Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Blundered Balmerino Communion Token

No one likes to make mistakes. But we sometimes revel in the mistakes of others. Why? Perhaps it reminds us of our own failings. After all, what is humor but a laugh at some small misfortune. It is not surprising then, that error coins and tokens fascinate us.
     Lester Burzinski loved errors. He served as an officer in CONECA. So I am sure that he took a particular liking to a small round CT from the Old Balmerino Church in Fife that is distinctive for its blundered design (BK138). The obverse reads: B/1725, but the digits presented problems for the engraver, as the 2 is retrograde, and the 5 is inverted. The reverse is reads: M/TK for the Minister Thomas Kerr who served between 1727 and 1741.
A wonderful CT from the Old Parish Church at Balmerino.
Only the 7 in the date is correctly oriented. This is an honest
token that speaks to the struggles on an unknown mold-
maker over two centuries ago.
     The village of Balmerino is a rural cluster of houses located along the Firth of Tay. It was the location for the Balmerino Abbey, now in ruins. The old parish church was built sometime in the 1560s, and it is now completely gone but for a small mound in a cemetery. Some of the stepping stones located there are believed to be from this old Kirk that was demolished in 1811. Here is a link to a photo of the old stones: Stepping stones made from the Old Church at Balmerino.
     Our story begins on a cloudy day some 288 years ago. A token was needed for the upcoming communion event, and the local blacksmith or plumber was employed to make one. The elders had dictated a certain design. Mold-making was probably not his specialty, but he knew how to use a chisel. He also understood that he needed to cut the mold in retrograde -- that is to say, the mold was cut as one would see it in a mirror reflection.
     And so, production began. The B was easy. Even with a rather ungainly chisel, he was able to complete the stem with two cuts and smoothly carve two loops with an extra cut at the top to complete the letter.
     But the digits were more of a challenge. It appears that he started on the left (remember: the mold needed to be cut in reverse). With several -- perhaps three -- deep cuts, he formed a 5. He probably started with the loop, carefully making sure that it faced right (in reverse, as it should be). But his error was that the digit was upside-down!
     Next came the 2. He cut it facing the wrong way! Did he forget to make it retrograde in the mold? Or did he use the 5 as a reference point? In any case, he made a nice loop, but seeing that the digit extended below the 5, he tried to correct it with a bold, over-lapping base. A 2 is a bit like the letter S -- these figures are difficult to flip-around in your head.
     The 7 was cut with an oddly sloped top bar. But he got it correct. By this time, he was running out of room. Luckily, only the 1 remained. But problems arose once again, as the serif of the one was cut facing left on the mold. As before, perhaps he was using the 7 as a reference point, so he pointed the serif of the 1 towards the 7 in a concrete attempt to make it retrograde relative to the 7 -- but what this actually did was make the one in the mold normal and retrograde on the token!
     Now, reverse was fine. The M and T were easy. All he had to do was get the K correctly. He did -- although he squeezed it somewhat against the rim.  
     Oh my! Was he dyslexic? Or did he not know his numbers very well? Maybe the task was too difficult, as his mental flexibility (that is, the set of skills needed to juggle concepts in the head so as to accomplish this feat of mental gymnastics) was poor. In any case, he was in for a surprise when the first tokens were picked out of the mold.
     And the elders? Well since we are making up the story anyway, we can just give it a happy ending. And so, the elders just smiled and thanked him for his work. After all, the smell of fresh bread, and the tap-tap-tap of the carpenters transforming planks into tables, filled the air. Anticipation was everywhere.
     For us collectors, we can identify with the plumber. He did his best with tools designed for repairing hardware of a larger sort. We enjoy contemplating this token that is so blundered, as to be beautiful for its distinctiveness and honesty.
     With this piece in our hand, we connect with this unknown mold-maker who so long ago struggled one afternoon to prepare for the sacramental season.

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