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Reply to Selgin on the Origin of Electrum Coinage, Part 2

This is part 2 of my response to George Selgin’s post here:George Selgin, “‘Lord Keynes’ contra White on the Beginnings of Coinage,” Alt-M Ideas for an Alternative Monetary Future, August 30, 2017.Selgin refers to various new data from the past 20 years or so, and much of the new evidence was presented at a conference called “White Gold: Revealing the World’s Earliest Coins,” held from 25–26th June, 2012 (International Congress at Israel Museum, Jerusalem).Wartenberg (2017), for instance, refers to the edited proceedings of this conference: White Gold: Studies in Early Electrum Coinage (edited by Peter Van Alfen and Ute Wartenberg). But this book will not be published until December 31, 2017, so I can hardly evaluate the evidence there, but have to go on published summaries of the

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This is part 2 of my response to George Selgin’s post here:
George Selgin, “‘Lord Keynes’ contra White on the Beginnings of Coinage,” Alt-M Ideas for an Alternative Monetary Future, August 30, 2017.
Selgin refers to various new data from the past 20 years or so, and much of the new evidence was presented at a conference called “White Gold: Revealing the World’s Earliest Coins,” held from 25–26th June, 2012 (International Congress at Israel Museum, Jerusalem).

Wartenberg (2017), for instance, refers to the edited proceedings of this conference: White Gold: Studies in Early Electrum Coinage (edited by Peter Van Alfen and Ute Wartenberg). But this book will not be published until December 31, 2017, so I can hardly evaluate the evidence there, but have to go on published summaries of the papers.

The new data can be described as follows:

(1) new archaeological work on the Artemisium of Ephesus discussed in Cahill and Kroll (2005) demonstrates that electrum coins already existed in the last quarter of the 7th century BC (625–601 BC), which confirms the older dating of the invention of coins to the period around 630 BC (de Callataӱ 2013: 13).

(2) recent investigation of electrum coins with advanced scientific techniques indicates to some scholars that these early electrum coins were minted from combining gold and silver, and so were not minted from natural electrum alloys (de Callataӱ 2013: 9).

Wartenberg (2017) reports that laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (LAICP-MS) analysis of early electrum coins shows that their gold-to-silver content was more uniform than previously thought: e.g., a panther or lion head series had a gold-to-silver ratio of 55–45%, with 1–2% copper. A striated coin series (which might be a later series) has a gold-to-silver ratio of about 60–40% ratio.

Wartenberg also concludes that LAICP-MS analysis shows that early electrum coins were not minted in naturally occurring electrum, but deliberately minted by “combining pure gold and silver, which was previously refined” to achieve stable gold-to-silver ratios, even in the late 7th century (Wartenberg 2017: 27).

(3) there is much more evidence for lower denomination coins in the early electrum series, even down to 1/192 of a stater (Wartenberg 2017: 27), though it remains true that many higher denomination coins were also minted.

Datum (1) does not refute older interpretations.

Datum (2) and (3) do provide evidence against the some versions of the orthodox Chartalist hypothesis that individual early electrum coins (supposedly minted from natural electrum) had a much more variable gold-to-silver content (Price 1983: 5), and so were fiduciary to the extent that the gold content varied between individual coins, and was not always the same as the face value.

But do these data provide good evidence that private agents were the innovators in coining electrum coins, under the Mengerian theory of the emergence of money? The answer is: not really.

First, let us re-state some important points. The first coins were minted in the second half of the 7th century BC (650–600 BC) in what is now western Turkey (what was called “Asia Minor” by the Classical Greeks) in ancient Lydia, and in the Greek colonies in Ionia.

Both the ancient writers Xenophanes (as cited in Pollux, Onom. 9.83) and Herodotus (Histories 1.94) report this. This region was dominated by the ancient kingdom of Lydia, with the royal capital at Sardis, which was populated by an Indo-European speaking people, and the extent of the Lydian kingdom can be seen in this map:

Reply to Selgin on the Origin of Electrum Coinage, Part 2

The earliest coins consisted of stamped pieces of electrum, an alloy of gold and silver with trace amounts of copper, but with a roughly uniform weight. Here is an example of an early Lydian electrum coin with lion-head:
Reply to Selgin on the Origin of Electrum Coinage, Part 2

Ancient Lydia was rich in electrum, which was panned from the rivers, as well as mined. It is established that Lydian alluvial electrum (that is, electrum taken from the rivers) had a natural variable gold content from about 65% to 85% (Konuk 2012: 44; Meeks 2000: 145–148).

