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Heavier Metal: Ancient Coins Made of Lead

markowitz lead coins

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..

SOFT, DENSE AND dull, lead is an unattractive coining metal. Lead melts at only 327.5° C (621.5° F) – low compared to copper, which melts at 1,085° C (1,984° F) – so it is easily recycled. It’s also toxic, something that was not well understood in antiquity. When we find lead coinage in history, it often indicates hard times, when nothing better was available. Lead coins and “coin-like artifacts” therefore receive little attention from numismatic scholars and even less from collectors.

But these nasty bits of metal have something to teach us, if we are willing to learn.

The earliest securely-dated lead artifact is probably a tiny (6 cm, 2.4 inches) female statuette from Egypt’s First Dynasty (c. 3000 BCE). Found at Abydos, it was acquired by the British Museum in 1899. Surprisingly, it was carved (rather than cast or molded). Archaeologists have found much older lead beads, of uncertain date and use, in Anatolia.

Roman Lead Ingot from Britain, 76 CE

Because lead was cheap, ancient counterfeiters often used it for cores plated with a little precious metal. It was often mixed into copper alloys to stretch the supply of metal (and lower the melting point of the batch.) Some late Roman “bronze” coins contain up to 30% lead. This article, however, will deal with coins and “coin-like objects” made of pure or nearly pure lead.


So when the Lacedaemonians had besieged Samos for forty days with no success, they went away to the Peloponnesus. There is a foolish tale abroad that Polycrates bribed them to depart by making and giving them a great number of gilded lead coins, as a native currency.

Herodotus, Book III, ch. 56

Cataloguers often describe the ancient Greek lead coins that turn up as “enigmatic”. We don’t always understand why they were made or how they were used[1].

Lead tetradrachm, Syracuse and Akragas, c. 420 BC; PB (g 16,79; mm 31; h 4); Head of nymph between dolphins, Rv. Crab, below, fish. (Reference, for Obverse: SNG ANS 202 ff., for Reverse: Gulbenkian 163-164. Kraay/Hirmer 174. Rizzo pl. I, 16.

A very early example is the “tetradrachm” from Greek Sicily (Syracuse or possibly Akragas,) dated to about 420 BCE. The obverse shows the head of the water-nymph Arethusa surrounded by dolphins. The reverse combines a crab (the badge of Akragas) with a fish. In a recent auction this piece brought €480 (US$522).

A “token” or “tessera” from the town of Pherai in Thessaly (Northern Greece) shows the head of a bearded satyr on the obverse, and the forepart of a bull on the reverse.

The cataloguer wrote:

Lead tokens must have served as proof of voting rights, entrance passes to theaters or other cultural events, fees for river crossings and, often, as a way of distributing goods to entitled citizens (such as grain or other foodstuffs) via a semi-permanent marker that would be exchanged for them. In addition, since the common metal was easy to melt and reuse, it was ideal for ephemeral activities and could then be made into something else. Its very ephemerality is one reason why so few such tokens have been found, and they must have been produced far more extensively than the surviving examples imply.

In a 2012 auction, this piece brought US$500[2].

Celtic tribes living in Eastern Europe often produced “barbaric” copies of contemporary Greek coins for their own use. In the second century BCE, the Aegean island of Thasos, which had rich silver mines, produced a series of magnificent silver tetradrachms depicting the wreathed head of Dionysus obverse, and a standing figure of Herakles reverse. A barbaric copy in lead reduced this complex design to a crude child-like scrawl of stick figures. In a 2012 auction, it went for just US$85.


Estimated global production of lead, measured from levels of lead pollution in Greenland ice cores.

The Latin word for lead is plumbum. From this word, we get the chemical symbol Pb and our word “plumber”, since Roman water pipes were often made from lead. Roman mines in Spain and England produced vast quantities of the metal, and precise measurement of the fallout of Roman lead pollutants recovered from Greenland ice cores make it possible to estimate the rise and fall of this production (Hong).

A spectacular example of a Roman lead “mine token” from Spain brought US$420 in a 2004 online auction. Weighing over 98 grams (nearly 3.5 ounces), it measured 43 mm (1.7 inches) in diameter and depicts the helmeted head of Roma on the obverse and a Cupid driving a chariot drawn by dolphins on the reverse.

The cataloguer explains that:

Many of these towns were “company towns” owned and operated by the mine owners. It is here that these lead tesserae saw their use. Lead is generally obtained as a by-product of silver smelting, and with the precious metal intended for the Roman market, the lead was a handy resource for use as a local small value currency in the towns. Some of these lead tesserae date to the earliest period of Roman occupation, but most saw use in the heyday of private mine operation, the 1st century BC-AD[3].

SPAIN. Circa 1st century BC – 1st century AD. PB Tessera (43mm, 98.52 gm). Head of Roma right, wearing griffin-crested helmet; TANV*S (TAN ligate) to right / Cupid, holding reins, driving biga of two cavorting dolphins right. Plomos pg. 19, 2.

The Roman client kingdom of Numidia in North Africa produced a true lead coinage under King Masinissa (died 148 BCE) and his son Micipsa (died 118 BCE). These handsome coins (about 14 grams, 26 mm) feature the king’s bearded head on the obverse, and a prancing horse on the reverse; sometimes a few Punic letters can be made out. Issues in bronze and copper-plated lead as well as pure lead are known. Nice examples typically sell for US$60-70 when they appear at auction.

