Amphora: Flipping a Coin—Building a Numismatic Database with Undergraduate Researchers

This article was originally published in Amphora 11.1. It has been edited slightly to adhere to current SCS blog conventions.

That sinking feeling when you realize you’ve completely underestimated the scope of a project? I’m far more familiar with it than I’d like to admit. It was what I felt when I began analyzing the data I gathered in the library and vaults of the American Numismatic Society on provincial coinage minted under the Severan dynasty. I’d received a grant from my home institution to place the images and legends on provincial coinage in conversation with that of imperial coinage. I thought by doing so, I could bring to life the negotiations of ideology between local concerns and imperial propaganda.

It was a good idea, an exciting new methodology. What I failed to realize is the quantity of data I had to consider in analyzing provincial and imperial coinage. My philologically focused graduate school training had not prepared me for this—in order to analyze the relationships in any systematic way I would need to keep an impossibly large body of data in my head.

I don’t remember whether I’d heard the term “digital humanities” in the fall of 2007 when I faced the mountain of unwieldy evidence I’d gathered, but if I had, my response was likely negative. Then, classicists might have used computers to gain easy access to ancient texts and journal articles. We might even have used technology to compile vocabularies from online texts and comprehensively analyze the contexts of particular words, but we did so in isolation. Ours is a solitary discipline. We work alone, wrestling with our ideas in the silence of our offices and only unveiling our analyses in paper presentations that sometimes echo through conference rooms without any satisfying response from our audience. We might speak to a colleague about an idea and I think we all dream of engagement with the profession once our conclusions are in print, but finding our evidence, testing our theses, writing our findings, these things we do alone.

Digital humanities projects for all their varied formats, contents, and objectives, are based upon this one simple acknowledgement: we work better together than alone. Collaboration is not just a question of hatching an idea and working with your IT people to build a framework through which to publish your data online. The best digital humanities projects are from their inception both collaborative and interdisciplinary. They tap into the marvels of modern technology to visualize and sort our data in such a way that we can still pursue the types of questions that have characterized our discipline for centuries, but we can do so in a less compartmentalized way. The information culled from these projects frees us from anecdotal generalizations and allows us to work more systematically.

I wish I'd had those insights back in 2007. They would have perhaps allowed me to sidestep some of the blunders that I made along the way: not backing up my data properly and losing hundreds of hours of work; not seeking the guidance of other people who were more advanced in like projects; not making my data linkable to other digital humanities projects like Perseus or Pleiades. "Fools rush in," as the saying goes.

But I had to start somewhere, even if for the first two years I was groping my way through the darkness. I knew that I just couldn’t do what I wanted to do alone and certainly not without technological tools. A database, yes, that could help me to analyze my evidence systematically. But I knew that I was staring down about 2,300 different provincial coins and hundreds of imperial coin types. Keying in that information and then analyzing it and writing up my findings while maintaining my teaching schedule was out of the question. On top of that, I wasn’t entirely confident in my methodology. Wouldn’t it be great if I could share my ideas and data with other scholars who specialized in the Severan period or imperial ideology, to get their feedback before I’d invested so much time and energy in the project?

That was my conundrum when I met Susan Stevens, an archaeologist at Randolph College who had come to our university to discuss her findings from the excavation she conducted in Carthage. Her presentation reminded me how skillfully archaeologists manage and interpret mountains of data. And so I spoke with her over coffee the next morning to find out her secret. “Undergraduate researchers,” she said, and smiled at me as I first balked and then ticked off on my fingers all the reasons why undergraduate researchers were a terrible idea.

I’d never heard of humanities professors working with undergraduate researchers beyond the individual thesis, but my impression of how using junior researchers worked in the sciences was largely negative. For instance, when my husband wrote his engineering thesis, his professor assigned him a topic, but related to his own research, of course. My husband had done all the experiments, interpretation, and writing, but nevertheless, his professor was listed as first author in the resulting publication. To me, this was exploitation, pure and simple.

And then there was the issue of finding an undergraduate whom I could trust to enter my data accurately and analyze it with any degree of sophistication. The data I’d gathered came from Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum catalogs, which listed the contents of coin cabinets around the world. They were written in German, French, Italian, and Spanish. It was hard enough to find an undergrad whom I trusted with the ancient Greek legends on the coins, but where would I find one who could muddle through all those modern languages, too?

And then there was the question of interpretation. To say anything intelligent about these coins, a researcher would need a solid grounding in iconography, the historical context, and imperial propaganda. My researcher would also need to know something of Roman imperial numismatics. That’s a pretty tall order for an undergraduate researcher.

Susan listened patiently and then explained that she checked over the information her students entered, but that the students did her a great service in simply entering the data. By doing so, they became familiar with the information and then used the database to ask and answer their own questions. “All fine and good for an archaeologist who doesn't have to rely so much on written texts,” I thought. Using undergraduate researchers simply couldn't work for my project. It would be more hassle to train them than it would be to do the work myself.

And then one day in my sophomore-level survey course on the Roman Empire,
I placed an image of a coin of the emperor Septimius Severus before the students (RIC 4a.168b, 113). I was just about to explain the propagandistic messages that the coin conveyed to an informed Roman audience when I heard a student laughing in the back of the classroom. I turned to see what the commotion was about. He was laughing at the coin. 

“It takes real balls to make a statement like that,” he said, pointing to the reverse image on the coin.  