However, natural electrum was peculiarly unsuited to be the most saleable commodity that emerged as the general money commodity in line with Menger’s theory of the origin of money. We can review why this is the case.

For one thing, small-sized electrum and electrum dust could not be easily tested for purity (Kroll 2012: 38):

“When offered in a transaction, the quality of the [sc. electrum] metal first had to be tested visually from the color of streaks made on a touchstone (No. 16), and while such testing presented no problems with larger lumps of electrum, it would have been practically impossible to test a bagful of dozens of small nuggets and crumbs of the metal. Even if each small piece were separately tested, it would have been exceedingly difficult to determine with any accuracy the value of an entire bag of pieces, each with a different weight and fineness. Over time, as the complexities and unreliability of electrum bullion became widely recognized, Lydians and their Greek and Carian neighbors who had accumulated large stocks of this metal must have found it increasingly difficult to utilize it in payments that others would accept.”
Kroll, John H. “The Coins of Sardis,” Sardisexpedition.org
In light of this, natural electrum can hardly have been Menger’s “most saleable commodity,” since many people will have required small size electrum or electrum dust for ordinary, low-value transactions in trade and in the market-place (or in the agora, as the Greeks called it).

The average percentage of gold in natural electrum was probably about 70–75% (Konuk 2012: 44), whereas, as we have seen, the most recent analysis of the early lion-head electrum coin series (likely from Lydian kings) shows that they tended to have a stable but lower percentage of gold at about 54% with about 2% copper (Cowell and Hyne 2000: 170–171; Keyser and Clark 2001: 114). Another panther or lion-head series (probably early Lydian coins), analysed with laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (LAICP-MS), had a gold-to-silver ratio of 55–45%, with 1–2% copper (Wartenberg 2017: 26; see also Velde 2012: 19).

So whoever was minting these coins struck them with an alloy in which the gold content – although consistent – was lower than the average found in natural electrum (Konuk 2012: 44).

The stable gold content gave these coins a definite consistent colour, and, along with their standard weight, can be seen as part of the process of standardising them. Perhaps copper was even added to give them a colour like that of electrum with a higher gold content.

Unless they were explicitly given a face value at the monetary value of the gold-to-silver content, early electrum coins would still have been fiduciary to some extent if the issuing authority tried to give them a value at the average gold content of electrum, and if the public expected them to contain the average gold content of natural electrum (about 70–75%). However, in reality the early coins clearly did not have that gold value, since they had a relatively stable but lower gold content of 54%.

Many modern scholars – and probably a majority – continue to argue that the actual exchange value of the early electrum coins was larger than their intrinsic metallic value, perhaps by as much as 20% (Le Rider 2001: 94–95; Cahill and Kroll 2005: 612–613; Kroll 2008: 21; Konuk 2012: 44; Kroll 2012: 39; Furtwängler 2011: 17; for older views on the overvaluation of electrum coins, see Bolin 1958: 11–45, who saw it as a secret fraud by the Lydian kings).

So, in view of this, the Chartalist view is hardly refuted by the discovery of a more stable gold content in the early coins, since the Lydian kings may well have accepted them in payment at the higher face value.

In short, if the Lydian kings deliberately minted early electrum coins with a gold content of 54%, but gave them a conventional face value in line with the average 70% gold value of natural electrum, and then accepted the coins back again in taxes, fines or other payments, then they could still have been fiduciary coins, to some extent, in a closed monetary system in Lydia and its subject Greek city-states (Rider 2001: 94–95, 116).

The Lydian kings would have had substantial expenditures, since they fought major wars and engaged in huge building programs at Sardis, their capital (on the archaeology of Lydia, see Roosevelt 2009; Greenewalt 2011; Roosevelt 2012), so that they surely made payments to soldiers, labourers, and artisans on a large scale.

Price (1983) suggested that the early electrum coins were intended as gifts that only later became monetised, but the discovery of many more smaller denomination electrum coins than previously thought in the early issues strongly suggests that these coins were intended for exchange and monetary transactions.

The Lydian kings are still the best candidates for the inventors of the coins, since (1) the Lydian kings had large stocks of the necessary electrum, (2) could accept the coins back as payment as taxes or obligations (if they were intended as money), and (3) had many large-scale payments to make.

Furtwängler (2011: 18) argues that – over time – the Lydo-Milesian standard electrum coins with their 54% gold content (below the average gold content of natural electrum) did not win widespread acceptance in the Greek city-states outside the Lydian empire (see also Kroll 2012: 39). Croesus – perhaps as much for political as for economic reasons – implemented a currency reform around 560 BC (or perhaps even earlier if his accession was around c. 585 BC, as argued by Wallace 2016), and recalled his electrum coins, and, by cementation techniques, used them to mint a new pure gold and silver coinage to restore confidence (Furtwängler 2011: 18).

