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There's a new, very old addition to the Ancient Worlds Gallery. A selection of coins from antiquity are now on display. Coins are an important archaeological source of history. They can provide information about the language, religion, economy and rulers of a country or region. They also reference details of historical or mythological events.

Discover their stories in this blog by Deirdre Harrison Collection Manager Archaeology, and find out about the societies that used them.

In the west, the concept of coins developed to facilitate the bartering of goods and services in the ancient Mediterranean world. Coins have the benefits of being small, valuable, portable, non-perishable, durable and made of universally desirable precious metals.

Initially the practice of using a bronze or copper bar (a talent) for trade was established and later this developed into the use of a metal rod or an obelos from which the obol coin derives its name. Six of these 1.5m rods could be grasped in one hand. The Greek word for grasp is drattomai and this is the origin of the drachm coin.

The ancient region of Lydia, which corresponds to the north-western and central part of modern-day Turkey, has provided some of the earliest coins in existence - from the 7th century B.C.E. The Lydian Lion coins from this region were made of electrum, an alloy of gold and silver. Later coins from other Greek cities were made of bronze or silver or gold. The Lydian Lions directly preceded ancient Greek coinage, which in turn influenced all other coinage through the Mediterranean region and central and far eastern Asia. Archaic Greek coins spread further than the Greek-speaking regions and were widely used in the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire through Western Asia and have been found in several hoards found in regions of modern India and Afghanistan.

Coins were first made of lozenges of metal by hitting a hammer positioned over an anvil. Importantly they were made of a regulated weight of the stipulated metal, and their authenticity was marked by stamping the coin with the seal of the city-state or the ruler who issued the coin. The authenticating seal or symbol was placed on the obverse (front) of the coin, while the reverse (back) of the coin usually carried a portrait of a god or ruler associated with the city.

The coins on display in the Ancient Worlds Gallery are arranged in the following order by estimated age.

Identifying and dating ancient coins can be a complex process. Chemical analyses of coins may be useful for identifying the materials and processes used in their manufacture, and this can indicate a rough relative date for the coin, but the age of coins is more commonly determined by examining the shapes, sizes, and markings of the coins themselves. In particular, the specific minted details, such as the dates and reigns of rulers depicted, or the time periods associated with the types of coins which have been excavated from individual dated sites. 

Aegina

c550 B.C.E.

Aegina

One of the earliest and busiest Greek mints was on the island of Aegina, a great commercial trade hub off the north-eastern coast of the Peloponnese. By 550 B.C.E. it minted the first standard silver Greek coins. These coins were widely circulated and their standard (a stater of approximately 6.1g) was adopted by many cities at the time.

On the obverse (front) of this slater coin is a sea-turtle the symbol of Aegina. The turtle was associated with the goddess Aphrodite and the sea, and represented tranquillity, stability, and Aegina's connection to the water. The reverse of the coin has an incuse square punch which, with gradual variation, remained on the coins throughout most of the fifth century B.C.E.


Coin, Aegina, after 660 BCE, AWMM 2022.x.21
Miletus

600 - 500 B.C.E.

Miletus

These small silver fractions (diobols) are from the city of Miletus on the west coast of modern Turkey. Before Persian rule Miletus was considered one of the wealthiest Greek cities. These coins were minted from late 6th-early 5th century B.C.E. and show the forepart of a roaring lion with its head looking back over its shoulder. These Miletus coins resemble the very early Lydian lion coins of the neighbouring region - believed to be the one of the world's first currencies. 

This was a common currency of the region in the archaic period. The lion was the heraldic animal of Miletus and as well as on the coins can be frequently found among the votive offerings left for the deities at tombs and lions are well represented in sculptures in the city.

The decoration on the reverse of these coins may represent the sun, (in reference to Apollo, Miletus's patron god), an ornamented star, pattern, or a star-like floral ornament.


Coin, Miletus, 600 - 500 BCE, AWMM 2022.x.22.2 and 2022.x.22.1
Athens

c460 B.C.E.

Athens

The 6th-century Athenian ruler Peisistratus minted what is thought to be the first two-sided coin (with two engraved reliefs) in the world. Each side depicted symbols of the Athenian city-state. This silver tetradrachm (equivalent to 4 drachm) was minted around 460 B.C.E. and shows on the obverse, Athena, patron goddess of the city, in her iconic Attic helmet (however in this case most of the helmet has been cut off). On the reverse are: Athena's owl, an inscription “ΑΘΕ” which is an abbreviation of ΑΘΕΝΑΙΟΝ, “of the Athenians” and sprigs of an olive tree, which were culturally and economically important to the city, 

Variations of this coin type were used for centuries in Athens and the Mediterranean region. This consistency came to symbolize Athens’ economic power, and today these same symbols can be seen on the reverse of the Greek 1 Euro coin.


