Minting Silver Coins – a History

Posted by on October 28, 2011
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A Extremely Rare Greek Silver Stater of Thebes (Boeotia), a Stunning Depiction of Dionysos (photo by Ancient Art*)

Silver coins have been used since 700 BC. Minting silver coins was generally accomplished by using an anvil die technique.  By the mid-6th century it appears that smelting had advanced far enough to simplify the production of pure silver and gold.  Ancient Greek King Croesus introduced a bi-metallic standard allowing pure silver and gold coins to be struck and used in the marketplace.  The smelting of silver from lead has been evident as early as the 4th millennium BC as evident from slag heaps found in Asia Minor and the Aegean Sea.  There were also major silver mines in Laurium and the elaborate washing tables and cisterns for gathering winter rain water are still there.

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Since native silver is rare, it has to be separated from lead or copper ore and/or other silver compounds.  The method most likely used would be to heat the washed minerals in a ‘bowl’, placed in an hearth, to 900-1,000 degrees Celsius causing the lead, copper, sulfur, and/or other carbonates to oxides and settle on the bottom and the liquid silver to rise and be poured off.  Slowly techniques changed, but it would not be until 16th century that smelting would undergo significant changes, some of these centered around the ‘Patio Process’.

In 1554 Bartolome de Medina developed ‘Patio Process’ in Pachuca, New Spain (Mexico) for recovering silver from the vast New World mines for Spain by using mercury as a substituting medium.  In 1609 Alvaro Alonso Barba invented a faster ‘pan’ process in Potosi Bolivia using salt, or copper sulfate with the mercury.  In the 1860’s the Washoe process evolved aiding in the Comstock Lode of Nevada, US.  Adding water to the crushed (sand-sized) ore, both salt and copper-sulfate are added to the mercury, then using an iron plate - a ‘muller’, to agitate and grind the mixture.  Other minerals have been used in the process to deal with different impurities.  Now there are also electrolytic methods which uses the natural ionic charge of liquid silver to gather it. 

Silver for the making of coins are cast into blanks or planchets (an old term is flan for these flat disks).  In ancient times the planchets were struck with the dye when red hot otherwise the die would not take properly.  The die stamping was done on an ‘anvil’ with a hammer.  Now the planchets are slow cooled and the machines delivering the dye use thousands of pounds of force. 

Dies wear out and need to be replaced.  During the crisis of the 3rd Century Rome dies were used even though they were worn and even when cracked.  An account from a Venetian mint during the middle ages recorded being able to get 17,000 strikes from the ‘hammer’ die, and 36,000 from the ‘anvil’ die.  At a production level of 20,000 coins a day they were making a ‘hammer’ die every day, and an ‘anvil’ die every other day. 

The current method is a bit more complex in procedure taking a large plaster model and reducing it onto a master steel hub.  This hub is then heat treated hardened.  This hub makes a master die and then this makes more hubs, and then it is these hubs that are used to make the dies.  The metal for the die is treated using a annealing furnace.  This softens the metal and the image for the die takes easier.

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