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3. A history of Ephesus from coins: the Greek state

3.2 The Earliest Coins at Ephesus

Ephesus' great temple of Artemis has provided evidence for the earliest coins yet known from the ancient world. The first structures in the sanctuary ( link ), buried deep under the later temples, date back to the eighth century BCE, and from that time on precious objects were used in the cult or dedicated to the goddess by her worshippers. Some dedications were individually buried on the site of a sacrifice; various objects were collected and buried in bothroi, sacred pits, since they were still the goddess' property, and some deposits likely resulted when fire or flood destroyed the cult building and buried the objects within its remains. Many such objects have been found among the foundations below Ephesus' successive temples of Artemis; they include bronze belts and ornaments, bears' teeth, amber imported from the Baltic, gold and ivory statuettes, and small lumps of precious metal called electrum (a naturally-occurring combination of gold and silver) that represent the earliest coins.

These early coins were in several groups, but one of the most important was the 19 coins found in an undecorated pottery pitcher ( link ). This type of pot is datable and, unlike the precious metal coins it contained, was not of very great value, and wouldn't have been around the sanctuary for long. It dates to the third quarter of the seventh century (650-625 CE), which means that all the coins within it should have been made at that time or before, but not after.

But how far back should the coins go? Robinson, who first published the coins from the temple of Artemis, treated them as if this was a standard coin hoard of later times, which generally contains contemporary coins that were taken from open circulation. These coins from Ephesus, however, were different. They could have been dedications that were slowly collected in the temple of the goddess, not purses of money currently in use. Many of the other objects that were found around them date well back into the early seventh century.

The earliest stage of coinage probably consisted of the simplest types: slugs of electrum made up into a series of standard weights. There is some question as to whether the weights are based on a Greek (Milesian), Lydian, or Egyptian system, but as the metal electrum naturally occurs in Lydia, in the Pactolus river close to the capital Sardis, it was probably a Lydian ruler who issued them. The next types have striations on the front and punches in the back; the punches were probably meant to show that the coin was pure metal all through, though any forger could have eluded this test by punching a lead slug first and then coating it with a little electrum. This is probably why images were added to early coins with, and then without, striations, becoming the first true coin types: the particular image signifies the issuer of the coins, whose power and good name guarantees their value.

In his first book of Histories (written during the fifth century BCE) the Greek historian Herodotus of Halikarnassos chronicled the deeds of the earlier Lydian kings, especially the famous Croesus (561-547 BCE) who conquered Ephesus at the beginning of his reign and gave columns to the new temple of Artemis. Herodotus claimed (I.94) that the Lydians were the first to issue silver and gold coinage. A recent find of a gold fraction from beneath the fortification walls of Sardis, which were destroyed in a war between Croesus and the Persians in 545 BCE now confirms that Croesus did issue a bi-metalic coinage. In addition, a metal refining complex ( link ) of the 6th century BCE has been found on the banks of the Pactolus river; among the artifacts were items used for cupellation and cementation, processes that remove impurities from electrum and separate it into its main components, pure gold and pure silver.

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