Thursday, December 19, 2013

Electrum Coinage (continued)

In a presentation delivered at the ANS Electrum Coinage conference, François Velde pointed out that early electrum coins have very precise weights but their gold:silver ratio varies widely. Since the local gold was pure the minters were likely adding random amounts of silver. So why carefully control the weight? He described these coins as basically lottery tickets.

Velde's observations expose the problem. The following should be considered a speculation...

If the minters explicitly added varying amounts of silver could they have been trying to purposely make the coinage less useful than the hack gold ingots in use at the time? Could the irregular bullion value of early electrum have been a "feature" rather than a "bug"?

It is usually presented that the cementation process of separating gold and silver was an improvement over natural electrum. The story is that when that process became available, under King Croesus, he switched his coinage to the superior bi-metallic system. We aren't sure exactly when the ancients first learned to separate gold and silver, or the precise issue period of early electrum coins. I wonder if the ability to separate gold and silver counter-intuitively caused to the appearance of mixed (electrum) coinage, rather than set the stage for the end of early electrum.

David Graeber points out in his intriguing Debt: The First 5000 Years (2012) that systems of accounting based on debt long preceded coinage. He speculates that coinage was invented as a scheme to provision an army. In Graeber's view, rather than forcing citizens to provide food and materials for an army, a king merely demands a tax in coins he only issues to his army.

Electrum seems perfectly suited to a paranoid king attempting such a scheme. The equipment to separate gold and silver takes a lot of capital to build. Refineries are hard to conceal because of the smoke and smell. It would be easy to have a royal monopoly on parting gold. Mercenaries paid in electrum were less likely to desert if they knew their leader was the only person who could convert their electrum coins into more valuable hack gold.

Such a king could stamp the electrum he issued to his soldiers to ensure the populace equipped the right army. (His army.) I can imagine a lot of warlords running around ancient Lydia, each trying to obtain provisions from local farmers. Attempting a closed currency with identifiable stamped designs seems ideal.

Under such a system the precise weights serve the purpose of discouraging the unscrupulous from hacking or filing off a bit of the coin to keep for themselves. The weight standard can be seen as an anti-clipping technology rather than a promise of fixed bullion value.

Early electrum as a closed military coinage feels correct and compelling, but am I fooling myself? It would be nice to look for confirmation or something that could show the idea to be false. More precise dating could help … if we could show that gold refining was successful before early electrum coins were issued that would lend support. Or if I could find something that suggested early electrum economies were 'closed'.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Early Electrum Coinage Symposium

The American Numismatic Society recently hosted an Early Electrum Coinage Symposium. I had been unaware of the revolution that is happening in this important field. I had expected to learn about minor advances in the field, building upon what I thought I knew. Instead we learned that no one is certain if the electrum in the earliest Greek coins was found naturally or manufactured. We learned the minting techniques for early electrum are a mystery. We also developed a better understanding of our ignorance of the purpose and issue date of early coinage.

I came out of the conference much less informed than I entered. I loved it!

100 years ago early coinage was well understood. Two ancient authors, Herodotus and Xenophanes of Colophon, wrote that the ancient Lydians were the first to strike coins in gold and silver. Electrum is “a natural compound of gold and silver, collected at Sardes from the washings of the little mountain torrent Pactolus”. Everyone knew the earliest coins were struck from lumps of electrum first on a rough surface using hammers and rough punches. This process naturally lead to cutting images such as lions and deer upon anvils allowing a picture to appear on the front of the coin. These early coins were buried in the well-excavated foundation of the temple of Ephesus allowing them to be clearly dated. These primitive coins inspired a later and better system of gold and silver coinage.

The consensus view turns out to be mostly wrong. The Pactolus produces something more like gold than electrum. The anvil and punch technique couldn't have worked the way we thought. The gifts buried at the temple of Artemis weren't typical temple foundation objects. We aren't certain what happened in the refinery at Sardes. The electrum coins linked to certain wars probably need to be placed elsewhere.

The material presented at last months symposium in New York build upon the results of another conference presented last year in Jerusalem. A lot of it was multidisciplinary, drawing experts in mining and refining. I look forward to the proceedings of the Jerusalem White Gold conference.

Neutrino scientists and archeologists both want ancient Roman lead artifacts

Gerard LeBlond reports on the use of ancient lead for a new purpose.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A circulated brockage from Nepal

As a child error coins fascinated me. I had off-center cents and 5 cent pieces and a tattered copy of Alan Herbert's 1974 book The Official Guide to Mint Errors. The book had an entire chapter on brockages. I had never seen a brockage.

Brick-and-mortar coin shops didn't have brockages, at least not in Michigan. Even at a really big coin show it was rare to see one.

