Silver Drachma, Alexander the Great (Hellenistic Greece, 336-323 BCE)

As it has done several times in the past, Professor Jennifer Borland’s Fall survey class, ART 2613, included student research on objects in the permanent collection. This spring, we are featuring student work both on the blog and in the galleries: check the museum website’s calendar to find out when you can hear students present about their research in person!

This week’s post is based on work completed by Stacy Bush, Shelby Hinton, Denyae Orey, and Matthew Trudel. They researched a Hellenistic drachma, a silver coin minted during the reign of Alexander the Great. What was it like to visit the Postal Plaza Gallery and see the coin? “I was really surprised by how small it was when I saw it in person,” one of the students admitted. (One of our go-to words for the OSU Art Collection, you may remember, is “unexpected.”)

Drachma, Alexander the Great. Hellenistic Greece (336-323 BCE). Silver, 18mm, 4.22g. Gift of Svetlana Salerno, 2011.008.001.

Drachma, Alexander the Great. Hellenistic Greece (336-323 BCE). Silver, 18mm, 4.22g. Gift of Svetlana Salerno, 2011.008.001.

This silver 18mm coin originates from Greece during the Hellenistic period, (336-313 BCE). Coins like this one, with the head of Heracles on the obverse and Zeus seated on the reverse, helped unify Alexander’s rapidly expanding empire and made claims about his divine right to the throne.

The Macedonian Empire at the moment of Alexander’s succession to the throne, in 336 BCE.

The Macedonian Empire at the moment of Alexander’s succession to the throne, in 336 BCE.

Alexander took the throne of the Macedonian Empire after the assassination of his father, Philip II of Macedon. Over the course of his reign, he built one of the largest empires of the ancient world.

Pouring molten metal into a mold.

Pouring molten metal into a mold.

Coins in this period were made by pouring molten metal into a mold. The irregularities around the edge of the coin reflect the makers’ lack of concern for precise replication. Because the value of the coin was based on the real value of the metal it contained, forgery of the coin’s form was not a significant concern.

Today, the value of ancient coins varies widely depending on condition, quality, rarity, materials, and other factors. We can get a sense of the range of those values from a quick eBay search!

detail, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Doors, Baptistry of St. John, Florence, Italy, finished 1422.

detail, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Doors, Baptistry of St. John, Florence, Italy, finished 1422.

We were drawn to this coin as a research topic because we were interested in how considering it as art made us think about it differently. Compared to, for example, the baptistry doors created by Lorenzo Ghiberti in Renaissance Florence, the silver drachma does not immediately seem like art because it wasn’t intended to be seen as art when it was created. At the time this coin was struck, coins were just usable objects, although the power they held did come in part from their imagery. Reconsidering the drachma as art recognizes that the status of objects, and therefore our relationship to them, changes over time.

The drachma is currently on view in “Sharing a Journey: Building the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art Collection,” at the Postal Plaza Gallery in downtown Stillwater. The exhibition is up until May 25, 2014.

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About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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