Dolphin Imagery and Olbian Cast Dolphin Coins

Dolphin Imagery and Olbian Cast Dolphin Coins

Fresco of dolphins, c. 1600 BCE, from Knossos, Crete

By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..

The dolphin straddled the Greek worlds of mythology, religion, and the mundane. In Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, it plays the role of a hunter who stalked fish and man alike. Similar to the lion, or any other large land-based hunter, it is clear that many seafaring people saw the dolphin as a form of dangerous god. In fact, Homer describes how Phoebus Apollo took the aquatic form of a dolphin to hijack a ship.

Overlaid onto this martial view of the dolphin is a subtle yet pervasive and important feature, which is hinted at in the Pindaric fragment #140: the animal’s anthropomorphization. The ancient Theban poet Pindar described how dolphins can mimic and respond to a human voice. By having the dolphins sing together as one while interacting with a man’s voice, Pindar ascribed human characteristics to them. Similar to the Christian idea of how man was created in the image of God, by humanizing dolphins, the Greek world ascribed a measure of religious importance to them.

As a symbolic counterweight to the eagle representing the sky and celestial world as the emblem of Zeus, the dolphin was also tied to death and the underworld. In the poet Alcidamas’s narrative work The Contest of Homer and Hesiod, Alcidamas describes how dolphins were responsible for completing the customary funeral rights when Hesiod, his fellow poet, died. After his murder and the disposal of his body, dolphins retrieved Hesiod’s body from the water on the third day and brought it ashore during a religious festival dedicated to Ariadne. This connection to death and the underworld undoubtedly added to the significance dolphins held for the ancient Greeks.

Lastly, these aquatic mammals served a protective role for maritime Greeks. The traveler and geographer Pausanias tells how when the infant Melikertes and his mother leaped into the sea to escape her manic husband the king, dolphins rescued the pair and brought them safely to the Corinthian Isthmus under a pine tree. As part of this process, the dolphins contributed to the pair’s deification.

While not innately divine, the dolphin was consistently compared, and placed adjacent to, the gods while playing a connective role between man, the ocean, and the afterlife.

In the mundane world, the dolphin also played an important role for the colonial Greek cities scattered around the shores of the Black Sea. There is archeological evidence of this in the form of dolphin bones that have been unearthed in the settlements scattered around the modern-day area of Western Crimea. This points to the fact that dolphins were caught for food and, like modern whales, for their oil. It is clear that they were an economic good to be consumed locally and possibly be traded to other cities.

While there is no evidence of ritual associations connected to coined money in early Greece (such as existed in other contemporary ancient societies), the Greeks had an interesting and complex relationship with wealth and, more specifically, the freedom it provided. One must simply look to the fact that Greek temples, such as the one at Olympia, were employed as something like ancient banks, holding vast stores of money. When this is combined with the societal importance of the dolphin in the Pontic region, the use of dolphin imagery on coinage was perhaps a logical culmination.

Olbia, an important Greek Pontic colony in Thrace near modern Bulgaria and Ukraine, had a particularly deep relationship with the dolphin, as demonstrated by their cast coinage. The logic makes sense; if dolphins were sacred to the gods, then casting a coin into the very shape of a dolphin would help instill confidence in the city’s currency. The most informed estimates place the start of this coinage in the early sixth century BCE and its end in the mid-fourth century BCE.

Thrace, Olbia 5th century BC2 – AE25 (2.32 g)
Cast double sided dolphin-shaped coin.

Olbian authorities decided to cast their smallest denomination coin, the chalkon, out of copper, with technology potentially influenced by their Scythian and Celtic trading partners. These small coins, mostly between 1.5-3g and 25-34mm, were cast into the rough shape of a dolphin. Created using a casting tree, the chalkoi were connected to the main tree by their tail. Mint workers clipping the coins at the base of the tail were not always precise, which resulted in many truncated examples where the tail is shorter than intended – as can be seen in the example below.

Thrace, Olbia 5th century BC2 – AE25 (1.64 g)
Cast double sided dolphin-shaped coin.

Additionally, many examples where mint workers did not trim the excess casting metal have been found. This provides additional proof of these coins’ low value since the labor required to completely trim the metal would be worth more than the coin.

Thrace, Olbia 5th century BC2 – AE25 (1.62 g)
Cast double sided dolphin-shaped coin.

Some examples of Olbia’s cast dolphin coinage don’t even resemble the eponymous animal, and instead are basically oblong bulbous lumps of metal. This may be because of over-ambitious trimming at the mint, crude casting molds, or simply time and corrosion.

Thrace, Olbia 5th century BC2 – AE25 (1.92 g)
Cast double sided dolphin-shaped coin.

Made out of low-value copper instead of bronze, which required trading for high-value tin, these chalkoi served as the smallest denomination in the Olbian economy. Sélènè Psoma and Olivier Picard, two influential historians and numismatists, have estimated that between eight and 12 chalkoi equaled an obol. The contemporary example of an Olbian obol below also displays a dolphin on the obverse in front of the archaic head of Athena.

Thrace, Olbia Late 5th century  –  Cast AE obol (142.56 g)
OBV: Head of Athena left, wearing crested Corinthian helmet; dolphin before
REV: Four-spoked wheel; P-A-U-S in angle

Since this series was produced over a two-hundred-year time period, most varieties are commonly found and often sold as bulk lots at auction. Rarer issues also survive that include a short legend on the reverse. The legends on these uniface examples are thought to represent the moneyer or issuing authority. However, there is little data on the individuals named on these examples.

Thrace, Olbia – ca 525-410 BCE – AE25 (3.28g, 36mm) Cast single sided dolphin-shaped coin. REF: Anokhin 179; SNG BM Black Sea 374-6; HGC   –   REV: APIXO

While most of the dolphins were quite small, a few larger examples do exist. The piece below weighs 84.8 grams instead of the standard 1.5-3 grams. This reflects the fact that while the trading city was quite prosperous, Olbia did not have access to sufficient quantities of high-grade silver and gold to strike a specie-based coinage. Otherwise, they would have struck silver coins.

437-410 BCE  Cast Æ dolphin (90mm) REF: SNG BM Black Sea 359. Anokhin 173.
OBV: defined central spine and four vertical lines, circular eye
REV: Smooth convex surface with “+” in relief

Only two examples of this denomination, the largest in the cast dolphin series, are held in private collections. This example hammered for almost $40,000 USD before buyer’s fees in a 2016 auction. The other three known examples are held in the Kyiv Ukrainian Archaeological Museum, the British Museum, and the Moscow State Historical Museum.

On the other end of the spectrum, plain yet well-shaped examples of the small type sell regularly for $10 to $15 while specimens with clear ridges are worth slightly more at $20 to $30. Lastly, the uniface types with legends on the reverse are generally harder to find and are worth between $100 and $200, depending on condition.

Happy collecting!

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About the Author

Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).

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