Getting hold of the Alexander medallion – Sunday Times

Getting hold of the Alexander medallion

Sri Lankan numismatist Prof. Osmund Bopearachchi recounts to Smriti Daniel his great find among the treasures of Mir Zakah
Embossed on the gold coin is the arrogant profile of Alexander the Great. On it, the young conqueror’s features endure: his luxuriant curly hair and the crooked line of his broken nose; his elongated cheeks and large, unblinking eyes. Curiously though, his head is covered in the scalp of an elephant, its trunk curling triumphantly over his brow. Around his neck is the image of the Gorgon, the coiling snakes worn as an aegis. The horn of Ammon protects his temple. The striking image is valued for far more than its obvious beauty. It is believed to be the only portrait actually created during the lifetime of Alexander the Great to survive into modernity. This is Alexander as he saw himself - invulnerable, verging on godhood, immortalized in the moment of his triumph.

“It’s exactly Alexander, there is no doubt about that,” says Sri Lankan numismatist Prof. Osmund Bopearachchi. Having announced the find to the world, more recently Osmund co-authored a book with History professor Frank Holt which was published just last month titled ‘The Alexander Medallion: Exploring the Origins of a Unique Artefact’. Written partly in defence of the authenticity of the gold medallion, the book describes the extraordinary circumstances that led to the unveiling of the priceless artefact. Its historical significance far outweighing the value of the precious metal itself, its history is both the subject of the book and of Osmund’s long obsession.

At the centre of the story is a humble village in Afghanistan. Located in one of the most hostile political and geographical landscapes on earth, Mir Zakah lies along the ancient trail that connects Ghazni in modern Afghanistan to Gandhara in what is now Pakistan. Travelling in the company of a French journalist and 12 bodyguards, Osmund made his way there in 2004. As the temperature plummeted to minus 15 degrees centigrade outside, the men covered themselves with carpets to keep warm and brushed their teeth with snow. Despite the abject poverty that surrounded them, in the evenings the numismatist would show his hosts pictures of incredible treasures – of gold, silver and bronze ornaments, vessels and coins - and ask them whether there were any among them they recognized.
The pieces he was showing them were in the possession of a Japanese museum.

The museum had been sold the pieces which had been deliberately misrepresented by corrupt agents as belonging to another set known as the Oxus treasure . Now, Osmund was unsurprised to discover the men had in fact seen many of the pieces before. After all, some of them had actually handled the objects themselves, pulling each piece fresh from the earth just a few feet away from where they now huddled together. Some shared their keepsakes with the visitors – on the palm of his hand, one man displayed a single diminutive gold coin. Unbeknownst to the Afghan farmer, the Indo-Scythian coin with the image of Azes stamped onto its face was a rarity, worth an estimated $20,000. Yet, this was only one of Mir Zakah’s treasures – and there are hundreds of thousands more.

The Mir Zakah deposit is believed to contain roughly 550,000 coins alongside hundreds of other, larger objects. “When you look at the composition you get everything – from North India to Southern Uzbekistan and North Afghanistan,” says Osmund explaining that the pieces are equally diverse in their chronology, with some of the earliest dating to the 5th century B.C going up to the 2nd century A.D. How they came to be tossed together in the same well remains a matter of speculation. Osmund himself imagines a scenario where an army of Sassanians successfully plundered the treasuries and collections of temples and cities but was then faced with a sudden challenge from a rival group. They would have been forced to ditch their loot before going to battle. If so, clearly they lost and their treasure was left to languish unclaimed for centuries.

When some of it resurfaced centuries later, many pieces would be routed through the bazaars of the Pakistani city of Peshawar, before they were smuggled out to America and Europe. The first coins appeared in the late 1940s and 50s, just after the hoard at Mir Zakah was first excavated. Intervening in 1948, French archaeologists attempted to collect and study some of the deposit’s treasures, but political disturbances and violence in the region forced them to give up their hunt well before the hoard was exhausted. It would lie relatively undisturbed till a group of ambitious looters would dig up the well again in 1993 - 94. Again, they would leave the job half done. Violence and multiple deaths among those involved with the illicit dig would earn the Mir Zakah hoard a reputation for being cursed among locals. Soon the site would become altogether inaccessible to outsiders, as Afghanistan entered a prolonged period of unrest.

