Pre-Columbian Old World Coins? Think Twice
One of the papers offered in this issues' Reprint Series is "Pre-Columbian Old World Coins in America: An Examination of the Evidence," by Jeremiah F. Epstein (Current Anthropology 21 [Feb. 1980]: 1-20). Epstein surveys the field of Old World coins dating to pre-Columbian times that have found in the United States, particularly within the last three decades, to determine how seriously such items should be taken. If valid, the existence of such coins would obviously be a powerful argument for diffusionists.
In his survey of some forty coin discoveries, he includes a reported find dating back to the sixteenth century, even though more than twenty-five of the forty coins have been discovered since World War II, just when American tourists and servicemen were buying antique coins abroad and bringing them back as souvenirs. Several genuine coins seem to have been discovered so close to the surface that they differ by centuries from the strata where they were found. Furthermore, some of the coins have been identified as pious forgeries of religiously significant Hebrew coins that were very popular with gullible tourists in the late nineteenth century.
The coins are fairly evenly distributed between coastal states and interior states, which would seem unlikely if they were arriving in the pockets of sailors, and are also fairly evenly distributed over the range of centuries. It is even more unlikely that the most common of these would not represent the periods of intense maritime activity of Greece, Rome, and Phoenicia.
Only one of the coins was found in a controlled pre-Columbian site. In many cases it is difficult to determine where a given coin actually was discovered because they are typically unearthed by amateurs and receive newspaper publicity rather than examination on site by geological and archeological experts.
In short, although Epstein does not attack the diffusionists on the basis of this analysis, it is clear that the strength of their position must lie in other evidence.