Blood Money – The Shekel of Tyre

The silver tetradrachm (shekel) struck by the mint at Tyre features prominently in several pivotal events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth as documented in the New Testament. It is likely to be the coin that Jesus told his disciple Simon Peter that he would find miraculously in the mouth of a fish. It was probably one of the coins that tumbled to the ground when Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple courtyard. And perhaps most significant of all, it is believed to be the coin that Judas Iscariot received thirty of in exchange for betraying his master to the authorities.

By the time the ancient Phoenician port city of Tyre was conquered by the Macedonian King Alexander III “the Great” in 332 BC, it had already acquired a reputation within the region for the quality of its silver coinage. Coins continued to be struck there under the authority of the Greek kings, and when the Romans arrived in the Eastern Mediterranean, they permitted the mint to strike an ‘independent’ silver coinage from about 125 BC comprising silver tetradrachms (shekels) weighing about 14 grams, and didrachms (half shekels) weighing about 7 grams.

With only minor exceptions, the design of the coin remained constant for nearly two centuries. It was modelled on the tetradrachm struck by their last Greek king, Demetrius II, who was executed near Tyre in 125 BC. His portrait on the coin was replaced with the Tyre god Melkart, son of Baal. The reverse depicts an eagle with a palm branch over its shoulder and perched on the bow of a ship. The inscription can be translated, ‘Tyre, the Holy and Inviolable’ together with the date of issue, which allows them to be dated accurately.

Despite depicting the head of a pagan god and a graven image, both of which were deeply objectionable to neighbouring Jews, the silver coin struck at Tyre became the only currency accepted by the Jewish religious authorities to pay the annual temple tax. This is because it was struck in the purest silver available in the region (about 95%) making it significantly more valuable than the Roman silver coins imported from the Far East that contained only about 80% silver.

The temple tax was introduced by Moses the lawgiver, who instructed every adult male over the age of twenty to make the annual contribution of half a shekel. This was about two days wages for a skilled labourer, and the tax was to be used for the building and upkeep of the temple.

“The rich are not to give more than a half shekel, and the poor are not to give less when you make the offering to the Lord to atone for your lives.” (Exodus 30:15 – NIV)

The modest sum enabled Jews of all economic levels to take part in the building of the temple, and when the construction was completed, the tax continued to be collected from every household to pay for the running costs of the temple.

In 18 BC, the letters’ KPA’ or ‘KP’ were added to the reverse of the coin, which has led some scholars to believe that the coin’s production moved from Tyre to a location in or close to Jerusalem itself. Given their reliance on the coin for the temple tax, if Tyre did stop producing the coins, the Jewish religious leaders would most likely have requested permission from the authorities to carry on making them in or near Jerusalem. The Romans prohibited the minting of local currency in Judea but may have been prepared to make an exception to keep the peace as long as they continued to use the same design. It has been suggested that the new letters may have been an acrostic that stood for “By Authority of the Roman Constitution”.

If true, then we have the astonishing spectacle of Jewish religious leaders seeking permission to strike a coin that they considered blasphemous, bearing a design that was expressly prohibited by the Ten Commandments. They would compel devout Jews to use this coin to pay their annual contribution for the upkeep of God’s Holy temple. One can only imagine what Moses would have made of that!

One Tyre shekel would pay the temple tax for two men, which is illustrated in Jesus’ exchange with his disciple, Simon Peter. When a tax collector challenged the disciple to say whether his master paid the temple tax, Simon Peter affirmed that he did. After pointing out that the sons of rulers are exempt from the taxation demanded by their fathers, Jesus gave him an unusual task to demonstrate both his miraculous power and his humility;

“But so that we may not cause offence, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” (Matthew 17:24-27 NIV).

The coin that the disciple found in the mouth of a fish was most likely a Tyre shekel, as only this would have been sufficient to pay the temple tax for both men.

For Israelites, the design of the Tyre shekel violated the first two of the Ten Commandments given to them by Moses, which forbade the use of foreign deities and graven images. Consequently, no self-respecting Jew would use this coin in their day-to-day transactions, particularly one which described a foreign city as holy. Nonetheless, since this was the only currency accepted by the Jewish religious leaders for the annual temple tax, it meant that the temple vault would have been filled with silver coins depicting a foreign god!

To pay the temple tax, devout Jews were compelled to exchange their regular currency for the ‘blasphemous’ silver coinage of Tyre. To facilitate this, a thriving market of money changers set up shop in the temple courtyards and charged hefty commissions for their services. Since Jews wishing to pay the temple tax had no alternative but to pay their inflated rates to obtain Tyre shekels and half shekels, this also violated Moses’ instruction that no individual should pay more or less than half a shekel.

This was the scene that greeted Jesus when he arrived at the temple shortly after making a triumphant arrival in Jerusalem in circa AD 30.

“Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple and overturned the tables of the money changers … And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.'” (Matthew 21:12-13 NIIV)

Jesus’ outrage at finding money changers profiteering from the temple tax, together with his authoritative teaching and miraculous healings, alarmed the religious leaders who felt threatened by his popularity. As they began plotting how to have Jesus arrested and put to death, one of his disciples came to them with an offer they couldn’t refuse.

“Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.” (Matthew 26:14-16 NIV)

Since shekels from Tyre were the only currency accepted at the Jerusalem Temple, these were likely to be the coins that Judas received for betraying his master. Within hours of betraying Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas realised the enormity of what he had done and, filled with remorse, tried to return the thirty silver coins to the chief priests, claiming that he had betrayed innocent blood. Now that they had their prize, the chief priests were indifferent to his anguish and told him that this was his responsibility. The New Testament informs us that Judas threw the shekels into the temple, went away and hanged himself.

Judas’ suicide presented the religious leaders with the dilemma of what to do with the coins;

“The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury since it is blood money.” So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day.” (Matthew 27:6-8 NIV)

Given the prominent role that the Tyre shekel played in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, it is hardly a surprise that the coin is highly desirable today. It is certainly a strange feeling to hold one in your hands and ponder that this is a design that Jesus and his followers would have known well.

Production of the Tyre shekel appears to have come to an end in about AD 66, possibly as a result of the outbreak of the first Jewish revolt which began that year. By that time, Rome had begun producing silver coinage with a significantly improved purity in neighbouring Syria.

Devout Jews continue to pay the temple tax to this day. Today, the sum is translated into local currency and donated to the needy.

The Tyre Shekel
Judas attempts to return the silver coins he has received for betraying Jesus
Simon Peter pays the temple tax with the coin he found in the mouth of the fish

Who is the soldier on the Dutch Ducat?

The first Durch Ducat, struck in 1586

The Dutch ducat has always been an instantly recognisable and much imitated gold coin. Instead of a traditional depiction of a monarch or a saint, it features an armour clad soldier with a sword in his right hand and a bundle of arrows in his left. The year of issue is split so that two digits appear on either side of the soldier, and the design is surrounded by a legend “Concordia Res Parvae Crescunt” which can be translated “Union makes small things grow”. This elegant design appeared on the first Dutch ducat struck in 1586 and has survived with only minor modifications to the present day, making it the oldest continuously issued gold coin in the world.

The appearance of such a strong military figure on one of the world’s most important trading coins has always been something of a mystery. The commercially minded Dutch never relied on military force to build their Empire, preferring to govern colonies indirectly through the native authorities. This proved to be a quick and effective way to overcome cultural, religious and language barriers to trade, and the Dutch were more concerned with making a healthy profit than in subduing the local population by force.

The identity of the soldier depicted on the Dutch ducat has also been shrouded in mystery. Officially, he is anonymous. However, by reviewing the unique set of circumstances in which the coin was commissioned and struck, a plausible case can be made for his identity and his appearance on the Dutch ducat. Is it possible that the soldier on the Dutch ducat was an Englishman?

The First Ducats

The first gold ducats were struck in Venice in 1274. The coin’s name is derived from the medieval Latin word ‘ducalis’ and would initially have meant, ‘the duke’s coin’. At that time, there were many different gold coins in circulation throughout Europe and coins would often have different names in different countries. This made it much harder for merchants, traders and money changers to determine their correct values. They needed a reliable, trusted and accurate coin with an unchanging weight and purity.

The ducat met this requirement well. It had a consistent weight of 3.545 grams and a gold content of 98.6%, which was the highest purity medieval metallurgy could produce. Gold ducats proved to be so popular that other European cities and states began to copy its specifications and strike their own versions to facilitate their own international trade.

Not since the days of the Roman Empire had a gold coin been issued that would inspire the trust of nations around the world. Ducats were popular and easily recognized, and this led to their increasing acceptance as the primary coin of international trade.

Birth of the Dutch Republic

At the beginning of the 16th century, the Spanish were reaping the spoils of their victorious conquests in the New World. The Atlantic and the North Sea became primary trade routes and the Spanish-controlled Netherlands became the hub of this international trade.

William of Orange

In 1566, the seven primarily Protestant northern provinces of the Low Countries began a long struggle to untangle themselves from the Spanish Empire. The Spanish tried to brutally crush the Dutch Revolt but were unable to prevent the unrest from gathering momentum and strength. More and more people rallied to the side of William of Orange, leader of the Holland Province and, by 1581 the northern provinces were strong enough to declare their independence.

However, uniting the provinces into a single Dutch Republic proved to be a struggle. Each province could appoint its own Stadtholder (Head of State) who had the power to appoint officials and councils. But in the immediate aftermath of their split from Spain, they wanted a monarch who could simultaneously unite them and defend them from the Spanish.

The Search for a Sovereign

Having rejected King Philip II of Spain as their Head of State, the Dutch initially asked Queen Elizabeth I of England to protect them from ongoing Spanish aggression. The Queen refused, having no wish to antagonise Spain or involve herself in the domestic affairs of other countries.

Following this rejection, they turned their attention to France, and invited the King’s younger brother François, Duke of Anjou to become their sovereign. He proved to be a disaster. Many regions distrusted him immediately because he was a Catholic and so he was granted only limited powers. In January 1583 he used French soldiers to try to seize control of Antwerp and when this failed, he left and didn’t return.

Afterwards, Elizabeth I was invited to become Queen of the Netherlands, but once again she declined, leaving the United Provinces with no alternative but to try to govern as a republican body instead.

