Archaeology and physics join forces to put Lebanon on the “coin map”

​Jennifer Muller, Office of Communications, jm26@aub.edu.lb

An unprecedented collaboration between the Department of Physics and the Department of History and Archaeology at AUB brought together regional and international experts in the study of ancient coins for a conference on “Numismatic Research in Lebanon: Past, Present, and Future.”

“I cannot express how thrilled we are by this pioneering effort that introduces the importance of materials science techniques in archaeometry and cultural heritage studies,” said Dean Nadia El Cheikh of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the opening session. “I sincerely hope that it will stimulate other departments at AUB to seek such collaborations which present diverse approaches to topics, incorporate multiple points of view, and explore new avenues of inquiry.”

The two-day conference brought together numismatists—researchers who study currency such as ancient coins and tokens—from Lebanon, the region, and internationally. In particular, participants included scholars and their students from the Lebanese University, universities in Turkey and Syria, as well as the US, UK, and France. 

“Our main aim for this is to put Lebanon on the coin map,” said one of the organizers, Dr. Jack Nurpetlian from AUB’s Department of History and Archaeology. “The first stage will be to say that we are here, we have these facilities, this is what we are doing, we have this potential, and we have these people. The second stage will be to start these collaborations, attract people and funding, and do more research.”

The participation of the Physics Department was in the area of metallurgical analysis of ancient coins. Physicists from AUB and the Lebanese Atomic Energy Commission under the Lebanese National Council for Scientific Research (LCNRS) gave an overview of the facilities available in the country at these two institutions. 

Dr. Malek Tabbal, AUB physics professor and one of the conference organizers, noted that the general public tends to see physics as remote from daily life and that this conference was a great opportunity to show that physics can have important applications in everyday life. As someone who is fascinated with the study of ancient objects, he also pointed out that Lebanon offers a wealth of opportunities for archaeological and archaeometric research.

“Our main challenge at AUB is that we are competing with universities that have far more resources and advantages compared to us— in terms of finances, instruments, even geographic location,” said Tabbal. “However, we have this major advantage over everybody else in that archaeological samples are so readily available: just across the street! I walk to downtown Beirut and they are there. So it makes perfect sense and it is a great opportunity to benefit from this major advantage that we have over the rest of the world.”

With this conference and the planned follow-up conferences, the overarching aim is to place Lebanon on the map of numismatic research and metallurgical studies in the Middle East, as well as to establish local and regional collaborations. 

In the afternoon of the first day, conference participants had the opportunity to view some of the coins at AUB’s Archaeological Museum, which has one of the most comprehensive collections in the region with more than 10,000 ancient coins. In addition to the AUB collection, there are tens of thousands of coins recovered from the Beirut excavations after the civil war, although many are still lying around in boxes and have yet to be fully studied and published.

“With the resumption of fieldwork in Lebanon after the civil war from the mid-1990s onwards, AUB can be regarded as one of the pioneers in the application of different natural sciences in its various fieldwork projects,” noted Dr. Hermann Genz, chair of the Department of History and Archaeology, in his welcome note to participants.  

As became clear from this conference, there is much work to be done with the ancient coins of Lebanon, but there is also great promise for future research and a very real possibility that Lebanon—and AUB in particular—could serve as a regional hub for numismatic research.

“As far as the Arab countries go, we seem to be the leading force, so definitely we should build on this momentum and take it from there,” said Nurpetlian.​