The origins of coinage

Lydia and the earliest coins

Electrum 1/6 stater, from LydiaAccording to the Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the fifth century BC, the Lydians were the first people to have used gold and silver coinage.

He was almost correct. The earliest coins are found mainly in the parts of modern Turkey that formed the ancient kingdom of Lydia, but are made from a naturally occurring mixture of gold and silver called electrum.

These coins were first produced in the seventh century BC and had a design on one side only; the other was marked with simple punches.

A Strict weight system

Gold croesid coin, from Lydia

Although irregular in size and shape, these early electrum coins were minted according to a strict weight-standard. The denominations ranged from one stater (weighing about 14.1 grams) down through half-staters, thirds, sixths, twelfths, 1/24ths and 1/48ths to 1/96th stater (about 0.15gm).

It cannot have been easy to tell some of the smaller denominations apart. We must assume that for many transactions the coins were weighed rather than counted.

The spread of electrum coinage

Electrum stater with a seal, from Phocaea, Ionia (modern Turkey)

From Lydia electrum coinage soon spread to the Greek cities of coastal Asia Minor. From there it reached the Greeks of the islands and the mainland.

It is often difficult to tell where a particular coin was produced, because none of these early coins was inscribed with a place-name. Educated guesses are possible, however. One type of coin has the design of a seal on its obverse. The Greek for seal is 'phoce' and the coins are usually attributed to the Greek city of Phocaea.

Names on electrum coins

Electrum stater inscribed with the name of Phanes, from Western Asia Minor (modern Turkey)

Some of the earliest Lydian electrum coins are inscribed with names in ancient Lydian script. Two individuals are known: Walwel and Kalil. It is unclear whether these are names of kings or just rich men who produced the earliest coins.

The earliest legend in Greek on an electrum coin reads 'I am the badge of Phanes'. We cannot be certain who this Phanes was, but it seems that he was placing his badge on coins as a guarantee The pot-hoard from the Temple of Artemis, Asia Minor (modern Turkey)of their quality.

The earliest coin hoard

The earliest known hoard of electrum coins (and thus the earliest known coin hoard) was found during the British Museum excavations of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in 1904-5. The hoard consisted of 19 coins which had been placed in a small pot and buried alongside another 74 coins in the foundations of the temple, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, in about 600 BC.

More information about objects featured here (from top)

Search highlights

There are over 4,000 highlight objects to explore

Shop Online

Catalogue of Roman coins, £150.00

Catalogue of Roman coins, £150.00