LIFE OF A COIN AFTER MINTING
What happened to a coin after it was issued depended to a great extent on
its denomination. Having only fiduciary or token value, bronze coins were
unlikely to travel far from where they were minted. These smaller denominations
served the everyday purposes of most people, who primarily used them in
the market place. Coins of silver or gold, on the other hand, were more
likely to have been used in international trade or for various payments
to or by the state -- to pay taxes or military expenses.
Silver and bronze but almost never gold coins sometimes had small marks,
usually symbols or monograms, punched into them after minting. Called punchmarks
or countermarks, these were made both by merchants or private individuals
and by states. Countermarking of silver coins, most common in the Hellenistic
period, was usually done by a state to show that foreign coins could be
used as legal tender in its territory. In some states, such as Hellenistic
Pergamon in Asia Minor, all foreign coins had to be countermarked. The state
could thus maintain a monopoly on coinage and make a profit from countermarking
fees. But countermarks are relatively rare; more often states accepted foreign
coinage as legal tender without marking it, especially in the case of well-known
and respected issues such as Athenian "owls" (no. 30).
Or the state or its merchants kept some foreign coins to use in their commercial
or other dealings with the other state.
Unlike silver coins, bronze coins were countermarked by the states that
had issued them. A state might demonitize a bronze issue, usually to raise
money by issuing new coins, or people holding old coins could get them countermarked
for a fee. Countermarking was common in the first century A.D. when, owing
to a shortage of bronze coins, even very worn coins as much as forty years
old were countermarked with the initials or monogram of the emperor or issuing
Occasionally a Greek silver coin is found with a person's name scratched
on it. This might have been written to ensure that the person, having left
his coin on deposit for some reason, would receive the same coin back, and
not another one that was more worn and thus lighter. Another form of graffiti
found on coins is the initial of a deity to whom the coin had been dedicated.
In general, if a coin lost weight through wear to the point that it would
not be accepted, the loss had to be borne by the owner of the coin; the
state would not replace it. Some states did have laws, however, to help
guarantee against forgeries. In fourth-century B.C. Athens, a person could
bring suspect coins to official testers on duty in the Agora, the market
place, and in Peiraeius, the port. Coins found to be silver-plated forgeries
were defaced with deep chisel cuts and dedicated to the Mother of the Gods.
What ultimately happened to a coin also depended to a great deal on its
denomination. Most bronze coins extant today probably had been lost by their
former owners; they are the coins most frequently found in archaeological
excavations or as stray surface finds. Of the 14,000 Athenian coins found
in the excavations of the Athenian Agora, more than 99 per cent were bronzes,
and of the 100,000 coins of all types found there, the great majority were
bronzes. Silver and gold coins were valuable enough that, if lost, their
owners would take the time to try to find them. They are more likely to
be found in hoards, intentionally buried or perhaps hidden in a cave, deposited
by their owners for safe-keeping, either in emergencies or as a normal safe-keeping
procedure; there were no ancient banks in our sense of the word. Hoards
are usually found by chance and not during archaeological excavations. Most
hoards are dispersed and sold before they can be properly studied or recorded;
even their find spots may not be known.
Much of the material for the above article was gleaned from the following
sources, which are recommended for further reading:
Carson, R.A.G., Coins of the Roman Empire. London and New York, 1990.
Crawford, M.H., Roman Republican Coinage, vol. II. Cambridge, 1974.
Grierson, P., Numismatics. Oxford, 1975.
Hill, G.F., "Ancient methods of coining," Numismatic Chronicle
Kraay, C.M., Archaic and Classical Greek Coins. Berkeley and Los
Mørkholm, O., Early Hellenistic Coinage from the Accession of
Alexander to the Peace of Apamea (336-188 B.C.), P. Grierson and U.
Westermark, eds. Cambridge, 1991.
Sellwood, D.G., "Some experiments in Greek minting technique,"
Numismatic Chronicle 1963, 217-231.
Sellwood, D.G., "Minting," in Roman Crafts, D. Strong and
D. Brown, eds. New York, 1976.
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