Ancient Coin Vocabulary

Describing Ancient Coins

The Vocabulary of Classical Numismatics - Part 7

This site has been dedicated to the spreading of the 'word' on ancient coins. While some attempt has been made to do this in comprehensible English, it has been necessary to use a specialized vocabulary that might not be understood fully by every person. This continues our series that will attempt to correct this problem. If you have not seen the earlier pages, I would suggest starting there: Part One.

Asian Coins

When this website was started in 1997, I knew absolutely nothing about ancient coins that were neither Greek nor Roman. Today, I count among my greatest interests the coins of Central Asia and India before the Muslim conquests that greatly changed the coins of the region. In that time I have learned to accept the differences in style and workmanship that separate the finest Greek coins from some of the most crude coins ever made. Many Asian coins show great attention to matters of weight and metal content but relatively few Eastern coins show what we would accept as fine art. Many were issued on flans much too small to receive the entire die design. Most bear legends in languages few collectors can read. Rarities are many in number but some issues are available in huge quantities. Most, except for the gold (of which I have none), are not expensive. We will examine a very few of the thousands of issuing authorities from Asia before the advent of modern coin making machines.

Mauryan Empire, 'period VI', Samprati, late 3rd century B.C.
Early Indian coins were not struck with paired dies on a round flan as we see for Greek and Roman coins. Metal, usually silver, was trimmed from bars or sheets. This received strikes from several (5 is the common number on the obverse; 1 is usual on the reverse) punches that vied with each other for position on the surface. Most are only partially on the flan; most overlap at least one other of the punches. Each punch had its individual meaning including place, ruler and series data but much of this 'code' is a numismatic mystery. This space will not be used to relate the little I know about identifying varieties of these coins. The trimmed flans can be round, square, rectangular or anything else (like this one that reminds me of the state of Indiana). Experts are able to attribute much more cryptic coins than beginners like me who will seek out examples that have clear strikes of punches that make the item identifiable. The earliest 'coins' are bars of silver with several punches of the same design at the ends placed in a way that bent the bar. It is possible to find some issues on several different shapes flan. The usual denomination was the silver Karshapana which weighed about 3.5g. There are hundreds of varieties and a good percentage that are not clear enough for a beginner to discern which punches were used. Several kingdoms issued punchmarked coins with the latest coming even after neighboring regions had switched to round coins struck from dies. Common varieties are available for low prices today but there are still modern fakes (usually with too carefully placed punches) sold to the unwary collector.

Of the Asian coins that look like what Western collectors would accept as coin shaped are the silver drachms of the Western Satraps of India that ruled west-central India for the first four centuries AD. The coins show a portrait of the ruler backed by a stylized mountain scene with moon, star and a river surrounded by an extensive Brahmi legend usually naming the ruler (at the top) and his father (at the bottom). There is often a year date behind the head on the obverse but this is off the flan in 99% of the coins I have seen. The series is infamous for poor strikes on small flans so coins with the date and complete reverse legends are worth a premium. The obverse legend other than the date is considered gibberish in Greek-like letters. Rudrasena, 199-222 A.D., AR drachm, 211 AD

Kumaragupta I, 414-455 A.D., Gupta Empire, AR drachm
Other rulers issued coins similar to the Satraps including this drachm of the great king Kumaragupta. Here, the mountain scene is replaced by a very stylized Garuda bird. Other rulers used other reverse designs but maintained the extensive reverse Brahmi legend surrounding and gibberish obverse almost always off the flan. These later issues tend to be on even less perfect flans than the Satraps and finding a good portrait with important details visable can require looking at many coins. This example is a bit above average. Note the flan appears to have been snipped off of a bar and only partly flattened. Again, ordinary examples of common rulers are among the cheapest of ancient silver coins.

From 147 B.C. to 224 A.D. north of the Red Sea was the semi-independant state of Elymais. During part of this time they were very much under the control of the Parthians but had more independance at other times. The Sasanians put an end to this independance and the coin series. Very little is known about the history of Elymais. Commonly seen coins are bronze drachms and tetradrachms bearing distinctive royal portraits and often simple reverse designs. Few are more simple than our example showing a reverse of dashes. Portraits are usually facing or to the left and accompanied by an anchor symbol. A few types include degraded legends that could be copied from Greek but none are obvious enough to make me move this discussion to the 'Not so Greek' page. Many types are common and affordable. Elymais, Kamnaskires-Orodes (2nd century A.D.), AE drachm

Sasanian, Varhran II 274-293 A.D. AR dirham
The Sasanian (often spelled Sassanian or Sassanid) dynasty overthrew the Parthians and formed a huge empire that stretched from Iraq nearly to India. Their coins were considerably thinner and larger in diameter than most which made room for portraits wearing fancy headdresses. The example here is unusual in that it also shows the queen and crown prince. Sasanian reverses show a Zoroastrian fire altar which started with good detail but became very stylized by the end of the empire when it was conquered by the Muslims in 651 A.D. Later coins of this dynasty introduced year dating and mint city abbreviations making it possible to collect hundreds of different coins all with the same basic type. While rarities exist, the most common rulers can be found for very low prices for such good looking silver coins.

