One the more difficult parts of doing field archaeology is figuring out how old things are. There are a number of common techniques, such as radiocarbon dating which can be used to provide a rough date for organic materials like wood and seeds. Often we date artifacts stylistically since the manner in which people make things like pottery, stone tools, and houses changes through time. However, most of these techniques only provide a range of possible dates, often covering spans of decades or even centuries.
Coins provide an unusual dating possibility because they can often be dated to a much shorter period of time, sometimes even to a single year. We have to be careful in using coins as dating devices, however, because they are usually in use long after their manufacture. You still occasionally get US pennies with “wheat ears” on the reverse in change at stores even though they went out of use a few years before I was born (i.e., a long time ago, I guess I’m dating myself!).
In Operation N, we found a very nicely preserved coin which we think is datable to a very short time period in the early third century AD. We don’t have an expert numismatist on site, but Willis was able to track down a very similar coin on an internet database. If anyone knows better, let us know!
Our best interpretation at this time is that our find is a bronze coin with the bust of Elagabalus on the obverse and the initials “S.C.” on the reverse.
Willis explained to me that not all Roman coinage was minted from precious metals and much like today the Roman senate minted coins that were worth less than their denomination. In these cases the reverse of the coin was inscribed with “S.C.” or “Senatus Consulto” meaning “by decree of the Senate”, i.e. the Senate has decreed its worth. This practice seems to peter out by the end of the 3rd century A.D.
Elagabalus or “Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus” (218-222 A.D.) was a young emperor from the city of Emesa (modern day Homs) in the Roman province of Syria. He was installed as emperor at 14 and assisinated by the Praetorian Guard at the age of 18. He was widely regarded as one of the most hated emperors by early historians; his reign was characterized by general debauchery and an attempt to depose Jupiter as the head of the pantheon in favor of a local Syrian diety El-Gabal. We think our coin was minted in Antioch at some point during his reign and helps date the locus in which it was found to a period during or after the early 3rd century A.D.