Getting Teenagers Interested in Grimy, Old Coins

As a former Latin teacher who is married to a Latin teacher, we can get pretty nerdy on a regular basis ’round these parts. Just yesterday, I asked my husband a question, and he responded in Latin because he was thinking about Latin. That’s just how we roll. Teenagers, however, don’t usually roll that way. They did this weekend. Sure, they weren’t spouting off Latin, but they were focused and attentive (while ignoring their phones!) to clean grit and grime from Roman coins. Yep, Roman coins.

The Kansas Junior Classical League held a winter event where participating students could use brushes, bristles, and picks to remove grimy layers on coins that had accrued over centuries. My husband had purchased a hoard of coins for this event. He soaked individual coins in cups of distilled water for two months and purchased sets of bristles and picks from Harbor Freight. He borrowed some clay tools from the art teacher too.

After a brief power point, we passed out coins to kiddos, and they started working away at the grime and to discover how the luck of the draw had fallen. Would they get a coin with identifiable features, or get a coin where merely a head’s outline was discernible? Regardless of the quality of coin, each participant would leave with a little piece of history of the Roman Empire. The students were definitely excited, motivated, and invested in meticulous, menial, and tedious work. While many chatted with their peers and shared their progress on their coins, just as many were carefully bent over their coins, scrubbing, picking, and brushing away grime with a kind of intense focus I’ve rarely (if ever!) seen in a large group of teenagers.

If any kiddos had a concern about the ethical ambiguity about the sourcing of the hoard of coins, none of them mentioned it. Still, such a concern is not an unfounded one. Some argue that purchasing a hoard of uncleaned and unsorted coins from antiquity could be supporting the black market. The black market undermines and threatens the stability and preservation of culturally salient commodities. I understand those concerns and share them. The company from which these coins were purchased does include information about ethical regulations for evaluating and obtaining hoards. While it’s not a guarantee, it’s a good foundation.

I don’t doubt that some sources of hoard coins are obtained unethically, but I also know that the coins that were purchased for this event are not museum-grade pieces. They are the kinds of coins that inspire teenagers to shout across the room in triumph, “I have a head!” They are the kinds of coins that sometimes have nothing on them at all while other times revealing the detailing of a particular face. They are the kinds of coins that help students to make a connection to the past and to cherish that past and to feel a stake of ownership in it. If we don’t raise a generation of students who care about preserving antiquities, looting will be a moot point.

I think the enthusiasm and joy exhibited by the ninety teenagers who registered to spend their afternoons bent over scrubbing away grime from centuries old coins says enough.

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