White Gold: Revealing the World's Earliest Coins | Curator: Haim Gitler     Israel Museum
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Spotted stag

Ephesus. Last third of the seventh century BCE. Stater (14.13g). Lydo-Milesian standard. Retrograde inscription ΦΑΝΕΟΣ ΕΜΙ Σ̣Η̣Μ̣[A] (I am the sign of Phanes), stag with spotted coat walking right on thick ground line, head lowered.

This stater is the most famous of all early electrum coins. The inscription seems to imply that it acquired its type from the signet of a prominent man, raising the possibility that this could be true for other electrum types as well. Only six specimens of this coin type are known. An even shorter inscription, "of Phanes," appears on associated third staters (tritae), while uninscribed sixth staters (hectae), twelfth staters (hemihecta), and even smaller denominations are related to the larger denominations by the type of the spotted stag. A twelfth stater was found in excavations of the Artemisium at Ephesus, establishing a date for the series in the latter seventh century BCE.

Ephesus. Last third of the seventh century BCE. Stater (14.13g). Lydo-Milesian standard. Retrograde inscription ΦΑΝΕΟΣ ΕΜΙ Σ̣Η̣Μ̣[A] (I am the sign of Phanes), stag with spotted coat walking right on thick ground line, head lowered.

This stater is the most famous of all early electrum coins. The inscription seems to imply that it acquired its type from the signet of a prominent man, raising the possibility that this could be true for other electrum types as well. Only six specimens of this coin type are known. An even shorter inscription, "of Phanes," appears on associated third staters (tritae), while uninscribed sixth staters (hectae), twelfth staters (hemihecta), and even smaller denominations are related to the larger denominations by the type of the spotted stag. A twelfth stater was found in excavations of the Artemisium at Ephesus, establishing a date for the series in the latter seventh century BCE.

Thraco-Macedonian region(?). Ca. 500 BCE. Stater (13.95g). Lydo-Milesian standard. Forepart of ram running right, thick fleece indicated by scalloped lines, truncation indicated by dots between parallel lines.

Unidentified mint in western Asia Minor. Ca. 625–600 BCE. Trite (4.68g). Lydo- Milesian standard. Head and foreleg of ram running left, fleece indicated by pellets and dashes, truncation indicated by a wide band with raised semicircular arc near top.

Thraco-Macedonian region(?). Ca. 500 BCE. Stater (13.94g). Lydo-Milesian standard. Cow right in semi-kneeling posture, one foreleg raised before her, the other bent back under her, hind legs straight, head reverted to gaze at suckling calf left, above cow's back a stylized lotus blossom, to right a branch.

Two silver coinages of the Thraco- Macedonian region feature a cow suckling its calf; one of them bears the Greek letters EN and has been attributed to Ennea Hodoi (Nine Roads), the site of the future city of Amphipolis. These and other Greek silver coinages showing the cow and calf motif invariably depict the cow standing, whereas the present stater shows her in the act of lying down. Most likely this was not a behavior observed from real life, but rather an adaptation of a half-kneeling pose strongly favored in Archaic art. The lotus blossom was a popular motif on the Archaic silver coinages of the Thraco-Macedonian region. Although it has sometimes been interpreted as a "Pangaean rose," alluding to the mining district around Mt. Pangaeus, it is better understood as a fertility symbol. In the present case it complements the significance of the cow and calf, which illustrate the theme of fecundity.

Phocaea. Ca. 625/600 – ca. 525 BCE. Stater (16.40g). Phocaic standard. Seal swimming left, Φ (Greek letter phi) superimposed on narrow end of body before flippers, octopus in seal's mouth, two raised squares above its back, a third raised square below its belly.

The seal (phoke in Greek) was the civic badge of Phocaea and a pun on the city's name. On the earliest electrum coins of Phocaea, such as the one shown here, the seal is sometimes accompanied by the Greek letter phi (the first letter of phoke) to make the connection perfectly clear. The three square projections in the field do not seem to represent objects from nature and can best be understood in terms of the horror vacui of Orientalizing art – the tendency to fill empty space with decorative elements.

Samos. Ca. 600–550 BCE. Hecte (2.86g). Attic-Euboic standard. Facing head of panther on lumpy background.

The island of Samos distinguished itself from other electrum mints by adopting a separate weight standard. Its earliest products were characterized by an irregular, lumpy surface. The next step was the addition of types against a similar background. The best known of these types is the facing head of a lioness or panther.

Members of the cat family, especially lions, are common motifs in Ancient Near Eastern iconography, in which they often represent the protective powers of deities or symbolize the ruler. On electrum coins, lions are particularly common, but lionesses and panthers also occur. They are often depicted in a prancing position, with wide-open jaws and protruding tongues. Partial depictions including the forepart, head, and paw are also known.

Thraco-Macedonian region(?). Ca. 500 BCE. Stater (13.92g). Lydo-Milesian standard. Lactating lioness half-kneeling left on ground line, her forelegs extended, her hind legs only partially bent, her head twisted so that it is seen from above, two engorged breasts hanging before her hind legs.

A lactating lioness is an extremely rare subject on coins. Other examples include a unique early stater on the Phocaic standard, on which the lioness walks with her head reverted; a unique early electrum stater in Paris on the Lydo-Milesian standard, with a lioness reclining right, leaves and tendrils above her back, and five incuses on the reverse, separately applied and containing a goat's head, two snakes, and two geometric patterns; and a silver stater of Colchis, ca. 480 BCE, featuring a maned lioness on the reverse in a rectangular incuse. None of these pieces has a particularly close relation to this presumed Thraco- Macedonian stater, and none has anything like the rich plastic quality that elevates this lioness from a mere Orientalizing motif to a chef-d'oeuvre of late Archaic art.

Stater of Cyzicus showing a lion attacking a bull, who collapses on a tuna fish. The tuna fish is the identifying symbol of the mint city.

The motif of a lion attacking a bull is found in Near Eastern iconography from the Bronze Age. It later became a very popular motif, especially in minute glyptic art (namely gems and finger rings) both Persian and Greek.

Stater of an uncertain mint in western Asia Minor, showing the forepart of a bridled and harnessed horse. Above the horse's back is a lotus blossom.

Sixth stater of Cyzicus showing a boar standing on a tuna fish. The tuna fish was the symbol of the mint city.

Sixth stater of Phocaea showing the head of an eagle, with the mintmark of Phocaea, a small seal, below.

Stater perhaps from a mint in the Thraco-Macedonian region, showing the forepart of a running bull.

Forty-eighth stater of Mylasa, showing a scorpion, late fifth century BCE.

Mylasa, a notable city of Caria, took part in the Ionian revolt against the Persians and might have minted these electrum fractions as part of its war effort. Similar coins were later issued at Mylasa whose territory, according to ancient sources, was plagued with scorpions.

Animals, both wild and domestic, are often illustrated on electrum coins. Since in the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods most images appearing on coins had religious significance, it is most likely that the illustrations of domestic species represent sacrificial animals. The sacred laws specified which animals needed to be sacrificed to which deities and on which occasions; thus, for the people who used these coins, each domestic animal probably had specific associations. While the wild animals depicted on the coins might also have been chosen for their affiliation with particular deities, it is also possible that they were selected for their physical strength or other qualities.