Athens Before the Owls: The Wappenmünzen Coins - CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series

By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
 

Thanks to rich silver deposits discovered at Laurion[1] in Attica in 483 BCE, the abundant “owltetradrachms of Athens became the dominant trade coin in the ancient world for over a century.

But the Athenians had issued a variety of silver coins beginning around the year 560 BCE during the rule of the tyrant Peisistratos. Like so many things in classical numismatics, dating is controversial (Kroll and Waggoner, 325). Ranging from scarce to very rare, these archaic coins were called wappenmünzen (“badge coins”) by 19th-century German numismatists on the theory that symbols appearing on the coins were heraldic badges of the city’s leading aristocratic families, but this is now doubted by most classical numismatists. Many of these designs also appear on Athenian painted pottery and on the shields carried by warriors.

Produced in small numbers, some of these coins are known from only a handful of dies. The main denomination was the didrachm or stater of about 8.6 grams. Also issued were drachms (4.3 grams), obols (0.7 gram), and tiny half obols (0.3 grams). About 14 different designs exist, none bearing an inscription of any kind. It is possible that the designs were changed annually.

About the year 515, Athens began to strike a larger denomination to meet the needs of its growing economy, the tetradrachm of 17.2 grams.

ATTICA, Athens. Circa 594-566 BCE. AR Drachm (4.27 gm). "Wappenmünzen".
ATTICA, Athens. Circa 594-566 BCE. AR Drachm (4.27 gm). “Wappenmünzen”. Four-spoked wheel / Incuse square divided diagonally. Svoronos, Athènes 59; SNG Copenhagen 5; Dewing 1562; Rosen 185. Attractively toned, near EF. Rare. ($1000)

Chariot Wheel

Chariots were expensive status symbols in ancient Greece, a rocky land with few roads.

And what are possibly the earliest Athenian coins–drachms, didrachms, and obols–bear a four-spoked chariot wheel.

The reverse was simply the impression of a square punch with diagonal grooves[2]. On most examples, the spokes of the wheel have triangular flanges where they meet the rim. These are by far the most common of all the wappenmünzen. On some examples, the spokes are simple rods.

ATTICA. Athens. Circa 545-525/15 BCE. Obol
ATTICA. Athens. Circa 545-525/15 BCE. Obol (Silver, 8 mm, 0.59 g), from the Wappenmünzen Series, c. 540. Oil amphora. Rev. Irregular incuse square. Seltman p. 157 and pl. IV, 75. Very rare. Toned and boldly struck in high relief. With somewhat crystalized surfaces as usual, otherwise, good very fine. Ex: Leu 72, 12 May 1998, 202.

Amphora

Six little silver obols equaled one drachm. The surface of these tiny coins is often “crystallized” – something that often happens to ancient silver, rendering the coin brittle[3]. Early obols bear the image of an amphora[4], the ceramic container that was used to export one of Athens’ most important products: olive oil.

Scarab

One of the rarest and most remarkable coins in this series is the didrachm bearing the image of a scarab beetle (Scarabaeus sacer). This insect figures prominently in Egyptian art and religion. We know Athens traded extensively with Egypt, and scarab amulets are found all around the Mediterranean. An example of this coin, only the second known, brought $60,000 USD (double the estimate) in a 2017 US auction[5].

Epitome of a Horse

The front part of an animal (called a protome) is a very common design on ancient coins, but seeing just the rear part is startling. Another rare Athenian drachm shows the hindquarters of a horse within a circle.

The significance of this symbol, at least to the ancient Greeks, is unknown[6].

ATHENS. Attica. Ca.545-510 B.C. "Wappenmünzen."  Obol.
ATHENS. Attica. Ca.545-510 B.C. “Wappenmünzen.” Obol. Bucranium in a linear circle (representing a shield?). Rv. Incuse square divided diagonally. 0.64 grams. Seltman Pl.IV.τ, Svor. Pl.1.45 var. Medium gray tone. Choice Very Fine and extremely rare. (7,000-9,000) From the Lawrence R. Stack Collection of Ancient Greek Coins. Ex Künker 94 (September 2004, lot 823).

Bucranium

The head of a bull (or ox) viewed frontally is such a common design in ancient art that it has a special name: bucranium[7]. This appears on a rare Athenian obol, issued c. 545-515 BCE. An example from the famous Lawrence Stack collection sold for $8,000 in a 2008 US auction.

Athens, c. 545-525/15 BCE. Hemiobol
Athens, c. 545-525/15 BCE. Hemiobol (Silver, 5mm, 0.27 g), From the so-called Wappenmünzen series. Pomegranate. Rev. Incuse square, irregularly divided. Seltman pl. IV, ζζ. SNG Munich 2-3. Very rare. A nice, clear example. Very fine. From the RRG collection, acquired prior to 1978.