Still, what was dug up was enough to flood the markets of Peshawar with astounding quantities of artefacts and coins in particular. It was here that Osmund first encountered the treasures of Mir Zakah in person. Osmund remembers being entirely overwhelmed as sack after sack, each filled with approximately 50 kgs of coins, were poured over the floor before him. It was quite literally a ‘pluie’ or a ‘rain’ of coins, says Osmund, adding, “I suspect that no numismatist has ever seen so many coins in such a short space of time.” Determined to get a handle on the composition of the hoard, he began what he describes as a desperate exercise. “I began to sort the coins into groups according to the issuers, e.g. early Indian, Greek city states, Seleucids, Indo-Greeks, Indo-Scythians, Indo-Parthians, and Kushans.”

It was an impossible exercise, as was the authorities’ every attempt to confiscate or buy the loot of Mir Zakah – even as you read this, a known stash of three tons of valuable coins in Basel, Switzerland remains tantalisingly inaccessible to scholars. Instead wily smugglers have succeeded in ushering priceless artefacts into museums and private collections all over the world – not hesitating to create fictitious histories for their antiques if required. Alexander’s commemorative medallion would find its way to London and into the hands of an anonymous collector who has no intention of parting with it, though he has allowed it to be exhibited.

For those familiar with coins from Ptolemy I’s reign, the portrait of Alexander is not an uncommon one. Though the work is particularly fine, it could have arguably come out of a workshop in Egypt. However, the one obstacle to this interpretation is quite literally of elephantine proportions. On the back of the coin, where you might have to expected to find Athena brandishing a spear, you see instead an elephant walking on tiptoe. Issued in 326 BC to commemorate Alexander’s resounding defeat of Porus, the King of Paurava by the river Jhelum in what is modern Punjab, the coin was intended to be a golden boast. It is a find that excited Osmund – he calls it “the missing link” that explained the baffling appearance of an Asian elephant on coins minted in countries where there were none about. It represented the attempts of other, later rulers to share in Alexander’s glory.

Other silver coins issued around the period flesh out the action of the battle. In one, Alexander, astride a horse, flings a spear at Porus on his elephant. In another, the King’s men ride in four-horse chariots as they draw their awesome bows. These coins are evidence, that where historical records fail, where stories are forgotten, coins remain to tell the tale.madallion

As for Osmund, the Alexander medallion is only a highlight in a very distinguished career. Reportedly, the only Sri Lankan numismatist to have a PhD in the subject, Osmund graduated with a B.A from the University of Kelaniya and has spent the last three decades in France where he is the Director of Research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research. Specializing in the coinage of the Indo-Greek and Greco-Bactrian kingdoms, he has catalogued numerous collections of coins, including one for the Smithsonian. A professor of Central Asian and South Asian archaeology and art history at the University Paris-Sorbonne, he is currently a visiting Professor at the University of Berkeley in California. He is also the author of nine books, the most recent being ‘The Pleasure Gardens of Sigiriya. A New Approach’. Among others, he has been honoured with the Gustave Mendel Award, The Lhotka Memorial Prize and the Order of Constantine the Great.

In Sri Lanka, he is currently engaged in a search for the traces of an ancient sea port and settlement in Kuchchiveli in the Trincomalee district, but says that while he intends to juggle many projects, the coins from Mir Zakah continue to fascinate him. “From 1983 (when he was writing his PhD dissertation) until today, coins from both Mir Zakah deposits have been part and parcel of my life,” says Osmund. There is much left to be done: the dig is incomplete and what has been already excavated is very poorly documented.

“As long as all the artefacts and coins dispersed in private collections are not made known to the world and the three tons of coins still lying in the Free Trade Zone of Basel are not exposed and studied, the story of Mir Zakah will remain untold,” he says.

Want to be a coin collector? – Sunday Times

As the Hobby Fair opens this week, Kavan Ratnatunga looks at a hobby of numismatics that has fascinated many down the years

Numismatics, like some aspects of astronomy and natural history, remains a branch of learning in which the amateur can still do valuable work, and it is on the great collecting public, or rather on that part of which is interested in the subject at a scientific level, that the progress of numismatic science largely depends. - Philp Grierson - Prof. of Numismatics, University of Cambridge

The hobby of numismatics covers the collection and study of coins, tokens and currency. Coins are some of the oldest artifacts that reveal the history of the past. Evidence that coins have been collected since ancient times have been proved by the collection like composition of some ancient hoards found in Europe.

