Ancient Europeans in North America

How Did A Thousand-Year-Old Byzantine Coin End Up in Wisconsin?

During late October 2008, Brad Sutherland was overseeing excavation for a private home in the southern Wisconsin town of Twin Lakes. Just two or three miles north of the Illinois border—almost midway between the cities of Mil­waukee and Chicago—the immediate vicinity was sparsely developed and under-populated, with something of the pristine and unexplored. As the site’s rough-carpenter foreman, he was responsible for clearing the property and exca­vation prior to construction.

Sutherland was also something of a rock hound, and, after work, eagerly sifted through the mounds of freshly heaped earth for interesting specimens. Among the pieces of common quartz crystal, feldspar, and occasional fossil, a small, moderately different stone attracted his attention, particularly for its unusual, dark brown coloration. Tossed into a gathering pile of possible additions to his mineralogical collection, it was forgotten until the following Febru­ary, when he got around to polishing and cleaning his latest finds. As water and brush were applied to the “brown stone,” Brad was surprised to observe that it was actually a badly eroded, brass or bronze coin, and appeared to be very old. He could make out what appeared to be faint markings of some kind but was unable to discern the coin’s age or nationality.

I was unaware of his discovery as I arrived at the Sci-Fi Café in Burlington, Wisconsin, the evening before a “New Age” conference on 2009’s summer solstice. The meeting was organized by Brad’s wife, Mary, renowned for connect­ing individuals otherwise unknown to one another for researching a common project. That talent was in evidence as soon as Brad showed me the coin he had found the previous fall. Under a powerful magnifying glass, I could make out the vague representation of a human figure but nothing more; until Robert Vlassic, who likewise arrived a day early for the conference, said it seemed to resemble Byzantine imagery. But without a better view of the coin, no one could be sure.

Just then, Lynn Baumgartner, a conference organizer, walked in on our impromptu investigation. Lynn just hap­pened to be a specialist in photographing small, metal objects, and her digital camera was in the car. She took a doz­en shots of Brad’s find under various lighting conditions to profile every detail on both sides in various close-ups. They revealed the badly worn but nonetheless identifiable lineaments of a saint-like image on one face and the out­lines of a kingly figure on the other.

Moving on Robert Vlassic’s impression that the coin resembled the monetary style of Byzantium, Denise Markow­sky got on the Sci-Fi Café’s computer to cruise the Internet for a possible match with something from that ancient city. She, too, had arrived early for the conference, but her expertise, as a grammar school teacher familiar with tracking down a variety of sources on behalf of research education, was particularly valuable at the moment. Denise explored several web sites devoted to ancient coins, until she yelled, “Bingo! There it is!” Everyone crowded around her monitor to see photographs of a coin exactly resembling Brad Sutherland’s discovery.

It was described by Forum Ancient Coins (a numismatic dealer) as a “bronze follis” (a coin of fixed weight asso­ciated with late or post imperial times from the Eastern Roman Empire), minted in Constantinople, the former name of Istanbul, Turkey’s most famous city. The web site coin approximated Wisconsin’s version in weight (8.418 grams) and maximum diameter: 28.0 millimeters. The Forum Ancient Coins’ follis featured an identical “obverse bust of Christ facing, wearing nimbus cruciger (a sunburst halo), pallium (a large, woolen cloak worn by Greek philosophers and teachers), and colobium (a sleeveless shirt associated by the Romans with civilized attire), raising right (hand) in benediction, Gospels in left.”

The front face of the coin represented “Constantine X bust facing, bearded, wearing crown and loros (a long scarf worn on festive occasions by an emperor), holding cross and akakia (a cylindrical, purple, silk roll containing dust, held by Byzantine emperors during official ceremonies, and symbolizing the mortal nature of all men).” [http:// www.forumancientcoins.com/catalog/roman-and-greek-coins.asp?vpar=826]

The historical figure portrayed on both the Forum Ancient Coins’ specimen and Brad Sutherland’s find is Con­stantine X, who was crowned Byzantine emperor in AD 1059. Born Constantine Doukas, as he was originally known, and the son of a nobleman, he became politically influential through his marriage to the niece of Byzantium’s leading patriarch. As such, Constantine X was something of a Christian puppet, who undercut his country’s armed forces’ fi­nancial support in favor of the church. Shortly thereafter, the Seljuk Turks threatened from the east, while Norman invaders menaced from the north.

Panicked, the Emperor raised taxes to make up for the damage he so recently inflicted upon the army. He initiat­ed renewed recruitment drives, increased payroll salaries, and resupplied the army with new weapons and equipment. His measures came too late to prevent the Norman conquest of virtually the entire Italian peninsula, a loss com­pounded by defeats in the Balkans and throughout Asia Minor. Aged beyond his years by these unfortunate events, de­spised by his over-taxed citizens, and sick with some incurable illness, Constantine X died during his sixty-first year in 1067.

How was it possible for one of his coins to have found its way to southern Wisconsin? That it was not dropped as loose change by some careless numismatist strolling through the outback of Twin Lakes seems certain, as it was dug up from about nine or ten feet beneath the surface of the earth, indicating its pre-modern provenance. Mainstream archaeologists nonetheless dismiss Brad Sutherland’s discovery, ipso facto, as insignificant and meriting no serious consideration, because it was not made by an accredited, university-trained scholar under controlled, scientific condi­tions. In other words, they did not find it.

Even if they had, the coin would have been ignored as archaeologically worthless under prevailing, conventional wisdom that since no overseas visitors arrived in North America before Columbus, the anomalous object can only be understood somehow within the context of the last five centuries. This Dark Age mentality to the contrary, the ap­pearance of a self-evidently legitimate artifact minted more than 400 years before Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World demands a credible explanation.

