Thursday, December 19, 2013

Electrum Coinage (continued)

In a presentation delivered at the ANS Electrum Coinage conference, Fran├žois 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.