BMCR 2004.03.16

Hacksilber to Coinage

, Hacksilber to Coinage: new insights into the monetary history of the Near East and Greece. Numismatic studies; no. 24. New York: American Numismatic Society, 2001. 134 pages: illustrations. ISBN 0897222814. $50.00.

Before discussing this slim volume, which contains important essays on a very difficult topic, we must begin by praising both its editor and the American Numismatic Society for their efforts. The eight papers included in this collection were first presented in a colloquium entitled “New Insights into the Transition from Hacksilber to Coinage” that was organized as part of an annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America. Masses of talks are held every year during this event that is sponsored together with the American Philological Association, and, while they are all organized in a rational manner within individual sessions, practical considerations prevent more ambitious attempts to link most of these together forming a coherent whole under a specific theme. I have often regretted the fact that several of the gems among the hundreds of papers may never be published, while the limited availability of their abstracts makes them hard to discover.1 As a result, they are rarely quoted in literature.

This is happily not the case here. The purpose of the colloquium and of its proceedings was interdisciplinarity: in order to approach, analyze, and interpret the evidence on the use of silver as monetary material, it was necessary to bring together scholars from various disciplines working in archaeology, history, numismatics, and metallurgical analysis. Three short chapters (preface, introduction, commentary) precede the papers and introduce the problems associated with pre-coinage society, which used randomly shaped silver for currency, conventionally known today as Hacksilber, and with the origins of coinage in the Near East. Recent discoveries of Hacksilber hoards in Israel, all associated with secure archaeological contexts, are the point of departure for all discussion, and the blueprint of the study emerges as the editor presents the thesis of each article, laying out the dialogue in which the eight participating scholars engage. Finally, a brief presentation follows of the technological innovations that are available to numismatists today, which allow them to recast old debates on early coinage and reinterpret old and new material.

Ephraim Stern’s paper on “The Silver Hoard from Tel Dor” deals with a find that is dated on the basis of stratigraphy to the late eleventh or early tenth century BCE, when the area was controlled successively by the Phoenicians and the Israelites, and trade relations with the West were on the rise. The hoard has been identified as Phoenician and was discovered in a jug which contained 17 units of silver weighing a total of 8.5 kg. Each unit was placed in a linen wrapper and sealed with a stamped clay bulla bearing the image of a scarab. Even though it remains unclear what Phoenician weight standard is reflected in each unit, there are indications that it resembled that in use in Palestine in the 8th-7th centuries BCE, which would bring the total amount of the hoard to 17 maneh, considered to be an especially large sum in those days.

The discovery of this hoard helps us understand similar finds that have been dated to approximately the same period, as it confirms hoarding habits and helps us reinterpret finds that had been previously understood as “silversmith’s hoards.” Stern ends his study by presenting the results of metallurgical analysis, according to which the silver contained rather high percentages of gold set at a minimum of 11%. The fact that similar results were obtained from silver extracted from the mines of Rio Tinto in Southern Spain tempts him to hypothesize that the silver of the Tel Dor hoard may have come from the same region. However, he prudently refrains from concluding that this find constitutes evidence for trade between the Phoenicians and Spain in the late 11th and early 10th centuries BCE, as this silver could equally have been the result of recycling. Indeed, more evidence is needed in order to establish the history of trade relations between East and West.

Seymour Gitin and Amir Golani next present “The Tel Miqne-Ekron Silver Hoards: The Assyrian and Phoenician Connections.” The subject of their study are six large Neo-Assyrian hoards which comprised 305 pieces of silver objects, including Hacksilber, broken jewelry, and ingots, that may have been originally wrapped in cloth. They were excavated at the site of the ancient Philistine city of Ekron in secure 7th century BCE contexts, and their discovery allows us to reinterpret similar finds as currency reserves rather than a jeweler or silversmith’s stock-in-trade. The strength of this paper lies in the authors’ interdisciplinary approach in their discussion of the use of silver as currency within the context of a growing “international” commerce. In the 7th century Ekron had developed into one of the largest olive oil production centers in the Mediterranean, and the sale of its surplus over long distances surely necessitated the use of silver as currency for payments. However, even though the authors make a convincing case for the importance of the city as a trade center, I would hesitate before using modern terms like “industrial economic growth” and “world-wide economy of the 7th century BCE” in connection with economic activity in the Iron Age.2

