Harold B. Mattingly (1923-2015)

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by Ursula Kampmann
translated by Annika Backe

September 3, 2015 – The distinguished historian, numismatist and epigraphist Harold B. Mattingly passed away after a brief illness in the presence of his family in Truro / Cornwall.

Harold Braithwaite Mattingly was virtually born to be a numismatist. His father ranged among Britain’s most renowned numismatists, and the apple did not fall far from the tree. H. B. Mattingly studied history at the University of Cambridge, where he obtained his bachelor’s degree in 1947/8 and his master’s degree in 1952. He taught at the University of Nottingham until 1970, then at the University of Leeds.

To numismatists, he is known first and foremost as the writer of highly influential contributions to the new dating of the coinages issued by Roman Republican mint masters. The main academic controversy of his life, however, did not revolve around coins, but focused on an inscription that is something of a key issue in numismatics. We are referring to the Athenian coinage decree. A particular epigraphic question related to this decree went down into academic history as the “Three-bar Sigma” controversy. This controversy took a certain shape of the Greek letter ‘s’ as starting point for dating inscriptions. Researchers used to think that the three-bar sigma had become obsolete in Attic inscriptions by 446 BC. However, Mattingly proved that this was a misapprehension. Rather, the two forms were in use simultaneously. He met strong and openly expressed resistance before his theses became the communis opinio. It is close to impossible to overemphasize his findings. It was thanks to these findings that the history of Athenian imperialism had to be reassessed. The coinage decree, therefore, was not passed as early as shortly before 449 BC when, in the aftermath of the Peace of Callias, Athens began to enlarge its position of power in the Delian League. Rather, it is a testimony to the ever-growing radical nature which with the Athenians attempted to bring the members of the League into line during the war with Sparta.

Anyone inclined to consider Harold B. Mattingly a belligerent academic, who was overly fond of fierce discussions, is in error. He was a highly agreeable person who kept recommending people to enjoy life. Andrew Burnett, Deputy Director of the British Museum until 2013, has happy memories of what happened during the International Numismatic Congress in Bern in 1979. Back then, young Burnett was Research Assistant in the British Museum and visited his first INC. Mattingly, many years Burnett’s senior, made it clear to the young colleague that the main purpose of this event was to get to know other people and to enjoy the others’ company. This good advice was put into practice at a lavish dinner party right away.

It says something about the man Harold B. Mattingly that he not only inherited his father‘s passion for antiquity, but passed it on to his children as well. His daughter Joanna Mattingly is a renowned expert on the art of Cornwall of medieval times while his son David Mattingly currently teaches Roman Archeology at the University of Leicester.

The burial took place only under participation of the closest family circle. In order to honor the researcher, and to give his friends a chance to share their memories of a truly remarkable man, there will be a commemorative service held in Cambridge in the near future.