Assassination of William of Orange in 1584

Just when it looked as if things couldn’t get any worse, the popular William of Orange was assassinated on July 10th 1584 by a Catholic radical hoping to collect the large bounty put on his head by the King of Spain. The murder caused political turmoil that threatened the fledgling Republic and left it even more exposed to the risk of Spanish aggression.

The Treaty of Nonsuch

One of William’s allies had been the wealthy English Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley. He was horrified at the events that were unfolding across the English Channel and pleaded with the Queen to intervene. He and Elizabeth were childhood friends, and he enjoyed a privileged position at court as one of her closest advisors. Indeed, it was widely rumoured that they were lovers.

The Queen was eventually persuaded by her trusted companion to provide the Dutch Republic with the support it so urgently needed. On August 10th 1585 she signed the Treaty of Nonsuch in which England agreed to supply 6,400 foot soldiers, 1,000 cavalry and an annual subsidy of 600,000 florins. In return, the Dutch agreed to finance English garrisons at the strategically important seaports of Flushing and Brill to keep them out of Spanish hands.
A substantial amount of the money required to finance this endeavour came from Leicester’s personal finances, and the Queen appointed him head of the English troops in the Netherlands.

The New Governor-General

When Leicester arrived in the Netherlands in December 1585 he was welcomed like a King. Lavish festivals were held in his honour and cheering crowds followed him wherever he went. The following month, he was offered the title Governor-General and accepted the position without first seeking confirmation from the Queen. He probably realized that the title was necessary in order to be able to exert effective control and unite the provinces. But by accepting the position he effectively made his Sovereign the Queen of the Netherlands.

Elizabeth was furious. She had explicitly declined the invitation to become Sovereign over the Netherlands and she commanded Leicester to resign the post. This put the Earl in a very difficult position. He now had the “the rule and government general” with a Council of State to support him. The Dutch pleaded with the Queen, claiming that the position had been bestowed on him by the Dutch people, and not by a Sovereign.

Elizabeth issued a stern reprimand to the Earl and showed her displeasure by preventing his wife from joining him with a large entourage, which would have created the unfavourable impression that he was setting up his own court. However, she also recognised the importance of his role and wrote to the Dutch provinces asking them to follow his advice in matters of Government.

With Amsterdam’s reputation as a major centre of international trade growing the demand for a uniquely identifiable Dutch ducat grew along with it. On October 4th 1586, Leicester ordered that a gold ducat be designed and struck.

The Knight in Shining Armour

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester in 1575

Ducats struck in other countries often featured monarchs and popular figures and so it is not a giant leap of the imagination to suggest that the figure depicted on the Dutch gold coin was modelled on the most powerful man in the Dutch Republic who had united the provinces and commissioned their new coin.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester was held in particular high esteem by the Dutch for supporting their struggle for independence at great personal cost to his finances and political reputation. He was, quite literally, their knight in shining armour. And it appears that this is exactly how they chose to depict him on their gold ducat.

He wears armour because he was Head of the English army in the Netherlands. He carries a sword because he was determined to defend the Dutch Republic from Spanish aggression. He holds arrows in his hand to symbolize the provinces that he had united by becoming their Governor-General. Contemporary illustrations of the Earl of Leicester further support the theory that the oldest continuously issued gold coin in the world depicts the image of an Englishman.

A sketch made in 1575 depicts the Earl of Leicester in an expensive suit of tilting armour with a plumed hat that appears to closely match the image of the soldier on the ducat first struck in 1586. In addition, an engraving of the Governor-General on horseback in 1586 suggests that the Earl had put on weight during the intervening years. This could explain why the soldier on the coin has a significantly fuller figure than a typical soldier.

Leicester’s Legacy

Despite his best intentions, the Earl of Leicester ultimately proved to be a major disappointment for the Dutch. The Queen forbade him from using his army to seek out and proactively engage Spanish soldiers which seriously hampered his chances of defending the Dutch from their attacks.

In August 1557 the strategic deep-water port of Sluis, defended by English and Dutch troops, fell to the Spanish after weeks of intense fighting. It was a bitter blow, and Leicester quickly lost his credibility with the Dutch as an effective military leader.

The hopes of the Dutch rebels that had been raised by the Treaty of Nonsuch were dashed by the harsh reality that Leicester, with his hands effectively tied by the Queen, was simply unable to defend them as they wanted. To compound the problem, Elizabeth also withheld payments to Leicester’s army which further worsened morale and made Leicester’s position even more difficult.

Queen Elizabeth I

Elizabeth’s ongoing reluctance to take any action that could be perceived by Spain as a hostile act ultimately proved to be futile. Ever since the Treaty of Nonsuch, King Philip II had been preparing a full-scale invasion fleet to conquer England and bring the reign of its Protestant Queen to an ignoble end.

By December 1587 relations between the Queen and the Dutch politicians had broken down to such an extent that Leicester asked to be recalled to England. He returned home heavily in debt, having been unable to provide the effective military leadership that the Dutch required. Following his departure, several governors appointed by Leicester betrayed his trust in them and handed over land to the Spanish.