Pomegranate

Weighing just 0.27 grams the tiny hemiobol, or half obol is one of the smallest ancient silver coins, about 5 mm in diameter. For comparison, a standard aspirin tablet weighs 0.35 grams. The survival of such small coins intact is truly amazing. The hemiobol of Athens bears the image of a pomegranate, a fruit that symbolized fertility[8].

Silver 2 drachm (didrachm), Athens, 540 BCE - 520 BCE:
Silver 2 drachm (didrachm), Athens, 540 BCE – 520 BCE: 8.02 g 17 mm. .Triskeles, incuse square diagonally divided. Image: American Numismatic Society.

Triskelion

The triskeles or triskelion is an ancient symbol consisting of three human legs bent at the knee and joined together at the thigh. Several Greek cities used it on their coinage, notably Syracuse on the island of Sicily (it still appears today on the Sicilian regional flag).

The Athenian didrachm bearing triskeles is so rare that the only example I could find is in the collection of the American Numismatic Society (ANS) in New York.

Attica, Athens Tetradrachm of the "Wappenmünzen series" circa 515
Attica, Athens Tetradrachm of the “Wappenmünzen series” circa 515, AR 16.98 g. Gorgoneion with open mouth and protruding tongue. Rev. Facing head and forepaws of panther within incuse square. Seltman 324 (this coin). Svoronos-Pick pl. 1, 69. Jameson 1171 (this coin). Nicolet-Pierre, RN 25, p. 17 and pl. 2, 8 (this coin). Extremely rare and an issue of tremendous historical interest. Enchanting old cabinet tone, minor areas of weakness, otherwise about extremely fine Ex Leu sale 76, 1999, 118. From the Jameson and Gillet collections.

Gorgoneion

The gorgoneion[9], a grotesque face of the monster Medusa with protruding tongue, was widely used as a protective amulet in ancient times. It was often painted on the shields of warriors, and many cities adopted it as a symbol on coinage. When Athens began to issue tetradrachms about 515 BCE, a gorgoneion appeared on the obverse, and the reverse, instead of a simple punch mark, depicts the facing head and forepaws of a panther, companion animal of the wine god Dionysus.

This brief issue is extremely rare. Described as “about extremely fine… an issue of tremendous historical interest,” a tetradrachm with a pedigree from the famous Jameson collection brought over $178,000 in a 2014 Swiss auction, possibly a record for a coin of the Wappenmünzen series.

The cataloguer wrote:

“This may be the first instance at any mint in the western world when a full reverse type was employed. This, of course, would have a profound effect on the evolution of Greek coinage.”[10]

Shortly after this example of the wappenmünzen, probably around 510 BCE, Athens began to issue tetradrachms bearing the head of the goddess Athena, with her owl on the reverse and Greek letters proudly abbreviating the city’s name: AΘE. Struck in enormous volume and widely circulated, the “owls” would one day become a favorite of ancient coin collectors.

* * *

Notes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mines_of_Laurion

[2] CNG Mail Bid Sale 64, September 24, 2003, Lot 205. Realized $2,400 USD (estimate $1,000).

[3] https://www.forumancientcoins.com/moonmoth/crystal_coins.html

[4] Nomos Auction 17, October 26, 2018, Lot 126. Realized CHF 4600 (about $4,594 USD; Estimate: CHF 850).

[5] CNG Auction 105, May 10, 2017, Lot 102. Realized $60,000 USD (estimate $30,000).

[6] Jean Elsen Auction 105, March 12, 2011, Lot 114. Realized €1300 (about $1,799 USD; Estimate: €750).

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bucranium

[8] Nomos Auction 9, October 21, 2014.

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gorgoneion

[10] Numismatica Ans Classica Auction 77, May 26, 2014, Lot 43. Realized CHF 160,000 (about $178,611 USD; Estimate: CHF 60,000).
 

References

Kraay, Colin. Archaic and Classical Greek Coins. New York (1976)

Kroll, John. “From Wappenmünzen to Gorgoneia to Owls”, American Numismatic Society Museum Notes 26 (1981)

Kroll, John and Nancy Waggoner. “Dating the Earliest Coins of Athens, Corinth and Aegina”, American Journal of Archaeology 88. (July 1984)

Miller, Richard. “Athenian Coinage: Progress and Problems”, The Celator 11 (May 1997)

Sear, David. Greek Coins and Their Values, Volume 1: Europe. London (1978)

Seltman, Charles. Greek Coins. 2nd edition. London (1955)
 

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