Thursday, December 16, 2004

Sciurus



Last image for the day, and our first temporary diversion from Platonic-solid ludic objects. What is it? Well, under the medieval Hapsburg dukes, the Vienna mint got very creative and started to put out not just one type of official silver penny (as had been common in other countries), but all sorts of different designs, mostly simple representations of emblematic, even totemic creatures like the local squirrels, ravens, eagles, and dragons (still glimpsed in the forests, occasionally). Amusingly albeit meaningfully, because of the religious precedent of the coin designs and dies with which they were stamped, the animal figures are usually in the center of a cross, which you can just barely see in this example.

This side of the coin is the reverse; the other side has an abstract squarish shape identifying it with the ruler and kingdom. Here and in many other Indo-European coins, it is clearly this reverse that is given special weight by the moneyer, the person who weighed the silver planchet and stamped it; the more concave side of a hammered coin has typically been the most important for identification since Western coinage was invented in Lydia (Turkey) in the 7th century BC. Other silver hammered (stamped) pennies were very popular in Europe at this time, but most were much less abstract. What it says about the assayer of the mint - or Duke Frederick the Handsome (in power 1308-1330) himself - that this critical feature of the coin has been happily taken over by a rodent, I don't know.

Incidentally, 'squirrel' comes to us from Latin 'sciurus.' The Romans must have thought these animals were pretty cute and crafty, because they combined two Greek syllables - skia and oura - to represent them: shadowtail.

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