Once back in England, Leicester resumed his close personal relationship with the Queen. She appointed him Lieutenant and Captain-General of the Queen’s Armies and Companies, and as the Spanish Armada drew closer he arranged for her to rally the English troops at Tilbury where he planned to defend London. With Leicester by her side, Elizabeth made the famous declaration that would cement her status as one of England’s most beloved monarchs; “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king – and of a King of England too”.

The Spanish Armada was defeated at sea before reaching English soil and afterwards Leicester was seen riding in splendour through the streets of London and dining frequently with the Queen. On September 4th 1588 he died suddenly at the age of fifty-six Elizabeth was inconsolable and locked herself in her bedroom for several days until her worried staff broke the door down. She was to mourn him for the rest of her life. His last letter, sent six days before his death remained beside her bed until her own death in 1603 brought the Tudor dynasty to an end.

A Shrinking Waistline

Between 1586 and 1816 Dutch ducats had an unchanging weight of 3.515g and had a gold content of 98.6%. In 1817 a slightly modified ducat design was introduced with a new specification. The gold content was reduced slightly to 98.3% and the weight was lowered to 3.454g. Since then, the metrics have remained unchanged and gold ducats struck to these specifications continue to be struck by the Royal Dutch Mint to this day.

A comparison of the 1817 Dutch ducat and the original 1586 ducat shows that the gold purity and coin weight were not the only reductions made. The soldier that appears on the coin has also lost a substantial amount of weight over the intervening centuries.

The changing shape of the soldier on the Dutch Ducat since 1586

If the first Dutch ducat really did depict the English Governor-General then the reason for the soldier’s changing appearance over the years suddenly becomes very clear. This was an intentional act to conceal the identity of the man on the coin. A deliberate attempt, perhaps, to airbrush from the collective Dutch consciousness the memory of the time when they enthusiastically welcomed an English Earl as the head of their Government and, in so doing made the English Queen their unwilling Sovereign.

After so much rejoicing at his appointment, the failure of the English Governor-General and the indifference of the English Queen to their plight was a bitter blow for the Dutch. It is highly unlikely that they would have wanted to immortalise such a painful chapter of their history on their most important gold coin, particularly during the bitter Anglo-Dutch Wars that were waged throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Of course, this may explain why the soldier on the Dutch ducat remains officially anonymous to this day.

Robert Dudley as Governor General in 1586


Saint George and the dragon. A classically inspired composition?

The iconic image of Saint George fighting the dragon on the British gold sovereign is arguably the most famous battle scene depicted in modern numismatic history. It was created by the Italian sculptor and engraver Benedetto Pistrucci (1783-1855) for the first modern sovereign in 1817. 

Pistrucci arrived in London in 1816 and quickly found himself embroiled in a minor scandal after he was introduced to Richard Payne Knight MP, a wealthy scholar, author and numismatist. Pistrucci described him in his unfinished autobiography as “a great connoisseur in gems, cameos, and intaglios, bronzes, statues, medals, and antique vases”.

Knight was eager to show the Italian artist his “cabinet full of precious things”, but the meeting did not go well.  When the collector proudly showed the artist one of his most prized possessions, which he described as “the finest Greek cameo in existence”. Pistrucci replied that it was actually his own work and that he had created it just six years earlier!

Unwilling to believe that an unscrupulous art dealer had duped him, a furious Knight refused to believe Pistrucci until the artist happily prepared a superior version in just a few days to demonstrate his mastery of the craft. Despite the accusations of fraud hurled at him, Pistrucci had not intended to deceive. Before arriving in Britain, he had innocently sold his work through a business partner, who had, without his knowledge, fraudulently passed them off to collectors as ancient artworks.

In his eagerness to set the record straight, Pistrucci quickly attracted the attention of many wealthy admirers who came to examine his work for themselves. Lucrative work soon followed.  One request came from Sir Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society, who ordered a cameo of King George III cut in red jasper in return for a fee of 50 guineas. It was to prove a fateful commission.

William Wellesley-Pole, Master of the Mint

When Sir Joseph later showed his friend William Wellesley-Pole the finished cameo that Pistrucci produced, the Master of the Mint knew that he had found the right man to design Britain’s new coinage. He wrote to his superiors at the Treasury to advise them that he had employed, “Mr. Pistrucci, an artist of the greatest celebrity and whose works place him above all competition as a gem engraver, to make models for the dyes of the new coinage.”

Because Pistrucci was Italian, Wellesley Pole could not appoint him as the Mint’s Chief Engraver as only a British subject could hold the position. However, when the role fell vacant following the death of Thomas Wyon in 1817, Pistrucci assumed the responsibilities of Chief Engraver without the title.  When Wellesley-Pole asked him to propose a suitably majestic reverse design for the new gold sovereign, the artist suggested a dramatic image of England’s patron Saint fighting the dragon in the Greek style. 

He was already familiar with the design, having recently been introduced to Lord and Lady Spencer by his friend Joseph Banks.  Lord Spencer was a Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, a British order of chivalry with Saint George as its patron saint. Pistrucci later recalled that;

“her ladyship … showed me a large model in wax of a St. George, done by Marchant, and said to me: ” My husband would like you to make a model in wax, of the same size and subject: but I should like it in the Greek style” as that was the style in which naked figures were done; and the mantle in this beautiful white, would have a superb effect.”

