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

Coinage as a convention
Before Coins
The Invention of Coinage
A Golden Birth
The Date of the Earliest Electrum Coinage
"As Rich as Croesus": The Invention of Bimetallism


White Gold: Revealing the World's Earliest Coins is the first public display of an outstanding group of five hundred miniature masterpieces from two important collections of electrum coins. The exhibition provides an intimate glimpse into the dawn of coinage, shedding light on the story of one of the most important innovations in human history. Gallery view >>
Electrum coins are not only historically significant, but also astonishingly beautiful. Reflecting a rich diversity of subjects, they trace the evolution of Greek art from the seventh through the fourth century BCE and draw us magnetically into a vibrant and fascinating iconographic world.

The Israel Museum hosted a two-day International Congress in celebration of this unique presentation, in which 19 of the world's leading scholars in the field were invited to speak on electrum coinage and related topics. A total of 70 scholars from 14 countries attended the event. Congress Videos and Group Photos>>


Coinage as a convention

Occasionally an invention succeeds so thoroughly that it permanently changes the terms in which society thinks. It becomes an essential part of existence, and life without it is hardly conceivable. Writing is such an invention, altering not only our means of communication but also our way of thinking about it. The invention of the clock also had a great impact; within a few decades, it had organized society around fixed times of day, calculated with unprecedented accuracy. Coinage, too, is an invention of this kind, affecting the lives and economic conduct of individuals and states in immeasurable ways.
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Before Coins

The most important feature of all money is that it is culturally based, acceptable to some but not to others. What constitutes money in one society may not be regarded as money in another. Coinage is a specific type of money, and before its invention, other types existed. One type of money was Hacksilber, referring to bits of irregularly cut silver and broken silver jewelry, which were weighed on scales against standardized weights. Hacksilber was used for payment in both international and local transactions, especially in the southern Levant from the beginning of the second millennium BCE through the fourth century BCE.
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The Invention of Coinage

The earliest coins were struck in the late seventh century BCE in western Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), which was home to many Greek cities. They are nugget-like in shape and made of electrum, an alloy of gold and silver. From this region, the idea of coinage rapidly spread to the Greeks of the mainland and the islands, who, however, struck their coins in silver. Coinage in the form of silver ingots with struck designs appeared in India slightly later than electrum coinage in Asia Minor, around 550–450 BCE. However, there is no doubt that much of ancient Indian coinage follows a different trajectory as far as the "coinage tradition" is concerned – being manufactured using a different technique, exhibiting designs entirely symbolic and schematic, and using for the most part indigenous weight standards. In China the invention of coins occurred more or less at the same time as it did in India, but these "coins" were in the shape of bronze spades and knives.

What prompted this important development? Whatever the explanations may be, the virtually simultaneous emergence of coinage in Asia Minor, India, and China suggests that coinage must have met some social or economic needs that were common to the civilizations of all these regions.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE) wrote that "all things that are exchanged must be somehow comparable" (Nicomachean Ethics, V.5., Trans. D. Ross). Further on he explains

It is for this end that coinage has been introduced, and it becomes in a sense an intermediate; for it measures all things, and therefore the excess and the defect – how many shoes are equal to a house or to a given amount of food. The number of shoes exchanged for a house (or for a given amount of food) must therefore correspond to the ratio of builder to shoemaker …

Now this unit is in truth demand, which holds all things together (for if men did not need one another's goods at all, or did not need them equally, there would be either no exchange or not the same exchange); but coinage has become by convention a sort of representative of demand; and this is why it has the name nomisma – because it exists not by nature but by law (nomos) and it is in our power to change it and make it useless. There will, then, be reciprocity when the terms have been equated so that as farmer is to shoemaker, the amount of the shoemaker's work is to that of the farmer's work for which it exchanges.

Aristotle's understanding that coins were invented to facilitate barter is found in the manuals of political economy to this day, such as the works of Noble Prize Laureate (1976) Milton Friedman. Through the revolutionary invention of coinage, precious metal was transformed by means of a sign – the motif, or type, struck onto the metal – into an object which, inasmuch as its conventional value was generally greater than its intrinsic value, was unlikely to be melted down to make other objects. The provision of money came under the authority and legal protection of the state, thereby maximizing the reliability of the means of exchange, which translated into improved transactional efficiency.

From an iconographical point of view, it seems probable that the longstanding Near Eastern tradition of engraving seals provided the idea for striking coins. Moreover, it is plausible that the early die cutters were drawn from the cadre of artists who had already gained experience in intaglio (engraving) techniques. It is certainly the case that the earliest designs on the coins of western Asia Minor – lions, griffins, bulls, sphinxes, winged deities, and other figural motifs – resemble those of the Near Eastern seals and take their inspiration from the repertoire of Near Eastern art current in the seventh century BCE. With time, however, Greek elements began to appear: mythological scenes were drawn from the Greek rather than the Near Eastern tradition, and divinities were humanized. There was also an increased plasticity of form and a qualitative improvement in the understanding of the relationship of the coin's design to its surface and to the size and shape of its flan.
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A Golden Birth

Coinage as we know it developed in western Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) around the middle of the seventh century BCE. It was characterized by adherence to a recognized weight standard and system of denominations and was stamped by an issuing authority, usually a state, to guarantee its value within the area of influence of that authority. The use of a shared metrological system indicates that there must have been some degree of cooperation between independent states to establish a common system of exchange.