Yannai, the Hasmonean ruler of Judaea (ruled 103-76 BCE) better known by his Greek name Alexander Jannaeus, issued lead “tokens” that closely copied the design of his small bronze coinage, except for the reverse inscription in Aramaic (the language of the people) rather than archaic Hebrew script (known only to the priesthood).

The standard reference on Biblical coinage, (Hendin, 196) notes:

“…it is not far-fetched to conclude that the … issues in question were tokens issued by the Jewish king to the masses to be redeemed for gifts. This possibility may also explain the several true hoards made up exclusively of these pieces.”

In a 2009 auction, a Fine example of this type sold for $US60[4].

Byzantines and Their Enemies

Some small-denomination Byzantine lead coins are known, dating roughly from the late sixth to the early seventh century. They bear a crude facing portrait of an emperor on the obverse and a mark of value on the reverse, but no inscription that would place them in the reign of any particular ruler. The larger 10-nummi pieces are stylistically similar to bronze issues from Ravenna during this period. Very small 2- and 3-nummi pieces may be from the mint of Antioch, made during the period of unrest that led to the downfall of Emperor Phocas in 610.

Two different SASANIAN KINGS type coins. Shahpur II. AD 309-379.

The Sasanian kings of Persia issued a variety of lead coins that have been little studied. They rarely survive in a condition that would appeal to collectors, but a few examples have appeared in recent sales at prices around US$150-200.

Collecting Lead

The most common lead objects in the antiquities trade are not coins at all, but seals[5]. These include “commercial seals” from Greek and Roman commodities and medieval and Byzantine documentary seals. Sigillography (the study of seals) is the neglected younger step-sister of numismatics. Seals provide valuable information for understanding how bureaucratic empires actually worked, long after the documents they validated have crumbled to dust.

Since ancient and medieval lead coins and coin-like objects are not popular with collectors, they are generally inexpensive compared to precious metal coins of similar quality. Because ancient lead may be covered with toxic dusty surface deposits, such objects should be handled with common-sense precautions (wear gloves or at least wash your hands). Cleaning of lead artifacts is a tricky business best left to professionals.

References to ancient lead coins are scattered in a wide variety of old and obscure sources, typically in Italian, French, and German. Some of the more accessible sources are listed below.

* * *


[1] A common description – especially if a type is unique or exceedingly rare – is “pattern” or “trial strike”. Because lead is so soft it takes a sharp impression when struck, allowing mint workers to inexpensively show their civic authorities a sample of how a precious metal coin design would look.

[2] Classical Numismatic Group Electronic Auction 290, 7 November 2012, Lot 103.

[3] Classical Numismatic Group Mail Bid Sale 67, 22 September 2004, Lot 1070.

[4] Classical Numismatic Group Electronic Auction 216, 12 August 2009, Lot 213.

[5] Technically, the “seal” itself is the unique engraved bronze or iron stamp – which rarely survives – that makes the impression on the soft lead bulla, or “sealing”.


Brill, Robert and William Shields. “Lead Isotopes in Ancient Coins”, Methods of Chemical and Metallurgical Investigation of Ancient Coinage. Royal Numismatic Society (1972)

Callataÿ, François. “Les plombs a types monetaires en Grece ancienne: monnaies (officielles, votives ou contrefaites) jetons, sceaux, poids, epreves ou fantaisies?”
(“Lead monetary types in ancient Greece: coins (official, votive or counterfeit) tokens, seals, weights, patterns or fantasies?”), Revue Numismatique 166 (2010)

Farhi, Yoav. “City Coins from Roman Palestine Made of Lead and Comparable Materials”, Israel Numismatic Journal 17 (2009)

Herodotus. The Histories. A. D. Godley, transl. Harvard (1920)

Hendin, David. Guide to Biblical Coins, 5th Edition. Amphora (2010)

Hong, Sungmin, et al. “Greenland Ice Evidence of Hemispheric Lead Pollution Two Millennia Ago by Greek and Roman Civilizations”, Science 265 (1994)

Hoover, Oliver, D. “A New Hellenistic Lead Issue from the Southern Levant”, Israel Numismatic Research 4 (2009)

Hoover, Oliver, D. “Ptolemaic Lead Coinage in Coele Syria (103–101 BCE)”, Israel Numismatic Research 3 (2008)

Kool, Robert. “Lead Token Money in the Kingdom of Jerusalem”, Numismatic Chronicle 172 (2013)

Melville Jones, John. A Dictionary of Ancient Greek Coins. London (1986)

Morrisson, Cécile. “Monnaies en plomb Byzantines de la fin du VIe et du debut du VIIe siècle” (“Byzantine lead coins from the end of the 6th century to the beginning of the 7th”), Rivista Italiana di Numismatica 83 (1981)

Morrisson, Cécile. “Les usages monetaires du plus vil des metaux: le plomb” (“Monetary uses of the most base of metals: lead”), Rivista Italiana di Numismatica 95 (1993)

Nriagu, Jerome. “Lead Resources of the Ancient World”, Lead and Lead Poisoning in Antiquity. New York (1983)

Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York, and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.

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  1. I. Found an old lead token of some type. I can vaguely see some figures I can tell it is not a washer. I would love to know more about what I have found. Any help is appreciated.

  2. i have a lead trade token with the name ohlendorf stamped on the front and the word trade on the back with a picture of a shell horn with 5 round balls, any help would be greatly appreciated,
    thank you


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