But Constantine X’s Byzantium was in no condition to undertake transatlantic voyages. The pre-Classical Greek city had been transformed in AD 330. by his namesake who made it the Christian capital of the Roman Empire, which had even before then entered into its decline. After Constantine I’s death seven years later, the city was known as Constantinople—the “City of Constantine”—until the advent of Turkish reforms imposed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1930.

By the time Constantine X took over as emperor, the long-extinct Roman Empire had been far less successfully supplanted by Byzantine imperialism, as politically decadent as it was culturally inferior and spiritually benighted. Roman civilization’s precipitous descent was graphically spelled out in its own coinage, from the high works of art ex­emplified by the denarii of Caesar Augustus to the exceedingly crude workmanship evident in Constantine X’s follis. Beset on all sides by military crises, the poor quality of his ships additionally contributed to the unlikelihood of far-flung expeditions to the other side of the world.

He did, however, have in his service a group of foreign mercenaries already well acquainted with the rigors of oceanic travel and in possession of vessels sturdy enough to successfully negotiate the seas that barred other peoples from long-distance voyages. These were the Varangians, Vikings from Sweden, who sailed southward down the Volga River through Russia to Constantinople as early as AD 842. In Old Norse, the name is Væringjar, derived from væringi (literally, “a sworn person”), “a foreigner who has taken service with a new lord by a treaty of fealty to him, or protégé.”

Big, fearless men, skilled in warfare, armed with immense battle-axes, renowned for their steadfast loyalty, and commanding the most seaworthy vessels afloat, they hired themselves out as the Varangian Guard. They formed an elite corps of warriors only thrown into combat when the fighting was most desperate, because they fought to the last man but more often turned the tide of battle. As such, they were highly valued and richly rewarded by Byzantine em­perors, who stationed them close by in barracks at the palace itself. In addition to their military role, the Varangians acted as a royal bodyguard responsible for palace security. Although guard membership and leaders were entirely Norse, its commanding officer, the akolouthos, was invariably a native-born Byzantine.

Swedish historian, Lars Magnar Enoksen, writes that, to the people of Constantinople, the “Scandinavians were frightening both in appearance and in equipment; they attacked with reckless rage, and neither cared about losing blood nor their wounds” (Runor: historia, tydning, tolkning, Historiska Media, Falun. 1998). These qualities so en­deared them to Byzantine royalty that the Varangians were awarded extraordinary privileges, including polutasvarf, or “palace pillaging,” that allowed them to carry away as much gold and jewels from the imperial treasury as they could pocket on the day each emperor died. Yet, polutasvarf was merely a “perk” to their more usual rewards. Accord­ingly, the Varangians were no strangers to wealth.

Iceland’s Laxdœla saga tells of their early eleventh century leader, Bolli Bollason, who, along with “all his follow­ers, dressed in scarlet, and rode on gilt saddles … he had over all a scarlet cape; and he had Footbiter (the name he affectionately bestowed on his broadsword) girt on him, the hilt of which was bright with gold, and the grip woven with gold; he had a gilded helmet on his head, and a red shield on his flank, with a knight painted on it in gold … and whenever they took quarters, the women paid heed to nothing but gazing at Bolli and his grandeur, and that of his followers.”

The Varangians were extended other, unique privileges, including the right to worship their “pagan” gods in pri­vate, away from Constantinople’s Christian population. They were also allowed to get drunk, again, so long as they kept to themselves. By the twelfth century, the Væringjar had built up a well-deserved reputation as “the Emperor’s wine-bags.” Most of them eventually returned to Sweden rich men. A few stayed on in the Byzantine world, but oth­ers, more true to Viking restlessness, sailed throughout the Mediterranean Sea and beyond in their incomparable long-ships. Some may have ventured as far as North America, a supposition suggested by the coin Brad Sutherland found in southern Wisconsin.

Its minting in the mid-eleventh century coincided not only with Varangians at war at the far western borders of the Byzantine Empire. The Vinland Map—a Viking representation of eastern North America from Maine to Virginia, as far inland as Lake Ontario—was composed during the same epoch. The Norse were unquestionably exploring our continent one thousand years ago, according to a five-year investigation completed in spring 2009 by the Royal Dan­ish Academy of Fine Arts, in Copenhagen. Scholars there authenticated the Vinland Map as a genuine, early eleventh century document. (See my article about the Vinland Map in Issue 77 of Atlantis Rising)

A Constantinople follis from that same period found deep beneath the surface of the ground in North America suggests the presence of visiting Varangians, because they were, after all, paid in Byzantine coin. That they actually arrived in southern Wisconsin is less probable. More likely, the coin Brad Sutherland discovered had been brought to Twin Lakes by an indigene, perhaps an ancestor of the Ho-Chunk, or “People of the Big Voice,” who then, as now, re­side in the area.

It was very possibly a trade item exchanged with another tribal Indian from the east, where the coin was originally received from the hand of a Varangian veteran in the service of Constantine X. As such, it is complimentary evidence for the contemporaneous Vinland Map and points to the Swedish Norse identity of that document’s Viking creators.

By Frank Joseph

1 Comment

  • Robert G. Vlach says:

    To whom it may concern: The person identified as “Robert Vlassic” by the author was actually myself- Robert G. Vlach. At the time,I frequented the Sci Fi Cafe in Burlington,Wisconsin,quite regularly. I’m not really sure how Frank Joseph managed to misidentify me, but please accept this belated correction!!! By the way,I am a frequent reader of your magazine. Sincerely, Robert G. Vlach.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*