An important feature of the earliest coins is that they were made of electrum, an alloy of gold and silver that can occur in nature. The source of the electrum in the area under discussion was Mount Tmolus, situated within the boundaries of the ancient kingdom of Lydia. Nuggets and grains of the metal washed down from the mountain and were carried by the river Pactolus, which flowed through the city of Sardis, into the larger river Hermus. This supply of electrum was controlled by the Lydian kings, and for this reason coinage was first minted in Sardis, their capital. It quickly spread to the other Greek cities of western Asia Minor that came under Lydian political control.

The invention of coinage was apparently spurred by the deficiency of alluvial electrum as a medium of exchange. Its variable gold content, ranging from ca. 65% to 85%, implied an unreliable intrinsic value, so that electrum in its bullion form had to be tested with a touchstone ("Lydian stone") every time it changed hands. When electrum took the form of a coin, the device of the issuing authority guaranteed its face value, which was probably fixed at the maximum intrinsic value of electrum. Remarkably careful weight control, within a tolerance measured by hundredths of grams, may also have facilitated the use of electrum coinage in exchange. Metallurgical analyses of electrum coins indicate that natural alluvial ore was soon replaced by an artificial alloy with a lower gold content and a higher percentage of silver, usually adulterated with copper to enrich its color. For example, early electrum coins from the island of Samos show great variability in their gold content, from 84% to 46% with an average around 55–60%; those with the highest gold content may have been struck from natural electrum whereas the rest employed a manipulated alloy. In contrast, royal Lydian coins of the lionforepart or lion-head type were from the beginning made of an artificial alloy containing about 54% gold and 2% copper, yet they were probably valued as if minted from natural electrum with an average gold content of 70–75%.

Electrum coinage was thus a fiduciary coinage, and the profit that accrued to the issuing authorities may be another reason, or even the main reason, for the invention of coinage. Electrum coinage was also a high-value coinage, too valuable to be useful in everyday transactions. The most common denomination, the third stater (trite), has been estimated to be equivalent in value to sixteen sheep. The high value of electrum explains the production of many small fractional denominations. Twenty-fourth and forty-eighth staters are not uncommon, and the scarcity of even smaller units may be due more to the chances of survival of such tiny pieces than to limited production.

Electrum coins generally exhibit a thick, rounded appearance. The principal side, called the obverse, may be smooth or striated or merely irregular, but usually features a design called a type; hoards indicate that typeless coins and those with types were contemporary. The secondary side, the reverse, is invariably marked with one to three incuse punches (impressions) whose purpose was not only to expose the interior of the coin, but also to allow metal to flow more easily into the obverse die.

The most frequent types appearing on early electrum coinage are animals and parts of animals, with lions especially favored. Other animals depicted are both wild and domestic, avian, aquatic, arachnid, and insect. The repertory of types also includes fantastic creatures, deities, human depictions, floral subjects, inanimate objects, and geometric patterns.

Nearly a hundred distinct designs have been identified for the early electrum coinage, but the number of mints must have been smaller, for some mints used several types whose relationship can be detected on the basis of a shared background texture or shared incuse punches. The coinage of Samos, for example, featured a lumpy surface, at first typeless, then with a reclining lamb or facing panther head in the center, or a bird. Other issuing authorities adopted one or two principal types. Among the identifiable Greek mints, Cyzicus employed the tuna as its civic badge, while Phocaea marked its coins with a griffin or a seal, the latter (phoke in Greek) representing a pun on the city's name. Coins of Ephesus bear a stag or a bee, those of Miletus a recumbent lion or a lion's head, and those of Chios a sphinx. The vast majority of early electrum coin varieties remain unattributed.
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The Date of the Earliest Electrum Coinage

Finds of electrum coins in excavations at the temple of Artemis at Ephesus provide crucial evidence for dating the birth of coinage. The excavations conducted by D. G. Hogarth of the British Museum in 1904– 1905 unearthed 93 coins among the foundation deposits (ritual deposits of objects, such as coins, placed in or beneath the foundations of buildings), most famously a pot hoard containing 19 electrum coins, mainly with types set against a striated background. Additional coins were discovered in the Austrian excavations of 1986–1994. The majority of the Artemisium coins finds – nearly half – are royal Lydian issues of the "lion-forepart, lion-head, and lion paw" types. These finds have inspired an intense debate among scholars. Arguments have emerged for a high chronology (first quarter of the seventh century BCE), a low chronology (shortly before 600 BCE), and a middle chronology (ca. 630 BCE). The clay jug (olpe) in which the pot hoard was buried has been dated to the third quarter of the seventh century BCE by comparison with similar pots found in excavations on Samos and at Miletus. The most recent stratigraphical evidence from the Artemisium also supports the middle chronology.
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"As Rich as Croesus": The Invention of Bimetallism

Electrum remained the sole monetary metal until the mid-sixth century BCE, and its rarity outside of Lydia limited the production and use of coinage to western Asia Minor. According to Herodotus (1.94), the Lydians were also responsible for the invention of gold and silver coins. Greek sources speak of gold coins called kroiseioi stateres (Croeseid staters), and on this basis early numismatists credited this important innovation to Croesus (564/53–550/39 BCE), the last of the Lydian kings, whose name is associated with legendary wealth. Croesus was believed to have replaced electrum coinage with a currency system based on both gold and silver staters and their fractions, all bearing a single type – the confronted foreparts of a lion and a bull. His invention of bimetallism unleashed a rapid diffusion of coinage - mainly silver coinage – throughout the ancient world, for it enabled areas rich in silver ores, but lacking gold sources, to strike coins of their own.
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