What were ancient Roman coins doing underneath a Japanese castle?

Archaeologists found the coins beneath an ancient castle in Okinawa, Japan. Roman coins have never before been found in the country, leaving researchers questioning exactly where they came from.

Roman coins aren’t exactly an uncommon find at many archeological digs in the Mediterranean world, but this week’s discovery beneath the ruins of a Japanese castle marks the first time that Roman coins have been discovered in Japan.

The ten copper coins, four copper pieces between 1.6 and two centimeters in diameter, were found beneath Katsuren castle in Okinawa, Japan's southernmost prefecture, and the site of controversial US military bases.

Katsuren was built around the 13th century, and designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. 

Four of the coins are believed to be from Rome in the third or fourth centuries. Other finds at the site include pottery from the same geological layer as the Roman coins, which dates to the 14th or 15th century, a coin from the 17th-century Ottoman Empire, and five other coins of unknown origin that are currently under analysis. 

The local education board commented on the find, saying that these coins are “precious historical material suggesting a link between Okinawa and the Western world.”

That link, however is likely an indirect one. Archaeologists are still not sure precisely where the coins came from, although it is likely that they arrived between the 14th and 15th centuries, when Okinawa's Kingdom of Ryukyu had a thriving maritime trade with other Asian nations that had contact with the Roman empire.

Some scholars are skeptical of the find, however, especially since the suspected 17th-century Ottoman coin likely arrived so much later. The feudal lord who once lived in the castle was known to deal in regional trade, but researchers have little evidence to link him to greater international trade. 

"Roman coins were also found in Southeast Asia, so the coins are likely to have arrived in Okinawa through trading with Southeast Asia," Yasuhiro Yokkaichi, a researcher at Waseda University’s Institute for Central Eurasian History and Culture, told the Asahi Shimbun. "I want those who conduct an investigation of this discovery to closely examine different possibilities including that the coins came to be mixed in after much time had passed."

Roman coin caches are far from unheard of. Last fall, a Swiss farmer unearthed more than 4,000 coins in his orchard, the largest trove ever found outside Britain, and in 2010, a British treasure hunter found 52,000 coins in a field. Never before, however, have Roman coins of this vintage been discovered in Japan.

Roman coins are also unlikely to have been in circulation among merchants at the time, as many used Chinese coins, archaeologist Hiroki Miyagi told Agence France-Presse.

"East Asian merchants in the 14 and 15th centuries mainly used Chinese currency, a round coin with a square hole in the middle," said Dr. Miyagi, "so it is unlikely that the Western coins were used as a means of currency."

Initially, Miyagi thought that the coins were perhaps dropped by US soldiers during World War II. However, after washing them off, it became clear that they were something more. X-ray analysis of the coins revealed that they had Roman images, including what is possible a portrait of Emperor Constantine, AFP reports. 

Researchers say that the next step is to determine how the coins ended up in Japan.

"The Chinese ceramics and coins that we found date back at least 600 to 700 years and we'd like to analyze those objects in tandem with these coins to work out how the coins may have ended up here," Miyagi told CNN.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to What were ancient Roman coins doing underneath a Japanese castle?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today