Today, the world moves ever closer to becoming a cashless society. Without delving into the pros and cons of currency’s digitised dematerialisation, it’s safe to say that the disappearance of physical money will be a historically momentous shift. Yet coins have been in use for roughly 2,700 years; their eventual withdrawal from circulation will see the removal of one of the most enduring markers of human civilisation.
In many ways, physical money, as exemplified by the coin, is a profoundly important document of humanity’s historical progression. The small, shiny metal discs that emerge as relics of ancient civilisations provide deep philosophical links that span millennia. Coins from thousands of years ago represent a value system that we still recognise. They are the metal seeds from which market economics grew.
Here are some of the oldest coins ever discovered.
Lydian lion coins
The use of precious metals as currency dates back as far as the 4th millennium BC, when gold bars of set weights were used in ancient Egypt. But the invention of true coinage is thought to date to the 7th century BC when, according to Herodotus, the Lydians became the first people to use gold and silver coins. Despite Herodotus’ emphasis on those two precious metals, the first Lydian coins were actually made from electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of silver and gold.
At the time, electrum would have been a more practical material for coinage than gold, which was not yet widely refined. It’s also likely that it emerged as the metal of choice for the Lydians because they controlled the electrum-rich river Pactolus.
Electrum was minted into hard, durable coins bearing a royal lion symbol. The largest of these Lydian coins weighed 4.7 grams and had a value of 1/3 stater. Three such trete coins were worth 1 stater, a unit of currency that roughly equated to a soldier’s monthly pay. Lower denomination coins, including a hekte (a 6th of a stater) all the way down to a 96th of a stater, which weighed just 0.14 grams.
The Kingdom of Lydia was located in Western Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) at the junction of numerous trade routes and the Lydians were known to be commercially savvy, so their likely standing as the inventors of coinage makes sense. It’s also believed that the Lydians were the first people to set up retail shops in permanent locations.
Ionian hemiobol coins
The early Lydian coins may have heralded the emergence of coinage but its widespread use in common retail came when the Ionian Greeks adopted the ‘nobleman’s tax token’ and popularised it. The prosperous Ionian city of Cyme, which neighboured Lydia, began to mint coins in around 600-500 BC, and its horse head-stamped hemiobol coins are widely regarded as history’s second oldest coins.
Hemiobol refers to a denomination of ancient Greek currency; it is half an obol, which is ancient Greek for ‘spit’. According to Plutarch, the name derives from the fact that, before the emergence of coinage, obols were originally spits of copper or bronze. Going up the ancient Greek denominational scale, six obols are equal to one drachma, which translates as a ‘handful’. So, applying some etymological logic, a handful of six obols is a drachma.
Though it probably emerged at roughly the same time as the western coins of Lydia and ancient Greece, around 600-500 BC, ancient Chinese coinage is thought to have developed independently.
Sima Qian, the great historian of the early Han Dynasty, describes the “opening exchange between farmers, artisans and merchants” in ancient China, when “there came into use money of tortoise shells, cowrie shells, gold, coin, knives, spades.”
There is evidence that cowrie shells were used as a form of currency at the time of the Shang Dynasty (1766-1154 BC) and imitations of cowries in bone, stone and bronze were seemingly used as money in later centuries. But the first minted gold coins to emerge from China that might confidently be described as true coinage were issued by the ancient Chinese state of Chu in the 5th or 6th Century BC and known as Ying Yuan.
The first thing you’re likely to notice about Ying Yuan is that they don’t look like the more familiar coins that emerged in the west. Rather than discs bearing imagery they are rough 3-5mm squares of gold bullion stamped with inscriptions of one or two characters. Typically one of the characters, yuan, is a monetary unit or weight.