By Lianna Spurrier for CoinWeek …..
Ancient coinage developed in three primary, distinct traditions. We all know one of them: the Greek tradition of struck coins featuring a central image is what developed into our coinage.
But what about the other two? Coins developed independently in China as cast coins, usually featuring up to four characters with a hole in the center. They were cast instead of struck, but each still featured a central design, making them relatively familiar and possible for the amateur to make heads or tails of. You may not be able to read them, but you know that the characters are indeed writing and where each one begins and ends.
In contrast, the third independent style of coinage developed in India as punch mark coins, which are perhaps the least studied of the three. These took an entirely different approach to coinage in that there is no central design. Every single piece looks different, and not because of die inconsistencies.
Silver was rolled out in sheets, then cut into pieces of a standard weight. As a result, the shapes vary widely and have no “normal”. Some are even round; it’s believed that the scrap from a cut-up sheet was melted down, then formed into balls of the correct weight and pounded out. After being cut to the correct weight, each coin was stamped with one to five individual, small punches. These were placed in chaos around the coin, frequently overlapping and falling off the edge. As a result, they’re incredibly difficult to make sense of at a glance.
It’s generally believed that the first punch mark coins originated sometime around 500 BCE, though this isn’t certain. Some suggest that they actually began around 1000 BCE, which would place them centuries before the first struck coins. In fact, very little is known about the dating of punch mark coins overall. There are no legends to tie them to a certain ruler, nor historical records that discuss them in detail.
As a rule of thumb, the early coins are large and thin and they gradually became smaller and thicker over time. In addition, the number of stamps generally increased with time, so those with one or two are earlier than those with four or five. It’s believed that the mintage of punch mark coins ceased around 100 BCE.
Originally, punch mark coins were produced by a multitude of large and small states in Northern India, but the Karshapanas from the state of Magadha are the most plentiful. Overall, it’s believed these were minted between roughly 500 and 150 BCE, though they circulated long after.
All Karshapanas contain five obverse punches, including a sun and a six-armed symbol. The sun is a fairly consistent design throughout the series, but there are over 90 varieties of the six-armed symbol. The other three punches vary widely with over 450 different symbols identified, resulting in over 600 coins.
To complicate matters, many coins seen today also have additional stamps, believed to be bankers’ marks testing the coin. Some even have an entire second set of official stamps, restruck after the first set became worn. Some reverses are blank; some have very small, simple stamps; and others have a single large stamp. Sound confusing?
Most existing references have broken the Karshapana coinage into roughly seven different series, based on different characteristics. In Indian Silver Punchmarked Coins: Magadha-Maurya Karshapana Series by P. L. Gupta and T. R. Hardaker, the most frequently used source, the Karshapanas are broken up accordingly.
Series I coins have large, thin flans and typically crude punches. These are the earliest examples and commonly have large bankers’ marks that may obscure one or more of the official punches. While there is a plethora of different types, these are some of the hardest to come by.
Series II coins are somewhat smaller, but almost always have secondary sets of official marks on the reverse that were struck later. Amounting to 10 official punches plus frequent bankers’ marks, these can be a bit overwhelming to deal with.
That second set of punches on Series II coins is usually from Series III. These punch combinations are also seen on new coins, usually 18-26mm. They are most noteworthy for standardizing some of the most common persisting marks, such as the sun and an elephant, as well as including a few distinctive marks, like the palm tree and rhinoceros.
Series IV is very broad and is divided into four subgroups (IVa – IVd) in Gupta & Hardaker. Most, however, have some form of arches as the third punch. These also saw the first appearance of miniature punches on the reverse, which were introduced to discourage bankers’ marks.
Series V coins, subdivided into Va and Vb, usually don’t have arches as the third punch but do have either miniature punches or bold marks on the reverse. Rarely seen with bankers’ marks on the obverse, the larger reverse punch was intended to stop the practice of bankers’ marks on the reverse, which persisted. These are also occasionally debased.
As is common near the end of a coinage’s lifespan, Series VI coins are usually debased and see a decline in style (though punch mark coins were never particularly remarkable for their artistry).
They’re usually very worn and can include both miniature and bold reverse marks, though bankers’ marks are rare. Like Series V, these are also subdivided into VIa and VIb.
The final group, Series VII, is unique in that they don’t include the sun and six-armed symbol present on all other issues. Some include a punch of three human silhouettes, which commonly leads to inflated prices due to the interest of the symbol.
With so many different punches, what do they all mean? Well, we don’t know. Very little is consistent in the Karshapanas. Some punches are seen intermittently through multiple series, some only in one series, and some only on one coin type.
The sun, which remains on all but the Series VII coins and is relatively unchanged after Series III, could be used to represent the power of the government or to indicate that the coins were official issues. The six-arm symbol, which is present until Series VII but changes forms constantly, is puzzling. The changes are too frequent to refer to rulers, but some varieties span large amounts of time, ruling out the possibility of referring to individuals working at the mints.
Some are easy to know what they are – an elephant is a fairly distinctive shape, after all – but why? What did they represent in context? What were they saying to the people? We don’t know.
They can, however, tell us something about what their society was familiar with. They must have chosen significant, familiar things, and the abundance of animals and agricultural symbols clearly reflects a farming-centered culture.
An interesting note is that the Buddha would have traveled through Magadha around roughly 500 BCE. He found enlightenment under a tree and was later frequently represented by a tree. In Series IV, which is thought to begin around 410 BCE, a tree with railing appears for the first time. Perhaps this represents the tree he stopped under, fenced off from the public for protection? It was a pilgrimage site at the time and would have required some form of fencing. This symbol is seen many times through the end of the Karshapanas.
Clearly trying to amass a set of every type known is unreasonable, but there are plenty of different ways to collect these little-known coins.
The different stamps used are very diverse, and some are very interesting. As a result, some people collect the punches more than the coins themselves. In other words, let’s say someone collected animal punches. They search for as many different animal symbols as they can find, clear and distinguishable on the coin. In this case the positioning of the other punches isn’t overly important, as long as the one you’re focusing on is easy to make out. There are plenty of categories that could be chosen, such as plants, tools, or human figures.
Karshapanas can also be collected as a type set by series, which could present a good overview of the progression of Indian coinage over 400 years with only seven to 12 coins. There are seven overarching series, but the subdivisions of IV, V, and VI result in 12 categories.
Conversely, you could focus on one series to specialize in. If you look at them individually, subdivided when applicable, all but Series I and IVd contain fewer than 50 different coins. This would probably be the most difficult pursuit, as many individual types are rare and difficult to find for sale. You could spend the rest of your life searching for one specific coin, so if completing a set is the goal, a different approach is a better idea.
However you choose to collect them, they’re quite a challenge in America. While easy to find and relatively cheap online, they’re almost never attributed or categorized in any way. This is surely due in part to the lack of online resources; the definitive catalog for attributing Karshapanas is the work by Gupta and Hardaker, which is difficult to find and expensive to buy new. Even if there were a free digital catalog, it’s difficult to search by shapes you can barely make out in the first place.
For punch mark coins to find a place in American numismatics, we need a better and more accessible system for identifying them.
For example, in attributing a coin, the punches are commonly identified using a graphic of five images, presenting the symbols in black and white shapes. They usually have no names attached to the different shapes. How can we hold a conversation about these if so many punches are “identified” without names?
As it stands, Indian punch mark coins are in their infancy in American numismatics. Significantly less information is available for smaller, regional coinages outside of the Karshapanas, and online resources for any of them are severely lacking. There’s plenty of room for more research to be done, and plenty of mysteries left to uncover.