block.

Both are made of Capitoline tufa quarried in situ, which is about as local a material as you can get, and which attests to their great age. As Rome’s territories expanded, they turned to richer sources of stone outside the city center instead of gutting the soft, friable tufa out of the Capitoline and Palatine. Large blocks of grey tufa on the south and west sides may have been part of the structure of the hypogeum itself.

As far as what might link this empty sarcophagus with the cult of Romulus, the biggest clue comes from a lost ancient text by the prolific polymath Marcus Terrentius Varro (116-27 B.C.) who wrote at least 74 works in more than 600 volumes on many topics including the Latin language, philosophy, what in the Middle Ages would become known as the nine liberal arts, architecture, agriculture, religion and history. His chronology of the consuls established the founding date of Rome as 753 B.C. and while there were plenty of other proposed dates, Varro’s is the one that stuck.

The only complete work of his that has survived is Three Books on Agriculture, in which, as an aside to illustrate what a genius this guy was, he postulated the existence of microscopic creatures that enter the body and cause disease. We have only fragments from his Antiquities of Human and Divine Things, mostly quotes in Augustine of Hippo’s City of God, full name: On the city of God against the pagans, a rebuttal of the widespread belief that the sack of Rome in 410 was the result of the abandonment of the city’s traditional gods. Smaller quotes from Varro’s Antiquities can be found in a number of surviving ancient text. In one from a scholia (scholarly annotation) of Horace’s Epodi XVI, Varro states that Romulus was buried behind the Rostra. That’s where the hypogeal chamber with the sarcophagus is located.

Making a conclusive link between this find and the symbolic Tomb of Romulus is likely impossible, as there are simply too many variables and unknowns. This incredibly long-winded extendopost only scratches the surface of them. Nonetheless, it’s a discovery of great antiquity and significance.

Excavations will pick up again at the end of April. Archaeologists will be looking at the stratigraphic section on the west side of the chamber in particular. They will also look under the Curia Julia itself. Bartoli noted that there were two trapdoors in the Curia. Both are in line with hypogeum and monumental blocks of tufa are visible through them today. It’s possible those blocks were part of the underground temple’s back wall.

The not-tomb of Romulus: Part the Second

The legends of the founding of Rome have come down to us from ancient chroniclers, but the earliest extant accounts we have come from the 2nd century B.C., more than 600 years after the supposed events. Those authors refer to earlier histories, now lost, but it doesn’t exactly help identify any potential kernels of truth. It just adds to the cacophony of unknowns.

Here, for example, is Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus writing in the 1st century B.C. (Roman Antiquities I.72):

But as there is great dispute concerning both the time of the building of the city and the founders of it, I have thought it incumbent on me also not to give merely a cursory account of these things, as if they were universally agreed on. For Cephalon of Gergis, a very ancient writer, says that the city was built in the second generation after the Trojan war by those who had escaped from Troy with Aeneas, and he names as the founder of it Romus, who was the leader of the colony and one of Aeneas’ sons; he adds that Aeneas had four sons, Ascanius, Euryleon, Romulus and Remus. And Demagoras, Agathyllus and many others agree with him as regards both the time and the leader of the colony. But the author of the history of the priestesses at Argos and of what happened in the days of each of them says that Aeneas came into Italy from the land of the Molossians with Odysseus and became the founder of the city, which he named after Romê, one of the Trojan women. He says that this woman, growing weary with wandering, stirred up the other Trojan women and together with them set fire to the ships. And Damastes of Sigeum and some others agree with him. But Aristotle, the philosopher, relates that some of the Achaeans, while they were doubling Cape Malea on their return from Troy, were overtaken by a violent storm, and being for some time driven out of their course by the winds, wandered over many parts of the sea, till at last they came to this place in the land of the Opicans which is called Latinium, lying on the Tyrrhenian sea. And being pleased with the sight of land, they hauled up their ships, stayed there the winter season, and were preparing to sail at the beginning of spring; but when their ships were set on fire in the night and they were unable to sail away, they were compelled against their will to fix their abode in the place where they had landed. This fate, he says, was brought upon them by the captive women they were carrying with them from Troy, who burned the ships, fearing that the Achaeans in returning home would carry them into slavery. Callias who wrote of the deeds of Agathocles, says that Romê, one of the Trojan women who came into Italy with the other Trojans, married Latinus, the king of the Aborigines, by whom she had three son, Romus, Romulus and Telegonus, . . . and having built a city, gave it the name of their mother. Xenagoras, the historian, writes that Odysseus and Circê had three sons, Romus, Anteias and Ardeias, who built three cities and called them after their own names. Dionysius of Chalcis names Romus as the founder of the city, but says that according to some this man was the son of Ascanius, and according to others the son of Emathion. There are others who declare that Rome was built by Romus, the son of Italus and Leucaria, the daughter of Latinus.

