MAKING THE DIES
Metal dies were used to stamp the types into the flans. Relatively few ancient
dies have been found, and many of these were probably forgeries, since official
dies were often destroyed so that they could not be used illicitly when
they became too worn or when a change in types demanded that new dies be
cut. Yet enough evidence exists from ancient and medieval dies, from the
coins themselves, and from modern experiments, to allow us to describe dies
with some confidence.
Although iron is harder than bronze, hardened bronze is hard enough to strike
even bronze coins, and evidence indicates that bronze containing a relatively
high percentage of tin was the preferred material for dies. Iron dies were
sometimes used, however; marks on some Syracusan coins indicate that they
were struck with rusty dies, and a sixth-century A.D. iron die is preserved.
Since with rare exceptions the images on ancient coins are in relief, the
images on the dies are inset and reversed, the negative and mirror images
of what is depicted on the coins. As difficult as this may seem to do by
hand with little or no magnification, the Greeks had a long history of cutting
stone seals, which required very similar technique and artistry. The tools
used to engrave the dies included iron or perhaps even steel burins and
small chisels to remove metal from the face of the die, punches to impress
an image into the face of the die, and perhaps simple bow drills, tipped
with corundum or other abrasive, to drill into the die face.
At times great artistry went into the die-cutting; in some instances dies
were even signed by their artists, as was the case with the remarkable coins
of Classical Sicily (see nos. 9, 11,
and 16). Dies with simple types in low
relief could be cut in less than an hour, yet the job could be quite time-consuming;
it took a nineteenth-century counterfeiter 18 hours to copy the die for
a coin from Akragas (see no. 8, a similar
In striking a coin two dies, an obverse and a reverse, were usually employed.
The obverse or lower die would have been set into an anvil, often a block
of wood. The upper, reverse die was loose, and could take a variety of different
forms. The type could be cut directly into the end of a short rod, cylinder,
or pyramidal piece of metal, but most often the die proper was simply a
short segment or disk of bronze inserted into a punch or collar made of
iron. The whole punch, with the reverse die attached, was probably only
about two to three inches long.
In ancient coins the lower or obverse die was almost always used to stamp
the principal face of the coin, usually depicting the head of a deity or
ruler. It was preferable to carve the deeper and more intricate image into
the lower die (see nos. 9, 17,
and 25), since it was placed within
an anvil and was therefore better protected, wore down less quickly, and
suffered less damage than the upper die, which received direct hammer blows
during the striking. It should be noted that in general use, the term "obverse"
usually designates the principal side of the coin, our "heads,"
regardless of whether it was made with the lower die.
The number of coins that could be struck from a die before it had to be
replaced varied considerably, owing to a number of factors: metal composiiton,
size of coin, and depth of relief. Smaller dies and dies with shallower
relief lasted longer. Modern experiments suggest that an obverse die could
strike about 15,000 acceptable coins, a reverse die only about half as many.
Often, however, more than two reverses were used with an obverse die, since
dies were often replaced before they wore out. Ancient dies were also often
partially recut or altered, both to repair small flaws or cracks that might
develop in the die face and to change or add inscriptions. Sometimes damaged
dies continued in use (see no. 16).
The lifespan of dies was dependent on the number of coins struck. Dies at
smaller mints were often used for three to five years. In the busy mint
of Hellenistic Athens, an obverse lasted for three to five months. And during
some peak periods of minting in Roman times, a die might have lasted only
STRIKING THE COINS (Continues...)
| [Bearers of Meaning] | [Contents]
| [Essays] | [Catalogue]
All contents copyright (c) 1996.
All rights reserved.