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Ancient coin technology (long)


#1

I hate to be a “know it all” but… I’m a bit of a numismatist.

I’ve collected “hammered coins” for years and have some wonderful
examples of both Greek, Roman and English pieces in silver.

The dies were made of stone and bronze. We have examples of them in
most of the larger museums. The method of making them depends on the
"civilization quotient" of the manufacturers. For example, dark age
coins were copies of Roman coins and their designs slowly corrupted
from the Roman originals - usually Antoninians - until the heads
became little more than a series of unrelated gouges made by wearing
out dimples in pieces of hard stone with a bronze ferrule and sand.
Some northern European tribes made their own coins by pressing
genuine examples into a clay brick , firing it and then using the
squash and melt method - producing a one sided coin - but this only
happened when the supply of coinage had reached a very low ebb.

Although medieval and renaissance “fakes” are found that have been
cast (lost-wax process)nearly all ancient coins were struck from
blanks. These were cut from sheets of metal and carefully weighed to
make sure that they had the correct amount of metal in them.

The dies were made with extraordinary care and attention to detail.
They were made as miniature works of art because the coins are both
monetary units and political statements! Rulers would issue coins
with their own or their favorites heads on them in much the same way
that political parties issue campaign buttons today. Everyone KNEW
what the Emperor of Rome looked like because they carried around a
picture of him in their pockets. Rebel commanders would, in their
turn, issue coins. Athens was recognized as the leading Greek city
because their owl appeared on the coins in the pockets of traders
throughout the world. But the apogee of the art has to be the Greek
coins of pre-roman times. They are wonderful - and I’m afraid -
rather expensive!

The proportion of silver and gold to copper in the metal blanks is
an important factor in ascertaining the state of the economy of a
civilization. This would vary according to the supply of silver and
gold available to the mint and the government and also to the
political decisions that the rulers made. Remember that “coining” was
simply a way of guaranteeing that the piece of metal was of a certain
value. This also explains why forgers were dealt with so severely -
corrupt coinage sabotaged the whole of society! Silver coinage
especially has a varying silver content This was due to the
fluctuating difference in value between the metal and gold - hence
the idea of a “gold standard” - and also the need of a monarch to pay
soldiers with only a limited amount of raw metal in their treasury.
Their were plenty of rumblings of discontent from soldiers in the
outskirts of the Roman empire when their pay arrived and the coins
were only 70% silver!

Coins were struck, like medals, between two dies. The bottom one
usually shaped like a brick, the top like a pestle. As a series of
coins continued to be produced we can see a deterioration in the
crispness of the coin until the die were considered worn - whereupon
they were broken.

Because the thickness of the metal blanks varied many coins have an
edge that protruded past the edges of the dies. This gave people the
chance to “clip” the coins - that is, to remove the excess metal from
the edge without disturbing the design and many ancient coins have
had so much metal removed that they appear very circular indeed. They
would not have started out like this!

Forgive my going on like this. It’s another of my enthusiasms…

Tony Konrath