December 07, 2010



Attention editors: A high res photo of the coins can be downloaded at


Ancient coins teach researchers about modern society


Hamilton, Ont. December 07, 2010Sophisticated radiation techniques are being used to better understand the ancient world, providing new answers on trade patterns and the development of modern society.

A team of researchers at McMaster University is studying Greek and Roman coins—borrowed from the rich collection at the McMaster Museum of Art—using x-ray and x-ray fluorescence systems and a proton microprobe, used to map the metal content.

“As we determine what the coins are made of, we are then able to reconstruct ancient trade routes, understand the development of economies and even determine the extent of counterfeiting,” says Spencer Pope, an archeologist and assistant professor in the Department of Classics at McMaster University. “This research will help us link the archeological to the historical to understand how we, as a society, got to where we are today.”

After the coins are analyzed, radiation scientists are able to pinpoint what kinds of metal are present, allowing Pope to determine where they were minted and how widely they may have been circulated. He is also able to zero in on ancient economic downturns - during such times, coins were made with less valuable metals – and even track the collapse of the Roman Empire.

“What technique you use depends on what metals you’re looking for,” said Michael Farquharson, chair of the Department of Medical Physics and Applied Radiation Sciences. “So we use multiple systems to look for a number of metals – gold, copper, silver - present in the outer layer of the coins, then we use the McMaster Nuclear Reactor to penetrate deeper into the coin to determine whether or not the coin was plated with a different material than it was actually made of.”

The systems used to analyze the coins have a number of other uses, including searching packages for explosive content and analyzing human tissue for trace amounts of metal found in cancerous tumours.

“The ancient world is a laboratory for understanding the societies of today and we can now answer questions we wouldn’t ordinarily be able to ask,” says Pope. “It’s a very exciting example of the sort of work a university can produce.”

The coins are from the Bruce Brace Coin Collection at the McMaster Museum of Art, which also includes Asian and early Canadian coins.

McMaster University, one of four Canadian universities listed among the Top 100 universities in the world, is renowned for its innovation in both learning and discovery. It has a student population of 23,000, and more than 140,000 alumni in 128 countries.




For more information, please contact:

Michelle Donovan

Public Relations Manager, Broadcast Media

McMaster University

905-525-9140, ext. 22869