The Greek Cabinet (Spring 2005)

by Peter Van Alfen

The last several years have seen a healthy amount of scholarly activity devoted to the origins of coinage and monetization in the western world, often, as to be expected, with differing conclusions. What is not disputed is that sometime around 600 BC (just how far back we should go into the 7th century is not known), the first coins appeared in the Lydian kingdom, with its capital at Sardis, in what is now western Turkey. Little more than roughly shaped and stamped electrum nuggets, these first coins signaled the beginnings of a sea-change in the concept of money in the ancient world. Within a couple of generations the Greeks living in various parts of the Aegean had picked up on this Lydian idea of coinage and quite literally ran with it, spreading their coins far and wide throughout the Mediterranean, inspiring other communities to mint, and refining the appearance of the coins to produce some of the finest examples of miniature art known from antiquity.

Lydia: Sardis EL “Croesid” 1/3 electrum stater, ca. 600 BC (ANS 1957.172.1735, gift of Hoyt Miller).

Partly because the Greeks were so voluminous with their writings and so prolific with their coinage, and so left a great deal of evidence to sift through, the effects of coinage on Greek society and economies has received the most attention to date. In 2004 two new major books on the subject appeared: Richard Seaford’s excellent Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy (Cambridge University Press) and David Schaps’ The Invention of Coinage and the Monetization of Ancient Greece (University of Michigan Press). A number of years ago Leslie Kurke also addressed some of the social problems associated with early Greek coinage in her Coins, Bodies, Games and Gold: The Politics of Meaning in Archaic Greece (Princeton University Press, 1999; see the review by John H. Kroll, Classical Journal 96 [2000], pp. 86-90). While Kurke elides over the problems of the earliest (non-Greek) coins, Seaford and Schaps tackle the issues head-on, devoting ample space in their books to the subject (see especially Seaford, chapter 7). But, since both of these studies are ultimately intent on illustrating the effects of monetization on (later) Greek thought and society, they are less concerned with probing the nuts and bolts of the earliest numismatic evidence. Both scholars, in fact, rely a great deal on Georges Le Rider’s La naissance de la monnie: pratiques monétaires de l’Orient ancien (Paris 2001), a highly important study by one of the world’s most pre-eminent numismatic scholars (also see the review by John H. Kroll, Revue Suisse Numismatique 80 [2001], 199-206), as well as Hacksilber to Coinage: New Insights into the Monetary History of the Near East and Greece, a volume of papers edited by the late Miriam Balmuth (see her obituary in the last ANS Magazine), which was published by the ANS in 2001.

Despite all the good work recently done on the topic by numismatists and philologists alike, some of the key issues surrounding the very first coins are far from resolved. The problems, simply put, have to do with the metal used to produce the first coins, namely electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver that was found in great abundance within the Lydian kingdom. Because then, as now, there was such a tremendous discrepancy between the value of gold and silver (in antiquity the ratio varied between roughly 1:10 to 1:14), no one using native electrum in exchange would have known exactly how much his nugget of the metal was worth. Although the electrum found around Sardis averaged about 70% gold and 30% silver, these percentages could vary a great deal, and therefore the intrinsic value of different nuggets of the metal could vary. In other words, two pieces of electrum that both weighed, say, 14.1 grams (the stater of the Lydo-Milesian standard), could have had wildly different intrinsic values. To solve this problem, and perhaps to quiet transactional disputes, the state seems to have stepped in and offered pre-weighed nuggets of electrum, stamped with a seal that enforced a certain value for that piece no matter what its intrinsic value might have actually been. But just what the state’s motives were is a matter of dispute. Did the state actively seek to exploit the situation by seriously overvaluing or even adulterating the electrum with more silver, as Le Rider argues, or was it simply offering a good faith solution to the electrum “crisis,” as Robert Wallace argued nearly twenty years ago (“The Origin of Electrum Coinage,” American Journal of Archaeology 91 [1987], pp. 385-97).

Since we can only answer these questions by knowing the exact composition of the earliest coins’ alloys, and since so few metallurgical tests have been conducted on these coins, ANS board member and University of Texas at Austin Classics professor John (“Jack”) Kroll is currently spearheading a project to test a large number of these coins from the ANS collection using non-destructive methods. Enlisting the aid of Robert Wallace, Professor of Classics at Northwestern University, Paul Keyser, an IBM scientist who holds two PhD’s, one in Classics and another in Physics, and myself, the Early Electrum Project came to life this last year. With Northwestern University providing the funding for the project, Kroll was able to arrange with Professor Gary Glass, director of the Louisiana Accelerator Laboratory at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, to have the coins tested in Glass’ lab using the Proton Induced X-ray Emission (PIXE) method.

In late February, I flew down to Lafayette with 54 electrum coins from the collection and enjoyed the hospitality of Prof. Glass and his crew: Stacie Thomas, Nick Pastore, Dr. Bibhudutta Rout, and graduate assistant Richard Greco. In less than one week we finished the largest ever PIXE test on early electrum coins, an exciting step forward in numismatic studies and one that even caught the attention of the local media; in one day alone we conducted two television and three newspaper interviews! With the coins now safely back in New York, and the preliminary results from the analysis starting to come in, the next step will be to determine just what the results tell us about the issues at hand, and finally to bring it all to publication.

Richard Greco preparing a batch of coins to be loaded into the vacuum chamber

Metallurgical analysis is often key to answering important questions in the study of numismatics, and yet because of the specialized nature of the equipment, the necessary knowledge of physics and chemistry, and even the cost, only rarely are such tests ever conducted, and then usually only on a small handful of coins. While in Lafayette, Prof. Glass and I discussed creating a long-term analysis project, an idea that excites us both. With funding perhaps from the National Science Foundation, the state of Louisiana, or even private donors, we envision using the Louisiana lab to test hundreds, if not thousands of coins over a period of years. Initially we would like to continue testing early electrum pieces (and invite any members with early electrum to loan or donate the coins to the ANS to have tested), but we could soon open the tests to any series of coins the study of which would benefit from non-destructive metallurgical analysis. Such a long-term project would be truly groundbreaking, and might help put to rest once and for all unresolved disputes in numismatic studies, like those concerning the very origin of coinage.

Bibhudutta Rout and Richard Greco loading a batch of coins into the vacuum chamber