Pistrucci had been delighted to accept the commission and produced his model of Saint George and the dragon in the Greek style as requested. To capture the naked horseman’s muscle tone, legend has it that he invited an Italian waiter at Brunet’s Hotel in Leicester Square, where he was lodging to model for him.

In addition to appearing on paintings and statues, Saint George’s legendary encounter with the dragon had occasionally appeared on coins before.  In the twelfth century, a crude depiction was used on a coin issued by Roger of Salerno, Regent of Antioch.  In 1526, it appeared on the George Noble during Henry VIII’s reign, although production was not extensive, and there are few surviving examples.  Later, the scene appeared again on two trial pieces, the Reddite and Petition Crowns created in 1663 by Thomas Simon, the engraver of seals at The Royal Mint.  

However, there is little evidence that Pistrucci was inspired by medieval or modern interpretations of the famous confrontation between the saint and the dragon. His passion was for the classical, and it is said that he liked to “study Greek originals day and night“.  

Detail from one of the Elgin Marbles

There was no shortage of classical Greek art in nineteenth-century London to inspire his composition. He most likely drew inspiration from admiring the collection of marble sculptures originally from the Parthenon in Athens. They were saved from almost certain destruction by Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. He purchased the pieces from the Greek Government and turned down a generous offer from Napoleon to sell them to him. Instead, he donated them to the British Museum in London, where they continue to be admired by millions of visitors every year.

It is also possible that Pistrucci was inspired to create his composition by ancient coins, made centuries before the legend of Saint George arrived in Britain.  In Ancient Greece, the King of Paeonia, Patraos (c335-315BC), depicted a horseman with a plumed helmet spearing his vanquished enemy as he falls under the hooves of his rearing horse.  Even to a casual observer, the similarities in the composition of Pistrucci’s iconic masterwork created 2,100 years later are remarkable.

Six centuries later, the Roman Emperor Magnentius (c350-353 AD) also struck a coin with an uncanny resemblance to Pistrucci’s composition.  Largely forgotten today, Magnentius seized power from his predecessor Constans in a coup and ruled over western Europe for three years. In that time, he struck coins in his own image, and one of them, named ‘Gloria Romanorum’ (Glory of Rome), depicts on its reverse a helmeted rider on horseback trampling a barbarian underfoot.

Both the Greek and Roman coins depict a rider on horseback wearing a helmet with striking plumage and a spear in his right hand. The horse is wearing a bridle and is rearing up on two legs before his adversary, who falls back whilst looking up at the victor towering over him.  On the Magnentius coin, the similarities with Pistrucci’s Saint George are further accentuated by the appearance of a long flowing cloak which billows out behind the horseman and is fastened by a piece of fabric across his chest.

A further, startling similarity can be observed on the ground, depicted in both images as a horizontal line.  On the Roman coin, a broken spear is also clearly visible sticking up out of the earth. 

These uncanny similarities provide compelling evidence that Pistrucci saw at least one of these ancient coin designs. Many fine examples have survived to the present day, and so may have appeared in one of the private collections of classical antiquities that his wealthy customers and friends showed him. Perhaps he saw one in Payne Knight’s “cabinet full of precious things”. We also know that Sir Joseph Banks’ sister Sarah Sophia was an avid collector of coins and medals. Given the circles that Pistrucci was moving in, it does not require a giant leap of the imagination to suggest that he encountered an ancient coin with a similar composition that fired his creativity. 

The similarities do not end with the design. Measuring 22 millimetres in diameter, the Roman coin of Magnentius is almost precisely the same size as the modern sovereign. This may have attracted the Italian sculptor’s eye as he considered the most effective way to compose an intricate design on such a small table.  

Frustratingly, Pistrucci’s autobiography ends at the very moment he set to work on his model in the Greek style. Therefore, we are unlikely to ever know for certain which elements inspired him to create arguably the most famous coin design in numismatic history. However, the striking similarities between coins struck in classical antiquity, and Pistrucci’s Saint George and the dragon raise an intriguing possibility.

Did ancient coin designs inspire the brilliant nineteenth-century artist to create the neo-classical masterwork which still appears on sovereigns struck today?

Magnentius’ Gloria Romanorum (circa AD 350-353) 


Coin of Patraos, King of Paeonia, Patraos (circa 335-315 BC)
(Image courtesy of Baldwins)


Pistrucci’s original design for the George III sovereign (1817-1820)



Announcing a new Dirhem book by Jani Oravisjärvi

The Coins & History Foundation is proud to announce the publication of a major new work explaining the history and impacts of the Islamic silver coins called “Dirhems.” The author, Jani Oravisjärvi, is an archaeologist currently working as a project researcher (University of Oulu) on The Silver and origins of the Viking Age -project. Jani is a former keeper of the numismatic collections at the National Museum of Finland and a former executive secretary and board member of the Finnish Numismatic Society.

The book is available for purchase at Suomen Moneta in Helsinki, Finland:

Here is a short excerpt from the book’s introduction:

“One group of coins was issued during the period 1300 years ago, which we we know today as the Viking Age. The coins that started it all are dirhems. Those Islamic silver coins weighing just under three grams changed the direction of history and ushered in a whole new chapter in coins and currency. Dirhems formed a continuous stream of silver flowing along the eastern road through Europe to the North for two hundred for a year from the early 800s to the early 1000s. Without dirhams, the Viking Age and others to follow would have looked very differently.”

