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23/05/2008

Ancient currency

Municipality of Argos

The first coins were stroke around the end of the 7th century, in the area of the east Aegean and specifically in Ionia, as the excavations at Artemisio proved. The first currency editions are made of helectron, a natural temper of gold and silver, which existed in the sand of Paktolos potamos, which sprang from the mountain of Lydia. These first series of coins were without inscription and the types carved on them do not always reveal their origins. The evolution of Greek coinage is a work of Greek intellect.
Ancient Greek coins were made of helectron at first, as we have already mentioned, later on silver, which was the prevailing metal of the first centuries of coinage, was used. Gold was also used in some cases and finally copper was used for the coverage of local needs, mainly from the beginning of the 4th century B.C. The two main and most common currency units that have been recorded, which are the obol and the drachma, are considered to have arised from this.
It has been accepted form tradition that the obol was the main currency unit and this is based on the fact that its name comes from the iron ovelos, the meat skewer, which was a means of exchange , right before the magnificent invention of coins, to the end of the 7th century B.C., as we have mentioned. The origin of the currency term “ovolos” from the iron ovelos is very plausible, while ovolos and ovelos are considered to be closely connected, as they were of the same value. It has to be clarified though that the drachma, which was equal to six ovoloi, was different in weight from one area to another, depending on the weighing rule, which was instituted each time.
Carvers made two stamps, one for the front side of the coin and another for the back side. Of course this happened, when coins started having two sides, from the middle of the 6th century B.C. approximately. The technician heated the pure coin, the “petal”, that is the nugget of the metal, and using a pair of pincers, he placed it on the acmon (anvil), where the front stamp was placed, the “acmoniscos”, that is the brazen mold of the front side of the coin. Then, he placed over it the “character” where the draft of back side was carved. He hit on the “character” with a hammer and the pure coin became money. The tools he needed were simple: a balance to weigh the pure coins, a chisel and a “stigeus” (carving tool) for carving the mintages. Finally, a pair of pincers so that the technician could catch the heating pure coin (petal), was also necessary. The creation of petals was made either by molding the metal in patterns, as in the mint of Paphos, which was discovered in 1964 during the very important excavations of Kyriakos Nikolaou, either with coinage from bars of metal. We indicatively mention some characteristic cases of discovering bars of metal and petals: a) in the mint of Athens, in the south-east corner of the Ancient Agora, b) in the excavations of Pella, about 35 years ago, especially in building square 3, at the position, where the mining furnace was found, c) in Argos during an excavating research, in 1972 and 1973, in a big made of limestone, which was identified with a temple, d) in Alieis of Ermionida in 1975, during excavations in a building at the north side of the wall. This position was identified with the mint (Manto Economidou, Ancient currency, Ekdotiki Athinon).
In the ancient years there was a special interest in the selection of the several molds of coins, which mainly had to do with the city, which produced them. Every city carved its own emblem on its coin. This emblem was usually the figure of the god who protected the city, as Hera was for Argos, which means they usually had a religious character. In those cases the synthesis of the stamp did not refer but to gods and their symbols or to the symbols of the deified city.
Mythology was an unfailing source of inspiration for ancient carvers and gave them many legends and myths to represent on their creations. They were extremely sensitive and eclectic concerning the themes they represented on their coins and most of the times they were inspired by religion and traditions creating figures and scenes which would be consecrated as coin representations of symbolic content.
Goethe managed to give us the real meaning expressed by ancient Greek representations, in a few words: “This is the real symbolism, where the special and universal are expressed not as a dream a shadow but as a lively- instant disclosure of the unexplored”. This means that the specific person is not an idol, a depiction, but a symbol, an emblem of the divine presence, a living reality but an abstract, metaphysic idea at the same time. Nevertheless the artist is expected to decorate a small metal surface, which does not give him many possibilities for an easy carving. This is why he is obliged to recur to a symbolic representation. The importance of this way of communication between the carver and the public could have got past to a great extent, if we had not got the enlightening texts of ancient writers or many other archaeological data or else if we had not gone back to etymology in some cases.
The variety of ancient Greek coin representations is extreme. As Kurt Regling, the German numismatist of international prestige, has pointed out: “There are about 30.000 representations only for ancient Greek coins”! (Manto Economidou, Ancient currency, Ekdotiki Athinon, pg. 17).
Apart from the coin representations, which we have already mentioned, carvers were inspired by other areas, except the religious-symbolic which also acquired a political meaning, since the representation was a symbol- message about the city and its history or its destiny.
Coin representations in general have as their subjects:
a) The depiction of gods and their sacred symbols, as we have already mentioned,
b) The carving of several domestic products, which were sources of wealth and prosperity for the city,
c) The graphic presentation of the name of the city, either as wordplay or as a real and special characteristic which was the reason of its name. The coins which are “speaking symbols” (lalounta symbola) are included in this category.
d) Several competition representations.
e) The figure of kings and despots who minted them.
f) Other eminent persons honored by the city.
The Greeks expressed their artistic mood on coins as well creating remarkable aesthetic figures. Carving is another kind of art, cultivated and elevated by Greek carvers mainly of the 5th and 4th century B.C. in an original and multilateral way utilizing their talent and inventiveness even on objects of everyday transaction which have an aesthetic value apart from their political- financial and social importance as an historical source.
The fabulous works of art of Greek carvers, caused great sensation to the researchers of the ancient Greek art of the 19th and early 20th century, when there was a diffused impression that even if no sculpture of Greek antiquity had not been preserved until our days, coins would have been enough to prove that ancient Greeks felt the notion of beauty to such an extent and reached so high spiritual and artistic perfection that no other people contemporary to them could. Francois Lenorman, a French numismatist and philhellenist of the 19th century had said: “Ancient Greek coins are similar to many pieces of the frieze of the Parthenon”. (Manto Economidou, Ancient currency, Ekdotiki Athinon, pg. 17).
During the following decades of the 20th century research treated ancient coins mainly as historical and archaeological sources as precious evidences for studies on ancient Greek civilization. Their contribution to excavating research as well as the preservation of ancient works of sculpture, which are not even known to us by Roman reproductions, or even to the study of ancient architecture and mythology is indeed many times decisive. We get this precious information through iconography of newer coins. At that time it had lost its clearly religious character and started being more narrative.



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