The Origin of Specie: How Gold and Silver Became Money - by Mike Markowitz

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..

…And unto Sarah he said, Behold, I have given thy brother a thousand pieces of silver.

Genesis, 20:16

ABIMELECH, PHILISTINE KING of Gerar, gravely offended the patriarch Abraham by trying to appropriate his wife, Sarah, having been led to believe that Sarah was actually Abraham’s sister[1]. In compensation, he pays Abraham a thousand pieces of silver. The Hebrew text says elep kesep (“a thousand silver”). Many modern translations insert the word shekel here, understood to be the ancient unit of measure. This is the very first mention of money in The Bible, and it is problematic, since these events took place around 2067 BCE[2], some 15 centuries before silver coinage came into use in the region.

As with many ancient units, the shekel had a wide range of values depending on the era and the region, but taking 11 grams as the weight of an “Abrahamic” shekel, Abimelech’s payment would have been 11 kilograms of silver – some 353.66 troy ounces[3].


The way money worked in Abraham’s world was that broken pieces of ingots or cut-up silver jewelry were weighed out for each transaction using a pan balance and a set of stone weights. Archaeologists use the German term Hacksilber (“chopped silver”) to describe this kind of money; many hoards[4] of this proto-money have been discovered across the Middle East. Sometimes they are described as jeweler’s or silversmith’s hoards, collected for recycling, but a growing body of evidence suggests that these were mainly monetary in nature. So-called “chocolate bar” ingots were cast with deep horizontal and vertical grooves so that bits could be conveniently snapped off to make small payments.

There are no significant deposits of silver in the Near East, so where all this ancient silver came from is a puzzle. Some probably came from Anatolia (modern Turkey); some might have come from Central Asia, Sardinia, or even distant Spain, brought by the seafaring Phoenicians[5].

Money Before Coins

Money is famously defined as a store of wealth, a medium of exchange and a standard of value (Howgego, 12). The Latin term specie[6] (meaning “kind, or type”) is used to describe precious metals used as money. An astonishing range of different materials functioned as money before coinage. In many parts of the world, the glossy shells of the cowrie, a marine snail native to parts of the Indian Ocean, were used as money. The scientific name of the species is Moneta monetaria. In Colonial Virginia, where coins were scarce, plugs of tobacco circulated as cash. In the Aztec Empire of Mexico, chocolate (from the pods of the cacao tree) was money.

For large purchases, merchants calculated values in terms of bags of approximately 24,000 beans, but such quantities proved too cumbersome for use in daily transactions

In addition to cacao beans, they used quachtli, cotton cloaks, the value of which varied from 60 to 300 cacao beans. The quachtli served for larger financial transfers such as the purchase of slaves or sacrificial victims (Weatherford, 19)

For much of history in many different cultures, the most highly prized substance used as money has been gold. The oldest man-made gold object currently known is a 3 mm bead (an eighth of an inch) found at Pazardzhik, Bulgaria, a site dated to c. 4500 BCE[7].

Silver must be refined from mineral ores, but gold occurs naturally in nearly pure form. Long before the invention of coinage, gold nuggets served as a store of wealth, a medium of exchange, and a standard of value.


Silver was particularly prized in Egypt, where it was so rare that it was sometimes valued at half its weight in gold. The Egyptian hieroglyph for “gold” is a picture of an elaborate necklace. The hieroglyph for silver is the gold symbol superimposed on a picture of a mace. Electrum, the naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver, is the gold symbol superimposed on a scepter.

Egypt had rich sources of gold from mines in the Eastern desert and Nubia, but most of this metal belonged to the Pharaoh. Vast quantities were crafted into funerary goods and buried; the iconic gold mask of Tutankhamun[8], for example, weighs 10.23 kg (22.6 pounds). Most ancient Egyptians were farmers living outside of a cash economy. Workers were typically paid in loaves of bread and jars of beer, but ingots or rings of copper (rarely silver) were sometimes used as money. The standard unit of weight was the deben, weighing 13.6 grams during the Old and Middle Kingdom eras (c. 2686 – 1550 BCE,) and 91 to 95 grams in the New Kingdom (1550 – 1077 BCE). One deben was divided into 10 qedet (or qite).

