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Princeton University Acquires Armenian Ancient and Medieval Heritage Coin Collection

The Princeton University Numismatic Collection has acquired the Armenian Heritage Collection of ancient and medieval coins, adding a new strength to the University’s extensive numismatic research holdings.

The Armenian Heritage Collection was assembled to represent the various periods in the pre-modern age when Armenia produced its own coinage or made substantial contributions to the coinage of other powers, according to Princeton Curator of Numismatics Alan Stahl.

Stahl said the acquisition will provide scholars with access to significant materials to study early Armenian civilization, as well as provide new opportunities at Princeton to research ancient and medieval societies.

The earliest coins in the collection are those of the Artaxiad dynasty, which became the largest political power east of Rome in the first century B.C. The coins of most relevance to Princeton’s existing holdings are those minted in the reign of Tigranes the Great, who ruled from the Seleucid capital of Antioch-on-the-Orontes from 95 to 55 B.C.

“The coins of Tigranes from Antioch hold special interest for Princeton because University scholars led the excavations of the site in the 20th century and the University holds more than 30,000 coins found there in our collection,” Stahl said. “One of the great mysteries of the coins from these excavations is the lack of any in the name of Tigranes and the dearth of local municipal coins for the period of his reign.”

“The collection includes coins of three distinct periods, all of interest to the academic concerns of the University,” Stahl said.

Included in the collection are two large silver pieces of Tigranes the Great and 19 bronze coins in his name, as well as examples of rare coins featuring his successors. All of these coins follow the models of the Hellenistic world, with the portrait of the ruler on the front of the coin and a local deity on the back. The writing on the coins is in Greek.

“The acquisition of this interesting and uncommon collection will significantly broaden Princeton’s resources for the study of both the history and the imagery of the classical world,” said Michael Koortbojian, Princeton professor of art and archaeology. “Moreover, this new collection will not only allow students and faculty direct access to primary historical material, but, in the context of Princeton’s broader numismatic holdings, it will provide an important body of material for research into the interactions between the various cultures and societies that comprised the ancient and medieval world.”

The second group of coins in the Armenian Heritage Collection comprises gold solidi of the Byzantine Empire from the sixth through the 11th century.

“Armenians figured prominently in the government of Byzantium, including in the ranks of its important emperors. The addition of these magnificent gold solidi greatly strengthens our holdings of Byzantine coinage, which has constituted a major focus of acquisition in recent years,” Stahl said.

The third component of the collection comprises coins of the medieval kingdom of Cilician Armenia, on the south coast of what is now Turkey. The kingdom, ruled by Roupenid family, had strong ties to its surrounding powers, Byzantine, Islamic and Crusader. These connections are illustrated by a large silver coin in the collection, equivalent to the European groat or the Islamic dirhem. The coin bears on its front an image of the king on horseback in European style, surrounded by a legend in Armenian characters, while on the back it bears writing in Arabic.

“The coins of Cilician Armenia in the new collection complement the Latin Orient Collection of Crusader Coinage that we acquired two years ago, giving us a fuller picture of the interplay of coinages in the medieval eastern Mediterranean,” Stahl said.

The Armenian Heritage Collection was acquired by the Princeton University Numismatic Collection with funds from the Friends of Princeton University Library and matching funds provided by the University’s Program in Hellenic Studies with the support of the Stanley J. Seeger Hellenic Fund. The Numismatic Collection is part of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections in Princeton University’s Firestone Library.

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