Two-drachma coin (didrachm)
Unknown artist, Greek
Two-drachma coin (didrachm), 550-500 BCE
Weight: 12.2 g
Museum Appropriation Fund 40.015.241
Aegina is thought to be one of the first places in Greece to adopt a system of coinage. These early, simply engraved coins were recognized throughout the ancient world as legitimate currency. Like many coin images, the turtle on the obverse of the coin was a pun. The word “turtle” had been a nickname for Aegina’s silver mines before the island began minting coins. The turtle is cast in high relief to stand up to years of use. The dots down its back serve both aesthetic and practical purposes. These bumps would gradually show wear on the coin, indicating when a buyer should reweigh the coin to recalculate its value.
About the work
First invented in the seventh century BCE in what is now Turkey, coins revolutionized trade by creating internationally recognized standards for currencies. This silver coin is from the island of Aegina, one of the first city-states in the Greek world. Weights and measures varied throughout ancient Greece, and Aegina was the first place to produce coinage. Aegina controlled extensive silver mines around the Aegean Sea and had a major stake in the Greek trading colony at Naucratis in Egypt, making it an influential trading power.
This coin’s design reflects Aegina’s role in the interconnected markets of the eastern Mediterranean, with each feature serving a practical as well as aesthetic purpose. The turtle was well established as a symbol of Aegina; its depiction here made the coin’s origin and authenticity clear to a mostly illiterate populace. The high relief of the casting made the coin more durable and longer lasting. Most importantly for traders, the dots on the turtle’s back indicated the amount of wear the coin had been through. If the dots were worn down, the coin was reweighed and revalued, because its value had changed.
Coins are among the most useful objects archaeologists can find. Coins are relatively abundant—think of how much loose change you see in a day—and have been well studied and documented. On finding a coin, archaeologists date it by comparing it to other known coins. Later, Greek rulers and Roman emperors put their own faces and names on coins, making exact dating possible. When a coin can be absolutely dated, nearby artifacts can be dated relative to it. For example, if an archaeologist finds a coin from the reign of Alexander the Great in an ancient tomb, that archaeologist knows the tomb must have been built after the start of Alexander’s reign. Coins can also reveal the economic history of a site, including whether it was a wealthy or commercial area, and with what other states its people conducted business.
Using a map, explain the role geography played in Aegina’s commercial success. Think about location, transportation, and the influence of its neighbors.
How do you think coins and standardized currency simplified trade between different peoples?
Coins such as this one provide important insights into the role of trade in ancient Greece. Imagine you lived 200 years in the future, and that you discovered a quarter, a nickel, a penny, a dime. What would you deduce about American society and its approach to money and trade from their form, text, and symbols?
This ancient coin was handmade by stamping hot metal with an engraved die. How do coins made from that process look different from ours today?
Imagine yourself as one of the leaders of an ancient Greek city-state. How would you design a coin, knowing it would be used for trade around the region? In addition to decoration, keep in mind characteristics like shape and material. Before you develop your design, gather some information about ancient Greek government, as well as the metals available to you in this time and place. Consider the ideas you want to convey and the symbols you might use.
Eagleton, C. and Williams, J. Money: A History. London: Firefly Books, 2007.