A Question posed to jewelers: "Could Ancient Celators have done the engraving on tiny dies given their technology and without magnification?"

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Greetings,
This post may be off topic somewhat, but I thought this would be the place to get some learned opinions on a question I have on the technology necessary to produce ancient coins. This is a mystery that scholars have not been able to answer. By 450 BC the Greeks had adapted their classical sculpture for use on coins. The coins were standardized in weight and fractionals began to be produced. Many of these small silver fractionals were under 9 mm and some were 5 mm (you could not afford to have holes in your pockets). A couple examples of the artistry can be found here:
http://tjbuggey.ancients.info/images/kyzikusboars.jpg
My main question to those experienced in engraving is: 1) Could 8 mm dies with beautiful, realistic images be done today completely by hand and without magnification? No one is sure how the dies were rendered nor what types of tool were used. I imagine a micro chisel would be needed.
Thanks for any help you might offer in solving this ancient mystery.
Dr. Tom Buggey
The University of Memphis
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Responses from members of the Jewelers' LSTSRV group, "Ganoskin"

Dear Tom,
I don't know what technology the Greeks had. Did they make steel? Have bronze metal working tools been recovered? Looking at the coins pictured I would go about working in the positive rather than the female part of the die. I would carve in wax to be cast in bronze, a male or positive punch and use it to stamp into what would become the actual coin making die. That would be the quickest and easiest way to produce. Carving into metal, engraving,at the depths these coins are stamped would be very time consumingand much more difficult than making a punch to make the die to make the coin. Then bits of silver or what ever metal the coin was to be made with could be produced by pouring metal into a mold, cooled weighed and adjusted for weight by filing to remove weight or remelting and adding more metal, and set onto the die and hit from the back with another die or a flat hammer or chisel. Wax casting is an ancient method of production and would be a familiar technique for tool production.
Sam Patania, Tucson
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Dear Dr. Tom,
As a part time lover of archeology I can across an article several years ago regarding a find in the middle east. It was a hoard of river polished clear quartz stones. Hundreds of them if I remember correct. The amount in the find would not have been possible in nature. Several reasons were submitted for discussion. My own opinion is that indeed even back then craftsmen and artists needed magnification. At a lecture I attended on ancient granulation I submitted the thought to the presenter and he agreed with me that some magnification must have been used. I suppose ancient tools like this were rarely found along with the products they produced. Just a thought....
Best Regards, Todd Hawkinson
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I don't know what technology the Greeks had. Did they make steel? Have bronze metal working tools been recovered?
Bronze yes. Steel, no. Not till the romans.
> Looking at the coins pictured I would go about working in the > positive rather than the female part of the die. I would carve in > wax , to be cast in bronze, a male or positive punch and use it to > stamp into what would become the actual coin making die. That would > be the quickest and easiest way to produce. Carving into metal, > engraving, at the depths these coins are stamped would be very time > consuming and much more difficult than making a punch to make > the die to make the coin.
Sam, I think I'll disagree with you here. From the greek coins I've looked at, the designs seem to me to be more likely cut directly into the female die, which I expect was either bronze, or perhaps (and here I dont' know) maybe stone. Also, looking at the way many of the coins have cracked edges, I'd guess these are struck coins, not just cast. The dies might have been cast, but i'd bet the work hardening obtainable by forging would have suggested forged bronze, then engraved in much the same manner in which the fine examples of greek intaglio gem carvings were done, or perhaps made with chasing tools, or stone chisels, or something (remember, no steel chisels, or files, yet). I'd expect too, that the planchets would be carefully weighed amounts of metal, melted into buttons and hammered somewhat to shape before being struck between the dies for the designs. Since often the designs are not quite centered on the coins, this too suggests die striking rather than casting, either into the bronze (or stone) dies, or via lost wax.
While modern coinage dies are indeed made by carving, engraving, or otherwise producing a male hub, (actually, modern dies start with a large clay, wax, plaster, or other such model, usually about a foot in diameter, which is then pantograph reduced by machine to produce the male die) from which the female coining dies are then produced, actually engraving a female die directly isn't as time consuming as you might expect. I've done small dies that way, though not for coins, over the years, and you can get surprising depth without too much trouble. And I was doing it in steel, not softer bronze. But of course I did have access to modern tools to do it.
But we really aught to ask Jack Ogden, who I believe reads Orchid, to comment on this. he's the expert on ancient technologies, or so his wonderful books on the subject have led me to believe...
Peter Rowe
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I have heard speculation that myopia was the original magifying tool, and that this apparently dysgenic trait was at one point in our history very desirable amongst the artistan class, which explains the prevalence of myopia in our current gene pool. I know for a fact that my own bad eyesight is actually the equivalent of a 2x or 3x loope- to do detail work, or check out the polish of a stone, I do not normally need my optivisor- I just take off my bifocals...