Evidence for the higher face value of the older electrum coins has been adduced from peculiar data about Croesus’ new gold stater issues.

During the reign of the last Lydian king Croesus (who ruled from c. 585 or 560–546 BC), the king minted a new pure gold and silver coinage called “Croeseids” (and recent archaeological evidence proves that this coinage reform had been implemented by the time of Croesus, and not later under the Persians as some scholars have argued; see Cahill and Kroll 2005).

But the weight and two specific issues of the new gold staters are suggestive:

(1) probably at first, the new gold staters (sometimes called “Heavy Croeseids”) were issued and struck with 10.8 grams of gold. Given the value of gold to silver was probably about 1:13.3 in this period, the new gold stater of 10.8 grams would have been equivalent to an electrum stater of 14.15 grams, but only if the electrum staters were artificially overvalued at the gold content of natural electrum (which stood at about 70–75% gold). Since the value of the electrum staters had been partly fiduciary and possibly confidence in them was in question by this period, this exchange ratio with the new gold coins would have maintained the government guarantee of accepting them at their artificial face value. This was intended to recall the old electrum coins (Konuk 2012: 50; Cahill and Kroll 2005: 612–613; Kroll 2001b: 201–202).

(2) however, at some point – presumably when a large quantity of electrum coins had been recalled – Croesus minted a new pure gold stater with a reduced size, and struck at 8.1 grams (the so-called “Light Croeseids”). This reflected the value of the actual gold content of the old electrum coins, whose gold content had been fixed at about 54% and 44% silver (Konuk 2012: 50; Cahill and Kroll 2005: 612–613; Walburg 1991). The Lydian kings now abandoned their experiment with overvalued electrum coins, perhaps for political as much as economic reasons, and instead minted a pure gold and silver stater coinage, along with smaller denominations of each gold and silver stater type.

The fact that Croesus’ “Heavy Croeseids” (presumably minted before the light kind) seem to match the postulated artificial value of the early electrum coins is considered by many scholars to be strong evidence that they really had been overvalued by state guarantee, and this seems to be the best explanation of the data.

Finally, the absence of electrum coins from the list of precious metal revenue on a lead tablet dated to the period around 600 BC from the Artemisium temple of Ephesus – before Ephesus was conquered by the Lydian king Croesus and politically subject to Lydian suzerainty – suggests that the early Lydian electrum coins were not accepted at the temple, probably because they were understood to be overvalued (Kroll 2008: 18–21).

So, all in all, the case for a qualified Chartalist interpretation of the earliest electrum coinage of Lydia is still strong.

Furthermore, recent analysis of the electrum coinage of Samos has established that the gold content of Samian coins was much more variable, and ranged from 46 to 86%, and the electrum coinage of Phocaea also had a highly variable gold content (Konuk 2005; Wallace 2013: 2359; Avaldi et al. 1984). In short, both the Samian and Phocaean electrum coinage can still be explained by means of a Chatalist explanation too.

But let us assume – for the sake of argument – that the early Lydian electrum coins were given a face value equal to their real gold-to-silver content (so making the Chartalist explanation false), does this rule out the Lydian kings as the inventors of coinage? Again, the answer is: not at all.

The Lydian kings may well have struck these coins as prestigious payment objects for their soldiers, mercenaries and other employees and guaranteed a stable metal content consistent with market value, just as they – and numerous Greek city-states – later struck pure gold and silver coins.

We know that the most common type of early electrum coins shows the lion-head or lion paw, which is the royal symbol of the Lydian kings (Wartenberg 2017: 15 and 24; Konuk 2012: 45; Spier 1998), which in turn strongly suggests that most of these coins were stamped with the symbol of the Lydian state.

Bresson (2009: 3–4) points out that the Lydia kings conquered or forced the political submission of a large number of Greek city-states on the coast of Asia Minor, and that consequently that Lydian kings may well have established a monetary union with their electrum coins being a standard. The Lydo-Milesian (or often simply called the “Milesian”) standard was based on the stater with a weight of about 14.30–14.40 grams. The Lydian kings would then have set up this standard and demanded it of their subject Greek city-states, so that it was the state that was driving force behind a monetary standard, and that allowed the elimination of transaction costs such as heavy exchange fees between coins of a different standard.

