Miriam Balmuth on Hacksilber and Coinage

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Ancient Silver Hoards and the Origin of Coinage

Although money in various forms has existed since the dawn of history, coinage was a distinct invention of the Greeks and their eastern neighbors the Lydians around 600 BC. The economic and cultural conditions that led to the invention of coinage is the subject of this volume of eight academic papers “presented at a colloquium held in Chicago on December 30, 1997, as part of the 99th annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America.” The aim of the session was “to bring together scholars who have been involved in the analysis and interpretation of evidence of the use of silver as monetary material. The scholars have expertise in archaeology, history, and metallurgical analysis, and in the problems of the background and origins of Greek coinage in antiquity.”

The preface, introduction, and initial commentary by Miriam Balmuth, the editor of the volume, set out the principal issues to be covered. In the ancient Near East, as opposed to Greece, weighed bits of silver, commonly known today by the German name “Hacksilber,” were used as a medium of exchange for centuries if not millennia before the introduction of coinage. Hoards of Hacksilber, once thought to be “jeweler’s hoards” of raw silver, are now correctly understood to be monetary deposits much like later coin hoards. What steps led from the use of Hacksilber as money, to the use of pre-weighed and pre-stamped coins?

In “The silver hoards from Tel Dor,” Ephraim Stern describes the contents and archaeological context of a Phoenician hoard of Hacksilber found in Israel that can be dated to about 1000 BC. Seymour Gitin and Amir Golani similarly describe the contents of a number of seventh-century silver hoards from Israel in “The Tel Miqne-Ekron silver hoards: the Assyrian and Phoenician connections.” These papers are followed by a brief commentary by William Dever.

Zofia Anna Stos-Gale, in “The impact of the natural sciences on studies of Hacksilber and early silver coinage,” focuses specifically on lead isotope provenance studies, which are able to locate the geographical origin of ancient silver objects based on the amount and isotopic character of small quantities of lead incorporated into the silver alloy. Although the silver in Greek artifacts proves to be largely Aegean in origin, this technique demonstrates that many Near Eastern silver samples came from not only the Aegean, but also Spain and Iran.

John Kroll in “Observations on monetary instruments in pre-coinage Greece” (on the one hand), and David Schaps in “The conceptual prehistory of money and its impact on the Greek economy” (on the other), take opposing views on the exact steps which led to the widespread adoption of coinage by the Greek world in the sixth century. Kroll believes that there was an intermediate phase around the time of Solon, between earlier trading in metal utensils and the later use of coinage, during which weighed silver bullion was used for exchange. Schaps disagrees, contending that the reason coinage was adopted and spread so quickly in Greece was precisely that there was no Greek tradition of using silver bullion for money. In the Near East, by contrast, silver bullion had been in use for centuries, and so coinage was seen there as much less of a novelty (and much less of a need), and so was not taken up with enthusiasm as it was in the Greek world.

In “Analyzing and interpreting the metallurgy of early electrum coins,” Paul Keyser and David Clark review previous work on the composition of ancient electrum coins, cautioning against techniques such as X-ray fluorescence which examine only coin surfaces and do not penetrate to the core of the specimen. They recommend prompt-gamma neutron activation analysis (PGNAA), but are not yet able to report any results with the technique.

Robert Wallace, in “Remarks on the value and standard of early electrum coins,” further supports a position he has taken in earlier writings, that the reason the first coinage in Asia Minor was minted in electrum, an alloy of variable composition, was precisely the need to have a way to standardize the value of the mixed metal in the marketplace.

Like many collections of papers from academic conferences, this volume is uneven in its treatment and style, but it is certainly valuable in bringing together a range of work on the boundary between archaeology, numismatics, and metallurgy. The work of synthesis is largely left to the reader, however, who is likely to come away also with a wish that the one of the standard practices of the sciences—to include a tightly written abstract along with every published paper—would become the standard practice in these fields as well.

Hacksilber to Coinage will appeal to academic specialists in Near Eastern and ancient Greek archaeology and history, students of Classical numismatics and metallurgy, and economic historians. The volume is No. 24 in the series Numismatic Studies of the American Numismatic Society (ISSN 0517404X · ISBN 0897222814).

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