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Coins Record History, Religion, And Portraits

One high tide in the year 600 A.D. a ship entered an inlet in Suffolk, Britain. By sunset its men had laid their dead young sea king out for burial, his weapons and his gold and garnet trimmed leather purse with its 40 Merovingian gold coins, beside him. They spaded a high pyramid of earth over him and his 75 foot ship. In 1940 that mound of earth, excavated, showed the purse in tatters, but the gold coins, in perfect condition dated the burial.

Innumerable finds of coins have revealed their "pictured history." The great Oxus treasure, buried many centuries in the sandy river bed where Eurasian trails converged to enter Northern India, held coins made from the 5th to 2nd centuries B.C. in Persia, Greece, Macedonia, Thrace, and other countries.

In the Knossus treasure, found by Sir Arthur Evans in 1901, were coins made between 2000 and 1200 B.C. in Crete. They were little ovals or beans of silver like the electrum coins struck in 7th century B.C. Lydia, stamped with a lion's head. Similar also to the gold and silver coins struck by Croesus, history's rich man, about 560 B.C. and stamped with the foreparts of facing lion and bull, ancient Mesopotamian symbols of monarchial and religious power. Susa itself had a granite stele which recorded in silver money the property payment of the King of Kish., once set as having happened in 4500 B.C.

China's king Cheng, 1091 B.C., struck coins, probably fish, bell, spade, knife and arrow heads. These were cast in the form of implements once used for barter. Holes let them be strung for carrying, like Chinese coins today. India's early coins were squares and oblongs. Egypt's were rings, and little pieces of gold called "cow gold" as each was worth a cow.


Babylon had silver mina or shekel. When Abraham bought the land to bury Sarah., he weighed out 400 shekels of silver for it. Persian coins carried likenesses of Darius I to III. Their "archer" darics were the gold money of the East. Greece put gods and symbols on coins rated the world's most beautiful. Especially famous are Athens' silver drachms with Athena's head, obverse and her olive branch and owl, reverse. But the beautiful Greek coins, sculpturally thick, would not stack.

Alexander the Great's portrait on Macedonian coins, struck after his death, is generally considered the first identifiable one on coins. His gold stater showed the helmeted head of Athena, obverse, Victory, reverse. His silver tetradrachms had the head of Hercules in lion skin, obverse, and Zeus with eagle and sceptre, reverse.

Rome's bronze Aes had the head of two faced Janus, obverse; and ship's prow, reverse. Her favorite silver denarius showed Roma's head, obverse, Castor and Pollux (patron saints of Rome's business men or knights), reverse. Julius Caesar struck Rome's first gold coin or aureus. Augustus, reorganizing Rome's mints, made aurei famous. Pliny complained that Roman gold was drained to India for luxuries.

In 44 B.C. the Roman senate ordered Julius Caesar's portrait struck on coins, so starting the portrait series which saved for us the likenesses of Rome's rulers. When Julius Caesar struck money in Rome for his army in his own likeness, he promoted the fashion of picturing reigning rulers on coins which England, for one, still practices.

The Goths drove Constantine to Byzantium and her gold solidus and copper follis spread over Eurasia with monks, traders and travelers. Russia and the Balkans patterned their coinage after Byzantium's, and even far off England copied the gold solidus called byzant for Byzantium. A Christian symbol, "Chi-Rho" which looks like X with a long tailed P above it and cutting down through, preceded the eventual Cross, Virgin, Christ and saints which replaced emperors' heads and ancient gods.


In France, Pepin, Rex Franconium, coined his silver denier (penny) marked R.F. obverse, H.Pipi below a Germanic cross, reverse, so starting Europe's age of silver coinage. Charlemagne made prettier pennies marked Karolus Rex. These deniers, half deniers, and bracteates (large and so thin the stamping on one side showed on the other), plus the byzant, and the Arab's gold dinar (much traded in Northwest Europe for furs, smoked fish, and amber) dominated medieval Europe.

The Crusaders, however, found their coins "with pictures" were taboo in Saracen lands as Moslem laws forbade "images and idols." Moslem coins had Arabic lettering in concentric circles praising Allah.

