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 coin).

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 12 hours.


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