A Brief History of Coins
Around 620 B.C. the Greeks started to use metal coinage for their commercial transactions at their settlements in Lydia. To get an idea of where Lydia was, draw a line east from the island of Lesbos well into central Turkey. Draw another line directly north from the island of Rhodes, again into Turkey, and where the two lines cross is the area formerly known as Lydia.
The metal used (known also to the Egyptians), was a natural alloy of silver and gold, with some copper. It was found in various shades of yellow, and was harder - and therefore more durable - than gold. It continued to be used until the introduction of pure silver coins around 350BC.
The use of these coins spread to Greece, then southern Italy and Sicily. Greek coins are beautiful and were much admired, and coins of Philip II of Macedonia (Alexander the Great’s father) made their way up the Danube basin and were copied by the Gauls in France. Gold Gaullist coins reached Britain by the first century BC and the island’s own gold coinage was probably struck shortly afterwards.
As the Roman Empire was so vast and lasted so long, Roman coins still exist today in hundreds of varieties and a wide range of conditions from the entire 700 years. They can be eye-wateringly expensive, but most are usually within range of an average collector’s pocket. And, of course, much is known about the Romans, their Empire and rulers.
Not so much is known about the Celts in England. Their coinage appears to have lasted for only 150 years, and little is known about their society. Yet they produced a dazzling array of designs on their coins in gold, silver and bronze. Production began at the beginning of the first century BC, probably in Kent. Not much is understood about this coinage yet, although research still continues. Once the Romans arrived, the situation changed dramatically. The Romans recorded what they found out about the Celts, and following the Roman invasion in AD43 the Celts
probably continued producing their own coinage until the end of the Boudiccan revolt. Then Roman coinage took over for the next three to four hundred years, which is why so many remain around today, a bit like a great-aunt’s ‘hoard’ of Victorian pennies in almost everyone’s biscuit tin.
After the Dark Ages, silver became the base metal for western European coinage. In the Middle Ages coins were issued by individual cities, kings, states and even bishops. Gold returned to the west after the Crusades (its use had never stopped in the Islamic world), and it was a logical step that the artistic influences of the Renaissance should be applied to the coinage of the day.
From the start, coins were individually made by hand. The designs were engraved or hammered into the two ends of two bars of bronze or iron, shaped to the size of the coin. These were known as dies, and one was firmly attached to working surface. A blank piece of metal, as near as possible in size as the required coin, was then inserted between the two dies and was given a good thwack with a hammer. This method lasted until the middle of the 1500s, and unsurprisingly coins made in this way are known as ‘hammered’. No two coins are therefore ever identical, which must have been frustrating for the budding inventors of vending machines!
However, the manufacture of coins by machine was, like almost everything else, inevitable. Experiments took place in the mid-1500s, firstly in Germany and then in France. A mill and screw press was used, giving the term ‘milled’ to coins produced in this way. The basic principle of using pressure on metal between dies was the same, but more force could be applied, resulting in sharper, clearer coins.
The main problem was the varying thickness of the sheets, and therefore of the ‘blanks’. Attempts were made during the reigns of Elizabeth I and Charles I to use this type of machinery, but coins continued the be made by hand – or ‘hammered’. However, Charles II brought over a pair of Dutchmen who had an improved type of screw press, and by 1662 coins suitable for circulation were being produced. An interesting, and still used, counter-fraud measure was introduced at the same time; around the edges of the coins was an inscription, to prevent them from being clipped. Up until then, every dishonest person who had a silver or gold coin would trim it slightly, accumulating their own little stockpile of precious metal and even attempting to make their own coins.
Why do we collect coins? For the same reason we collect stamps or banknotes or medals. They are little items of history that are portable, valuable to someone, and, finally, attractive.