When I started collecting ancient coins I was surprised to discover ancient brockages are not exceedingly rare. Sixty-eight ancient examples are offered for sale right now on an ancient coin sale web site, as compared to a single modern brockage. (The site has twice as many total ancient coins as modern coins, so a better comparison would be 68:2.)

Would ancient users of coins even notice anything unusual when spending a brockage? It seems hard not to notice a brockage, yet we don't see any evidence that ancient brockages were put aside. They appear alongside regular coins in hoards.

I was surprised to find a modern, circulated brockage recently at a coin show. Even more surprising, it wasn't in a fancy holder. It was in a junk box among similar coins from the region. This coin, a Nepalese one paisa from 1947, somehow managed to circulate in Nepal during the 20th century. It then made its way to the United States and a dealer's try without anyone noticing anything unusual. This suggests that brockages do not "jump out" to the average user or even to a casual coin dealer. Perhaps it really takes a trained eye to "see" brockages?

I would be curious to know of other modern circulated brockages. Does anyone collect them?

Saturday, September 21, 2013

New eBay coin category

Virtual Currency is a new eBay category I haven't seen before. Not many listings yet.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


Design firm ARK has proposed a new symbol for the Kenyan Shilling.

I have been too busy with other things to post lately. Hope everyone is doing fine. In the comments section let me know what other numismatic blogs are worth reading.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Bitcoin mining machine

I haven't had much to write about for the past couple of months. I did read an article on Bitcoin mining. Highly recommended for techies. The article covers the mathematical bitcoins, not the physical Bitcoins that can be used to carry them.

Friday, February 22, 2013

3D Gadhaiya Paisa

As before, although the image looks OK without glasses you really want to use red/cyan 3D glasses to see this coin.

This enigmatic coinage was struck in India, 800-1300 AD. It's usually called “Gadhaiya Paisa”. I realize I know almost nothing about Indian coinage during this time. I have Michael Mitchiner's Indo-Greek and Indo-Scythian Coinage, covering coins up to the 4th century, but the rest of Indian coinage is a mystery to me until the British Raj period.

Is there a good book to get started with the mysterious pre-Islamic coins of India?

Saturday, February 09, 2013

3d Menander

I have been taking 3D scans of a few favorite coins. The image is of a drachm of Menander. Red/cyan glasses should be worn to see the image properly.

Last month I posted a bronze coin scanned this way and got no comments. I would be curious to know if any of my readers have tried looking at these images with 3d glasses. I have a bunch more scans, but I'm not going to post them if no one has the glasses.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Forgery workshop uncovered in Italy (2004)

FORVM user Taras has posted a description of two 2004 seizures of counterfeit ancient coins and forgers dies in Italy. I was surprised the seizures included 870 counterfeit dies but only 371 fake coins. The post is worth reading for Taras' speculation on this workshop's methods.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Lost World of the Golden King

Frank Holt, Lost World of the Golden King: In Search of Ancient Afghanistan (2012, 343 pages)

It's good! Holt retraces the development of Baktrian numismatics from the tetradrachm of Eukratides published in 1738 by Theophilus Siegfried Bayer to the present day. Holt's narrative is not a dry scholarly recap; he includes many stories including new research about the arrival of Eukratides' giant ancient coin on the European market.

This is a good approach. So little is known about ancient Baktria that there is no real story to tell. The second major idea of Lost World is a reminder of how much that we think we know about Hellenistic Baktria is now-discredited speculation. Holt's book will hopefully serve as a great "reboot" for the field of Baktrian studies.

Holt is critical of numismatic scholarship for continuing to focus the role coins play to uncover the ancient kings and battles. He believes that numismatics should move on, devising ways to deduce facts about ancient lifestyles. Statistical techniques are used to show technical errors on coins imply the coiners of ancient Ai Khanoum were probably stressed out as their civilization was dying.

The professor's critique of numismatic scholarship has some merit but he seems to paint numismatics with a single brush. So much of coin studies are done by or for collectors; it seems unfair to criticize the entire field for continuing to focus on kings.

Career academics probably do not need Holt's insights to revitalize the study of coins but perhaps collectors can consider forming interesting collections around topics other than lists of kings. People are starting to collect overstrikes. I know one advanced collector who has moved on to collecting coins made into tools and decorations in antiquity.

Recommended. Lost World of the Golden King: In Search of Ancient Afghanistan (Hellenistic Culture and Society)

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Pan from Pantikapaion

To view this 4th or 3rd century BC head of Pan properly red/bluegreen 3D glasses should be used. Click to view at full resolution.

This image was created using two scans on a flatbed scanner and Photoshop. Gimp can also be used. This is my first attempt at Anaglyph 3D coin photography. For the technique I credit Gerald Marks. Yesterday I attended a workshop conducted by Professor Marks at Observatory in Brooklyn.