What Were the First Coins?


We’re used to them now, but how did humans move from the bartering and trading system to the use of coins?

Before coins other pieces were used as a kind of currency. The ancient Chinese used shells and ancient Mesopotamians used a banking system of grains, livestock and other valuables that they could trade.

But eventually, money for the sake of money came around. No longer were otherwise valuable items used for trade. Gold and silver coins began to gain value.

Lydian coin with an archer. (Via dynamosquito on Wikimedia)

Lydian coin with an archer. (Via dynamosquito on Wikimedia)

The first-ever coins likely originate from Lydia (an ancient kingdom in where modern Turkey is now). The coin materials came from a natural mix of gold and silver called electrum and the coins featured the head of a lion. Their value was determined by their weight. One “stater” weighed about 14.1 grams; other denominations included half-staters, thirds, sixths, twelfths, and 1/24ths through 1/96ths. Maybe not the straightforward numbers we’re used to today, but at the time the system was quite innovative.

An ancient Lydian coin. (Via Jastrow on Wikimedia)

An ancient Lydian coin. (Via Jastrow on Wikimedia)

The first Lydian coins have the names Walwel and Kalil inscribed on them; however, historians don’t know who these names refer to. They could be the names of kings or the men who produced the coins.

Lydia succeeded in their coin system, and soon the coinage spread to Greek and Mediterranean cities. Their material also consisted of electrum. One early Greek coin reads “I am the badge of Phanes”, possibly an early stamp of guaranteed quality.

The major cities, including Athens, started to make their own coins by the 6th century B.C. All this local pride made the system complicated at first – how did a Persian coin’s value stack up to an Athens coin?

The earliest dated electrum coin hoard was found at the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in 1904-5. A pot of 19 coins had been buried near 74 other coins in the temple’s foundation.

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