Lee Einer
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Dear Dr Buggey,
I was very interested in your post to the Orchid group. I was also a little startled by your statement that "no one is sure how the dies were rendered, nor what types of tools were used". While the technological developments of the Industrial Revolution may have obscured the details of primitive die and mould making, many of the core techniques of those earlier Greek coin makers are being practised to this day by hand engravers and medallion die-sinkers. Examination of the original artefacts by a trained and experienced eye - such as any competent engraver or die-sinker possesses - reveals clues to technique and method of manufacture about which others may be ignorant. In Australia I tutor master classes in hand engraving where the participants and I research and explore these techniques and reproduce them in real-world practice. Although I am not employed in academic research, I have been able to easily reproduce these items (to 'coin' your phrase) "completely by hand and without magnification". From my own research and practical experimentation, I would suggest that many of these early coins were pressed from molten metal between two moulds. I have done this by melting metal to a molten "button" on top of one mould, then pressing the obverse mould down upon it. The top mould, being cold, rapidly cools the liquidus of the button of metal into the form against which it is pressed. This produces a simalacrum coin with the same characteristics of the original. No rocket science required, just patience to make the moulds/dies in the first place, and I'm certain they had plenty of that. A metamorphic rock would do for both moulds, with perhaps a fine dusting of releasing agent such as fine clay or talc ground from readily available soapstone. Stone moulds were used long before the Greek era. Our reliance and trust in modern technology may blind us to the simpler forms of genius exercised by our ancestors. I hope that your interest is rewarded by other experiences. It is a fascinating subject for both researcher and practitioner.
Kind regards,
Rex Steele Merten
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It seems that the coins could have been worked using water as a source of magnification. Would the wait time between ripples have been frustrating? Probably but I hear that many of those ancient craftspeople were pretty patient.
Joe
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Indeed the abiulity to engrave small items existed in the roman times. If i had a guess i would think they used either a small diamond or other hard stone fragment fused or soldered onto a shaft of bronze. I rarely use magnification when i engrave as I feel my way more than see it. I have made small motorcycles that are 1\4"x3\32" that have engaved motors ect, Nothing is impossible given the desire toi accomplish....
Ringman
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> From my own research and practical experimentation, I would > suggest that many of these early coins were pressed from molten > metal between two moulds. I have done this by melting metal to a > molten "button" on top of one mould, then pressing the obverse > mould down upon it.
Rex, Your classes sound fascinating. Now, in your coin-making experience how does striking when hot compare with pressing when molten? By hot I mean hot forging (say) silver at dark red heat. I'd imagine that melting the silver to a button on top of the bottom (bronze) mold would generate a lot of oxides. Striking the silver coins by hot forging seemd to me to be how they were done. And what metals were favoured? Was there a certain amount of copper in the silver and gold coins?
Brian
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Don't sell those ancients short -- I truely think there was a great deal of "scientific" and "technical" knowledge that has been lost over the years. I worked on an archaeological dig at Caesarea, most of which was underwater. It is a port that was contstructed--underwater-- by Herod. And that is the most interesting part. At this particular site on the Mediterranean, there are no naturally occuring underwater strutctures which make ports what they are so the Romans made some. They floated large (football field sized) caissons into the water and filled them with what is called hydraulic cement. Then they sunk them -- in very precise alignment thus creating structures underwater that Nature did not, and giving the Romans the most direct route to the salt that they wanted. At the time that I worked on this dig -- we (meaning our engineers here in the U.S.) were trying to figure out how they made that stuff and then how they sunk those caissons so precisely. . . I am always in awe of what I learn of history -- just an aside to the conversation
Laura
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Hi I assume that the earliest gold coins (ie Lydian) were stamped or pressed in a semi-molten state which explains the edges and (??) the apparent structure. Presumably there was some link between alloy and means of production - some alloys would provide such a semi-molten state. Engraved coin dies were made from a copper tin alloy (there are surviving ancient examples) and perhaps iron. Wrought iron came into some use for tools in some parts of the world before 1000 BC but only became more prevalent after about 800 BC. There was steel of sorts (but not cast steel, which had such an impact on jewellery technology after its introduction in the 1740s). Those who doubt the ability to cut iron dies in antiquity need only look at the superb engraved iron rings of the Hellenistic Greek and Roman periods. Indeed I think that some changes in jewellery production after about 800 BC lie in the introduction of iron tools - not so much in their use for working the gold, but for their use in producing tools - such as dies and implements for making decorative wires. My guess is that the earliest coin dies were 'chased' and that true engraving of dies came in a bit later.
