Learn About: Coins

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Money has ‘made the world go round’ for at least the last 2,500 years and the vast majority of that was achieved with coins. Coins have proven to be not only a convenient way to pay, but also to be a vital piece of evidence for historians studying the past.

You might be surprised by how important coinage is to our understanding of the ancient past, and also by the rich history of coin collecting, which stretches back almost as far as the coins themselves. If you’ve never thought about why we run our lives with small metallic circles, or why some people feel driven to collect them, read on.

Collectable Coins

Today, there are thousands of coin collectors the world over – but coin collecting isn’t a new fad, and neither is it an exclusively amateur one. But which coins do people collect?

The earliest example of what might be called a coin collection dates to about 600BCE. When the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the world, in modern-day Turkey was excavated in 1904, archaeologists found coins scattered amongst the foundations. Among these coins were 19 set aside in a small pot and deliberately buried. We can only speculate how exactly those coins ended up there or why they were set aside, but whatever the reason, it caught on.

Coin collecting really kicked off during the renaissance, when the practice became a status symbol for the newly wealthy. Coins had previous been collected by classical figures such as Caesar Augustus, coins also represented a similarity between contemporary Europe and the ancient Mediterranean – something renaissance men such as Petrarch were keen to explore. Its easy to see how collecting money for fun might give off a particular message of opulence – at this time the pursuit came to be called the ‘hobby of kings’.

Ancient Coins

The study of coins in as an academic discipline really began in the 18th century. Since then numismatics, as it’s called, has been a cornerstone of the study of the ancient and medieval world. Coin locations and designs are used to plot the reach of historic kingdoms and to understand the ideas they want to convey. Much of what we know about the Umayyad caliphate during the first 50 years of Islam comes from where their coins have been found and which designs were used.

The Lydians of modern-day Turkey (where the Temple of Artemis hoard was found) are often credited with being amongst the earliest users of coinage from the 7th century BCE. They used a natural alloy of gold and silver known as electrum to make the most ancient coinage still extant, and the Greek historian Herodotus (arguably the first ever historian), recorded that they were the first to use such coins.

The Greeks themselves started to use electrum for coins before purer gold and silver coins came into fashion. Silver coinage travelled east with the conquests of Alexander the Great and later became the primary coinage of the mighty Persian Empire. The Romans, on the other hand, used a variety of materials for coinage and varying purities of bronze and copper were widely used across Eurasia. The strength of these ancient coinage systems is shown in the fact that they’re still on the market today!

Modern Coins

Crime is nothing new, this is shown as much in counterfeiting and debasement as in any other crime. In ancient and modern times, techniques like ‘sweating’ (rubbing coins en masse to shave off small bits of metal), ‘punching’ (making holes in a coin and hammering them flat again), and ‘clipping’ (shaving the outside edge of a coin) have been used to collect precious metals for sale. The result was known as ‘debasement’ of coinage and was such a problem to ancient and modern rulers alike that the punishment was often severe – sometimes death.

To combat clipping, the British Mint introduced engraved text around the edge of coins so that clipped coins could be more easily spotted, until then accurate weighing was the best way to tell a debased coin.

The real downfall of clipping, though, was the proliferation of ‘fiat’ currency. Fiat currency uses materials which are chosen because they’re appropriate for making coins, rather than for their inherent value; the most obvious examples are copper coins like pennies and paper money.

‘Penny’ is a very old term for a coin still in use around the world in former British colonies. This long-running coin, however, wasn’t in use for most of the 18th century in Britain because it was made of silver. The value of the silver used in the old pennies was vastly outstripping the value of the coin itself, but it wasn’t until the Napoleonic Wars, in 1797, that small change was again minted in Britain – this time in copper. In the USA, by contrast, copper was used from the very beginning, a perfect material for George Washington’s new currency in a fledgling state.

Today, gold and silver have fallen entirely out of circulation, although they’re still used for commemorative coins which are often legal tender. US dimes and dollars stopped being produced in silver in 1964 and the global economic crisis of the 1930s – the Great Depression in the USA – forced many countries to move away from the use of gold because of hoarding.

From ancient to modern times, then, coins have been in continuous use but have also undergone significant changes, often in line with great moments of history. This has made coins one of the most popular areas of collecting, and one which looks to have a strong future.

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