Bresson (2009: 3, citing Cowell et al. 1998: 529–530 and Cowell and Hyne 2000: 169–174) also puts the gold content of early Lydian electrum coins at about 53% with most coins not deviating more than 1% from this.

Under this view of Bresson, the state weighed, standardised, and guaranteed the value and weight of electrum coins to reduce transaction costs for private individuals who no longer had to engage in the expensive process of checking the value of the coins (Bresson 2006; Bresson 2009).

The fact that the Lydo-Milesian standard was adopted in areas under the political domination of the Lydian kings does not suggest that the standard was a spontaneous development from the private sector. So, even if we assume that electrum coins were given a monetary value consistent with their gold content, the evidence that the private sector was the driving force behind this is still feeble.

As we seen, however, most scholars do still think that the early electrum coins were overvalued, and a qualified Chartalist explanation is still convincing.

Let us now turn to the final section: a critical review of the arguments made by those who contend that private sector agents first invented coins.

The Evidence for the Private Sector as Inventor of Electrum Coins is still Feeble
Modern defenders of the private sector as the inventor of electrum coins make the following arguments. They contend that the early coins seem to have had a large number of series with different obverse types and reverse punches, perhaps as many as 250–300 (van Alfen 2014: 2–3). Peter van Alfen takes this as evidence of many private elite issuers, such as goldsmiths, bankers or merchants (van Alfen 2014: 2–3, 3, n. 11).

But we know for a fact that later state-issued coinage by Greek city states like Cyzicus, Mytilene and Phocaea did regularly change their obverse types, and as often as once a year (which van Alfen 2014: 3, n. 11 himself admits; Price 1983: 4). The multiplicity of obverse types is not a strong argument for private sector coining at all, since there is no reason why both the Lydian kings and early Greek city-states could not have minted large numbers of obverse types with different symbols and insignia (de Callataӱ 2013: 11).

Peter van Alfen (2014) argues that the early coinages were minted by wealthy elite individuals who, he thinks, owned mines and had large-scale access to metals, and that the Lydian kings only gradually displaced private issuers and then gained a near monopoly on coin issue by the time of Croesus (who ruled Lydia from c. 585 or 560–546 BC) (see van Alfen 2014: 21).

Unfortunately, many of van Alfen’s claims about private wealth in Lydia are based on data in Roosevelt (2009) from the later Persian and Hellenistic periods (as admitted by van Alfen 2014: 19, n. 64 and 20, n. 68 himself), not the relevant period of the pre-Persian Lydian kingdom.

Moreover, the earliest coins minted from 650 to 600 BC were made of electrum, which was a naturally occurring alloy in ancient Lydia (Kroll 2008: 17–18).

Sardis – the Lydian capital – was dominated by the king’s palace and archaeological evidence seems to show that the processing of gold was dominated by the king, not private merchants (Hanfmann 1983: 73, 76, 83, 85, 246, n. 87). The evidence shows that the Lydian kings either controlled the mines in their kingdom directly (Koray and Lorber 2012: 13; Briant 2002: 400), and/or levied taxes on mining or extraction of metals. Indeed, a certain Lydian called Pythius under the later Persian empire, who owned a number of mines in Lydia, may have been a descendant of the Lydian royal family who had inherited these mines as private family property (Briant 2002: 401). Did private agents really have access to this type of wealth when the kings controlled mining and panning of precious metals?

It follows that, if the Lydian kings extracted and owned much of the silver, gold and electrum (mined or panned from the rivers), it is most probable that the kings also minted the first electrum coinage too, since a very large quantity of this metal was needed for the many coin issues over many years.

Despite Selgin, this is not a non sequitur. It is an inductive argument, on the basis of empirical evidence, and does not claim to yield a certain conclusion, only a probabilistic one.

Finally, let us now review the evidence adduced by the Free Bankers and defenders of the private sector as the inventors of early electrum coinage, and the counterarguments:

(1) Larry White in his original post here argued that:
“Once sovereigns monopolized the mints they took advantage of the propaganda value of stamping their own faces on the coins, of course. But as far as we know coins were already in use among merchants before that happened. Very early coins from ancient Lydia, in what is now Turkey, were not inscribed with human faces but rather animal figures. The Ancient History Encyclopedia states: ‘It appears that many early Lydian coins were minted by merchants as tokens to be used in trade transactions. The Lydian state also minted coins.’”
Larry White, “Why the ‘State Theory of Money’ doesn’t explain the Coinage of Precious Metals,” Alt-M Ideas for an Alternative Monetary Future, August 24, 2017.
But the assumption here is incorrect: early monarchs did not put their images on coins. For a very long time in the ancient world, coins did not carry any images of living human rulers, and rarely carried writing, and there may well have been a superstitious taboo against depicting living people on coins.

