Coins gradually came into use for everyday transactions from 700 BC onwards. Nowadays, we cannot imagine being without them. They are recognised as a means of payment in virtually all cultures. This month we are therefore putting the “Spotlight” on coin production.
Development of mints
The first coins appeared in around 700 BC in the Kingdom of Lydia, part of what is now Turkey. At that time, people in both Europe and western Asia were already familiar with basic metalworking techniques. The west coast of Asia was the centre of civilisation in this region, so it is not surprising that this was where the first coins appeared. From Lydia, the use of coins spread to the Greek mainland, and gradually became familiar throughout Europe. The hammering technique was used to make the coins: an image of a head as a symbol of the authority responsible for issuing the coin was imprinted on to the roughly circular piece of metal using two dies and a hammer. The ancient coins were already of excellent quality in terms of design and workmanship. However, that high standard was lost in the early Middle Ages.
Because there was little trade, demand for coins declined and the chronic shortage of precious metal reduced the supply. From around 1500, however, there was a dramatic expansion in international trade. At the same time, new supplies of precious metal were discovered. The mints again became very busy. A number of engravings from that period show that coins were still made in the same way as in ancient times. One well-known engraving is by Hans Burgkmair (1473 – 1531) showing the young Maximilian visiting the Mint. The museum has an original of this woodcut, and there are many reproductions and a number of photos showing details of it in the museum. The illustration appeared in Der Weisskönig, a fictional biography of the emperor. The caption beneath it reads: “The young king then visited his father’s mint on a number of occasions to study its operation in detail. The young king became an expert in the art of minting coins because he was well aware of its potential importance. During his reign he ordered the minting of the best gold and silver coins, and no king could equal him.”
The engraving shows how coins were struck. On the left is the furnace for smelting the metal. In the centre, the metal sheets are being hammered. At the front left, the metal sheets are being cut into blanks for making the coins (on the right in the engraving). This process had been used in ancient times and continued in use until the 17th century. In some places the hammer was not actually replaced until the 18th century.
The renaissance ushered in a number of technical innovations. Although it was quite a while before the new technology came into universal use, it brought a major change in the minting of coins. The screw press came into widespread use from the 17th century and was the main innovation. The Encyclopédie by Diderot and d’Alembert depicts this technique. The hammer disappeared and was replaced by a press which was operated by manpower. The boys in the centre placed the blanks under the press. The advantage of this technique was that the images engraved on the dies were applied with greater force to both sides of the coin. This improved the impression of the image. Although the coins thus became more uniform, differences were still possible because the screw press was operated manually. The speed and coordination of the people operating the lever influenced the quality of the coins produced. Human muscle power was later replaced by horses, water, steam and eventually electricity.
Another important innovation was the introduction of the ‘coin collar’. With this technique, the blank was placed in a steel ring – the coin collar. When the press was operated, the blank took on the same shape as the ring, so that coins now had a fixed shape. This process was also effective against ‘clipping’ (deliberate, fraudulent scraping, filing or breaking of bits of precious metal from the edge of the coin). With the addition of motifs to the inside edge of the coin collar, the edges of the coins also bore decorative designs. The first experiments were carried out as early as the 16th century, but it was not until the 18th century, under Austrian rule, that this system came into general use in the South Netherlands. Modern mints still make use of coin collars today.
Nowadays, Belgian euro coins are produced in the Belgian Royal Mint. They are made by machine in coin presses powered by electricity. As well as minting the coins, the Royal Mint is also responsible for quality control. Weight is still important here.
The composition and hardness of the metals, and the colour, shininess and dimensions of the coins are also checked.
Apart from the hammering technique, there is also the casting technique, whereby molten metal is poured into moulds bearing the design of the coin. Cast coins are less refined, so that this technique was seldom used. One exception concerns the Chinese ‘cash-coins’. The first Roman coins were also cast. You can find some examples of both Chinese and Roman cast coins in the museum display cases. However, the Romans fairly soon switched to minting coins with hammers, and the hammering process spread throughout Europe. Coin casting was a technique often associated with forgers, who would cast moulds of existing coins as an easy way of producing counterfeit coins without any major investment.
- Cooper D.R., The Art and Craft of Coinmaking. A History of Minting Technology, London, 1988.
- Evolutie van de munten, Belgian Royal Mint, s.d.
- Pereira S., ‘Hans Burgkmair, De muntslag met de hamer’, in Journal for staff of the National Bank, 5, 1996.