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Electrum Hektai


AncientNumis

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A recent write-up from from my blog (https://ancientnumis.substack.com/) that I thought might prove interesting as a brief introductory guide to the series of hektai issued at Phokaia/Mytilene (and an opportunity to discuss some awesome coin types, of course!)...

Let’s look at an extraordinary series of miniature masterpieces, in gold, featuring an impressive array of designs… that isn’t prohibitively expensive! 

Firstly, however, it’s important to understand the development of electrum coins…

Early Coinage

The very first coins ever minted, produced in Lydia in the 7th century BC, were made of electrum (an alloy composed primarily of gold and silver). There were, however, issues with this:

  • The coins had differing metal compositions, so those that had less gold (and were therefore worth less inherently) were treated as having the same monetary value as others with a higher gold to silver ratio
  • Because Electrum was so valuable, coins for daily transactions had to be inconveniently tiny: the smallest denomination weighed ~0.08g, with a diameter of ~3mm
  • Electrum as a metal was relatively abundant in the region - a reason for its initially success - but scarce elsewhere, preventing coinage from spreading further geographically

As a result, a bimetallic system (gold & silver) was soon introduced by the famed King Croesus of Lydia. In some city-states, however, electrum coinage continued to be issued up to Alexander the Great: namely Kyzikos (in Mysia), Mytilene (on the island of Lesbos) and Phokaia (in Ionia). We are interested in the output of these last two mints.

Hektai

The term ‘hekte’ (ἕκτη) literally means sixth in Ancient Greek, and is used by numismatists to refer to electrum sixth stater denomination. These would weigh ~2.5g, and, despite their small size, represent a relatively large sum of money; one hekte might have been equivalent to roughly a week’s work. While Kyzikos chiefly used the larger full stater, with a wide array of fractional coins, at Mytilene and Phokaia electrum coins were issued nearly always as hektai (used locally). It is this series that we will investigate further.

A Tale of Two Cities

An extant treaty between Mytilene and Phokaia reveals the extent of their cooperation in issuing these hektai. It would seem that that “the minting of electrum hektai was undertaken in alternate years by these two cities” and that “the designs were changed for each issue”. Furthermore, harsh retribution was set for those who attempted to debase the this coinage, the integrity of which relied on maintaining the metal composition.

“Whoever makes up the gold will be liable to punishment by both cities. […] If caught mixing the gold to dilution willfully, the punishment will be death with fury.”

While at Phokaia the appearance of a quadripartite incuse square on the reverse demonstrated an affinity for the archaic, issues from Mytilene featured changing designs on both sides. The specimens below should serve to demonstrate the development of hektai at Mytilene.

Early Example

image.png.64740dff6f9a2ef3241cfee0fbfdafc7.png

LESBOS. Mytilene. Circa 478-455 BC. Hekte (9mm, 2.54 g, 6h). Head of lion right / Incuse head of calf right. Bodenstedt Em. 24; HGC 6, 950. VF. Struck on a slightly short flan.

Initially, electrum hektai from Mytilene commonly featured animal designs; on this example, we see the heads of lion and calf. In fact, lions were especially popular and might as a motif “hark back to designs present on the earliest coinage”, after all they were issued in the same general area as Lydia (Western Anatolia). The reverse design appears incuse, reminiscent of the techniques associated with gemstone engraving. Indeed, the remarkable level of detail for a flan just 9mm wide is a testament to the skill of the celators’ die-cutting for such issues.

Later Exampleimage.png.86cb136b6569b8dc49ee6156d1c7dddd.png

LESBOS. Mytilene. Circa 377-326 BC. Hekte (Electrum, 10 mm, 2.49 g, 6 h). Head of Dionysos to right, wearing wreath of ivy and fruit. Rev. Head of a satyr to right, wearing wreath of grain ears. Bodenstedt 87. SNG Copenhagen -. SNG von Aulock 1719. The reverse struck slightly off center, otherwise, very fine. Bodenstedt Dies d/-


A hundred years on, however, and the intaglio reverse was dropped in favour of relief designs on both obverse and reverse. The subjects portrayed are different, too; now we see the heads of mythological figures, suggestive of an interest in portraiture. Much more classical in style, this hekte would likely have been struck near the end of the series. And yet, despite these artistic developments, this piece has the same metal composition and measurements as the earlier issue; dedication to consistency was clearly highly valued.