Lanka has a very rich and documented numismatic history of over 2300 years. The earliest known coins mentioned in the Mahavamsa are Karshapana. These are small flat silver pieces about three grams in weight on which various marks have been punched. Some numismatists have spent a lifetime recognizing and studying the various patterns and associating them with various periods of Indian history. Most came from India in trade, but some may have been manufactured in Lanka.

The first indigenous coins of Lanka issued during the early Anuradhapura period have the railed swastika which is found only on Lankan coins. The largest of these coins known as the Elephant and Swastika has multiple symbols. Smaller coins have the Bo tree, or a lion, or Gaja Lakshmi on the reverse and the railed swastika on the obverse.

The Kahavanu which were issued in the 7th to 11th century have about half sovereign of gold and are also found as fractions Pala (Quarter) and Aka (Eighth) of a Kahavanu. Similar sized copper coins known as Massa issued from 9th to 13th centuries had the name of the king written in Deva Nagri text.

Coins were also issued by the colonial rulers of Lanka, the Portuguese, Dutch and British for use in Lanka. During the British period from about 1840 to 1880, tokens were used in coffee and tea estates as payment for labour. The tokens were redeemable only at the company shop for goods creating a closed economy.

The first rupees and cents coins are dated 1870 and have the head of Queen Victoria. Similar coins in copper and silver were issued with the heads of Edward VII, George V, George VI and Queen Elizabeth II. Coins with the Ceylon Armorial emblem were issued from 1963 to 1972, and the Sri Lanka Armorial Emblem since 1972. The Central Bank has also issued commemorative coins since 1957, some of which circulated, and can be found among the change you get. Others were issued in limited number and are sold above face value and called Non Circulating Legal tender (NCLT). They should never be taken out of there protective capsules and touched by hand.

Lankan currency notes have a rich history of over 200 years. The oldest notes issued by the Dutch in 1785 were known as Kredit Brieven. The British issued Sterling currency from 1827 and many international banks operating Lanka issued currency as well. From 1885 there was rupee currency from the Ceylon Government, and since 1951 from the Central Bank.

In general coins should never be cleaned except with soap and water. Some ancient coins may require conservation but that should only be done with expert knowledge. Currency notes should never be washed or ironed to make them look better. These actions can easily be detected and will reduce the value of the numismatic item.

The market value of a coin or currency is based on its rarity and condition. Punch Mark coins about 2000 years old may sell for their weight in silver. Most copper Massa coins which are over 800 years old and VOC duits which are over 200 years old may be obtained for under Rs 100 since they are found in very large numbers. There are, however, a few Lankan copper coins that are worth a lot more than their weight in gold.

Coin collecting as a hobby is done for just the joy of collecting. Some also collect with a motive to sell the coins for a profit. Then it is not a hobby but investment.

Numismatic Society (SLNS: Its activities

The Sri Lanka Numismatic Society (SLNS) was founded in 1976 to serve the coin collectors in Lanka and counts many leading collectors of coins and currency as members.

It meets on the third Sunday of each month at 2 p.m. at the Royal Asiatic Society in the Mahawali Centre in Colombo 7. SLNS will have an exhibition booth at the Hobby Fair 2010 organized by SLANA and the Rotary Club of Colombo from June 2nd to 4th at the Sri Lanka Exhibition and Convention Centre

Coins of tribute – Sunday Times

Coins of tribute

Coins of tribute

Three coins, depicting various scenes from the Buddha’s life, are being issued to celebrate the 2550 Buddha Jayanthi

By Kavan Ratnatunga

The Central Bank of Sri Lanka has issued three commemorative coins in the denominations of Rs. 2000, Rs. 1500 and Rs. 5 to mark the 2550th Buddha Jayanthi year.


The coins were presented to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and a few other dignitaries, at the inauguration of the 2550 Buddha Jayanthi celebrations held at the Presidential Secretariat on May 11.

