How did Roman coins end up in a medieval Japanese castle?

Roman coins were discovered in Katsuren castle in Uruma, Okinawa, southwestern Japan. Image: EPA/Uruma City Education Board.

The recent discovery of Roman coins in controlled excavations of a castle in Japan prompted the inevitable question: how did they get there? Could Rome’s fabled trading links have stretched as far as Okinawa? It’s very unlikely.

Katsuren Castle in Okinawa Prefecture is said to have been occupied between the 12th to 15th centuries so the coins cannot represent commercial links between the castle’s contemporaries and the Roman empire, which had fallen centuries before. Other finds from the castle indicate trade links with China – so perhaps the coins arrived there as curios, indirectly through trade with China or South-East Asia.

So far the only published images of the finds show the obverse (the “heads” side) of the four Roman coins and of an Ottoman copper mangir coin with a clear Hijra date 1099, which corresponds to 1687-88 in the common era. Like the Roman coins, the Ottoman coin poses problems, because it was issued after the presumed abandonment of the castle in the 15th century.

The Roman coins are not so easy to identify from the obverses alone. The coin that features most frequently in the news reports appears to be a copper alloy coin of Constantius II (337-361AD), the son of Constantine the Great. The images of the other Roman coins are less clear, but all appear to be of roughly the same date, from about 320-370AD. If images of the reverses (the “tails” sides) of the coins were available it would be possible to date them more closely.

However, it is important to note that coins like the one of Constantius II remained in circulation for long after they were issued. In the eastern Roman empire, there is evidence that such coins may have continued in use up to the 6th century, some two centuries after they were made. So while it would be useful to be able to date the coins from Katsuren Castle more precisely, they do not necessarily indicate even indirect links between east Asia and Rome in the mid-4th century (although such indirect links are not altogether impossible).

The coins found at Katsuren Castle in Okinawa, Japan. Image: Uruma City Education Board.

Links with Asia

There are plenty of Roman coins in southern India and Sri Lanka that are evidence of direct links with the Roman world, and direct trade with these areas is not in doubt. Some recent research indicates the possibility that merchants from the Roman world could have been present in South-East Asia from at least the 2nd century of our era, although the evidence is suggestive rather than concrete – an apparent increase in Roman knowledge of the geography of the region from the 2nd century; and the well-known story of a 2nd-century embassy (perhaps a group of merchants) travelling to China from Vietnam.

So could the coins have been transmitted to Japan via South-East Asia? Archaeological evidence from the Isthmus of Kra on the Thai peninsula includes imported materials from Han China and the Roman empire, though these could have arrived indirectly through India. Gold pendants copying Roman gold coins were used in ancient Thailand and Vietnam, and a stone mould for casting such objects has been found in southern Thailand.

These may have been inspired by genuine Roman coins and Indian imitations of Roman coins. However, they imitate Roman gold coins of the 1st and 2nd centuries – and none resembles any of the coins from Katsuren Castle. The only genuine Roman coin known so far from the peninsula is a 3rd–century coin of the Gallo-Roman usurper Victorinus (268-270AD) minted in Cologne in Germany, although another 3rd-century coin was reportedly found in Thailand in the 19th century. Roman coins from the 3rd and 4th centuries have been reported from a site in Cambodia, yet there is an apparent absence of such coins in southern China, suggesting that such coins rarely made it beyond the Gulf of Thailand.

Silk Road

A few Roman coins, and imitations of them, have been found in China, where they were probably used as ornaments and as burial goods. Yet these too are usually made of gold – and most are later in date (5th to 7th centuries). The majority are concentrated in northern China, and likely entered along the overland route known as the Silk Road.

Roman gold coins excavated in Pudukottai India dating from the era of Caligula and Nero. Image: British Museum/creative commons.

The fact that the Roman coins found at Katsuren Castle are small, 4th-century copper-alloy coins that were of low value in the Roman world, rather than high value silver or gold, is all the more puzzling. Such coins (and imitations of them) are found in India and Sri Lanka, and at some sites in central Asia, but it is hard to see how they would have travelled on directly from such places to Japan, though indirectly via South-East Asia – and perhaps at a much later date – remains possible.

In the end, more detailed study of the other finds from the archaeological contexts in which these coins were found will be necessary to understand how they ended up on the site of a medieval Japanese castle. For the moment it is probably wisest to resist notions of any direct links between Japan and Rome, and to regard them as objects that arrived at a later date.

Perhaps the coins are connected in some way to the influence of European traders in Japan in the 16th and 17th centuries – although the Ottoman coin dates to a period after European trade was restricted in Japan. However they arrived there, these coins appear to constitute the furthest-travelled Roman coins before the age of collectors and mass transport.The Conversation

Kevin Butcher is professor of classics and ancient history at the University of Warwick.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


 

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.