Thoughts

While electrum hektai aren't cheap, the series has so much to offer: an endless range of fascinating designs (historical, mythological, etc.), master craftsmanship and artistic merit and the opportunity to handle charming little lumps of ancient gold. In comparison to pure gold Greek coinage, which tends to be exceedingly valuable, electrum Hektai offer nearly as much (arguably even more, in some cases…) for a whole lot less.


Post your favourite electrum fractions, or anything relevant!

Edited by AncientNumis
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Very interesting post. I only have one Hekte, a rare issue that references both Philip II and Alexander III.

102_Full.jpg.ba76f22d6c14dab1b45900dfa27a0787.jpg

Mytilene EL Hekte c. 332 BCE
10.5mm 2.57g 12h
Avers : Tête laurée et barbue de Zeus à droite (Philippe II de Macédoine).
Revers : Tête imberbe d’Héraklès à droite coiffée de la léonté dans un carré linéaire (Alexandre III le Grand).
Bod.103 - B. traité- - Aulock1711 - P.- - BMC.- - Cop.- - HGCS. 5/1029 (R2)

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I have an earlier variant of your first coin Bodenstedt13,SNGCop301,HGC G,958, circa 521 - 478 BC, 10 mm , 2,52 gr , as 12 uur.

image.png.a2722d62efc167938a8b236ad6151a41.png

Another with the head of Dionysus Bodenstedt77, circa 412 - 378BC, 10 mm , 2,54 gr , as 12 uur and on the reverse the head of Artemis.

image.png.ab29c84da6f3b74a5370aa7afcebfbd9.png

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Posted · Supporter

Excellent write up! And great coins.  Thanks for sharing. 

Here's my what the hekte nymph:

2744660_1649765838.l-removebg-preview.png.82c9f7c854a8471ce768774f37721393.png.bd60191ad2658b6fef91a8eb70c33b39.png.5e4776647a4127f8ae36b0511aa2debd.png

IONIA. Phokaia. (Circa 477-388). EL Hekte.

Obv: Head of nymph left, hair in sphendone; seal to right.

Rev: Quadripartite incuse square.

SNG von Aulock 2120; Boston MFA 1908-9.

Condition: Fine.

Weight: 2.52 g.

Diameter: 10.19 mm.

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image.png.a1cc46907bd02b5719bd0090cc07717e.png

 

GREEK COINS. LESBOS. MYTILENE
El-Hekte (1/6 stater), 521/478 BC; 2.44 g. Lion's head right//Incuse rooster's head left. Bodenstedt 7.6 (this specimen); Waggoner, Rosen Coll. 552 (this specimen).
Wonderful patina, almost extremely fine

Specimen from the Samuel-Jean de Pozzi collection, Ars Classica I auction, Lucerne 1921, no. 2319 and the Jonathan P. Rosen collection

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On 7/5/2024 at 4:04 PM, AncientNumis said:
  • The coins had differing metal compositions, so those that had less gold (and were therefore worth less inherently) were treated as having the same monetary value as others with a higher gold to silver ratio
  • Because Electrum was so valuable, coins for daily transactions had to be inconveniently tiny: the smallest denomination weighed ~0.08g, with a diameter of ~3mm
  • Electrum as a metal was relatively abundant in the region - a reason for its initially success - but scarce elsewhere, preventing coinage from spreading further geographically

Great thread idea. Thank you. In case it's  of interest there's some recent research that says some of this wasn't the case. A lot is in the biblically-sized White Gold book, and there are a bunch of supporting articles from related or the same authors. The arguments seem to  have held up well and there's been some strong supporting data since. Of course I'm  just regurgitating this as fact but for what it is worth -

One of the main claims is that electrum was actually *not* that abundant and it was an incredibly  carefully and precisely refined product, displaying huge technological skill. A number of sampling tests, especially riverbed,  have shown electrum to be scarce in a natural state  (obviously with the caveat these tests are  now,  not back then!)  To me, this makes the coinage all the more  amazing.

