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Coins and CoinLands

As the sliders suggest, this site is about coinage, and the part it played in the wider cultural, economic and social fabric of the times. More particularly, Coinlands is concerned with money, coinage and society throughout history, from the Mesopotamia agrarian societies to our post-Industrial states. Included are banking, economic history and financial matters generally throughout the ages — plus the contentious and sometimes shadowy concepts of money itself: all those social debts, customs and obligations that underwrite our use of money, and bring about social injustices when they are overlooked. Inescapably, that leads on to contemporary matters of concern: bank bail-outs, looming national debts, digital money and quantitative easing.

Coinage served trade, that most basic need of man, exchanging goods and services locally abundant for the scarce and necessary. The principle extends to coin collecting itself, for it is the rarity in a series collected by many that determines its value, with of course intangibles like beauty and historical associations. Coins tell us a good deal about the society that used them, their economic structure, shared values and significant events. Coins also form recognisable series over time and space, as distinctive as schools of painting to art historians and therefore amenable to the same analysis. Everything depicted on coins had a purpose, and reflects something of the authority that issued them and the requirements of the great mass who used them.

Coins display the credentials of the issuing authority, and this commonly goes beyond a needed guarantee of authenticity to include matters of a more intangible nature: sovereignty, territorial claims, political propaganda, religious and spiritual legitimacy. The shape, metal and inscriptions change accordingly. Roman coins are distinct from Greek. Moghul coins cannot be mistaken for issues of the Indian native states, or for Moslem dynasties that preceded them. Reverses, the language of the inscriptions and indeed their whole appearance distinguish Sasanian coins from Parthian issues. European milled coins are not only the products of technological advances but of a different social environment altogether, the beginning of competitive capitalist societies rather than those of the rigid medieval world.

Every collector becomes knowledgeable on whatever is distinctive or remarkable about a coin series he or she collects. The medieval Islamic dynasties require a little Arabic, not to a literary standard, but sufficient to identify the dynasty, ruler, mint and date. Later, particularly, for Indian issues, Persian replaces Arabic as the language of the princely courts, and the collector is treated to scraps of poetry, or at least rhyming couplets, which are often scattered about the coin's flan, not in sequence but as the space offered itself. Arabic scripts are often beautiful in themselves, and the Chinese also placed great emphasis on calligraphy, seeing not only the period and its influences in the ideograms but something of the author's character and dispositions from deft strokes of the brush — or in the case of coins that served as moulds, from the marks scratched into soft sand. Since the Chinese have for millennia collected coins, and made pieces for the delectation of collectors, authenticity is a moot point in rarer pieces: a tradition that has been skillfully brought up to made in recent years and embellished with such a mastery of patination that many collectors will not now consider anything without a clear provenance prior to the nineteen eighties. But — with exceptions: there are always oddities, when a ruler will create pieces belonging in style to earlier periods — the coins tell their own story. The well-made, rather matter-of-fact cash coins of the Ming dynasty will never be confused with those of the Qing, and these, quite apart from their reverses and mint marks in Manchu, are a world apart from calligraphic exuberance of Sung issues.

A simple classification of coin series would be as below.

coin series

Coin series develop slowly. The first coins of the Arabs, when they produced such things at all and did simply add a few Arabic words to the coinages of states they conquered, are written in a simple kufic where the similarity of letter shapes, not to mention the often blundered legends, make them difficult to read. Thereafter, by the tenth century, the script refines itself and even the common silver or copper issues have legends of great calligraphic beauty. Kufic becomes decorative and often ornate. Nastaliq scripts appear in Safavid coins, and the scripts of later Ottoman coins disport themselves in such confections and flourishes that legends become more recognized that readable. 

Coinage lineages also influence each other, and sometimes cross fertilize. The local Roman coinages of the eastern empire often look more Greek than Latin. The Islamic copper issues of Anatolia borrow designs form the adjoining Byzantine Empire. The early Indian coins are often a confusing mixture of Indo-Greek, Parthian and native Indian features, and the same happens later in cities on the Silk Road when Islamic and Chinese themes come together. 

The Vikings used Islamic dirhems whose silver was mined half a continent away in Badakhstan. European silver coins were dependent on finds of associated base metal deposits, and slowly evolving mining technology. European gold coins appear late, and their content largely originates from west Africa, traded for silver by Venice and other Italian merchant empires. Trade, mining and the nature of the issuing authorities all have something to say on coinage.


The site provides a lot of information — over 150,000 words — but the pages are copy-protected and without the necessary documentation. To obtain the full references, to copy the text and diagrams, and to read the text sequentially, please consider one of the inexpensive ebooks.

Colin John Holcombe