The Earliest Coinage – Wolfgang Fischer-Bossert

The earliest coinage to be minted in the Mediterranean emerged in the contact zone between the Greeks and a monarchy of Near Eastern design, the Lydian kingdom. It has been discussed for years whether it was coinage that set things in motion—the emergence of the polis as a new type of political entity, the Greek ‘enlightenment’, and the confrontation of political ‘classes’ by enhanced social mobility—or whether it was this body of social and intellectual innovations that called for a means that would make any exchange easier and thereby provide a new way of evaluating.

For a long time, this debate relied on chronologies based on ancient Greek traditions (Xenophanes and Herodotus in particular) and the scarce archaeological evidence. As the main spot, the early layers of the Artemision of Ephesus and its foundation deposit, was downdated to the first half of the sixth century BC during the 1980s, everything seemed to be in favour for the second option, that is, that social and intellectual innovations led to the invention of coinage rather than the other way round.

However, the past years have witnessed a groundbreaking review of chronological dogmata. The internal chronology of the Phrygian capital Gordion has been entirely re-arranged, the earliest marble temples as well as the kouros statues from Samos and elsewhere are now dated about twenty years earlier than in the reference literature, and informations gleaned from Assyrian chronicles have led to a review of various historical points of the seventh and sixth centuries, including the death of the Lydian king Gyges and the fall of Sardis that is traditionally dated to 546/5 BC.

In the course of these ‘renovations’ of the chronological framework, the stratigraphy of the Artemision of Ephesus also passed a review. The now sophisticated chronology of East Ionian pottery led to a much higher date of the foundation deposit than hitherto thought, that is, the third quarter of the seventh rather than the first half of the sixth century. As the foundation deposit is the earliest hoard of coins known so far, this new dating has repercussions onto our understanding of the earliest coinage.

At the same time, the increasing number of electrum coins from Asia Minor emerging on the international coin markets makes clear that the development of coin-minting was not only quick (explosive like the invention of book-print) but complex in the extreme; to give a figure, a number of c. 400 independent electrum series for the time-span between the invention of coinage and the Ionian revolt can now be estimated. While only a certain part of this vast number refers to coinages that lasted longer than a decade or so it is obvious that the issuers might be various political entities: not only city-states such as Ephesus, Miletus, and Phocaea but also dynasts (secundogenitures of the Lydian kingdom but also Greek tyrants in the backwaters of the Ionian coast), sanctuaries that had a function as banks, perhaps (guilds of) traders, and so on. The number of city-states in Asia Minor that were issuing coins during Hellenistic times is smaller than the number of early electrum series!

In this situation it might be helpful to look at the coins with a fresh eye. Having made several die-studies in this field in recent years (some of them still unpublished), I am to discuss the chronology of those coinages present in the Artemision excavations (the early Lydian coinage with its signatars Kukas, FAΛFET, and .FTAΛ.; the coinage of a man named Phanes; and some more north and central Ionian series), and the chronological instrumentarium provided by numismatics and metallurgy that is, unfortunately, as a rule unknown to both archaeologists and historians.