“Despite their importance, dirhems and other money of early Islamic culture are not very well-known among the general public. Early Islamic money is the oldest witness to Arab and Islamic identity so they can also be approached, for example, from a cultural and religious history point of view. In many matters related to Arab and Islamic history money is an excellent – and sometimes even the only – group of known objects, whose provable value cannot be underestimated or disputed.”

To read an entire chapter from this Dirhem book in English, click here:

To read that same chapter in its original Finnish, click here:

Dirhemin Synty (Finnish)


Kuva 1. Banijuridit: Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Ahmad (295-297h / 908-910). Dirhemin takasivulla viitataan samanidiemiiri Isma’il b. Ahmadiin. Lyöntipaikka ja -vuosi: Balkh, 292h (904/5). 2,95 g. Kuva 2x suurennos. Todellinen halk. 27 mm. © Heritage Auctions.

Tokharistanissa ryhdyttiin dirhemeitä lyömään paikallisten emiirien toimesta 870-luvulla. Alueen pääkaupunkina toimi tuolloin Balkh, mutta rahanlyönti oli keskittynyt Andarabaan, joka sijaitsi sopivasti kahden keskeisen hopeakaivoksen lähettyvillä. Samanidien ottaessa alueen hallintaansa vuonna 287h (900) rahapajat lisäsivät samanidiemiiri Ismailin nimen rahojen takasivulle vallan tunnustuksen osoittamiseksi. Tässä vaiheessa dirhemeitä ryhdyttiin lyödä myös Balkhin rahapajassa. Yleisesti erittäin vaativana pidettyyn leimasimen (meistien) kaivertajan tehtävään palkattiin vuonna 292h (904) poikkeuksellisen taitava käsityöläinen, jonka leimasimia pidetään yhtenä varhaisen islamilaisen historian kaikista kauneimpina (kuva 87). Tämä ei jäänyt myöskään muilta alueen rahapajoilta huomaamatta, sillä heti seuraavana vuonna muut rahapajat ryhtyvät jäljittelemään rahojen kaunista tyyliä.

Kuva 2. Samanidit: Isma’il I (892-907). Signeerattu dirhemi ilman rahapajamerkintää mutta todennäköisesti Andaraba, 303h (915/6). Nimi Mujib esiintyy takasivulla noin klo 5 kohdalla ulommaisen kehätekstin päällä hyvin pienellä kirjoitettuna. © Stephen Album.

Dirhemeiden tyylin muutoksen perusteella voidaan todeta, että vuonna 293h (905/6) Andaraban rahapaja irtisanoi siellä vuodesta 287h (900/901) asti työskennelleet leimasimen kaivertajat ja palkkasi näiden tilalle yhden tai mahdollisesti useamman taitavamman kaivertajan. Ainakin yhden irtisanotuista kaivertajista tiedetään siirtyneen samana vuonna avattuun Panjshirin rahapajalle, sillä siellä lyödyt tyyliltään kömpelöt dirhemit ovat täysin identtisia aiempien Andaraban dirhemeiden kanssa. Tämän kaivertajan ura leimasimien kaivertajana vaikuttaa kuitenkin päättyneen kyseisenä vuotena, sillä enää tämän jälkeen hänen kaivertamilla leimasimilla lyötyjä dirhemeitä ei tavata..

Uusien kaivertajien myötä laadullinen ero on välittömästi havaittavissa välittömästi Andarabassa lyödyissä dirhemeissä. Laadullisen eron ohella osaan rahoihin ilmestyy pienellä kirjoitettuna leimasimen kaivertajan nimimerkki ”Mujib”, joka sijaitsee yleensä takasivulla kehätekstin yhteyteen pienellä piilotettuna (kuva 88). Signeerattujen leimasimien perusteella hänen tiedetään työskennelleen Andaraban rahapajassa noin kymmennen vuoden ajan.

Andaraban ohella Mujibin tiedetään kaivertaneen leimasimia myös edellä mainitulle Panjshirin rahapajalle. Kyseisen rahapajan tekee poikkeukselliseksi kolmen eri nimen käyttö samanaikaisesti. Arabimaantieteilijä al-Hamdani (893-945) kertoo paikallisesta kaivoksesta kaivetun hopean jaetun kolmeen osaan: yksi osa kaivostyöläisille (Ma’din, suom kaivos), yksi osa paikallisille (’Askar Pansjhir) ja yksi osa paikalliselle rahapajalle (Pansjhir) rahaksi lyötäväksi. Näin ollen eri rahapajanimet vastaisivat todellisuudessa sitä, kenen laskuun Mujib kunkin leimasimen kaiversi. Signeerausten syy ei alkuaan välttämättä ollut erityinen ammattiylpeys, kuten oli esimerkiksi klassillisen kauden syrakusalaisten leimasimien kaivertajien kohdalla, vaan hyvin käytännöllinen syy. Mujib kaiversi leimasimia pienelle rahapajalle, joka löi rahaa lähinnä paikallisten tarpeisiin. Kaivertamalla nimensä leimasimiin hän varmisti saavansa oikean suuruisen palkkkion tekemästään työstä. Parhaiten tämä oli osoitettavissa nimimerkin avulla, joka kiistatta osoitti hänen valmistaneen kyseiset leimasimet.

