What have you got there, Michael Cook?

Feb. 2, 2022

In the series "What have you got there?" Princeton faculty and graduate students spill the beans on their research objects.

Many of Professor Michael Cook’s students have likely already made acquaintance with his exquisite coin collection. In this brief interview, he describes four of his coins, shares how they can be used to understand the past, and how he has used them for his teaching. At the very end, he discusses which questions he has not yet been able to answer.

MARBAS: Tell us about your objects: what are they?

MC: That’s obvious—what you have here are four coins.  Coming to what’s not obvious, the silver coin on the upper right was minted in what’s now Afghanistan by a local king in the late sixth century, whereas the gold coin on the upper left was minted by the Visigothic king of Spain in the 620s. Then the Arab conquerors arrived in both regions and minted coins of their own: the one on the lower left in Spain (al-Andalus) in 725, and the one on the lower right in Balkh, now in northern Afghanistan, in 733.

Can you tell us more about how the coins came to be? Who, where, when, why?

I already told you who, where, and when. But as to why, well, minting coins was standard practice for rulers across the Old World for economic and fiscal reasons. They were particularly likely to mint coins in large numbers when they had to pay big, expensive armies.

How can the coins be used to understand the past? What is the story they tell?

What do the top two coins have in common? Well, they’re both coins, round and flat, and they fit a pattern that was standard across the Old World west of China: the king puts his head on the coin so you know who’s boss. You may have trouble recognizing the Visigothic king’s head, but the horseshoe is his long blond hair (a guy thing among Goths), and once you get that, you can maybe make out his eyes, nose, and mouth; but I admit, it’s a goofy coin. And both coins have a bit of writing around the king’s head. But that’s it. In all other respects, these two coins are chalk and cheese, which is no surprise given that they were minted some 4,000 miles apart.

Now look at the two coins minted by the Arabs. They come from the same two regions 4,000 miles apart, but they look almost identical. You don’t have to be able to read this archaic form of Arabic script to see that they must be saying pretty much the same thing. So here we have a state that has the will and the way to impose a standardized coinage all the way from Spain to Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, this was the only time in history when these two regions formed part of a single state.

How do you use the coins in your teaching?

That depends who I’m teaching. If it’s undergraduates, they get to see PowerPoint images of the coins, and I tell them what I’ve just said. Also I show them a translation of the text written in the middle of these coins in place of the king’s head: “There is no god but God alone without companion.”  In fact, if we were to look at the other side as well, we’d see that apart from the statement of the place and time of minting that surrounds this monotheist affirmation, the entire “coin-bite” [when queried on this term, Professor Cook added, “I invented it on the model of sound-bite to convey the idea that there’s only a very limited amount you get to say when you mint your coin, so you had better think carefully about what your priorities are”] has been made over to God, with the ruler—the Caliph—not even mentioning himself. And positively no images—they were ill-regarded by pious Muslims.

All that is for undergraduates. With graduate students I just give them the two Arab coins and leave them to figure out what’s written on them. We choose our graduate students well, so they always succeed without any help from me.

What are questions that you still have about the coins that you have not yet been able to answer?

So far I’ve talked only about what’s inside the three rings on the two Arab coins. Once we go outside them, we seem to be in a part of the coin that hasn’t been standardized. On the coin from Spain there are little circles. The coin from Balkh is more exciting: here instead we have what seems to be a star and crescent device, a heritage from pre-Islamic times. So the question I haven’t yet been able to answer is why did they regulate the inner part of the coin but leave the outer part to local whims?


Are you a Princeton faculty member or graduate student who would love to share your research object(s) with us, please contact Stephanie Luescher ([email protected]).