In response to the first two papers William G. Dever offers a commentary on “The Silver Trail,” reflecting on the implications of the theories introduced. Stern’s suggestion that the silver from the Tel Dor hoard may have originated in Spain is boldly associated with suggestions by a number of scholars that the Proto-Canaanite alphabet was spread to Greece and the Mediterranean world by Phoenician traders earlier than we thought, perhaps as early as ca. 1100 BCE. Even though new discoveries force us to rethink, revise, and calibrate chronology all the time, the lack of physical evidence for trade between the Phoenicians and the inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula, or of Phoenician-derived script in Greece at so early a date, should be indicative of the dangers of accepting Dever’s proposed reconstruction. Nevertheless, I will agree with him that the implications of the discovery and publication of the hoards discussed are far-reaching and enhance our understanding of the so-called Dark Age.

Zofia Anna Stos-Gale next offers the results of lead isotope analysis of Hacksilber and early silver coinage. Her article includes tremendously useful information, with detailed descriptions of the method: diagrams providing the data of minerals from several mines in Greece (Lavrion, Chalcidice), the Aegean (Siphnos), NW Turkey, Spain, and Iran; and a discussion of lead isotope composition of Hacksilber and early coins from various regions in the Mediterranean. She states that the few pieces of silver from Hacksilber hoards are a poor sample that cannot represent the whole amount of this metal circulating in the southern Europe and the Near East before the introduction of coinage. This important conclusion should steer us away from Stern’s suggested “Spanish connection” for the Tel-Dor silver. Nevertheless, the lead isotope analyses that were carried out were useful because they paint a partial picture of some of the sources of silver that were available in the 1st millennium BCE. Studies also indicate that the silver was generally not mixed from different geological sources, perhaps because the artifacts tested were small, and their melting was done on an individual basis in small crucibles.

John H. Kroll’s fascinating essay on the monetary instruments of pre-coinage Greece builds on previous work and makes a case for the use of weighed silver as the preferred medium of exchange among the Greeks. Coins were first struck in Greece in the middle of the 6th century BCE, but references to Solon’s laws involving state and private payments strongly argue for the existence of a pre-coinage phase in the monetary history of Attica. No Hacksilber finds are known in Greece, but an important 8th century BCE hoard of Hackgold was excavated in Eretria in the late 1970’s. It was stored in a Geometric skyphos and forms a typical Hacksilber -like assemblage of ingot fragments, broken jewelry, wire, and folded pieces whose weight at half a kilogram corresponds to a little more than a mina. As was the case for many of the Near-Eastern Hacksilber hoards, the Eretria find was also initially associated with a jeweler’s workshop, but Kroll correctly identifies it as a storage deposit of wealth. Of particular value is his discussion of the various media of exchange in Greece before coinage was introduced, and of the emergence and adoption of the various weight standards by Greek cities. In conclusion, it seems that much silver entered the land during the 8th and 7th centuries through Greek-Phoenician contacts, and elements of the Euboic weight system, the stater standard and the division of the mina into 50 units, may have derived from the Phoenicians. Parallels can be found in the weight divisions of western Asia Minor. Greece therefore seems to have adapted several eastern influences, and in the case of the southern part of the land the monetary use of silver was adapted to a pre-existing value system based on iron spits.