Kuva 3. Samanidit: Nasr ibn Ahmad (301-331h 913-942)nimissä lyöty dinaari. Nishapur, 324h (935/6). Etusivun reunassa noin klo 9-10 kohdalla signeeraus “Abu Harith“.

Tapa signeerata leimasimia levisi myöhemmin, mutta se ei koskaan laajasti yleistynyt. Samanidien rahojen kohdalla tunnetaan yhteensä neljä eri leimasimen kaivertajaa, jotka ovat signeeranneet leimasimet. Volgan bulgaareiden keskuudestakin tunnetaan kaksi eri kaivertajaa. Rahojen yleisyyden perusteella kaikista tunnetuin leimasimien kaivertaja on todennäköisesti Nishapurin rahapajassa 930 luvulla työskennellyt Abu Harith, jonka signeeraamat samanidien dinaarit ovat kaikista yleisimpiä signeeratuilla leimasimilla lyödyt islamilaiset rahat (kuva 89).

Islamilaisessa taiteessa, arkkitehtuurissa ja käsitöissä teosten signeeraminen vakiintui hyvin varhaisessa vaiheessa vuosien 1050-1100 välisenä aikana. Rahojen osalta tämä käytäntö alkoi jopa sata vuotta aiemmin. Ensimmäinen signeeratulla leimasimella lyöty raha havaittiin vuonna 1938, jolloin Amerikan Numismaattisen Yhdistyksen (American Numismatic Society) islamilaisten rahojen kokoelmasta vastannut George C. Miles (1904-1975) havaitsi signeerauksen Isfahanissa vuonna 358h (968/9) lyödyssä bujidien dirhemissä. Signeeraus ”qabla ’amal al-Hasan ibn Muhammad” (suom. al-Hasan ibn Muhammadin työ) oli vain 1,5 millimetriä korkea ja 5 millimetriä pitkä.

Signeerausten perusteella al-Hasanin tiedetään työskennelleen kolmessa eri rahapajassa: Arrajanissa, Isfahanissa sekä al-Muhammadiyassa (nyk. Teheran). Näistä rahapajoista hänen tiedetään aloittaneen Arrajanin rahapajassa vuonna 354h (965-7), jolloin hänen signeerauksensa havaitaan ensimmäisen kerran. Hänen signeeramia rahoja tunnetaan vuosien 354-360h (965-971) väliltä. Tämän jälkeen hän siirtyi al-Muhammadiyan rahapajaan, josta tunnetaan hänen vuonna 362h (972/3) signeerama dirhemi. Hänen kohdallaan leimasimet ovat täydellisesti kaiverrettuja rahojen ollessa täydellisen kauniita (durust), joten al-Hasanin tapauksessa signeeraamisen avulla osoitettiin oman työn nousseen tavanomaisuuden yläpuolelle.

JANI ORAVISJÄRVI on arkeologi (MA), joka työskentelee tällä hetkellä projektin tutkijana (Oulun yliopisto) teoksessa The Silver and origins of the Viking Age (ERC-projekti). Jani on entinen numismaattisten kokoelmien pitäjä Kansallismuseossa ja entinen Suomen numismaattisen seuran pääsihteeri ja hallituksen jäsen.

Jos haluat lukea lisää Janin kirjasta, visit

Dirhemin Synty (English)


Figure 1. Banijuridit: Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Ahmad (295-297h / 908-910). On the back of the dirham reference is made to the samanidiemir Isma’il b. Ahmad. Place and year of issue: Balkh, 292h (904/5). 2.95 g. Actual diameter 27 mm. © Heritage Auctions

In Tokharistan, dirhems were struck by local emirates in the 870s. Balkh was the capital of the region at the time, but the money was concentrated in Andaraba, conveniently located near two major silver mines. Samanidien took control of the area in 287h (900), and the mints added the Samanid emir Ismail name on the back of the money to show recognition of his power. At this point, dirhems were also struck at the Balkh Mint. These coins generally required very good engraving skills. An engraver was hired in 292h (904) with exceptional skill – an artisan whose dies are considered among the most beautiful in all early Islamic history (Fig. 1). This was not overlooked by other mints in the region, for the very next year the other mints will begin to imitate this beautiful style of coins.

Figure 2. Samanidit: Isma’il I (892-907). Signed dirham without mint mark, but probably Andaraba, 303h (915/6). The name Mujib appears on the back page at about 5 p.m. on top of the outer perimeter text in very small print. © Stephen Album.

On the basis of the change in the style of the dirhems, it can be stated that in 293h (905/6) the Mint of Andaraba dismissed one or more engravers who had worked there since 287h (900/901) and hired one or possibly more skilled engravers. At least one of the dismissed engravers is known to have moved in the same year to the opening of the Panjshir Mint, where the clumsy-style dirhams struck there are completely identical to previous Andaraba dirhams. This engraver’s career appears to have ended that year, however, for later dirhems struck with his engraved stamps are not to be found.

