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.


Cultural Property Observer said...

Thanks Ed. Interesting post. I've always wondered wasn't metallurgy sufficiently advanced by the times coins were first minted such that they could produce fairly pure gold coins? Your post suggests that this might be correct and that electrum coinage may have been made by design. Is this what was suggested at the event or am I off?

Ed Snible said...

Early electrum coins have very precise weights but the gold:silver ratio varies widely. Since the local gold was pure the minters were likely adding random amounts of silver. If so why carefully control the weight? François Velde described these coins as basically lottery tickets and he wonders why.

It has been believed that the earliest coins were electrum, and after gold parting was invented Croesus created the first bimetallic coin standard. This timeline now in question. I have some thoughts I hope to post soon.