(30) Athens, Attica (Greece) - AR tetradrachm, c. 450-440
B.C., 17.19 g. (inv. 91.069).
Obverse: Archaistic head of Athena r., wearing helmet with laurel leaves.
Reverse: Owl; olive leaves, berry, waning moon in upper l.; : Athens abbreviated.
Provenance: Edward Gans, 1959.
Bibliography: C.M. Kraay, Archaic and Classical Greek Coins (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1976) 63-77, pl. 11.
Athenian coinage, which began relatively early, at first consisted of coins now known by the German term Wappenmünzen or "heraldic coins," because they depicted a wide range of types once thought to be emblems of powerful Athenian families, although a number of other explanations for the different types have now been put forward. These coins, which were not issued in large numbers and which rarely circulated outside Attica, were replaced toward the end of the sixth century B.C. by a new type of coinage, consisting primarily of tetradrachms, which became the most authoritative coinage of Classical Greece.
In contrast to the constantly changing types of the Wappenmünzen, the new coins consistently depicted Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, on the obverse and her attribute the owl, a sprig of olive, and a crescent moon on the reverse. Popularly known as "owls," they were also clearly marked as Athenian, probably because they, unlike the Wappenmünzen, were intended for wide circulation. The owls were soon issued in very large numbers, thanks to the exploitation of Athens' rich silver mines at Laurion.
By the time this tetradrachm was issued, approximately 75 years had elapsed since the first owls were produced, yet the style of the types had changed very little, probably so that the consistent, unchanging nature of the issues ensured continued acceptance in foreign markets. This owl comes from the High Classical period, yet the head of Athena, with its frontal eye, patterned hair, and "archaic" smile, is archaistic. These very features render fifth-century owls somewhat difficult to date, but slight changes over time allow them to be dated stylistically.
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