This is a quote from Wartenburg :

This coinage, which displays many interesting features, has usually a gold content of over 60%, and silver of 40%. A coinage with a facing panther or lion head, which has been associated with the earliest lion coinages, has an almost identical gold/silver ratio of 55-45%, with a 1-2 % copper addition. It is likely that this series closely relates to the official Lydian series. One of the few coinages that can be placed securely at a Greek mint is the recumbent lion series of Miletus. This coinage is characterized by a variable gold – silver ratio, in which gold is usually around 43%, whereas the copper content can be as high as 5%. What these different results all show is a fully organized system, in which a specific composition of electrum for a coin series was created. All this was clearly done deliberately, and the desired gold/silver ratio was achieved by combining pure gold and silver, which was previously refined. The discovery that it was not naturally found electrum, which was used, illustrates a highly sophisticated process, but not only of metallurgical technology in the 7th and 6th century BC, but also an understanding of monetary systems.

Also -

In 2000, Andrew Ramage and Paul Craddock, together with several co-authors, published King Croesus’ Gold, Exavations at Sardis and the History of Gold Refining, a book that set a new standard for research on early electrum coinage. The archaeologists examined in detail a metal refinery of the Archaic period in the Lydian capital. From the various finds, it became clear that gold and silver was refined here in the sixth century; the excavation revealed that electrum was separated into pure gold and silver by the process of cementation and cupellation. The authors concluded that the gold refinery at Sardis was therefore to be associated with coin production and more specifically with first Lydian production of pure silver and gold coinage under King Croesus. This interpretation became questionable by another piece of groundbreaking work from Sardis. The current director of the excavations, Professor Nicholas Cahill and his colleagues, analyzed two Lydian third staters excavated at Sardis. The team analyzed these coins by XRF and concluded that they were probably artificially enriched and that the inner core had a higher concentration of silver than the outside. Furthermore, analysis of locally found placer gold from the Sardis river was actually pure gold, not electrum.

 

There's also an  interesting argument (which I can't precisely locate now) that explains  later fluctuations in gold/silver ratios as less random or less attempts to game the system than an intelligent constant adjustment to the  real world changes in the relative  pricing of gold and  silver, which of course moved around quite a lot,  both over time and from area to area. My apologies  if that's all a bit dry,  but it adds interest in my view!

To atone,  here are a couple more ~early examples.

Hecte circa 521-478, EL 2.56 g. Head of lion r., with open jaws. Rev. Calf's head r., incuse.

fffdvfffvf.jpg.59012c6f6df4417c9e255a4263021076.jpg

LESBOS. Mytilene. Circa 521-478 BC. Hekte (Electrum, 9 mm, 2.48 g, 12 h). Head of a ram to right; below, rooster standing left, pecking at the ground. Rev. Incuse head of Herakles right, wearing lion skin headdress; below, incuse club.

breebrtbrbrtb.jpg.433d935ad938f55cecabc3433c151a7a.jpg

 

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@Deinomenid Thanks very much for taking the time to write such a detailed reply, and it's honour to be corrected by someone so experienced/knowledgable. My numismatic research is very basic at the moment, but I'm looking forward to maybe purchasing the "White Gold" you mentioned to learn more - it's certainly a topic that fascinates me (as a relative beginner), and I appreciate the opportunity to learn more about it from you. I'm especially curious about your last point, sounds like a very interesting theory. And lovely coins too, of course: your lion/calf is especially stunning in my opinion - when I show family/friends the off-centre reverse of my similar type they can never guess what it depicts exactly 😂. Again, thanks!!

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