Featured Ancients: An Anonymous Hero (Phokaian electrum)

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by AncientJoe, Jul 5, 2014.

  1. AncientJoe

    AncientJoe Supporter! Supporter

    While large coins like dekadrachms are unarguably impressive, I find extremely small coins to be equally intriguing, showing off the talent of the ancient engravers. They're somewhat under-appreciated in my eyes, dismissed unfairly because of their size, but with digital photography, they can easily become dinner-plate sized with a decent macro lens. This coin is now my smallest, and I have a few other small electrum coins which I'll be sharing here soon.



    IONIA, Phokaia. Circa 625/0-522 BC. EL Myshemihekte – Twenty-fourth Stater (6mm, 0.66 g). Helmeted head right; [below, small seal right] / Quadripartite incuse square. Bodenstedt Em. 15; Boston MFA –; SNG von Aulock 1787; Weber 5732. Near EF. Very rare denomination, only four listed by Bodenstedt.

    A coastal city of considerable importance, Phokaia was one of the first mints, producing coinage from early in the 6th century BC until the time of Alexander the Great. Like the contemporary mints in Lydia and Lesbos, Phokaia’s earliest coins were made of electrum.

    Electrum is a naturally occurring alloy primarily of silver and gold, with trace amounts of platinum, copper, and other metals. The ancient Greeks referred to electrum simply as “gold” or “white gold”, instead of “refined gold” which came later when dedicated bi-metallic currencies of pure gold and silver were created. Electrum worked particularly well for coinage because it was harder and more durable than pure gold. Additionally, because it was naturally occurring, it allowed coins to be minted prior to the development of the requisite technology for separating the constituent elements.

    The earliest coins of Phokaia from around 600 BC contain about 55.5% gold. Coins from the classical period range from 46% in Phokaia to 43% in the neighboring regions. Later coinage continued the decline of gold content, dropping to 40% by the fourth century BC. Even before the complete transition to a bi-metallic currency, it is clear that the mints had discovered how to add silver to the native electrum, covertly reducing the true value of the metal without affecting its perceived worth.

    Merchants eventually caught on to the variation in the composition of the electrum, resulting in the necessary standardization of weights and relative values of dedicated gold and silver coinage.

    The largest electrum denomination was a stater, weighing about 14.1 grams. One stater represented approximately one month’s pay for a soldier. To facilitate easier trade, fractions were made: a trite (third), hekte (sixth), hemihekte (twelveth), myshemihekte (twenty-fourth), and further into 1/48th and 1/96th staters, the smallest of which weighing only about 0.14 grams.

    This coin is a myshemihekte, weighing only 0.66 grams and measuring 6mm in diameter. Representing a full day’s work for a soldier, it was undoubtedly treated with care considering its value, but it must have been difficult to not misplace coins of this size!

    This militaristic type depicts an anonymous warrior, treated as a hero based on the ornamentation of his helmet. There is clearly a head within the helmet, based on the eye which is shown above the side piece, but the fact that the helmeted head is portrayed without a specific identity is intriguing. Obscuring his features, leaving only the eye and nose visible, results in a stoic and solemn tone.

    This type is listed in the Bodenstedt reference with only four known. Interestingly, it has iconographic similarities to an earlier issue. While the original emission has a simplified helmet design, it is clear that the subsequent coins mimic the first, meaning that this type may hold some special significance to the Phokaians, perhaps as recognition of the nameless soldiers who were each critically important to their strength as a great ancient power.
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  3. Bing

    Bing Illegitimi non carborundum Supporter

    Another beauty.
  4. TIF

    TIF Well that didn't last long :D Supporter

    It is so well preserved! What a little beauty. :) That soldier looks serious.

    Thanks for another stellar writeup!
  5. vlaha

    vlaha Respect. The. Hat.

    Very cool AJ! Although sadly I do not have one of those "decent" macro lenses.

    Unfortunately, I don't have the pics of my smallest coin on this device, although I will see if I can post them later
  6. chrsmat71

    chrsmat71 I LIKE TURTLES!

    Goooooooooooooorgeouuuus !
  7. stevex6

    stevex6 Random Mayhem

    Wow AJ, super lil' coin!! ... very cool

    Ummm, I don't have any examples from Phokaian, but I do have this "relatively huge" electrum offering from Lesbos (a massive 10 mm!!)

    LESBOS, Mytilene. EL Hekte – Sixth Stater (Electrum)

    Circa 478-455 BC
    Diameter: 10 mm
    Weight: 2.48 grams
    Obverse: Ram’s head right
    Reverse: Incuse bull’s head right

    Lesbos Mytilene.jpg

    Your new 6 mm addition is certainly amongst the smallest examples that I've seen (congrats) ... I have a few that are similar in size, but these next three wee babies are only made of silver (AR), not electrum ...