David M. Schaps next offers perspective on “The Conceptual Prehistory of Money and its Impact on the Greek Economy,” his paper being a response to Kroll. In his view the absence of Greek Hacksilber finds reinforces the view that the Near-Eastern pre-coinage monetary model does not fit Greece. Spits and utensils like tripods and cauldrons were a recognized medium of exchange, while the Eretria Hackgold find cannot support, in Schaps’ view, Kroll’s suggestion that silver was a dominant trade medium. Schaps therefore maintains that the transition from utensil money to coinage was direct because the latter was a better medium for internal trade. While I cannot claim to hold the solution to very complicated questions, I feel uneasy about Schaps’ sweeping rejection of all references to the use of silver for the payment of fines during Solon’s era. While I appreciate his caution against accepting later sources for the reconstruction of early events at face value, discrediting authors like Plutarch altogether is equally dangerous, as his sources are not discussed at all, and future excavations may change the picture dramatically. Last, but not least, Le Rider has now convincingly argued that the reason that the Greeks adopted coinage with greater enthusiasm than the rest was related to their poverty, which contrasts sharply to the wealth of their Near Eastern neighbors. In minting coins the issuing authority found a new resource for large and easy profit. Ironically then the coin, considered to be the universal symbol of wealth, was the fruit of poverty.3

Paul T. Keyser and the late David D. Clark discuss the metallurgy of early electrum coins, offering details on the different techniques by which electrum was produced through the centuries. Scholars are still debating the reasons why the earliest coins were struck only in electrum, and consensus has not been achieved. Theories have been proposed that link electrum to the practice of fraud upon its citizens on the part of the Lydian state or to a policy of elevating and standardizing its value. Alternatively, its production may reflect the conflicts in which the Lydian kings found themselves in the 7th century BCE.

Robert W. Wallace’s paper on the value and standards of early electrum coins wraps up the volume. In it the author revisits a topic he had treated at length in an earlier publication and presents a summary of various theories that have been proposed in order to establish what electrum coins were actually worth in the market.4 The subject has received the attention of several scholars recently, and the debate can be traced in numerous new publications.5 Finally, Wallace raises a tantalizing question which opens a whole new separate debate on the reasons why the state eventually introduced silver coinage alongside its lucrative production of electrum.

In conclusion, Balmuth’s collection of essays offers a useful introduction to the problems associated with pre-coinage currency and the minting of the first coins. A number of important new Israeli finds from secure archaeological contexts allows us to revise theories and draw new conclusions on the use of Hacksilber in transactions and foreign trade. Important overviews of the state of research on the metallurgy of silver and electrum are also provided, while Kroll and Schaps’ interdisciplinary dialogue on the adoption of coinage in Greece is particularly stimulating. There is no doubt that research on the issues discussed in the book is still far from settling even some of the most fundamental questions, as the authors themselves are ready to acknowledge. Nevertheless, continuing interest in this topic is bound to generate many more publications, while excavations continue to furnish new material that will shed light on several difficult issues.


1. Both the AIA and APA publish their abstracts in separate publications that are sold during the conference, and most of the AIA summaries also appear in the yearly issue of the American Journal of Archaeology, regrettably without an index of subjects which makes it very hard to locate things. Additionally, the APA makes provisions for the availability of abstracts online, but authors do not always send them in time to be posted.

2. François de Callatay shares the same view in his review of the book for Revue Belge de Numismatique 148 (2002) 191.

3. G. Le Rider, La naissance de la monnaie. Pratiques monétaires de l’ Orient ancien, Paris, 2001. Naturally, this work appeared too late for Schaps and Kroll to consult.

4. R.W. Wallace, “The Origin of Electrum Coinage,” American Journal of Archaeology 91 (1987) 385-397.

5. For further discussion cf. de Callatay’s review (above n. 2), 193. The bibliography is large, but Le Rider’s seminal new study (above n. 3) is certainly the one that reviews the latest works. Cf. also Bammer, A. “Gold und Elfenbein von einer neuen Kultbais in Ephesos,” JÖAI 58 (1988) 1-23; Bammer, A., “A Peripteros of the Geometric Period in the Artemisium at Ephesus,” Anatolian Studies 40 (1990) 137-160; Melville Jones, J.R., “The value of electrum in Greece and Asia,” in R. Ashton and S. Hurter, eds., Studies in Greek Numismatics in Memory of Martin Jessop Price (London, Spink 1998) 259-268.