Shown with expressive and diverse imagery today, ancient coins started from very humble beginnings. The ancient author Herodotus wrote that the Lydians were “the first people we know of to use a gold and silver coinage”. Through hoard evidence and research, numismatists have confirmed that coinage did indeed begin in Asia Minor, likely in Lydia or Ionia.
The earliest coins were made of an alloy known as “electrum”, or “elektron” to the Greeks. Electrum is naturally occurring, found in riverbeds and in nugget form, and is composed primarily of silver and gold with trace amounts of platinum, copper, and other metals. The ancient Greeks referred to electrum simply as “gold” or “white gold” as opposed to “refined gold” which came later when dedicated bi-metallic currencies of pure gold and silver were created. However, electrum worked particularly well for coinage because it was harder and more durable than pure gold and because it was naturally occurring, it allowed coins to be minted prior to the development of the technology for separating the elements.
The intrinsic value of these coins was too high for use in everyday transactions, and therefore, they were likely primarily used for moving large sums of money in mercantile transactions, government expenses, donatives, or for payment for substantial services. It is also speculated that merchants would allow trusted customers to keep a tab, paying it with a single coin once the bill was significant enough.
The conventional definition of what constitutes a coin varies depending on its interpretation. The earliest proto-coins were without any design, essentially just a blank globular ball of electrum. These nuggets were weighed and exchanged at bullion values but were uncontrolled and arbitrary.
This progressed to include reverse punches, used to easily prove the content of the piece by cutting deeply to show that it was made of solid precious metal and to keep the metal from slipping while being struck.
This coin, of the “striation” type, is the first type of coin which introduced the innovation of an obverse image, and it is considered by many to be the transition point from proto-coinage to true coinage. While the design is simple, it is thought to have been inspired by the ripples on the surface of the water, indicating the source of the precious electrum, near creeks and in riverbeds.
Later issues sometimes retained the striations shown behind other images, demonstrating that the lines did indeed hold a special purpose. Aristotle recognized the importance of an obverse image on coins in his important work on economics, as it marked a critical phase of converting from bullion into true coinage.
Striated coins are also represented by a wide array of different denominations, the largest a stater of approximately 14 grams. All of these coins are numismatically and historically important and indicate the conscious control of weight, which helped expedite commerce.
This period in the evolution of coinage was extremely brief, quickly evolving into more detailed images, and so all of the striated coins are very rare, especially the larger denominations like this hekte.
Ionia. Striated; 650s BCE, EL Hekte, 2.41g. Weidauer-8. Obv: Striated, Rx: Rough incuse. Good VF.
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