I once had the opportunity to examine a hoard of ancient coins fresh from the ground. From roughly woven hemp bags I extracted handfuls of coins. There were nearly 2000 pieces in all. Each of the coins was covered with a thick layer of what looked like crusty tan cement. The filth was so heavy that only the highest portion of the design was visible. The coins could be identified by type. That was about it.
Gently brushing the surfaces of these ancient coins with a camel hair brush only polished the dirt. Have you ever boiled 2000 coins? Based on previous experience, I knew that the only way to safely remove the encrustation without risking damage to the surface of the coins was to soak them in water mixed with a few drops of mild hand soap. Due to the amount of foreign material on each coin, I knew that it might take months of soaking to loosen even the top layer of grime.
After gently boiling the first few hundred coins, I began to notice a strange and exotic odor. When it comes to numismatics, I can be quite the romantic. To me, this curious smell might be quite like what one would detect when opening the secret hatch that led to a previously unknown Egyptian tomb. My wife had other thoughts. If any more coin boiling was done it would happen outdoors on the gas grill. Knowing the neighbors already thought I was pretty strange, I obeyed orders and continued my important work under field conditions.
After boiling each of the coins I placed them in shallow pans of water. Every day I'd check to see how the soaking was going. By the following Friday the crusts began to loosen. With cautious prodding, I was able to remove material that often came off in chunks. In some cases it was like removing an entire shell from the surface. I was delighted to see that in every case my boiling and soaking had not altered the surfaces of the coins. Each piece exhibited the uniform light tan color it had naturally obtained before being hidden in the earth.
Now might be a good time to mention that the value of these coins was minimal. Nice examples were readily available to collectors for less than $7 each. I had no reason to think any of the coins in my group would fetch higher prices. These coins were always found in nice condition. Based on conservative standards used to grade ancient coins, these pieces would all grade EF or better.
So why had I performed days of mundane labor to remove the dirt? My wife asked this same question while hoping my enthusiasm would carry over to stripping and waxing some of our floors. I relished my coin work because once the messy part was over I'd be the first numismatist to ever examine these coins. I enjoyed and savored every minute of the extraordinary experience that followed.
I began by sorting the coins by ruler. Then each piece within these groups was examined to note any potential differences in obverse and reverse design, legends or style. The project amounted to many days of numismatic research and resulted in dozens upon dozens of plastic bags filled with distinct types and major varieties. From these groups I then selected the finest examples based on strike, centering, style and overall appearance. I began this enjoyable sort after promising myself that I would only keep 10 coins for my collection. Pruning my selections down to the final few was not an easy thing to do--but it was great fun. Tucked away somewhere I now have 10 neat coins that no other numismatist has ever seen.
Being a coin dealer first and then a numismatist, I sold off the rest of the coins to a mass marketer who cared nothing about the content of the amazing assortment except that these were "fairly sexy cheap ancients" and there were enough of them to do a major promotion. I'm quite certain that once the coins arrived at the coin factory the pieces I'd sorted into sandwich bags were dumped back together in a single lot.
My purpose in recounting my experience is not to merely share another coin story. I hope my special adventure suggests that much of the "wonder" that can be attached to coin collecting is generated by numismatic curiosity and this curiosity need not be limited by the monetary value of coins of their technical state of preservation.