This Money Tells a Story Old Coins Help Students Learn History

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Byline: Beth Reese Cravey, County Line staff writer

At first glance, the St. Johns Country Day School classroom did not look like an archaeological site.

The crews were sitting in chairs, not on their knees in the dirt.

The primary tools in use were toothbrushes, magnifying glasses and microscopes, not digging equipment.

But the sixth- and seventh-graders were archaeologists in the making nonetheless, painstakingly removing as much as 1,700 years' worth of hardened dirt and grime from ancient Roman coins, hoping to uncover the secrets underneath.

"Anybody seeing any detail?" asked Mark Lehman, a coin expert who brought the coins to the school and is leading the first cleaning effort.

"Nothing yet," came the response from the students.

Some of the coins are tiny, smaller than dimes, while others are larger than quarters. A few of the students were skeptical the coins they had been given would, once cleaned, reveal anything -- "I think mine's just a pebble," said one -- and in some cases they might be right, Lehman said. Those students will get replacement coins to work on.

But as the students vigorously scoured their coins, using toothbrushes and dishwashing liquid, most of them were able to slowly detect the raised outlines of faces, numbers and letters. As they discovered details, they used magnifying glasses and microscopes to get better looks.

The coin in the hands of student Jordan Royal showed a faint profile of a face on one side.

"It might be an emperor," she said, excitedly.

On the other side or Jordan's coin, Lehman and his magnifying glass found an outline of one man, likely a hero type, stabbing another man, likely an enemy type, he said. The accompanying phrase, loosely translated, said, "Happy days are here again."

"The government put messages on coins," he said.

The clues on the coins, together with Lehman's historical expertise, opened up the world of the Roman Empire, right there at St. Johns Country Day School. And the students, though initially leery, took to archaeology quickly.

"I think it's fun, a good way of learning about coins and how things were 2,000 years ago," said sixth-grader Jamie Sears.

Lehman visited the school Friday to kick off a special study of the ancient world. He is part of Ancient Coins for Education Inc., an association of coin dealers and ancient-coin enthusiasts who met online. They supply coins and related study resources to schools.

The coins are donated in the condition in which they were discovered and the students, over several months, clean them, research their origins, write reports on them and create a Web site about them. The students get to keep the coins.

Leslie Perkins, a St. Johns Country Day Latin teacher, said she heard about ACE at a conference and decided to line up a visit. …