In light of this, there is no reason why the kings would have bothered to put their images or names on the coins when people at the time knew perfectly well that they had been minted by the state. Early coins of the state, even produced by kings, mostly depicted gods, seals or other symbols. In Western civilization, one of the first kings to be depicted on coins was Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, even though it was probably the kings who ruled after him who first put his explicit image on coins (Shipley 2000: 69). But this was centuries after the first electrum coins had been invented.

Notably, Selgin does not seem to dispute this. I assume that on this point Free Bankers will concede White is wrong?

(2) some few early Lydian coins do carry inscriptions, in the Lydian script and language, and refer to .WALWE. (also read as walwet) and .KALI. (Schaps 2004: 96). However, the question of who or what these names refers to is not settled with certainty, though interesting – even plausible – suggestions have been made.

That the coins themselves were of the Lydian kings is strongly suggested by the lion symbol which appears on them – the symbol of the Lydian royal house (Schaps 2004: 96), so that already the notion that private sector agents independently minted them is shaky (although Furtwängler 2011: 16–17 regards them as the names of private electrum coin producers under the Lydian kings). Both coin types are linked by a common punch mark, so that they are likely to be by the same issuer (Wallace 2016: 176–177; Koray and Lorber 2012: 15).

The .WALWE. inscription has been read as Walwetalim, which can be linked to the Lydian king whom the Greeks called “Alyattes” (Karwiese 1991: 8–14; Wallace 2006). Koray and Lorber (2012: 15) state the walwet is now “usually interpreted” as the name of the Lydian king Alyattes. If so, then this is a coin explicitly minted by the king.

In addition, some have read .KALI. as KUKALIM and identified this with the Lydian name “Gyges” (Wallace 2006), and even if this does not refer to the first king of the dynasty, it may well refer to a royal prince during the reign of Alyattes in the late 7th century BC who was also allowed to issue coinage, as argued by Wallace (2006).

Furthermore, Howgego (1995: 3) suggests that the names may be those of mints, not of individuals, and Wallace (1988) argued that walwe could be the Lydian name for “lion” and be a simple noun referring to the lion symbol on the coins.

Finally, even if the inscriptions do not refer to Lydian kings and princes, they could be individuals who minted the coins for the Lydian kings as mint masters (Wallace 1987: 393, n. 51).

But there are good arguments for thinking these coins do name Lydian kings or members of the royal family, as demonstrated by Wallace (2006).

(3) it is true we have about four coins with the Greek inscription Φάνεως ειμί σήμα, which can be translated as “I am the badge of Phanes.” Though they do not carry the Greek inscription, there are supposedly some 250 pieces in the same series in smaller denominations with the same stag symbol (Wartenberg 2017: 17).

If “I am the badge of Phanes” is the correct translation of the inscription, it is unclear who this Phanes was. Peter van Alfen (2014: 23) assumes “Phanes” was an elite private Greek who minted coins, but there is little evidence to support this.

There is a reasonable discussion of the complexities of the issue here.

Konuk (2012: 45–47) makes a good case that the stag emblem on these coins is associated with the goddess Artemis at Ephesus (and Kastner 1986 had already suggested that the name “Phanes” may have been that of a god, not a human being; see Howgego 1995: 4). If the stag symbol is an official emblem of Ephesus, then the coin series in question is likely to have been an official coin issue of the city, since the same symbol reappears in later coin issues of Ephesus (Velde 2012: 10; Velde 2012: 10 also states “There is no consensus on whether Phanes is the name of an individual or refers to Artemis”; cf. Koray and Lorber 2012: 15). The name “Phanes,” far from being that of a human being, may be some cult name or word associated with the cult of Artemis at Ephesus.

By contrast, if “Phanes” is a human being, he is perhaps an official at Ephesus who minted or was responsible for the minting of the coins. Howgego (1995: 4) speculates that, even if Phanes was the name of a human being, he might have been an unknown local tyrant or ruler.

So, as in my original post, I once again conclude that the evidence for the private sector being the inventor, or driving force, behind the creation of the first electrum coinage is feeble.

We have also seen that the new evidence adduced by Selgin does not refute the older interpretation that the earliest electrum coins were overvalued.

Finally, as can be seen from a large sample of modern scholarship here, there is a majority view that the earliest electrum coins were invented by the Lydian kings.

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