Numismatics: The Origins of Customs, Law, and Money

With the curious history of numismatics, I would like to start the new 2021 and to introduce a new program, Fun Museums Social. To start with, money is a crucial thing, or problem, or issue, so it deserves a special introduction from a cool historical perspective.

Thousands of years ago, people were giving only very simple names to everything. The way they perceived a phenomenon they had encountered was mostly instinctive. That in turn, the language appeared to reflect almost a children’s perspective of the world. The same applies to a topic that many museum-goers love very much – numismatics.

The history of currencies (or money as we also call it) dates back to the times of the first exchange customs. First, exchange fairly coincided with distribution, dividing, assigning, and holding. Secondly, a fascinating etymological chain rolls on, appearing like a time travel machine, through which we can enjoy the process of #ArtOfDiscovery.

Numismatics Museum of Athens
Inside the Numismatic Museum of Athens, Greece


Etymology is a linguistic discipline that researches origins of the words. For instance, many modern English words can be tracked back to some Middle English words, which in turn could originate from old Norse or medieval French. The chain can be tracked back further, thus uncovering to Latin and Greek origins. The ultimate origins are often unclear, but many are supposed to be related to some hypothetical languages such as Proto-Hellenic, Proto-Indo-European, or even some unrelated languages which are known but not fully debunked due to a lack of evidence. For example, we don’t know which language was spoken in the copper-age Vučedol Culture, because they didn’t have any writing yet. We can only suspect that the language they spoke should have been an Indo-European variation.

Numismatics Etymology Poster
The first of many info posters!

See also: From idiots to symposiums: Secrets about words of Greek origin

From distribution to law

The etymological chain of the word numismatics can be tracked back to Ancient Greek, and further to some hypothetical origins. The theoretic Proto-Indo-European languages had a word that might have sounded like “nem”, and it likely meant “to take” or “to hold”. Curiously, it is the likely origin of the German word “nehmen” with the same meaning, and the Latin “numerus” which in turn evolved into the English “number”. 

Unsurprisingly, the meaning of taking or holding was closely related to counting and numbers. As a result, the first notion of ownership came around. 

While the theoretic “nem” remains a theory, it is well known that the Ancient Greek dictionary contains the word νέμω[nemo], with a slightly more complex meaning. It is a verb, meaning something like distributing, assigning, dividing, or holding. In Modern Greek, the verb διανέμω [dianemo] has this meaning, clearly holding the same root. 

After that, we are talking about a noun, νόμος [nomos].

Numismatic Museum of Athens
Reflection effect inside the Numismatic Museum of Athens. The coins on display represent some of earliest coins found on archaeological sites.

Early on in ancient times, this word would describe usage or custom. As a derivation from the verb nemo, it describes the acts of distributing, assigning, dividing, or holding. Subsequently, we can understand it as a custom, and in turn the law. Additionally, the word nomos gave the origin to another related word – economy. With οίκος [oikos] meaning home, and nomos meaning law, economy is basically the home law or the law of the home. 

From the law to – judging!

If there is a law, it certainly assigns someone to be a lawyer. Now, let’s move on to the next station of this journey. From the noun, we are back to a verb, and this time it gets a new meaning in the chain. Νομίζω [nomizo] is the word used for the act of holding a custom, of signing a law, or – judging. In Modern Greek, this word means more or less “I think that…” (don’t confuse it with σκέφτομαι [skeftomai], meaning the process of thinking, and the origin of the word “sceptical”). 

In the same vein, the process of applying the law and proceeding to the justice was derived from the term that meant customs. These were not necessarily written laws, just yet. As a result, saying “I think that…” could easily be understood as “I judge”.  It is an assumption. So, this is the time to get to the final point.

From judging to the “current measure” and numismatics

In this fascinating chain of meanings, we got from a verb to a noun, and then again to the verb. The last station is yet another noun, νόμισμα [nomisma]. This word describes a “current measure unit”, or as we say nowadays, “a currency”. Now we come to the point of understanding that Greek origins are not only in words, but also in meaning and logic. Although “currency” is not a word of Greek origin, it follows an ancient logic of meanings. The currency was as important as is could be, and some pre-written customs and assumptions were assigned to that. 

The story gets more complex in the moment when we realize that there were many currencies in ancient and medieval times, many of them unregulated and undocumented. It was definitely more complicated than today. Finally, the purpose of numismatics as a scientific field is to research these things and discover more curiosities.

Numismatic Museum of Athens

A great story of passion for collecting resides in a lavish neo-classical building in central Athens. The Numismatic Museum of Athens is more than a collection of ancient νομίσματα [nomismata], or in our words, currencies. It was the home of the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann and his wife Sophia. The German professional and enthusiast for ancient history became famous for his works in uncovering the ancient Troy and Mycenae. 

Numismatic Museum of Athens
Inside the Museum, which aside from being a museum of numismatics also displays a part of the city’s history

During their excavations, archaeologist often find small treasures that turn out to be a big deal for historians. One of the most common and important findings are coins. Aside from having their special ancient beauty, coins also answer many questions about culture that resided or passed by the excavated site. For that reason, Schliemann gave a special value for coins. However, it took over 100 year after his death before the house became what it is today. 

Nowadays, it looks like a beautiful residence for a collection. There are quite nice, easy-to-read explanations about the history of currencies, right next to the key items from the collection. In terms of information and clarity, it is one of the best museums I have visited. The museum also possesses a library with thousands of books about the particular numismatics science. For not being on “must-visit” lists for Athens, it is mostly frequented by visitors who want to discover this particular story and passion for collecting. While one hour might be perfectly enough to visit the whole building, it is totally nice to spend up to 3 hours inside. Finally, I consider it a perfect idea for a slow traveller to spend some peaceful time exploring. It is the #ArtOfDiscovery in a full flow. 

The Virtual Discovery

The Museum has a nice website, but it seems to be only in Greek. However, the Museum is also on the Google Art Project for some nice virtual exploration. The Virtual Discovery is another program that is very important for Fun Museums.

The numismatics poster is available in higher resolution. You can contact me if you want to have it to stick on the walls at your home, school, office, or wherever you feel like.

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