Posted by Allison on 6 April 2009, 14:52
We are more than familiar with the coins that are in existence today, but while their shape hasn't changed very much over the centuries since they first came into play, their value, appearance and size has.
Tool money led to the first appearance of coins as we know them today. Tool money was exactly what it sounds like – tools were used as a form of payment and as they were made from various different metals they were somewhat more robust and longer lasting than the shells which were used in some locations.
As soon as the idea of making coins was thought of, metal was seen to be just about the best material to use. The fact that we still make our coins out of various metals says a lot for the ingenuity and sharpness of our ancestors, since they picked the best option which really has stood the test of time. While the process of making coins has been largely refined over the centuries – mainly due to the need to make more of them at a time and to do so much faster – the actual steps taken are not really that different, and the metals used are very similar to those used many centuries ago.
So why exactly was metal seen to be the perfect choice for this new form of currency?
The reasons it was chosen then are pretty much the same reasons we would cite for continuing to use metal nowadays. The only difference is that coins were worth more back then than they are now. In times gone by the idea was that each coin was actually worth its face value, with size also factoring into the equation. This made perfect sense, and goes against the system we use now, where smaller coins aren't necessarily worth less than larger ones (think of the British twenty pence piece for example, which is smaller than the ten pence piece). It is true that lower denominations of coinage are usually bronze while the higher denominations are silver coloured – again, think of the British 'coppers' of one and two pence, and the higher valued coins which are of a silver colour.
But to the ancient people of the world it was logical that the more valuable coins would be made from gold. Lesser value coins were made from silver, and were often smaller and lighter as well. In this way it was easy to tell how much money you had simply by weighing it in your hand and checking what it was made of.
In short, early metal coins were worth what their face value was. If the ancient people who used these coins saw what value we give money nowadays – considering that the amount stamped on it is usually more than it's actually worth in real terms – they would probably wonder why we give these coins such importance. It's very eye opening to compare the two types of civilisation and how we and they both used our coins to get what is needed.
When it comes to how the coins are made, times have changed a little, but not so much as to render the old methods of making coins completely obsolete. One of the reasons why metal was – and still is – chosen to make coins is because it is easily handled and can be stamped with whatever design or denomination is necessary. Once that has been done the design can't be tampered with easily, although it can be worn down over a long period of time.
The process of making coins is known as minting, and it has been known as such throughout history. Greek and Roman coins have been found in recent years which have given us a real insight into how coins were made and how impressive they were given the lack of tools they had at their disposal in those days. The Greeks in particular were known for their expertise in coin making, and they would no doubt marvel at the tools we have to use today to make our own versions of various currencies.
Lydia was the first place to actually begin minting coins, and as the practice spread many civilisations made good use of clay moulds to make their coins. Once the metals to be used were melted down they were poured into these moulds, which contained the markings used to identify the coins once they were set and made.
Another method of making coins was to form the round coins first, and then create the design which was to be stamped on them by hitting that stamp with a hammer. This was obviously a long and laborious process since only one coin could be stamped at a time and even if a workman laboured all day to make coins there was a real limit to how many he could produce.
Over time the methods were altered and refined, as new methods of making and casting lots of coins came into being and more and more people started using them. From their humble beginnings coins became more widespread and demanded a faster form of minting. Minting presses of various designs and types gradually came into being during the sixteenth century, in order to churn out more coins at a faster rate.
Given the fact that the earliest coins were made hundreds of years ago, it is a testament to the ingenuity of the people who made them that they actually look quite impressive whenever they are found and dug up during archaeological digs nowadays. While they are not uniformly circular or stamped with the kind of detail that we see on our coins in modern times, there is no mistaking the fact that these are coins, and exchanged hands many times during their useful life all those years ago.
The processes for making them may have changed but the end goal has not – and that is to make the best coins possible at the time.