But Crusaders' trade boomed Italy and reopened Eastern trade routes. Florence's gold florin with John the Baptist, obverse, and its beautiful lily, reverse, revived gold coinage. Venice struck her gold ducats with the Doge and St. Mark, obverse, and Christ enthroned, reverse.

The gros tournois (great coin of Tours) struck by Louis IX showed Moslem influence in its concentric circle lettering. This gros tournois fathered the English groat, German groschen, and preceded the Bohemian staller, ancestor of the dollar.

Sweden put out her plate money-large squares or rectangles of copper too great in weight and value to be handy. But the coins of Sweden, Norway and Denmark were deniers and half deniers. England's King Edward III adopted gold coinage and struck gold nobles with French arms and fleur-de-lis, backing up his claim to the French throne. Elizabeth of England and Louis XIV of France both turned from the more expensive hammered money to mill made (machine made) money which made smoother coins in quantity. Eventually machine made money came to stay and resulted in the Great American Dollar.


America's first coins were struck in Mexico by the Spanish. Most Colonial coins were European made, like the England-produced Bermuda hog coins, with hog and ship, and Rosa Americana coins, with king and conventionalized rose. Louisiana used French coins with crossed Ls beneath the crown. Florida's Spanish Real had eight designed divisions, source of our eight, four, and two bits.

Massachusetts made the New England shilling with NE obverse, and Roman XII reverse; also the Willow, Oak, and Pine Tree shillings. The Fugio cent with its legend, "mind your business;" the Confederatio cent with its 13 stars; the Washington cent with his portrait; and the fabulous Brasher Doubloons, are famous 18th century Americana.

Washington's own silver plate made the first half dimes. Our "trade dollar," minted 1873-85 and no longer legal tender, listed its value in grains under its eagle. It competed with the dollars of other countries in the China trade.

Half dollars, our popular commemorative coin, honored people and events from the Columbian Exposition 1892-93 to Booker T. Washington, 1946-49. The Lincoln penny would have been a half dollar but for an Illinois druggist's letter inclosing his father's old Lincoln campaign medal, and sent to Theodore Roosevelt. The medal furnished a pattern for a penny all might carry, honoring this loved pioneer president. The Indian penny and Buffalo nickel are rich Americana.


Many metals and alloys have made coins -gold, silver, electrum ; iron, copper, tin, lead, bronze, brass, potin, billon, pewter and aluminum. The ancients dropped the warm metal on a die (metal pattern) and hammered it down so it would take the design. The die was set in an anvil to hold it steady. But coins were also cast in molds, mainly of metal or baked clay. Seal carvers' and metal workers' tools graved the cast lines truer.

Hammering the coin onto the die gave way to pressing it with wedges, then impressing it with mill and screw. Mill made or machine made coins are truer in design but lack the artistry of hand work. Milling (a kind of reeding at the coin's edge) was put there to show when clipping (once much practiced) robbed the coin of metal.

First coins had a design only on the lower, obverse, or face against the die in the anvil. Then an upper die stamped the top reverse or tail side also. Artists devised these coin designs (types), from heraldic crest or religious symbol on ancient coins to portraits of kings, or our own modern St. Gauden's type Liberty Standing on the 1907-32 twenty dollar gold piece.

Metal, age, rarity (how many made or lost) and popularity, affect value. Condition of coin, highly important, grades mainly as proof (unhandled), uncirculated, fine (no scratches or wear), and good to very good. If lettering, hair, other textures, or date are worn, the value is lowered.

Coin care rates high. Handling and scratching reduces value. Proof coins are never touched. Circulated silver coins may be cleaned with a dip in ammonia solution and polished with soft cloth. Circulated copper coins are sometimes rubbed with oil and, or, a soft cloth.

United States coins have their date and main design on the face (obverse). Our mint mark is the first letter of the city where the coin was minted. It is usually near the bottom on the reverse. The Carson City mint, CC, was closed in 1893; that of New Orleans, 0, in 1909. Our present mints are: Denver, D ; San Francisco, S, and Philadelphia, P. Except for the 1942-1945 Jefferson nickels, however, Philadelphia, is said to have used no mint mark on the coins minted there.

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