    ISLANDS off THRACE, Thasos

    AR Sixteenth Stater – Hemiobol
    Circa 500-480 BC
    Diameter: 8 mm
    Weight: 0.56 grams
    Obverse: Two dolphins swimming in opposite directions; pellets around
    Reverse: Quadripartite incuse square

    Islands Off Thrace Thasos Hemiobol.jpg

    IONIA, Erythrai. AR Hemiobol

    Circa 480-450 BC
    Diameter: 6 mm
    Weight: 0.29 grams
    Obverse: Rosette
    Reverse: Simpler rosette within incuse square
    Ionia Erythrai.jpg

    IONIA, Ephesos, AR Tetartemorion

    Circa 500-420 BC
    Diameter: 5 mm x 8 mm
    Weight: 0.17 grams
    Obverse: Bee
    Reverse: Head of eagle right within incuse square

    Ionia Ephesos Tetartemorion.jpg

    => however, as per usual, your new example is from a considerably higher league than my lil' merry bunch!! (congrats again on a fantastic new electrum-mini-winner!!)
    Last edited: Jul 6, 2014
  8. Whizb4ng


    That is a really neat little coin AJ. Phokaia has a neat history. It also helps that the warrior has a bit of an :O face going on like he caught someone in the shower.
  9. JBGood

    JBGood Collector of coinage Supporter

    Electrum.....hmmm? Gotta get me some o that! Thanks for the informative write up.
  10. Aidan_()

    Aidan_() Numismatic Contributor

    Sheesh, that thing is so small! Excellent piece.
  11. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    As a lifetime photo hobbyist, I have a number of lenses laying around. If anyone is planning to enter the market for a 'decent macro lens' I would like to make a couple suggestions. I have found the image quality between the middle and the high end a lot less significant to the final results than a few factors that many people overlook.

    To me, the significant factor when shooting really small things is working distance. Many lenses will focus much closer than it is practical for everyday use. For coins I really recommend a long focal length macro. If you camera is the 'crop' version with a factor of 1.5 (Nikon) or 1.6 (Canon) the shortest lens I find reasonable is 100mm. 150mm would be better. If you have a full frame sensor camera, the 150mm becomes the minimum. I do not recommend 50-60mm macro lenses unless you only shoot tetradrachm size items. My 100mm Canon macro used with a set of Kenko extension tubes will fill the frame with my smallest coins and still allow about 4 inches of space between the front of the lens and the coin. I need this space to allow light to fall on the coin from the angle I want. I wish I had bought the 150mm Sigma macro instead so I could have the same spacing when using my Canon 5DmkII full frame camera. When planning those dinner plate tetartemorions, keep this in mind.
    geekpryde likes this.
  12. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    This archaic obol is 10mm tall and was shot about 4" from the front of the 100mm lens. I am still working to get lighting that makes the whole coin look good but still emphasize the three tail feathers. The uneven patina and many nicks don't help.
  13. genuinem356

    genuinem356 Member

    That is an amazing coin. I love it!
  14. AncientJoe

    AncientJoe Supporter! Supporter

    Great suggestions - I just use a rather basic point-and-shoot camera (Canon G15) and have had reasonably good success with its lens for most of my coins (6.1-30.5mm, 1:1.8-2.8) but smaller coins are indeed causing me trouble. This myshemihekte came out alright but I'm having trouble with another acquisition and may end up needing a better camera to correctly capture it. I'm going to keep experimenting and will reshoot this coin as well.
  15. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    Examples of problems. Even nice examples of coins start to fall apart when you blow them up too large. I'm talking about 2000+ year old silver here not ASE PF70's. My coin here is a Tetartemorion (1/4 obol) of Kolophon and measures between 5 and 6 mm across depending on which route you take. The facing head is not excessively detailed and the toned surfaces are pretty good but looking at the file full size will show faults you can not see with a standard magnifier.
    Click to enlarge. OOPS! Software here on CT reduces what can be uploaded. If you want to see the full detail go here:

    This was shot without cropping but small enough that I could move the reverse onto the same file of the obverse without making it larger or smaller. Certainly I could have gotten closer than this 5" from the front of the lens but that would have required adding a third extension tube and would not have improved the image quality. It is limited by the coin to some degree. I suggest setting up your photo rig to shoot 'normal' size coins and just cropping when you shoot a little guy. Most macro lenses shoot to 1:1 which fills the common format cameras with a 13mm coin at closest setting. That is small enough for most uses. Canon does make a lens that goes to 5x but who has 3mm coins to shoot? Let's not get carried away.

    The point here is that good cameras are generally capable of more rendered detail than the coins. This one is a $450 lens on a 10 year old body available used for half that. You can do better for $4500 but do you have coins that need that level? The right side of the reverse shows texture from rough surfaces to compare with the smoother fields on the left. My photos would be better if I bought better coins. I wish I had a tiny gold but I don't.
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2014
    geekpryde and randygeki like this.
  16. spirityoda

    spirityoda Coin Junky Supporter

    cool coin. what is its value $$$ ?
  17. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    Under $100. It is common as tiny ones go.

    They also come with right facing heads with and without a cicada in the same bracket. They must have made millions of them.
    stevex6 likes this.
  18. spirityoda

    spirityoda Coin Junky Supporter

    thanks Doug but I was asking the value of the coin on the top of this thread ???
  19. AncientJoe

    AncientJoe Supporter! Supporter

    I tend to not post prices here just to keep it about the coins but I bought it from CNG and their prices are published on their website if you search for it.
  20. geekpryde

    geekpryde Husband and Father Moderator

    This really ought to have alot more "likes" than just mine. I don't understand why people are so stingy with likes on informative posts that really form the backbone of the content on this site. I am not an ancient collector (yet), but this is good info for ALL collectors. Maybe people don't see the little posts that are gems unless you toss in a pretty picture... :confused:
  21. vlaha

    vlaha Respect. The. Hat.

    I know Doug's posts are gold, but for the life of me I can't understand this one (and we're talking way above my price range here also).
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