After the ransom of Sasanian king Peroz from the Huns c.480 A.D. millions of Sasanian coins were in the hands of people previously unaccustomed to coinage. Several groups started making copies of the basic type with varying degrees of stylization. One of the most commonly seen are the Gadhaiya Paisa that circulated in western India. They weigh about the same as Sasanian dirhams but are much thicker and smaller diameter. Our example is earlier, broader and better silver than most. These became progressively more abstract until, by the time of the Muslim conquest of that region c.1300 A.D., the coins were small, mostly copper and hardly recognizable. While a specialist might separate thse into many varieties, most are sold cheaply with no identification details. Gadhaiya Paisa, c.1000 A.D.

Shahi Kings, Spalapati Deva 750-900 A.D. - - - AR jital - - - Mu'izz al-Din Muhammud bin Sam 1171-1206 A.D.
Possibly the most common coin of medieval Central Asia (Afganistan, Pakistan, Northern India and surrounding regions) is the Bull and Horseman jital. These served the trade needs of a diverse society combining the Hindu bull with the horse of the nomadic tribes that made up the people of the region. Mint locations moved east as the Muslim conquest progressed but the type was so popular that it was retained by the Sultans of Dehli despite the religious questions the bull must have raised. Our two examples range about a century from either end of the series which spanned at least 500 years. Both weigh 3.5 g. but the later coin is considerably thicker and more base in silver content. While there are coins of the jital denomination series that are not bull and horseman types, the catalog of the series about 200 variations on this theme ending in coins so crude that most collectors would be hard pressed to identify correctly which side was up. Many are not identified to a specific ruler but carry titles and letter symbols whose meaning is not fully understood. Relatively few coins were struck as well centered as the two shown here so finding specimens that are easily identified and attractive can be a problem. Many coins circulated for many years and come to us more worn than collectors prefer. Ordinary examples are very common; nice ones are scarce. Shortly after the start of the series the designs moved from rounded to line drawings. These allowed much wear without losing important details compared to most collectable coins.

                                                Chach, Chanubek 7-8th cent. A.D.                                          Samarkand, Ramchitak c.700 A.D.             
Connecting the great civilizations in the West and East was a series of trade routes known as the 'Silk Road'. Cities sprang up along the way to support the long distance traffic. Our examples show two issues to support local commerce at important cities along the Silk Road in what is now Uzbekistan. On the left is a coin of Chach (modern Tashkent) that resembles coins from the west. The reverse shows a tamgha or monogram of the ruler and is surrounded by a script Sogdian legend. Examples that show more than a small part of the legend are scarce. On the right is a coin of Samarkand cast in the tradition of Chinese cash but inscribed with a Sogdian legend. Coins of this region range from scarce to very rare and are often seen in wretched condition. They are shown here merely as examples of hundreds of coin issuing civilizations that operated in the middle ages in Central and South Asia. Many are only provisionally identified and have been the subject of recent studies by scholars from the regions that the coins once served. Included in the list of rulers are unknown kings and names known only from coins. Coins of this region are a great subject for those wishing to undertake new research.

Rulers of Kashmir issued chunky copper coins with very stylized designs showing the goddess Ardoxsho seated and the ruler standing. Our example bears the inscription of Didda Rani, one of the most ruthless queens that ever lived. After the death of her husband, she ruled through sons and grandsons killing them when they proved unsatisfactory until she assumed power (and issued coins) in her own name. After being the power behind and on the throne for over 50 years she died leaving the rule to her nephew (closest surviving relative). Coins of Kashmir can withstand much wear without losing legends. Finding coins with facial details and full legends is very hard but more ordinary specimens are extremely common. Our example lacks facial details and holds dirt in the recesses as is common for these deeply cut coins. Kashmir, Didda Rani, 980-1003 A.D.

Sri Lanka, Lilavati, 1197-1200, 1209-1210, 1211-1212 A.D.
Deeply cut copper coins were also issued by the rulers of Sri Lanka. Our example bears the Nagari legend of Lilavati who reigned three separate times between short lived male puppets supported and deposed by a series of competing generals. As the queen of the last proper king, she was repeatedly returned to prominance by strongmen seeking to legitimize their rule. This example is a deeply cut coin which has been cleaned of all impacted dirt. They were well made, stackable and have been the subject of theories that they circulated at a value higher than their metallic value (unusual for their day). The king is shown standing on one side and seated beside the legend on the other. The design is cut as a line drawing so it is little affected by wear. There are a half dozen common rulers differing only in the legends.