The two crown size sterling silver Rs. 2000 and Rs. 1500 commemorative frosted proof coins depict the same scene from the Birth of the Buddha. A brass plated steel Rs. 5 coin will also be issued with the image of Sri Pada below a Dharma Chakra. In the Rs. 2000 coin the seven lotuses and the Bodhisatva Siddhartha are plated in gold. On the reverse, above a lake with lotus is shown a 24-pronged Dharma Chakra, as found on the Ashoka pillar at Saranath in Varanasi, where Buddha taught His Dharma to His first disciples.

According to traditional belief, after His birth in Lumbini, Siddhartha took seven steps under which seven lotus blossoms appeared, while announcing His forthcoming Enlightenment.

In the Buddha Dharma, worldly nature is likened to a lake of lotus blossoms. Just as there exists in a lake, young buds, mature buds and buds about to bloom, in the world of humans too there are men of diverse levels of attainment of consciousness. Disciples like lotus flowers in the lake, bloom by the radiance of the Dharma, represented by the Chakra. Buddhism, as a religion with some mythological beliefs and worship adopted by a majority in Sri Lanka, is represented on the obverse.

Buddhism, as a philosophy, a pure Dharma practised through meditation and being adopted by a growing international community, is represented in abstraction on the reverse, like the Ying and the Yang on two sides of the same coin.

The coins were designed by Kelum Gunasekara of Kelaniya, who also designed five of the 50 stamps issued by the Philatelic Bureau for the 2550 Buddha Jayanthi. The Royal Mint in Wales has minted 10,000 of the gold embossed silver proof coins with a face value of Rs. 2000 for the Central Bank. These are sold at Rs. 7000 each. The 20,000 silver proof coins, which have the same design, except for the face value of Rs. 1500, are sold at Rs. 5000.

It is unfortunate that the doubling of silver prices in the last eight months and the cost of production has required the Central Bank in collaboration with the Buddha Sasana Ministry to decide to sell the coins at a very high premium above the face value. That will make the coin unaffordable to most coin collectors in Lanka. It remains to be seen as to how many would buy the Rs. 2000 coin at Rs. 7000 or the Rs. 1500 coin at Rs. 5000 – more than three times the price of very similar silver proof commemorative coins sold currently at the Bank.

It also seemed a pity that the coins produced as a special rush order were only released for sale to the public after Vesak, on May 15. Limited quantities are available at the Central Bank, the Currency Museum located at the Centre for Banking Studies in Rajagiriya, the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and selected branches of Bank of Ceylon and People’s Bank. The proof coins are issued in a presentation box enclosed within a plastic coin capsule. These coins, which are individually minted without being touched by the human hand, should not be taken out of the plastic case, for a fingerprint on a proof coin will destroy the numismatic value of the coin, which in this case has been made to be a lot more than the face value.

The coin will clearly sell now to a few dedicated collectors. However, most people will wait till the long term devaluation of the Rupee and the increase in price of silver makes today's high price more attractive in a few years. Such was the case for the 1998 Rs. 5000 gold sovereign which was sold by CBSL for Rs. 8000. Usually CBSL has sold the silver commemorative coins at the cost of minting them, which is just above the face value. For example, in 1998, 1999 and 2000 CBSL issued three silver crown sized coins for the 50th Anniversary of Independence, the Cricket World Cup, and the 50th Anniversary of CBSL.

This is the third Buddhist commemorative silver coin issued by Sri Lanka in the modern era and clearly as beautiful as the first two. The first, a Rs. 5 coin was issued in April 1957 for the 2500 Buddha Jayanthi, and is still considered one of the most beautiful crown size coins in the world.

The next was the Rs. 500 coin issued in June 1993, for the 2300 Anubudu Mihindu Jayanthiya, which has been selected for the front cover of the 2007 Standard Catalog of World Coins to be published this month by Krause in USA.

The 1957 Buddha Jayanthi Rs. 5 coin has been popular among even non-collectors and was issued into circulation at its face value. Although 500,000 of the 1957 Rs. 5 coins were minted, 258,000 were returned to the Royal Mint in 1962 November, to be melted as silver bullion when the price of silver exceeded the face value. Many more have probably been melted to make jewellery. 50 years later uncirculated coins sell in the World Numismatic Market for about US $25. The far more rare proof of this same issue with only 1800 minted sells for about $60.

The 2550 Buddha Jayanthi Rs. 5 coin