Ancient coins intrigue collectors and scholars alike across the world. The oldest coin we know of and have available today was discovered in Ephesus (Efesos), an ancient Hellenic city and trading center off the coast of Asia Minor. Ancient coins were primarily made from gold, silver, electrum (a naturally occurring alloy of silver and gold), copper, and its alloys, bronze or brass. Amongst the oldest coins, many have come from Asian countries, the Greek and Roman empires, and various kingdoms throughout the medieval period.
How Were Ancient Coin Dies Made?
Minting in ancient times varied from the time period (as well as the technology available) to the region. From minting by hammer and anvil to utilizing the screw press as early as 1550 or the coin press in the industrial age since 1830, each ancient coin has its own story.
Most ancient dies are of bronze, at least the ones that survive today, one thing that has seemed to remain consistent throughout ancient coin minting. With that being said, iron dies are thought to have been widely used as well.
Dies consisted of two portions: an upper and lower die, each having either the reverse or obverse design of the coin. Lower dies were generally disk-shaped, which allowed them to sit in a specialized recess on the anvil. Regarding the design, coins were sometimes cut directly on the anvil. However, manufacturers carried out the engraving process in one of two fashions:
- Using small, steel tools called scorpers
- Or drilling out designs using corundum dust
Ancient Chinese Minting
Coins were the main form of currency in ancient China. Often, Chinese coins were made of copper, iron, lead, gold, and silver that varied in shape, weight, and design. Metal coins arose around 770 BC–476 BC, and it wasn’t until 118 BC that the emperor of the time cast a new, standardized coin called the Wuzhu coin. “Wu” means the number 5 and “Zhu” is a weight unit, thus the coin weighed “5 Zhu.”
All future coins resembled the Wuzhu coin, as it became a standard for Chinese coins: a piece of round metal, symbolizing the sky, and a square hole in the center to represent the earth. So, how were ancient Chinese coins made?
Unlike western mints, no precious materials like silver or gold were used in casting Chinese coins, but rather, various copper alloys of bronze or brass. For the Chinese, it wasn’t the physical value of the coin that mattered but the simple fact that the coin was commonly recognized as money, instead.
Ancient Greek Minting
Coins in ancient Greece have given us the most recognizable, antique images. Stamped with designs that identified the city in which coins were minted, this process not only guaranteed their value but became a method that modern mints have adopted today.
How were ancient Greek coins made?
Greek coins were made mostly of silver but occasionally contained gold, electrum, copper alloy, and bronze. The metals were melted in a forge hearth into standardized sizes and weights before the molten metal was poured into molds.
Greek coin dies came from an engraver carving the design onto hardened bronze or iron before using the hammer and anvil. Minters would set one die (usually the obverse side) in an anvil and place the blank metal disk on top after it was warmed to soften. Next, the minter hammered the strike on top of the blank disk, leaving an impression on both sides of the coin.
Ancient Roman Minting
Now, how were ancient Roman coins made? Most ancient Roman coins were struck by hand–however, some ancient coins were cast in molds.
For the latter, minters could easily cast bronze in ceramic/stone molds. When used in a cast, bronze shrinks slightly as it cools, so successive generations of molds made from circulating coins gradually became smaller and lighter, making them more prone to counterfeit.
Coins struck by hammer and anvil were similar to ancient Greek coins that were carved or engraved by hand and were made of high-tin bronze, a durable alloy of copper with up to 20% tin. Later on, dies of iron–and even hardened steel–appeared in Roman mints.
Ancient Medieval Minting
Alterations in the coin disk, or flan, a term deriving from the French word flatir, “to beat flat,” led to manufacturing changes of Medieval ancient coins in about 220 AD when the S?s?nian dynasty of Iran introduced this concept of thin flan coins. These techniques spread by way of Byzantium to northern Europe, where small silver coins, or pennies, became characteristic of coins within the region.
In ancient Medieval minting processes, a single workshop could supply 70+ contemporary English mints in a relatively short time by using an experimental pair of dies that took less than an hour to fabricate. Many European dies were produced through a combination of punching and engraving. The thin silver sheet required for new coins had to be beaten out from its cast mold, which in turn necessitated another process known as annealing?strengthening by slow cooling?to prevent cracking.
There is a rich history of minting and coin production that has paved the way for the beauty of modern bullion and collector coins. It’s because of these ancient processes that we can build upon and continue numismatic history.
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