Cryptocurrencies are getting a lot of attention these days, but Scott Coleman prefers to focus on money – the physical kind – from the distant past. With a master’s degree in Greek and Roman studies, he was fascinated by the coins of the Roman and Byzantine empires.
“Numismatics can provide a link between the modern world and the past,” explains Coleman. “Money, especially coins, is a tangible and tactile material culture that all humanity can identify with and share as a common cultural heritage. ”
After graduating from Memorial University with a BA in History, Coleman moved west to study with Dr. Marica Cassis, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Classical Studies and Religion. He quickly discovered the treasure awaiting him at the University of Calgary, housed in Nickle Galleries: the Nickle numismatic collection, one of the most historically significant collections of coins and paper money in Canada. It includes 150 gold and bronze coins that circulated over 1,000 years ago through the territories of the Byzantine Empire which included the Balkans, Asia Minor, parts of the Middle East and North Africa.
In the summer of 2020, Coleman was scheduled to do fieldwork in Greece, but the COVID-19 pandemic has postponed his travel plans. This twist of fate affected his work in an intriguing and positive way. The lockdown forced him to think about how to expand access to the museum’s artifacts and changed the course of his research.
“With the closure of museums and galleries, this meant that many artifacts were inaccessible to the public,” he explains. “I started to look at how museums represent coins and I focused on Greece, as this was the region I was preparing to study for my internship.”
Throughout his research, Coleman deepened the Nickle Numismatic collection, working closely with collections specialist Marina Fischer. Inspired by the use of 3D technology to map ancient sites, Coleman realized that creating digital images of the pieces would make them more accessible to researchers and the public. He began collaborating with technology specialist Jed Baker in libraries and cultural resources, experimenting with photogrammetry to create 3D images of rare coins.
“If you scan them and create these 3D images, then everyone has access to these pieces by exploring them online. They don’t need to be in a museum exhibit in a 2D format where you only see one side of them. It’s a great way to start presenting coins to everyone, and it’s a great way for people to interact with the coins.
A continuation of this work could include augmented reality, in which a 3D image is manipulated to more easily study the detailed markings and stunning illustrations found on many rare pieces. Coleman points to a Example of this approach resulting from a project at the Sarajevo Museum.
“Engaging in collections in this way not only widens access to historical artefacts, but also helps generate interest and attract future researchers to this area of study,” explains Coleman. “This is truly the future of research: the fusion of physical collections with technology. The digital humanities really push the boundaries of what is possible.
Coleman’s time as a graduate student at UCalgary led to several memorable experiences. In 2019, he co-curated the exhibition Nickle Galleries Money and Calgary: The City’s Numismatic History. Last winter Coleman shared his internship experience during the Nickle at Noon presentation Reconstructing Roman and Byzantine identity and for the Calgary Public Library’s Ancient World series titled Byzantine identity in a pluralist society.
Coleman is currently pursuing a doctorate in public history at Carleton University and will continue to work with Marina Fischer and the Nickle Numismatic Collection, who will play an important role in his doctoral research.