Obverse and Reverse

Summary of discussion on southasia-coins eGroup.

From: Kavan Ratnatunga
Date: 2001 Jan 1, 2:10pm

Since it is not always obvious from design, could I please get the
view of others if there a strict Mint convention that make the two
columns below the same by definition or surface in a struck coin
        Obverse       Reverse
        Heads         Tails 
        Lower-die     Upper-die
        Base Anvil    Striking Hammer
        Convex        Concave       
and if that same convention is used on greek-roman coins as in coins 
from South-Asia. Thanks 

From: Satya Bhupatiraju Date: 2000 Dec 31, 4:20pm One probably can't tell which is the striking hammer and which is on the base anvil, unless one conducts a die study of several of these coins? Group member Nick Rhodes says in a die study of Assam coins in ONS newsletter 126, "the upper die, which bears the full force of the hammer blow, usually has shorter life than the lower die." So if you examine several of these coins, and one side is found to be represented by more dies, probably that would be on the striking hammer side? To me, seems like it would be easier to produce the concave side of the design with the striking hammer.
From: John Deyell Date: 2001 Jan 1, 8:34pm First, there are a number of different views on this naming convention and a lot of variance in their application from series to series and period to period. Many articles have been written for different coin series, with differing viewpoints. But at the same time, there is a remarkable consistency in minting practice from the most ancient times to modern, at least in India, which makes it easier to support one convention in the Indian context: the lower or anvil die is the obverse or "heads". Start with the Indo-Greek tetradrachm of the Bactrian series, which was closest to Seleucid (Greek) norms. Here the obverse was a finely engraved portrait, while the reverse had a less prominent graphic, and legend. The coin if seen on edge was often convex (upraised) on the obverse or portrait side, and concave (depressed) on the reverse or legend side. So three of your four terms fit together for these coins. Let's take a quick look at hand minting technique. For the production of coins, one die was set snugly into a rock or anvil; the other was held by hand or tongs; and the coin blank or planchet was placed between the two. The shock of a hammer blow to the hand-held die, forced that "hammer-side" die into the planchet, which in turn was forced into the anvil-set die or "anvil-side" die. This compression between engraved dies produced the impression of both dies on both faces of the coin. Now we know from mint records, surviving dies and modern experiments that the upper or hand-held die absorbed much more hammer shock than the lower or anvil-set die, especially when a relatively soft planchet of gold or silver was placed between them. This acted as a shock-absorber. Which meant that the hand-held die was broken or worn out more quickly than the lower or anvil die. In an ongoing minting production this meant that noticeably more upper (hand) dies would be consumed or destroyed in the process than lower (anvil) dies. As a result, the design which was more difficult to engrave was purposely placed on the lower anvil die, while the less difficult design was placed on the upper hand die. Since much more skill (and possibly effort) was required for the die engraver to tool the obverse portrait design than the reverse small graphic and legend, for the Indo Greeks the portrait was placed on the anvil die while the legend was placed on the upper die. We know this for a fact since careful die studies of large hoards of similar coins, such as Curiel and Fussman's study of the Qunduz hoard of Bactrian Indo-Greek coins, showed fewer portrait-side dies and more legend-side dies were used for a fixed number of coins. So for the Indo-Greeks, "heads", "anvil-side" and "convex" were all valid descriptions of the "obverse" and their antonyms describe the "reverse". A second aspect of both hand minting and modern machine minting worth noting is the occurrence of brockages. These are error coins in which one side of the coin bears the proper design, while the other side bears an incuse or concave mirror-image impression of the first side's design. They were produced when a freshly-struck coin got stuck in the die, was not noticed by the minter, and a fresh blank was placed between the dies and the hammer struck again. In this second case, the new coin would bear the impression of one die and the face of the first coin already struck by that die. So a brockage has a normal design on one side and its mirror-image incuse design on the other side. Now it does not take much reflection to realize that a brockage would normally show only the impression of the anvil die. The reason for this is simple: if the struck coin stuck on the anvil