On the other hand copper-silver alloys can be of considerable hardness and have been used for jewellery dies in Iran etc in recent times. These were cast and then 'sharpened up' with an engraving tool. Use of copper-silver alloys for tools in antiquity needs more analysis work, but gold-copper alloys can also be extremely hard and the ancient gold-copper alloy tools from South America and Sumeria might well have had a practical more than 'symbolic' function.
Ancient coins were not cast - indeed casting is rare for coinage throughout history (except, for example, such things as the Chinese cast iron coins, ancient 'fakes' and some medals). One thing that coinage requires - and which casting cannot provide - is production to precise weight standards. Forgeting modern methods, it is impossible to produce a mould that provides a final object of pre-determined weight. Having said that, the individual 'flans' (disks of metal the coins were struck from), could be made by cutting sheet to size (later using a cookie-cutter punch) or by melting small bits of weighed metal, or even by gently pouring molten metal onto a flat surface (experiment shows that accurate weights can be judged with experience).
Best etc
Jack
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Dear folks,
Thank you for these thoughtful and insightful responses. There are a lot of other interesting things to learn here. I am a carver and my wife a stained glass artist. But, back to the coins. Let me comment on some of the comments.
* Crystal magnifiers have been found. Two specific finds are particularly noteworthy, one in Egypt and one at Pompeii. One was found in an artist studio, the other in an engraver's workshop. I have that journal article.
* Metals: The Romans had a crude steel, but in terms of hardness and strength it wasn't much better than the bronze.
* The myopic theory is quite plausible as almost all mint work was done with slave labor. I guess they had vocational "counselors" back then too. I guess they had an ancient Snellen Chart eye test as part of their screening.
* From what I have read and been told, the flans of the coins were prepared separately and then either struck cold or heated. This may vary between bronze and silver (and I assume the softer gold). I have several silver coins with double strikes.
* Quantity: Hard to imagine, but the Rome mint alone produced several hundred million coins a year at it height in the 3rd century! And, there were mints from London to Shanghai. (That's partly why for the price of a 1909 VDB penny I can buy 300 late Roman Bronze coins in nice condition - and all hand struck.)
* There must be some connection to intaglio carving.
* Hardly any remains of mints remains. There are a few dies and almost nothing in print. They must have been very protective of mint secrets.
Once again thank you so much for your comments. I am kind of obsessed with finding out as much as I can about this lost process. For your viewing enjoyment let me link to my site on the Most Beautiful coins of Antiquity. This is page two - just eliminate the 2 in the url and you can view the first page if you like. It is the bottom coin on page 2 that fits into this discussion =3D 10 mm and .3g.
http://tjbuggey.ancients.info/beaut2.html
Thanks for a 3rd time,
Tom
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Hello Lee Einer,
> I know for a fact that my own bad eyesight is actually the > equivalent of a 2x or 3x loope- to do detail work, or check out > the polish of a stone, I do not normally need my optivisor- I just > take off my bifocals...
Yup. Me too. I work naked (sans corrective lenses, that is) when making jewelry. Bummer to wake up and not be able to see the clock face if it's more than 24 inches away, though. Judy in Kansas
Judy
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This discussion is really fascinating. I love this, I have wanted to make coins in the ancient style as jewelry elements. I would love to hear from Jack , and know what books are available about ancient technologies? Can you give me some titles Peter? Or Jack?
Sam Patania, Tucson
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Hello, If I might step in here: Here are some overviews of ancient minting techniques that are available on the internet:
http://www.culture.gr/nm/presveis/Pages/info/Reference/Production1.html
http://www.pcgs.com/articles/article1350.chtml
http://www.arch.ox.ac.uk/ccindex/ccindex.htm
http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Troy/7551/MintProcess.htm
And an article, if you can find it. American Numismatic Society Museum Notes, Volume 32, 1987. Composition and Technology of Ancient and Medieval Coinages: a Reassessment of Analytical Results, C. Morrisson, J. Barrandon, C. Brenot.
The most cited work on ancient coin minting processes is Wayne Sales' Ancient Coin Collecting Volume 1, which I believe one can get for about $20 at Amazon or the like.
The metallic composition of coins varied widely. Bronze alloy Coins of Amisos, Pontos on the southern coast of the Black sea have a gold look to them and often have no patina. This was due to the local ore used that was high in nickel. The Orichalum (A coppery appearing bronze alloy) was used extensively in minting the Larger Roman coins of the first two centuries AD. These bronze alloys were allowed this variance in composition because the bronze coinage was akin to paper money in that these never were worth their weight. Greek silver coins were relatively pure, but in Roman times, beginning with Nero, silver began to be debased in a show of true inflation/deflation until by the late 3rd century silver accounted for only about 4% of the metal content. Most of these coins became silver plated or washed using a method which is also not clearly understood.
I hope this is useful. Do jewelers tend to be myopic? I find this fascinating and may represent a tradition extending back 3000 years.
Regards,
Tom
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