Evolution of our Coinages
By Dewey Maggard
What about the designs, motifs and legends on the coins we collect? Some are so rare and known only to exist in some museum. The serious collector is looking for the aesthetic qualities of what it conveys. It does not necessarily have to be rare to want a place in his collection. He or she likes to speculate on how and why the particular design came into existence. Obviously the first consideration is the necessity of the Monarch or the Government to satisfy demands.
To satisfy this need required ingenuity and creativity. The transition from bartering hides animals and every other item of necessity was indeed a painful process. Evidence of this is seen on Fresco's of Egyptian tombs where we see the banker with a pair of scales just like the kind we have seen in use in our own times. On one side of the scales are metal rings, wedges, circlets or crescents. Each item denoting a different weight. As there are different depictions of animals or portions of animals on the other side of the scale. From this it may be seen the wedges and circlets or rings obviously had different values, as what we view is an accumulation of items on the opposite side of the scales.
We know this as being early attempts to circumvent the more ancient forms of barter. From the earliest records we see some societies were more sophisticated while others were primitive in this attempt. The idea was to find something that all groups valued- and would accept. Scarce metal then became the common denominator. All that remained was to establish a satisfactory unit of weights that could be used for payment of goods.
As far as recorded history allows us, we can not help but have admiration for the Babylonians or Habiru people in the establishment of their system. The birth of money in their society has this strange record coming from Sacred Books of the East and King Hamurabi's code of laws.
Hamurabi's code merely records the usage of the terms as it was used in his time. However, the system had been established centuries earlier. The following is a capsule of how they went about this task.
I will begin with the subsidiary weights first, but keep in mind this unit was attached to a much heavier unit to be touched upon later. For this smaller unit, a Gur (approx 1 acre) of golden mature wheat was chosen. Grains were gathered from this field, and since these grains were so uniform in weight, the logical conclusion of a number of these grains would be used to determine a weight of silver for average needs. In this process you might say they invented the decimal system as they chose the weight of 360 grains of wheat to represent the standard weight to be the intrinsic value of silver which everyone would accept. This then became the standard Shekel weight and continued for many many centuries. Bear in mind, this was done over 4000 years ago. Perhaps 360 days in their year, lent to the idea of easy divisibility.
What we do see however, that by the time of Hamurabi 2200 years later, this system was much in use- and as we shall see has continued down to our own times. This King in his code of laws shows shekel terms in 12ths, 1/8ths, 1/6, 1/4th and 1/2ths. He shows the shekel values of many services from a physician to bricklayer, carpenter and a host of others.
We see the influence of this weight standard was adopted by neighboring countries, many times as a result of wars. The kings or governor of the captive country would have tribute to pay, and the Conquering king would impose his system on his vassals. However when imposing tribute on his vassals, it was according to a Royal Talent weight we will touch upon later.
By all the foregoing we may readily see how the troy system came into existence, and It has evolved from these most ancient times right down to our own times as will be illustrated.
I have pictured above some of North America and Great Britain coinages in the early or middle 1900's to demonstrate how closely this system has been adhered to throughout the ages. We are looking for a coinage weight standard that comes in close proximity to this very ancient standard.
The Canadian dollar of 1937-1963 is almost exact with the 23.3276 grams = 15.432 grains to the gram comes out to 359.92 grains- almost identical to the ancient shekel weight. Our United States dollar in the same time period weighs 26.73 grams or 412 grains- a bit more generous in the intrinsic value. The Mexican Peso (closest equivalent to our dollar) was a whopping 27.07 grams or 418 grams until revolution problems. Even in ancient times this grain weight varied 5 to 6 grams for some countries. Perhaps to attract trade. Let us now look at the Great Britain Crown of this time period when the sun never set on the British Empire- an actual reality of that time. During this time, their crown was a generous 28.275 grams or 436 grains. Again a 5 grams difference from the most ancient times right up until 1963-64. Then we see worldwide demonitizing However in my examples, I have taken coins of these countries shown and included what is actually 360 grains of wheat for the weight comparison idea against all 90% silver coinages of 900 fine or better.
Earlier, mention was made of a heavier unit of weight which was the Royal and Light talents, with the Maneh (or Mina for the Greeks) So many Shekel weights for the Maneh, So many Mane's to the talent. The weights of the Royal and Light talent was established according to their record as follows. The sport of Kings in their own distant past had been that of Lion Hunting. This was the Kings delight; His status as King was to follow this custom. They had developed the idea of killing off the yearling male and female lions (presumably to decrease the lion population). In all the hunts it had been determined the average weight of a yearling lion was 132 lbs. And that of a female yearling lion was 119 lbs. Since this was the kings right to have the first male lion in the hunt, this was his portion. The subordinates must be content with the female yearling until the King had made his kill. This being the Kings portion, it was decided that the weight of this lion would be the weight of the Royal talent for payments to the King when large sums were due. Large sums payable to subordinates in whatever their endeavor was paid in the light talent. Thus we see a form of taxation arising- but that is another story.
Now what does all this have to do with money? Just this! The Kings portion was the 132 LB Royal talent.
The difference between his and subordinates or all his subjects was a fraction under 10 %. .
In conclusion, I offer one last explanation to demonstrate how stable this weight unit of weights really has been. . In 1960, I acquired what was a Greek Tetra-obol, but I was unaware of what it was at that time. I only knew it must be an issue of one of Alexander the Great Generals by name of Seleykos (of Selucid King dynasty). I could read his name on the coin. The anchor attracted my attention as much as anything else. (That is another story by itself). This coin was a puzzle so I decided to weigh it thinking this would solve my problem. I learned from a book that I had acquired what the tables of weights for Greek coins were. Obols, Drachmas and others were sketched as to size. It said a tetra-obol should weigh 45 grains. Well, I did not have a set of troy scales. Ignorance is bliss, so I went to a local feed store and bought fifty cents worth of wheat right out of their bin. I then took this coin to my local coin dealer and friend John Whitehead and asked him for the favor of weighing it on his old-fashioned balance scales which he did. We placed my 45 grains of wheat on one side of the scales and the coin on the other. Too my ecstatic delight it was perfect balance. John scratched his head and said "What next" He was not into ancient coins but was delighted with me as he had ordered my first Seaby's for me from Spinks in England.
Now I knew for sure what my coin was, but it was not until the 1978 edition of Seaby's Greek coins until I saw my coin listed on page 637 Vol. 2, S-6838 and pictured in the middle of the page. What a thrill this was after all those years. The coin today has a value of between $3000.00 and $3400.00 the anchor on the reverse of this coin is a story in itself as previously mentioned. You may see this Tetra-Obol on my website http://www.deweymag.com. just
click on pictures then look for this little Tetra-obol jewel (Seleykos)
Of course a big can of worms may be opened by wheat of today Vs wheat of ancient times - who is to say- none of us were around then. We are not here talking of hybrids. Certain facts speak for themselves. Even so, as I stated earlier, Ignorance sometimes is bliss. Yet, there is much more to this King of Hobbies than what meets the eye. Sincerely yours as I remain the above named of this story.
ęCopyright Jan 4 2001
First Rights Only
Book Rights and all Other
The Rising Star
Trail of Tin
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