Roman coins from excavations at the Lago di Venere: RNS grant report

by Eóin O’Donoghue, National University of Ireland Galway

In May and June 2017, I visited the island of Pantelleria to work with the Brock University excavations at the Lago di Venere, supported by a grant from the Royal Numismatic Society. There I examined the numismatic evidence recovered in excavations at the site from the Roman phase of occupation on the island.


Pantelleria itself is located in the Strait of Sicily, roughly midway between the tip Cap Bon in Tunisia and Agrigento on the southwest shore of Sicily. It has a complex history stretching back to the Bronze Age and perhaps earlier. From at least as early as the sixth century BCE it was occupied by Phoenician settlers and coinage suggests the island was called ‘YRNM; subsequently, it became a point of contention in conflicts between Rome and Carthage in the third century BCE. Eventually the island was captured by the Romans in 217 BCE and became known as Cossura and it remained within their control until at least the second century CE. The excavations are focusing on a Romano-Punic sanctuary situated adjacent to a spectacular lake set within a volcanic crater. The site is providing distinctive insights into an early example of Roman and Punic cultural interaction and ‘hybrid’ ritual practices.


Pantelleria, a view from the site.

Following the Roman conquest, the coinage changed from bearing the legend ‘YRNM to COSSVRA, but importantly, maintained the Punic motifs including Astarte/Isis on the obverse. During my time on Pantelleria I had the opportunity to create a catalogue identifying the coins recovered from the excavations to date. Those recovered primarily come from the last two centuries BCE, with examples of Tanit/Astarte on the obverse coupled with inscription of COSSVRA and laurel wreaths decorating the reverse. Further examples represent more standardised Roman coin types that are also thought to come from Pantelleria. These come from the first century BCE and may represent a period after Roman power had stabilised on the island including the adoption of some Roman cultural traits. Other examples come from elsewhere in the Empire, including a denarius of C. Pulcher from 110-109 BCE, and more coins probably minted on Pantelleria itself. Of most significance in the later coins recovered from the Lago di Venere, as well as from other excavations on the island, is the disappearance of Tanit/Astarte from the iconography, but with the subsequent development of a generic female figure on the obverse. It is perhaps an attempt to be a reference to the goddess Roma, but also to Pantescan and Phoenician reverence for female figures. These are issues which are discussed in more detail in the article resulting from this study.


A denarius recovered from Pantelleria

The coins were recovered from secure stratigraphic deposits. The ceramic materials also suggest the structures that the coins are associated with were constructed and used in the last two centuries BCE; consequently, each set of evidence supports the chronology of the other. While the coins come from definitive ancient contexts they do not appear to be part of a deliberate deposition or a hoard. Instead, they seem to have become accidentally part of the destruction and abandonment fill of the sanctuary site. The reasons for this event, or series of events, is not yet clear.


This initial research will be submitted as an article to The Numismatic Chronicle in early 2018. Further study will be carried out in London when I have the opportunity to examine the coins from Pantelleria in the collection of the British Museum. I hope to write an extended paper that considers the significance of the Punic and Roman coins from Pantelleria, especially considering iconographic continuity and its potential to offer insight into the fluidity of early Roman imperialism, a characteristic that became fundamental in the creation of an empire.

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