The Father of All Pocket Change

In the last few decades, coinage has begun to die out.  People prefer credit, plastic, paper and electronics to the hassle of carrying around little stubs of metal with negligible value.  The coin however, has been a staple in commerce and economics for over 2,500 years.  For most of the last two millennia, the coin has been the embodiment of money and the easiest way to make barter and commercial trade possible.  Without a placeholder for value, complex bartering and professionalism in general becomes exceptionally difficult.

The original coins trace their way back to modern day Turkey (Technically, to China where they used a thing called spade money.  Spade money was essentially small cast iron trinkets shaped like farming implements that held value in barter.  Spade money isn’t really coinage because it lacks marking that designates the governance/officiates the mint) where a coin known as the “Lydian Lion” was produced in 600 BCE.  The coin from Lydia was made from a naturally occurring alloy called electrum, found in the Pactolus river near the city.  The river was loaded with electrum (roughly 55% gold, 40% silver, 5% copper) though the coins from Lydia show evidence of human tampering to obtain a consistent mixture through gold and sliver refining.

The Lydian coin bears the face of a lion with a unfortunate forehead wart on one side, and the imprint from the die on the other.  It would be produced by plopping a glob of electrum in a mold on an anvil and slamming it with a hammer to pound it into the proper shape.  While it seems like a basic process, the Lydians were the first to truly create consistent coinage that bore markings designating the value and governmental seal of approval.  Called the “Adam of coins”, the Lydian lion coin was the precursor to Roman coins, Persian coins, Indian coins and eventually even later Chinese coins.  The idea of using a coin for a single value designated by the ruling party began to take off (a lion coin was worth about 1/3 of a month’s pay for a soldier) and cities and countries began to adopt coinage from them.

The interesting thing about the electrum in the lion coins is that it finds its way into several mythologies of the Greeks.  The river that Lydia was so close to was apparently the one that Midas bathed in to lose his golden touch, and the story is that the river was made golden because of it.  Lydians would prospect for the gold using sheepskins to sift through the gravels and dirts, leaving a sheepskin that would be laden with gold; likely the origin point for the legend of Jason, the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece.

A Lydian Lion Coin, you can technically buy them for $2,000 at some places, but the authenticity is dubious.



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