Lire ce billet en français : L’âme et la tôle : les premiers faux de l’histoire monétaire occidentale
The earliest coins struck in the Western world date from the last third of the 7th century BC. They were produced in Asia Minor, in the western part of present-day Turkey, where Greek cities and Hellenized indigenous peoples cohabited. These are metal pellets stamped by the issuing authority to guarantee their value, in particular the weight and quantity of precious metal they contain. The novelty of these objects lies in the fact that these coins can be counted, in contrast to the prior practice of weighing metals. The other characteristic of these currencies is that they are legal objects issued by an authority. The Greek name of the currency is nomisma, a word that comes from nomos, ‘law’. In spite of this etymology, it must be noted that forgeries were invented at the same time as the coins guaranteed by the State.
During the second half of the 6th c. BC, the poet Theognis of Megara already evokes « altered gold and silver » and the ability of the wise man to recognize them. More colourfully, Herodotus reported that Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos in the years 530-520, had struck lead coins covered with gold, with which he would have paid the Spartans for interrupting the siege of his city. The department of coins, medals and antiques posseses two lead coin cores that date back to the Archaic period and may have been covered with a gold plating.
The Bibliothèque nationale de France has, moreover, a beautiful collection of archaic coins including a small set of ancient forgeries. Thanks to CNRS funding, the Ernest-Babelon Center (CNRS-University of Orléans), a laboratory of physics applied to archaeo-materials, was able to analyse 82 Archaic coins from the collection of the BnF.
These very first coins are made of an alloy of gold and silver called electrum. The oldest are dated to the last third of the 7th century BC. From the beginning, these were complex productions. Indeed, instead of adopting fixed images to adorn both sides of these coins, they belong to the small category of so-called « multiple-type » currencies: a very varied iconography appears on the obverse: horse, rooster, lion, goat, floral or geometric pattern, etc.
One or more incuse squares of varying degrees of elaboration adorn the reverse. The system is made even more complex by the existence of several weight standards whose higher denomination is called a stater. The « Lydo-Milesian » stater weighs about 14.30 g, the Phocaic stater 16.50 g and that of Samos 17.40 g. In each of these systems there are from four to seven fractions of a stater. The smallest denominations weigh between 0.15 g and 0.17 g depending on the system. A series of workshops produced these currencies, although most of them remain unidentified.
The analyses of the « Electrum » program focused on the Lydo-Milesian standard currencies. Their name comes from the fact that it is impossible to determine whether the first coins of these series were issued by the Greek city of Miletus or by the neighbouring Lydian people. The analyses determined that these coins had been made from gold-silver alloys of controlled composition. These alloys would not have been discovered as natural ores, but are rather a product of artificial composition, which varies according to the series. This is perhaps the most comple feature of these coins: the alloy itself does not have a constant value, the percentage of gold ranging from more than 60% to about 40%. The series which seems the most stable are thirds of a stater attributed to Lydia, a powerful kingdom during the first half of the 6th century. These small coins of about 4.75 g have a regular composition of about 55% gold and 45% silver.
Despite the complexity of this first monetary system, manufacturing processes seem to be basic. The metal blanks are quickly cooled before striking.
The ancient forgeries
Five of the 72 coins of Lydo-Milesian standard analysed proved to be ancient fakes. They are plated: a thin coating of electrum covers a core made of silver.
These forgeries could have passed as authentic in Antiquity because they possess the same designs as currencies entirely in electrum. Today, the thin gilding of electrum has peeled off, revealing the grey colour of silver beneath the surface. It is interesting to note that the plated Lydian third of a stater has on its edge punches which are very common on authentic coins (fig).
The weight of the forgeries is lighter than that of the authentic coins because the density of silver is lower than the density of gold. The gildings are in electrum and have gold contents between 65% and 42% as well as copper in significant proportions, between 6% and 13%. The gold concentrations of the plating are in line with those of authentic coins but copper is present in greater proportion, probably for technical reasons related to the manufacture of these fakes.
This plated coin seems dubious. Indeed, the plating contains a larger quantity of gold than is found for other coins and has been plated on the silver core with a mercury amalgam, a technique unknown among the other archaic forgeries. The gilding at least may be modern.
Electrum plated coins belong to various denominations, from the small fraction of 1/48th of a stater weighing 0.27 g to the third of a stater weighing 3.88 g. They have all been manufactured according to the same procedure which remains to be identified. The phenomenon was therefore not isolated and seems to have been relatively common. How to interpret it? Historians have frequently examined the question of counterfeiting. Several possibilities exist to explain the circumstances of this production. Theft of dies, the matrixes used to strike the coins, may explain the use of official types to produce forgeries. Texts from the Middle Ages also testify to numerous cases of fraudulent use of the equipment of the mint by the workers to enrich themselves. Such cases might well have existed since the archaic period. For other cases of manufacture of plated coins of very small size, therefore of relatively low value, a technical explanation has been proposed. Since profiteering does not appear to be at the origin of their production, it is possible to imagine another explanation. The master of the mint received a certain quantity of metal to produce a certain number of coins. It could happen that, at the end of the production, the quantity of metal was insufficient to arrive at the volume that was ordered. It is then possible that the workshop completed the production by reserving the remaining precious metal for the plating and using another metal, in this case silver, for the core of the coins. In this case, we would be in the presence of mint fakes, official coins which, however, deceive the user on their real value.
To go further…
G. Le Rider, La naissance de la monnaie : pratiques monétaires de l’Orient ancien, Paris, 2001
A. Ramage, P. Craddock, King Croesus’ Gold: Excavations at Sardis and the History of Gold Refining. Archaeological Exploration of Sardis Monograph 11, Cambridge, 2000.