Harum al Rashid, 801 A.D., Bagdad dirham                                                   Kaykhusraw II, 1243 A.D., Konya dirham
                                                     Al ud din Muhamed II 1300 A.D.. Delhi 2 ghani
Conquests from the Middle East to India brought about major changes to coinage. Islamic religious beliefs forbid representational imagry - in particular portraits of ruler and animals that could be considered idols. As a result most Islamic coinage is decorated only by legends. Certainly there are exceptions which are hard for some to understand but a study of this coinage will require the student to learn to read legends written in ornate Arabic script. All this space for legends led to many coins with fully spelled out mint names and dates as well as identification of the issuing ruler. Our first example (left) is a silver dirham of Harum al Rashid (best known from his appearance in the story of The 1001 Nights). Ruler, date (185 A.H.) and mint information surround the central script, "There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah." The coin is very thin making it not only look large but allow stacking. On the right is a very unusual silver dirham with a normal script reverse but a very unusual pictoral obverse showing a lion and face of the sun. While not all Isamic authorities avoided pictoral types, this is probably the most exceptional issue available to collectors. The theory here is that the king was extremely devoted to Tamar, his wife and a Christian from Georgia. After her conversion to Islam, these coins stopped. Between them is a much smaller diameter coin of the Delhi sultan Al ud din Muhamed II which, because of its great thickness, is the heaviest of these three coins. It demonstrates two point that I find interesting. There are coins of different design by this same ruler valued at 6 ghani which are the same size and weight as this 2 ghani. The difference is that the silver content of the 6 ghani is three times as fine as the 2. The different designs and more bright silver color of the better coin makes distinguishing them easy. This coin is also an interesting example of where a fault can be a benefit. These coins are never found struck broadly showing the entire die design on one coin. Our example is off center in the correct direction to show a clear date '700' (700 A.H. = 1300 A.D.). Perfectly centered coins are hard to read. Coins off center the opposite direction will be undateable (but allow reading the rest of the legends that are missing here). Since collectors like dateable coins, off center is better than 'perfect'. There are thousands of interesting coins from the Islamic world. I know next to nothing about them.
Chinese coins

Wait until you see how little I know about Chinese coins! The earliest coins were not 'coin' shaped but resembled objects like spades or knives. I have none of these early items to show. The knife variations included a round ring on the handle. A very significant step was this (upper left) 3rd century B.C. round coin with a square hole inscribed Yi Tao (one knife). For the next 2100 years most Chinese coins were cast bronze (a few were iron) and round with square holes. The holes allowed stringing many on a cord to be spent as a large denomination. Over that time there were many variations of inscription with two or four characters on one side. Reverses were usually blank until late in the period. Under it is a Pan Liang of the middle second century B.C. At the top of the second row is the extremely common Whu Zhu type that was issued from the late 2nd century B.C. until well into the A.D. era. The round coin below Whu Zhu and the 'restored' spade type in the middle were issued by Wang Mang (9-23 A.D) whose attempt to reintroduce some of the older spade coins along with his round cash contributed to his failure and death. His complex series of types were not well received by the people. The long period of their issue makes it possible to collect thousands of cast Chinese cash. The most common cash of the A.D. era bear four characters that name a period within the reign of the emperor rather than the name of the emperor himself. Our example (right of middle, top) reads Hsi Ning Yuan Pao (Coinage of Greater Peace) dating the coin to 1068-1078 A.D. during the reign of Emperor Shen Zong (Shen Tsung 1067-1085 A.D.) of the Northern Song dynasty. The reverse of this coin as with the others I show here is blank but is shown here as an illustration of misaligned molds. There are collectors who seek errors in these coins but more probably look at this as evidence of how the coins were made. Below, we see that some rulers issued coins in larger denominations. our example reads Ch'ung Ning Chung Pao (Heavy Coinage of Greater Reverence - 1102-1107 A.D.) during the reign of Emperor Hui Tsung. It should be noted that various references employ different systems of transliterating Chinese into the English alphabet. When searching for information it will be necessary to cross-reference. Japan, Korea and Vietnam issued coins similar to the Chinese during this period. I know nothing about these coins. Finally, there are many Chinese cash type 'coins' that are more correctly 'charms' or even fakes made to fool tourists and collectors. Separating these is another subject that will be left here with only a mention that care is necessary if they are to be avoided.

This page has barely touched the surface of pre-modern coins available from Asia. I apologize for leaving out your favorites.

For more of this series see:

Greek Coins - (2) - Roman Republican Coins - Roman Imperial Coins (1) - (2) - (3)
For those who got this far, there is a postscript page to this series.

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