Uncoined Money in the Ancient World

by Peter van Alfen

Because research and collecting interests in ancient numismatics focused so much on coins for most of the 20th century, it is not surprising that the Hacksilber (cut and broken pieces of silver ingots and jewelry) and ingots sometimes found alone or with coin hoards were virtually ignored. At some point, perhaps as early as the 1920s, the ANS received a hoard of partially melted Athenian tetradrachms and round silver “cake” ingots from Egypt that were effectively forgotten in a corner of the vault until rediscovered recently by John Kroll (see American Journal of Numismatics vol. 13, 2001, 1-20). This “new” discovery underscores the important role that non-coined metals played in ancient Mediterranean economies, especially in the Near East.

Round cake ingot from Egypt, 4th c. BC. 92.96 g (AJN 13, pl. 1, no. 1)

During the Persian period (6-4th c. BC) the use of coinage spread rapidly from the Aegean, where it had been introduced not long before the Persians arrived in Asia Minor, to nearly every corner of the Mediterranean and even beyond. Coins, however, were not necessarily the preferred form of money in all regions. In Phoenicia, for example, indigenously produced coins did not appear for the first time until the middle of the 5th c., nearly two centuries after their appearance in the Aegean. In Egypt, the advent of coinage was still later, perhaps at the beginning of the 4th c. Such comparatively late introductions do not mean that the merchants and traders of the east used no money, or that they used imported Greek coins exclusively, but simply that they had no pressing need for coins and continued to use a form of currency that had been recognized in the east for centuries: weighed Hacksilber. In many cases too, as the hoard mentioned above shows, Greek coins were melted down to be used as Hacksilber rather than as coins per se. The monetary system that had evolved around the use of these ingots and bits and pieces of silver was quite sophisticated, and much of it continued even after the introduction of coinage. The Semitic verbal root THQL (Hebrew SHQL), for example, meaning “to weigh, be heavy,” gives the Hebrew noun form shekel which we find used in the Old Testament as a defined weight for Hacksilber payments (e.g., Ex. 21:32) and possibly as a coin (e.g., Neh. 5:15). Before coinage, Near Eastern practices unquestionably influenced the use of silver as a monetary instrument in the Aegean. In fact, the basic weight/denominational system used by the Greeks (e.g., the stater, mina, and talent) was likely borrowed from the Hacksilber-using Phoenicians at about the same time—the 8th c. B.C.—that the Greeks borrowed the Phoenician alphabet for their own use. Whether or not those living in the Aegean used Hacksilber (or Hackgold) extensively before the introduction of coinage is a matter of controversy, although some finds, like fragments of electrum jewelry from Asia Minor that surfaced with early electrum coins, might indicate such was the case. Also, Black Sea, and even early Roman practice, point to more widespread Mediterranean use of non-coin moneys. Thus we should expect the same was the case in the Archaic Aegean.

Dolphin-and arrow-shaped bronze “coins” from 5th c. BC Olbia on the Black Sea (1944.100.14436, 1998.106.2)

Early 3rd c. BC “ramo secco” from Rome, 1111 g (1949.100.2)

When the Persians gained control of the Near East, Asia Minor and Egypt in the mid-6th c. BC, they also inherited from their Assyrian and Babylonian predecessors a concern for systematic quality control over gold and silver purity and the use of non-coin monetary instruments. In Asia Minor, where the Persians came into close and sometimes violent contact with the Greeks, this high-grade silver and gold was paid out in the form of coinage, the famed silver sigloi and gold darics. The circulation pattern of these Persian coins, almost exclusively limited to the Aegean and Black Sea regions, shows that the Persians effectively made a concession to those payees who had grown accustomed to using coins. Elsewhere in the Persian Empire, especially closer to the Persian homeland in Iran, the sigloi and darics were not used, nor really were any other types of coin, since the traditional use of Hacksilber was so prevalent. Like so much else, rapid changes in Near Eastern monetary practices followed in the footsteps of Alexander the Great’s conquests. Throughout the region newly formed mints, like that at Babylon, started to convert the booty of Persian ingots and silver into coins bearing the name of Alexander and his successors. By the end of the 4th c., the remnants of the Persian Empire as far as India were flooded with these new coins and the use of Hacksilber succumbed to Aegean monetary practices, as was the case most everywhere else in the Mediterranean.

5th c. BC Persian daric (1944.100.73489)