Coin, Athens, 460 BCE, AWMM 2022.x.23
Corinth

c440 B.C.E.

Corinth

This silver stater from Corinth (around c440 B.C.E.) shows the winged horse Pegasus, and the Qoppa (Ϙ) on the obverse. Qoppa stood for the archaic spelling of the city Corinth (Ϙόρινθος). The reverse of the coin depicts Athena wearing Corinthian helmet. Athena was regarded as the patron and protectress of various cities across Greece

The image of Pegasus appeared on both pottery and coins in ancient Corinth from about the 7th century B.C.E. onward. There are also two water sources or fountains in Corinth that are connected to the myth of Pegasus. Both are known as the known as the Peirene Fountain and are supposed to be where Bellerophon caught Pegasus using the golden bridle given to him by Athena. It is said that over its thousands of years of existence this spring has never run dry. 


Coin, Corinth, c440 BCE, AWMM 2022.x.24
Syracuse

c395 B.C.E.

Syracuse

This silver dekadrachm (equivalent to 10 drachm) was minted around 395 B.C.E. in Syracuse (on the island of Sicily). On the obverse is a quadriga (4 horse chariot) driven by charioteer with the goddess Nike flying above, to crown the driver. There is a possible association with Syracuse’s success in the chariot races at the Olympic games which came to be seen as a sign of Zeus’s favour and which enhanced and the success and prosperity of the city. The reverse of the coin shows the head of Arethusa, wearing a hoop earring; her hair is bound up with a hair band. Four dolphins swim around her head, emphasising the city’s link to the sea.

In Greek mythology, Arethusa was a nymph who fled from her home beneath the sea and came up as a fresh water fountain on the island of Ortygia in Syracuse, Sicily.


Coin, Syracuse, 395 BCE, AWMM 2022.x.25
Lampsakos

328-323 B.C.E.

Lampsakos

This is a gold stater from Lampsakos, a city located on the eastern side of the Hellespont (North-western Turkey). Minted around 328-323 B.C.E. the obverse of this coin shows the winged goddess Nike standing holding a stylis or ship’s mast with a wreath on the ground behind her, this is a reference to the earlier naval victories of the Greeks against the Persians. The lettering says AΛEΞANΔPOY ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ, Alexander is king – referring to Alexander III (the Great) and his conquest of the city as part of his military campaign into Asia. The reverse shows the helmeted head of Athena with a coiled serpent on the bowl of her helmet.

Ironically, by the time this coin was struck, Alexander was already dead, having spent the end of his life trying to unite Macedonia and Persia into his army and his wider empire.


Coin, Lampsakos, 328-323 BCE, AWMM 2022.x.26
Egypt

247-222 B.C.E.

Egypt

This large bronze coin was minted at the time of Ptolemy III, sometime between 247-222 B.C.E. in Egypt.

The obverse shows the head of the god Zeus-Ammon adorned with a diadem and ram’s horn, and the reverse has an eagle (the bird of Zeus) clutching Zeus's thunderbolt; a design which served as the 'dynastic badge' of the Ptolemies, the Greek rulers of Egypt at the time. The very worn letters around the edge spell the words ΠΤΟΛΕΜΑΙΟΥ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ – Ptolomy King. Other markings are present but are too worn to distinguish. Typically these coins use symbols, letters, monograms, clubs, cornucopia, lotus blossoms, among others, and are believed to have served as mintmarks, indicating where the coins were produced. Dye punctures can be seen at the centre of both sides, created in the process of trimming the edges.


Coin, Egypt, 247-222 BCE, AWMM 2022.x.27

Explore more from Deirdre Harrison, Collection Manager Archaeology 

Deirdre Harrison is the Collection Manager in the Archaeology Department at Auckland Museum. She has a background in Archaeology, Classics and Chemistry.

Reading a vase

People have always found a way to tell stories. As well as the oral and written traditions; music, performance and art have been used through the ages. One particularly beautiful form of storytelling can be found in Ancient Greek vase painting. Combining the poetic with the practical, Greek vases can depict myths, legends, or stories through the use of symbols and people easily recognisable to contemporary audiences. 

Read on