The Other Coin: Making Ancient Coins

Between questions at class and controversies on blogs, I thought it would be a good
time to discuss what is thought to be true about the manufacturing of ancient coins.
Early in the 6th century BC, Croesus of Lydia, whose grandfather was the King
Midas of legend, managed to separate gold from silver and produce planchettes of
pure metal that were struck with an image of a the head of a lion and then confronted
heads of a bull and lion in a large variety of denominations. Earlier in the late 7th
century BC coins of mixed silver and gold called electrum, because of their amber
color, were first produced as lumps of metal, then marks and finally the lion design.
Crete, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Hittites had also produced various lumps of metal or
cuttings from bars with marks for several centuries, but these are not generally
regarded to be coins.
Once gold, silver, and very quickly bronze planchettes were created, the idea of
coins spread throughout Asia Minor, to the Greek Islands and finely mainland
Greece. China had been making cast bronze coins for several centuries first as copies
of cowrie shells, then small hoes, axes, then the cast coin with square holes that we
are familiar with. Chinese coinage began at least 500 years before Lydian coinage,
but confined itself to bronze and small change. Gold and silver were still weighed and
only occasionally coined, so coinage did not become the economic power that it did
in the West.
Coining was done by slaves by creating the obverse on a iron anvil either
freestanding or as a chisel driven into a base of wood or stone. Carving was done
with steel tools. The reverse was on a punch or hammer. The planchette was
probably most often struck cold, sometimes heated with one slave placing and
removing the planchette on the obverse die and the other striking it. If a punch was
used one slave would place the planchette and punch in place for the other slave to
hit. Modern experimenting suggests each hammer or punch die would produce
somewhere between 30,000-50,000 coins before becoming too worn for decent
coins. The largest of ancient mints in Rome probably produced somewhere in the
neighborhood of a 100,000,000 coins in all metals a year using some 1500 workers,
producing coins at the rate of 2.2 seconds per coin. Alexander the Great's coins were
also produced in the hundreds of millions. Consequently, even though it is estimated
that only 1% of ancient coins survive that means the there are millions of coins for
any ruler that lived long or had an extensive minting program. As I have mentioned,
the first thing any new or aspiring emperor did was mint coins to advertise his
ascension and pay the troops. Even 3 day emperors can have thousands of surviving
It is hotly argued whether celators used magnifying tools to do their carving and just
how literate they were. Magnifying stones or glass were available and could have
been used, but the consensus was the nearsightedness was an asset and sought after
for celators. It is also assumed that most celators were literate although some
misspellings seem to indicate some were not. On the other hand, they might just be
copying a pattern of letters in retrograde. The images of emperors were also quickly
produced and distributed as small busts to be copied at the mints. Sometimes coining
began before the bust arrived and the new emperor's name appears with the old
portrait--you can see Constantine with the beard of his father or bald Otho with the
elaborate curls of Nero for example. Whacking coins continued until the invention of
the screw press in the 1500's and then the mechanical stamping press in the 1600's.
Please join us the the History of Money before the meeting at 6:15PM.

Numismatically yours, David Elliott