Israel Museum Presents Exhibition of World’s Earliest Coins

. June 12, 2012

The Israel Museum presents an exhibition exhibition of the world’s earliest coins, n view through March 30, 2013, including 500 coins from 7th Century BCE on public view for the first time. Cast in western Asia Minor (present-day Eastern Turkey) during the mid-seventh century BCE, and made of an alloy of gold and silver known as electrum or “white gold,” these intricately decorated coins shed light on one of the most important innovations in human history.

Electrum Stater. Lesbos . Ca. 500 – 450 BCE . Lion’s head right / incuse punch. Photo the Israel Museum

“Electrum coins offer a glimpse at a pivotal innovation in human history and serve as a striking reminder of the importance of iconography and visual communication in a period when literacy was limited worldwide,” said James S. Snyder, Anne and Jerome Fisher Director. “We are thrilled to present these beautiful and extremely rare coins to our audiences, and very grateful to the collectors who have agreed to lend these treasures for public display in this landmark exhibition.”

White Gold traces the evolution of visual imagery in coinage, beginning with the earliest designs, which resemble Near Eastern seals and take their inspiration from contemporaneous Near Eastern art. With time, Greek elements began to appear, such as mythological scenes drawn from the Greek tradition and humanized deities. Later coins also demonstrate an increased plasticity of form and a qualitative improvement in the understanding of the relationship of a coin’s design to its surface.

The exhibition highlights three main categories of images found on electrum coins:

Myth – Many images appearing on electrum coins have their origin in myth, including depictions of tales of the gods, interactions between deities and mortals, and adventures of heroes who combated monsters. Examples on view include:

Medusa and Perseus: The Greek mythological figures Medusa and Perseus are depicted on electrum coins from the cities of Cyzicus and Mytilene.

Winged Figures: Winged figures, such as Phobos and Nike, who appear on the coins of Cyzicus, are commonly depicted on electrum coins.

Mortals – Idealized human images, rather than specific individuals, often appear on electrum coins. Females are young, beautiful, and sophisticated, and males are generally depicted as handsome youths, armed warriors, or bearded men in the prime of adulthood.

Animals – Animals, both wild and domestic, are often portrayed on electrum coins., with depictions of domestic species frequently featuring sacrificial animals. Examples on view include:

Spotted Stag: The “Phanes stater,” usually attributed to Ephesus, is perhaps the most recognized of all electrum coins, and only six specimens of this rare coin are known to exist. The Greek inscription “I am the sign of Phanes” suggests that the stag motif derived from the signet of a prominent male figure.

Felines: Members of the cat family, especially lions, are common motifs in ancient Near Eastern iconography, where they often represent the protective powers of deities or symbolize ruling authorities. Lions are particularly common on electrum coins, and lionesses and panthers also appear. They are often depicted in a prancing position, with wide-open jaws and protruding tongues.

Seal and Octopus: A large coin on display features an unusual action scene depicting a seal eating an octopus.

It is through the passion and generosity of Dr. Thomas S. Kaplan and Baron Lorne Thyssen-Bornemisza, that the Israel Museum is able to present this first public display of an outstanding group of five hundred miniature masterpieces.

White Gold: Revealing the World’s Earliest Coins is curated by Haim Gitler, Curator of Numismatics.

Category: Exhibition News

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