As a rough measure, a bushel of grain equaled one deben of copper. A small farm (perhaps an acre by our measure) could be purchased for two or three debens of silver, which approximated the cost of an ox as well. A slave cost a little more…” (Brier, 76)


The long sequence of civilizations that developed in Mesopotamia–today mostly Iraq, Syria and parts of Turkey and Iran–maintained complex economies for thousands of years before the adoption of coinage. Because extensive collections of legal and administrative documents inscribed on clay tablets or stone have survived, we have a surprising amount of information about wages and prices:

…[D]uring the second and first millennia BCE, the daily wage for an average workers seems to have held constant at about one quarter of a bushel of barley. …It would take the average worker between four and eight days to earn the equivalent of a shekel of silver (about 3/10 of an ounce…) (Bertman, 249)

A ram or a goat might go for two shekels of silver, an ox for 20, a donkey for 30 and a slave for 40. In these transactions, the silver would be weighed out as chunks of metal, according to the current local standard for a shekel.

“Bushel” is a customary unit of either volume or weight. In the United States, a bushel of barley is defined as 48 pounds (21.77 kg).

Collecting Proto-Coinage

Proto-coinage presents enormous challenges to potential collectors. It falls into the category of antiquities or “archaeological artifacts” rather than numismatic collectibles. Few coin dealers are willing to handle such material, due to problems of authentication, provenance and documentation. A lumpy 85 gram “ingot” of electrum, “probably from the Black Sea region” and dated to the sixth century BCE brought only $6,000 USD in a recent US auction[9].

Nevertheless, examples of proto-coinage occasionally appear in numismatic sales, particularly Celtic gold “ring-money” found in the UK, where sensible laws permit trade in such artifacts. A 5.8-gram plain gold ring, vaguely dated “ca. 1200-100 BCE, Reportedly from the Lord Grantley collection” sold for $850 in a 2012 American auction[10]. Some of these handsome little rings are ribbed or banded with alloys of contrasting colors, but weights vary so much that it seems there were no standard “denominations”. A ribbed example just under four grams brought $1,700 in a 2010 Classical Numismatic Group (CNG) auction[11].

A few examples from other cultures, including the enigmatic Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley, dated to c. 3000 – 2500 BCE, have also come on the market in recent years. A group of about 50 small pierced gold disks totaling 10.64 grams brought $1,700 in a recent New York auction[12].

The cataloguer writes, “Generally used for necklaces, but also for trade.”

* * *


[1] For the background of this story, see:


[3] The troy ounce of 31.103 grams is used to measure silver as a commodity, rather than the more familiar “avoirdupois” ounce of 28.3495 grams. The troy ounce probably originated in the early middle ages as the unit used at the fair of Troyes in Champagne, France. The Troyes fair was one of the most famous trading places in the world at the time.

[4] For more on ancient hoards:


[6] Not to be confused with “species,” the same Latin word in the plural, used for kinds or types of living things.



[9] Stack’s Bowers and Ponterio New York Auction, 8 January 2016. Lot 30082.

[10] Stacks Bowers and Ponterio Sale 172, 16 November 2012. Lot 11502.

[11] Classical Numismatic Group Auction 85, 15 September 2010. Lot 139.

[12] The New York Sale XXV, 5 January 2011. Lot 341.


Balmuth, Miriam. “The Critical Moment: The Transition from Currency to Coinage in the Eastern Mediterranean”, World Archaeology 6 (1975)

Balmuth, Miriam (ed.). Hacksilber to Coinage: New Insights into the Monetary History of the Near East and Greece. American Numismatic Society. New York. (2001)

Bertman, Stephen. Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia

Brier, Bob and Hoyt Hobbs. Daily Life of the Ancient Egyptians. Westport, CT (1999)

Cribb, Joe. Eyewitness: Money. New York (2016)

Cribb, Joe. “Money as Metaphor”, Numismatic Chronicle 165 (2005)

Davies, Glyn. A History of Money: From Ancient Times to the Present Day. Cardiff, UK (2002)

Feingold, Ellen. The Value of Money. Washington (2015)

Ferguson, Niall. The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. New York (2008)

Howgego, Christopher. Ancient History from Coins. London (1995)

Pare, Christopher. “Weighing, Commodification, and Money”, Oxford Handbook of the European Bronze Age. Oxford (2013)

Quiggen, A. Hingston. A Survey of Primitive Money. London (1949)

Weatherford, Jack. The History of Money. New York (1997)

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