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article imageAncient Roman brothel token found in Britain's River Thames

By Leigh Goessl     Jan 7, 2012 in World
London - An amateur archeologist out walking along the River Thames with his metal detector discovered a rare and unique coin believed to be about 2,000 years old.
Regis Cursan, 37, discovered the long-hidden bronze token (described as 'spintria') in the mud near Putney Bridge, West London, at low tide. The spintria, believed by experts to be a token used in ancient Roman brothels, depicts two people in a sex act.
According to the Daily Mail, historians believe it is the first token of its type to be found in Britain.
The Daily Mail reported Cursan said of his find, "The day I made the find it was a very low, early tide and raining heavily. At first I thought it was a Roman coin, because of the thickness and diameter."
He added, "When I rubbed the sand off the artefact the first thing I saw was the number on one side and what I thought was a goddess on the other. Little did I know at the time it was actually a rare Roman brothel token. To find something like that is a truly exciting find."
Cursan donated the artifact.
For the next three months, the coin will be on display at the Museum of London. The curator of the museum, Caroline McDonald, said, "This is the only one of its kind ever to be found in Great Britain. When it came in, it had to be cleaned up before we could make out what it was. When we realised it was a saucy picture, we had a bit of a giggle but there’s also a sad story behind it because these prostitutes were slaves."
McDonald said the coin is believed to be first century AD and it remained safe from corrosion by the mud it has been housed in all these years. Historians say these types of coins were common in the Roman Empire, including cities such as Pompeii, however this is the first of its kind seen in this section of Europe.
A popular theory is rooted in the belief that these types of tokens were used in the ancient sex industry, and were redeemed by clients so the owners of the brothel would ensure no money was given directly to the prostitute/slave.
The coins generally depicted different sex acts and are believed to have been used as payment tokens in brothels, where the holder of this type of 'currency' would swap it in exchange for the act displayed on the token. It is theorized the images etched on the bronze coins erased any language barriers that might be present between client and prostitute.
The coin found in the River Thames is described as possessing an image of a man and a woman in an intimate act lying on a couch with the reverse of the coin etched with the numeral XIIII. This is hypothesized to mean the token holder paid 14 small Roman coins to pay for it, or how much a sex service cost.
However, some say it's possible coins of this nature were actually gaming tokens.
"First remember that just because something has a sex scene on it doesn't mean it was used for sex," Mary Beard, a professor in classics at Cambridge, writes in the Times Literary supplement.
"More likely, if you ask me, is that it is a gaming token, for one of the many Roman board games... whose rules and customs were anyway shot through with sex (the best throw of the Roman dice was called a "Venus throw"). This belonged, in other words, on a board in a Roman bar, not in a brothel," Beard wrote.
The museum's press release, dated Jan. 5, quoted McDonald as saying, “This is the perfect archaeological object. It’s sexy and provocative in the best sense of the word. The lot of a Roman sex slave was not a happy one and objects like this can help the Museum of London provoke debates about issues that are relevant to the modern city and its visitors. Museums should engage with these more grown-up and sometimes less comfortable topics”
Visitors to the Museum of London can view the token until April 2012.
More about Britain, River thames, ancient history, Ancient rome, roman brothel token
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