die, it would be noticed immediately by the minter attempting to place a fresh blank on it. On the other hand, if the struck coin stuck to the hand-held die, i.e. was raised in the air while a fresh blank was placed on the empty anvil die, it was less likely to be noticed and it would be natural for the minter to then place the upper die (complete with coin stuck to its face) on the blank and apply the hammer. Hence the birth of a brockage. Interestingly, brockages are fairly commonly found in the Western Kshatrapa series of silver drammas. They are without exception portrait brockages, which indicates that the Western Kshatrapas followed the earlier Greek minting tradition of placing the portrait on the lower, anvil die. So for that dynasty as well, the "obverse" was "heads" or "anvil-side". Even more interestingly, the tradition finds its way into the machine minting period. Ask around any Indian silver bazaar for "lakhi" coins (or "lucky coins"?). You will be shown British Indian silver rupee brockages, as far as I remember almost always an obverse brockage showing the regal portrait on one side and its ghostly inverse image on the other side. It is evident the modern Indian mints followed the earlier practice of placing the portrait side down in the minting machine and having the legend side uppermost on the moving die. So clearly obverse and reverse are fairly well defined when coins follow classical design conventions. What about coins outside those traditions, as in the Islamic coinages? Well, although they did not usually display images, their hand minting production was nonetheless subject to the same physical facts of a differential life span for hand-held and anvil-set dies. It is not often done, but when die-count analysis is undertaken of Muslim period Indian coins (such as I have been doing for sultanate period coins), there is a very noticeable difference in the numbers of obverse and reverse dies. So it is in fact possible to determine mathematically which was the obverse (anvil) die and which the reverse (hand held) die even for Islamic coins, at least in India. This being the case, it would be my view that the convention of calling the anvil die's impression the obverse, should be followed in the Islamic series as well, whatever might be the message content of each side. Hope his is helpful?
From: Nicholas Rhodes Date: 2001 Jan 2, 6:36am Just an extra point on the obverse and reverse discussion. Because of the fact that the lower die lasted longer, in most coinages (starting with the Greeks) it is natural to find that the most important die, with the most complex designs, took longer to engrave, and hence was placed on the anvil. With Asian coins, I guess that the same principle generally applies, but when the two dies take equal time to prepare (as is the case with Assamese coins, for example) then it is not at all obvious, without a die study, which is the hammer die, and which the anvil - and indeed, since it was not important to the processes within the mint, it may not be appropriate always to call the Anvil Die the "obverse". Again, to cite Assamese rupees as an example, the King's name appears to have been on the Hammer Die in Rudra Simha's reign, but on the Anvil Die from the time of Pramatta Simha. This, on coins that are essentially of the same type - King's name, titles and date one side, and a religious invocation on the other. What does the group think - let the "obverse" follow the anvil die, or keep typological consistency, with the side with the King's name consistently called either the "obverse" or "reverse" - I don't really mind which....
From: William F. Spengler Date: 2001 Jan 2, 5:05pm Congratulations to John Deyell, old friend and co-author of the famous Krause "Standard Guide to South Asian Coins...", for his comprehensive and informative essay on how hand-struck coins were produced and what should be considered obverse and reverse on South Asian coins of various types. I'm personally a believer in examining hand-struck coins carefully to detect any evidence of a convex shape or welling-up of metal along the edge, which to me would indicate that the convex side (or side away from the welling-up) was produced by the anvil die and is thus the obverse. This, of course, is almost impossible to detect on many Islamic issues in which the planchet was smaller than the dies, unless the piece was struck so off-center that the curve of an edge can be seen. Nick, I consider the "business" side of a coin -- the side bearing the issuer's name, if any, or the name of the more senior personage if jointly named -- to be the obverse. And if not named, the side with the most significant historical information like portrait, royal device, mint name and/or date to be the obverse (one medieval Islamic text giving precedence to the main religious prescription notwithstanding). But let's see some more debate on these points.