In fact, he was right, though I hoped that I would have explained it in a slightly more sophisticated manner. The image showed the emperor on horseback, trampling a Persian foe, surrounded by the inscription VIRTVS AVG, which translates to something like “the manliness / courage / masculinity of the Emperor.” The student was laughing, he explained, because the historians of the period belittled the Emperor’s Persian campaigns, portraying them as ineffectual and self-destructive. This coin, he concluded, was damage control that attempted to portray the campaigns and the emperor in as flattering terms as possible.

“Yes, exactly!” I managed to sputter out, amazed that this student who had little Latin and no formal training in Roman history, numismatics, or iconography managed such a sophisticated interpretation. Suddenly, undergraduate researchers making a meaningful contribution both to my own work and to scholarship in general didn’t seem like such a laughable idea. But how—how had this young man come to his interpretation? The answer eluded me until one night the very simple answer presented itself as I was drifting off to sleep. That student knew how to interpret the coin because he’d watched me do it in class for the last ten weeks. He knew how to do it because I had taught him how. And if I'd taught him how, presumably anyone who had taken my sophomore-level class, provided they were interested and motivated, of course, could do the same thing.

This one experience so humbled and excited me (maybe my work is not so obtuse or specialized? maybe I can get that student to help me build the database!) that I spent the next several weeks figuring out how to address the various obstacles to undergraduate research that I ticked off to Susan Stevens on my fingers.

Historical context? Interpreting messages and iconography? I had assumed that the students in my sophomore-level course required me to contextualize a coin for them, that they needed me to tell them what they were seeing, what the iconography meant, and how that message fit into an emperor's overall propaganda program. That student had employed what he'd learned from the last several weeks, from his regular exposure to numismatic interpretation of legends and iconography. He had learned the historical context of the coin he had interpreted from (gasp!) doing his readings the night before class. Upon reflection, I realized that I should have been more surprised if he hadn’t known how to interpret coinage.

The language issue? When I was honest with myself, I realized that it doesn’t require much language training to read the Latin and Greek legends on imperial and provincial coinage. Really, it takes about a week to train someone to learn the Greek alphabet, some declensions, and numismatic abbreviations. From there, a researcher could consult a dictionary if she ran across a word she didn't recognize. Modern languages required more thought on my part. I learned, however, that my university has an entrance language requirement, and many of my students had already a basic familiarity with a modern language. Their skills were good enough that they were able to translate the catalog entry, especially with the aid of the image of the coin and a dictionary to help them. Once they had translated the catalog entry into English and entered it into the database, the language difficulties disappeared. The student who read German but not French could read all the German entries, and vice versa. My big realization, in other words was this: my student researchers didn't need to have all the skills that I did—they only needed some of them. If I sliced and diced my project, broke it down into more easily digestible chunks, my students could do the work.

The final piece of the puzzle, the responsible mentoring of undergraduate researchers in the humanities, fell into place after a conversation with our Dean of Undergraduate Research. She is a Renaissance scholar by training and so she was open to a humanities project and was willing to invest in equipment and software, and even reward students with academic credit and a stipend to work with me. Thankfully, she also had the vision of someone who had learned much from the STEM approaches to undergraduate research, especially in terms of collaborative learning. And she thought big and pushed me to do the same. I asked for two FileMaker licenses and stipends for two undergraduate researchers ($1200 each for 120 hours) to help me key in the data for five provincial cities, really about $3000 worth of support. I walked out of her office with five researchers, fifteen cities, promises for equipment, licenses, and opportunities for my researchers to train the next generation of researchers—something to the tune of ten times the amount I'd asked. Her only requirement was that the researchers create their own projects based upon what they had learned from the experience of working with me and present them at our Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Five years later, the Severan Database Project consists of four databases, three of which were compiled by my undergraduate researchers. The fourth, "Severan Hoard Analysis," was compiled by my colleague and friend, Clare Rowan, but expanded by my researchers. Clare employed this database in her recent monograph (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and because of her collegiality, I also used it in my own (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). The undergraduate researchers? I have worked with over twenty in the past five summers, most of whom have indeed hatched their own research projects that were in conversation with Clare's or mine. At our university's own undergraduate research symposia, my researchers consistently sweep top honors in the humanities division. But they have also presented their work at nationally competitive undergraduate research symposia like Sunoikisis, as well as at regional professional conferences like the meetings of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South. Along the way, they have made genuine contributions not just to my own work, but to scholarship in general. Indeed, I am currently publishing an article with one of my undergraduate researchers in a forthcoming collection of essays on Women and the Roman Army. And she will get top billing because the work that she did is her own, but she couldn't have done it without my guidance and support.

Because I came to know these students and their work so well, I was able to write meaningful letters of recommendation to prominent MA and PhD programs around the country. It was their own work, however, their determination and perseverance that earned them full fellowships in those programs. Not all choose our profession, but they have been nonetheless enriched from the experience—I know this because we're all still friends on Facebook and I took a poll. They cite their undergraduate research as one of the primary factors in help them land paid internships at the Smithsonian and funding for law school, MA degrees in education, museum studies, and information sciences.

So, that feeling when you realize that something really good came out of a totally overwhelming situation? When you've helped yourself and someone else by rethinking the way our discipline has traditionally worked? That's amazing.

(Header Image: Detail of a larger than life-size bronze statue of Septimius Severus depicted in heroic nudity, Cyprus Museum, Nicosia. Image by Carole Raddato via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Julie Langford's picture

Julie Langford is associate professor of Roman History at the University of South Florida and author of Maternal Megalomania: Julia Domna and the Imperial Politics of Motherhood (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). You may reach her at

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