If you think that was a long quote, consider that that’s just the paragraph about the Greek historians, and he didn’t even include all of them. He goes on to relay some of the conflicting stories and dates in Roman accounts. (A moment of silence for all these books we will never get to read.)

By the time of the late Republic, the Romulus legend was thoroughly ingrained in Roman culture. Although chroniclers still debated the veracity of various elements and versions, they expressed no doubt on the historicity of Romulus himself. There were several important cult sites dedicated to the founder: the temple to Jupiter Stator built by Romulus after the peace with Titus Tatius, the wild fig tree the twins had been found under was transplanted to the Forum, the humble wood and thatch house Romulus had built for himself on the Palatine still stood and would continue to be a noted city landmark at least into the 4th century A.D., the Lapis Niger, an ancient shrine in the Forum featuring a truncated tufa pillar inscribed in Latin so old that nobody in the late Republic could read it, was alternately said to mark the spot of Romulus’ death or grave, that of his adoptive father Faustulus, or that of Hostus Hostilius (father of the third king, Tullus Hostilius), who had died heroically fighting off the Sabines.

The question of Romulus’ death was just as much debated as every other aspect of the founding. Livy and Plutarch relay accounts that, accompanied by mighty thunderclaps, Romulus was assumed bodily into heaven and became the god Quirinus, protector of Rome. They also proffers another possibility: that that was just a story told to appease the masses after Romulus’ sudden disappearance, when really the senators had killed Romulus, cut his body into small pieces and smuggled chunks of him in the folds of their togas to dispose of the evidence of their regicide.

The lack of a physical body was no barrier to a tomb, however. A cenotaph — an empty tomb memorializing the dead — or heroon — a shrine dedicated to a hero built over his ostensible tomb — required no bodily remains, and whatever the real origins and ages of these relics of Romulus, they were revered as sacred sites.

Between natural disasters, unnatural ones like the Gallic sack in 390 B.C., an ever-expanding population, normal wear and tear and shifts in fashion, the architecture of the city never stood still. The Lapis Niger was covered, at first after it was damaged in the sack, again, possibly by Sulla, and then entirely obscured by Julius Caesar’s major reorientation of the Forum. The massive markets, basilicas and forums of the Imperial age needed deep foundations, and much of Rome’s earliest archaeology must have been destroyed during those construction programs.

After the fall of Western Empire, the city cannibalized itself. Ancient structures were left to ruin, built onto, deliberately demolished or scavenged for their materials. Layers upon layers of construction, flood silt, disaster rubble built up over 1,500 years, raising ground level far above the earliest remains and creating a stratigraphic maze below.

The first to attempt to crack the complex conundrum of what was under the Forum from what era was archaeologist Giacomo Boni, director of excavations in the Roman Forum from 1898 until his death in 1925. Boni’s work was groundbreaking in more than the literal sense as he was the first to undertake a systematic analysis of the stratigraphy of the Forum, the archaeological nucleus of the city. He unearthed the two most ancient sites in Rome: a tufa shrine he identified as the Vulcanal and the Lapis Niger.

In his 1899 excavation, the results of which he published in 1900, Boni noted the discovery of a tufa coffin and cylinder under what was left of the ancient staircase in front of the Curia Julia.

3.6 meters [11.8 feet] from the nucleus of the staircase, a rectangular tufa casket or basin 1.4 meters long [4.6 feet], .7 meters [2.3 feet] wide and .77 meters [2.5 feet] high was found, in front of which rises a cylindrical trunk of tufa .75 meters [2.5 feet] in diameter.

The tufa case contained pebbles, shards of coarse pots, fragments of pottery from Campania, a certain amount of pectunculus valves [sea snail shells] and a piece of red colored plaster.

That’s all he had to say about it. Boni recorded the find but did not connect it to Romulus or any other ancient monument, and moved right along to record the myriad other finds he’d made in his pioneering excavation of one of the most archaeologically dense spots in the world.

In the 1930s, archaeologist Alfonso Bartoli was directed by Mussolini to peel the church additions off the Curia Julia and restore it as close as possible to its ancient design. He built a new staircase in front of it over the nucleus of the ancient one. And over the modest little tufa sarcophagus and cylinder Boni had unearthed.

Bartoli could so easily have done what 2,500 years of Roman builders before him had done and destroyed those remains in the process. They were deep underground, visually unremarkable, entirely out of sync with Mussolini’s fantasy of the shiny white marble imperial city, and basically unknown. Instead, he kept the shrine intact and safe, building brick pillars to sustain a soffit made of iron beams and perforated wooden planks.

Even though nobody knew about it, Bartoli’s protective structure was securely in place when the excavation team from the Parco Archeological del Colosseo began to retrace Boni’s steps in November 2019.