The first coins with Hebrew inscriptions were struck during the period when the Achaemenid or Persian Empire ruled ancient Judah. It seems likely that the earliest of those coins were struck at the Philistian mint of Gaza between 539 and 333 BCE. Later, only small denominations were struck in Judah, quite likely in or very near to Jerusalem. These are part of what is known as “Yehud” coinage because most of them were inscribed with the paleo-Hebrew legend YHD, although some carry the name Hezekiah and one very rare variety has the name of a priest named Yochanan.
It was quite a feat for coins to be minted at all in this area, which was rather out of the way in that time, and had no great technological capabilities. The mints in ancient Judah most likely resembled small blacksmith or jewelry shops, but must have been in the precinct of a fort or a palace because of the need for security in the transport and storage of uncoined silver. The early coins minted in Judah were patterned after Athenian coins and struck some time before 333 BCE when Alexander the Great brought an end to the First Persian Empire.
The denominations of the coins are uncertain. However, this group seems to be related to the known weight of the Judean shekel, which was 11.4 grams around 800 BCE during the Iron Age. The two denominations of the earliest small silver coins struck in Judah weigh around half a gram or a quarter of a gram. These weights correspond to approximately 1/24th and 1/48th of the known weight of the shekel. Archaeologists believe that there were 24 gerahs in each shekel at the time, although Exodus 30:13 informs us that “the shekel is twenty gerahs.” This discrepancy may be due to a slightly different division of the shekel in this earlier period.
Half a gram is very light and small for a coin. Manufacture of such tiny objects presented challenges because the small size of the dies that were created to strike these coins made them very fragile. The diminutive dies were subject to heavy wear and susceptible to breakage. Numismatists today can track the wearing and breaking of the dies if they can identify a sufficient number of specimens.
The most common of the early Yehud coins is a type with an obverse portrait of Athena and the reverse portrait of an owl, just like the classic Athenian tetradrachm. But instead of the AΘE ethnic inscription for Athens, the coin carries the paleo-Hebrew script YHD. The coin measures about 8 mm in diameter and weighs just half a gram, and most extant specimens, as with the example above, are in rough shape. It is estimated that this type represents a full 15% of the Yehud coins in existence.
While I am on the subject of ancient Jewish coins, I would be remiss not to note the passing of Israeli numismatist Shraga Qedar, whom many in the ANS community knew well. Sadly he died last month, and my tribute to him can be found here.
Today we uploaded an old promotional video for the American Numismatic Society to YouTube. Longtime associates will no doubt recognize many of the people and environs pictured. Regular blogging will resume next week. Enjoy!
This past weekend the American Numismatic Society gave the Archer M. Hungington Award for excellence in numismatic scholarship to Arthur A. Houghton III.
We had an earlier post about the history of the medal itself that you can read here. ANS Trustee Jere Bacharach presented the award, after which Houghton delivered the Silva Mani Hurter Memorial Lecture. The lecture, which you can watch below, derived from Houghton’s long study of Seleucid coinage and was entitled “Seleucid Excursions: More Questions than Answers.”
This video featured in the American Numismatic Society’s exhibition “Drachmas, Doubloons and Dollars: The History of Money,” which ran at the New York Federal Reserve from 2002 to 2012.
Money makes the world go round. This exhibition showed the different shapes of money: coins, cowrie shells, salt, tokens, gold, paper money, credit cards and many more. Money is first and foremost a way to store wealth and make payments. It makes trade easier and lets governments, merchants, and individuals pay their debts. But money is much more than just an economic object. It can be a work of art, a political messenger, or a piece of jewelry. Since at least the Renaissance, coins have attracted large numbers of collectors. Today millions of people all over the world collect coins, medals, and paper money. Coins allow you to hold a piece of history in your own hand. By looking at the money of many cultures and periods, we not only learn about their histories and perspectives, but we also gain a better understanding of what our money tells us about our culture and society today.
For an online version of the late exhibition, please click here.
Among the many joys of spring in the City is the annual money harvest in lower Manhattan along Wall Street. As the buds break open to reveal the new C-note splendor, money pickers gather to celebrate the bounty, which sadly lasts for only about 4 minutes before the IRS appears to haul it all away.
Numismatists on hand this morning to watch the annual event were perplexed by what they observed, however. Rather than the current redesigned Benjamins, the money trees were sprouting the 1996 series instead. The ANS curatorial team suspects that bad seed money is to blame.
This is the first in a new monthly series of short films that will explore some of the more intriguing objects in the collection of the American Numismatic Society. First up is a short history of the Fairbanks’ Infallible Coin Scale and a look at how well it works in practice.
The Fairbanks Infallible Coin Scale shown in the the video is the descendent of a coin scale introduced by J. T. McNally in the late 1870s. It is a variation of a rocker device invented by John Allender in the 1850s, which had a fixed fulcrum with a counterweight and a gage or hole for different types of gold coins.
The Fairbanks-McNally scale replaced the gages with appropriately sized slots for each coin. The earliest versions had a walnut base and advertisements for them at a cost $2.50 each appear in newspapers and periodicals from 1879 forward. The relationship between McNally and the Fairbanks Company is not precisely clear but the models with wooden bases have either J. T. MCNALLY, INVENTOR. or FAIRBANKS & CO. stamped on what’s called the tang or metal beam.
On February 28, 1882, John T. McNally and Walter H. Harrison filed a patent for the design. Subsequently several versions of the scale with cast iron bases appeared. One model has the lettering FAIRBANKS CO. cast onto the base and imprinted on the counterweight end of the metal beam.
The more elaborate and seemingly most common model, advertised above, has a cast iron base with decorative golden stripes and flowers and the words FAIRBANK’S INFALLIBLE impressed into it. Imprinted on the metal beam is FAIRBANKS INFALLIBLE SCALE CO., BALTIMORE, MD., USA. The American Numismatic Society also has the presentation version of this same model, which came in a wooden box and is featured in the video.
For more on the history of counterfeit detectors and related devices, the best source is: Eric P. Newman and A. George Mallis, U.S. Coin Scales and Mechanical Counterfeit Coin Detectors (1999).
In case you missed it the first time around, here is a short film about the American Numismatic Society.
A short video introduction to the American Numismatic Society’s new Art of Devastation project, which chronicles the medallic art and history of the Great War.