With the new engravers, the qualitative difference is immediately noticeable immediately in Andaraba for minted dirhams. In addition to the qualitative difference, some of the money appears small written with the nickname “Mujib” of the stamp engraver, usually located on the back in connection with the perimeter text in small hidden form (Fig. 2). Based on this signed stamp, she is known to have worked at the Mint of Andaraba for about ten years.

In addition to Andaraba, Mujib is known to have engraved stamps for the Panjshir Mint as well. That mint is made exceptional by three different names used simultaneously. Arab geographer al-Hamdani (893-945) tells of a local mine mined silver is divided into three parts: one part for miners (Ma’din, Finnish.mine), one part for the locals (‘Askar Pansjhir’) and one part for the local mint (‘Pansjhir’) to be minted. Thus, different mint names would actually correspond to who landing Mujib engraving of each stamp. The reason for the signatures was not necessarily professional pride, as was the case with the classical period Syracuse stamps for engravers, but for a very practical reason. Mujib engraved stamps to a small mint that struck money mainly for the needs of the locals. Engraving his name stamps he made sure he received the right amount of reward for the work he did. This is further evidenced by a pseudonym which he indisputably made for those coins.

Figure 3. Samanidit: Nasr ibn Ahmad (301-331h / 913-942) dinar. Nishapur, 324h (935/6). Obverse on the edge at about 9-10 p.m.signature “Abu Harith”

This practice of signing stamps did influence others, but it never became widespread. For samanid money, a total of four different stamp engravers are known to have signed the stamps. Two different engravers are also known among the Bulgarians of the Volga. Based on the prevalence of coins, the most famous stamp engraver of all is probably Abu Harith, who worked at the Nishapur Mint in the 930s and whose samidani dinars are the most common of all is Islamic money struck with signed stamps (Figure 2).

In Islamic art, architecture and crafts, the signing of works became well established at an early stage between 1050 and 1100. In terms of coins, this practice began up to a hundred years earlier. The first money struck with the signed stamp was detected in 1938 by George C. Miles (1904-1975) from the American Numismatic Association (American Numismatic Society.) Miles was in charge of the collection of Islamic money signature in the Bujid dirham struck in Isfahan in 358h (968/9). Signature “Qabla’ Amal al-Hasan ibn Muhammad ”(work of al-Hasan ibn Muhammad) was only 1.5 millimeters high and 5 millimeters long.

Based on the signatures, al-Hasan is known to have worked in three different mints: In Arrajan, Isfahan and al-Muhammadiya (now Tehran). Of these mints he is known to have started at the Arrajan Mint in 354h (965-7), when his signatures are detected for the first time. The money he signed is known between 354-360h (965-971). He then moved to al-Muhammadiya’s mint, of which the dirham signed by him in 362h (972/3) is known. His stamps are perfectly engraved, and the coins are perfectly beautiful (durust), so in the case of al-Hasan, signing was used to show that his own work had become the norm.

JANI ORAVISJÄRVI is an archaeologist (M.A.) currently working as a project researcher (University of Oulu) on The Silver and origins of the Viking Age -project (an ERC project.) Jani is a former keeper of the numismatic collections at the National Museum of Finland and a former executive secretary and board member of the Finnish Numismatic Society.

If you are interested in reading more of Jani’s book visit:

One Million Silver Dollars

The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair offered its ten million visitors many exciting sights.  Astronaut John Glenn brought his Friendship 7 space capsule, Elvis Presley even filmed a movie there, and Seattle’s famous Space Needle was built as the fair’s futuristic symbol.  However, if you had purchased your ticket and walked on the fairgrounds in the spring of 1962, you would have been treated to a spectacular display which has never been re-created:  a wire corn crib holding 1 MILLION gleaming US Silver Dollars!

This incredible display was the result of an unlikely partnership between the Philadelphia Mint and three Washington numismatists.  The three convinced a Columbus, Nebraska manufacturing company to build a steel building on the fair site, while two large semi trucks each carried 500,000 silver dollars in mint-sealed bags from Philadelphia all the way across country to Seattle.  (Of course, the trucks also carried armed Pinkerton guards, while state troopers and local police provided additional escort.)

To construct the Million Silver Dollars exhibit, 800,000 Morgan silver dollars in mint bags dated 1910-1915 were carefully stacked in the center of the aforementioned corn crib.  Then, once the mountain of bags was completed, the final 200,000 Peace dollars were poured in to completely cover the bags.  Fair visitors were allowed to pass within just a few feet of this amazing display from the Fair’s opening day, April 21, 1962, until it closed in October.   Anywhere from 25,000 – 40,000 visitors passed through the steel building every day to gaze upon this once-in-a-lifetime sight.  While most visitors considered themselves lucky to even be close to this treasure, one unsuspecting lady was the luckiest of them all!  In June, as the one millionth fair visitor passed through the gates, she was presented with 100 of the silver dollars from the exhibit.

In the fall of 1962, just after the World’s Fair has closed, an ad appeared in a national coin magazine offering actual dollars from this exhibit, in commemorative holders, for $1.95 each.  Or, you could purchase up to 5 bags per person for $1500 per bag of 1000.  

Oh for a time machine to travel back 59 years, eh?!!

Steve Wolff is an American numismatist, writer, and video producer who has spent over 20 years sharing the fascinating stories behind coins and the historical events and personalities that inspired and shaped them.