The pre-historical ‘discovery’ date and first use of silver is unknown. The oldest surviving silver artefacts from antiquity were created by the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia in an area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present day southern Iraq. Sumer was founded around 3,200 BCE during the Early Bronze Age and is considered to be the earliest known urban and cultured human civilization. The Sumer people may have originated in the Indus valley.
The Sumerians were gifted metal workers. The Royal Cemetery at Ur, dated around 2,500 BCE, contained exquisitely crafted jewellery, figurines, goblets, vessels, musical instruments and weapons in silver, gold and electrum.
Silver head of a lion from Ur, Iraq – c. 2,500 BCE
Silver and lead ingots from the ancient city of Troy in northwest Anatolia, Turkey, indicate that smelting of lead-silver ore, and the separation of silver from lead metal, were discovered during the period 3,000 – 2,250 BCE. In 1873, the German archaeologist Schliemann unearthed ‘Priam’s Treasure’ at Hissarlik, Troy - a horde of gold and silver jewellery, goblets, and vases. The unauthenticated date of this silver is around 2,600–2,250 BCE.
Silver goblets from Troy, Turkey – c. 2,250 BCE
Silver was initially valued more highly than gold in Ancient Egypt due to its rarity. Egyptian Gods may have had a skin of gold but their bones were silver. Inscriptions from the New Kingdom (1,549-1,069 BCE) reign of pharaoh Tuthmosis III, a contemporary of Moses, describe the offering of 562 talents of silver to Amun, the chief deity of Thebes. At a conversion rate of 1 talent = 50 kilograms the offering would have weighed about 28 tonnes and have a present-day value of about US$14 million.
The civilizations of Minoa (2,000-1,450 BCE), on the Mediterranean island of Crete, and Mycenae in Greece (1,600-1,100 BCE) both crafted exquisite silver artefacts.
Minoan silver artefacts – c. 1,800 BCE
The source of the earliest Bronze Age silver is uncertain. Ancient metallurgical slag from the smelting of silver-rich lead ores have been found in the Taurus Mountains in southern Anatolia, Turkey and dated to around 3,000 BCE.
Coins were invented and used for the first time in the Iron Age. Electrum coins were first produced around 600 BCE in the Anatolian city of Ephesus, in the state of Lydia, and on the Greek island of Aegina. By 550 BCE pure silver coins denominated in staters or drachmas, and minted in many Greek city states, were widely used as currency throughout the Mediterranean region. Philip II of Macedonia (350 BCE) coined silver and gold staters and drachmas of an exceptional standard which circulated as far as the British Isles. Greek sliver staters from Corinth contained about 94% silver, 4% copper, 1% lead and trace gold.
Silver coin featuring Philip II of Macedonia – c. 350 BCE
In the fourth century BCE, the short-lived empire of Alexander the Great, Philip of Macedonia’s son, enabled the spread of silver coinage to Egypt and central Asia. The Indo-Greek kingdoms of the northwest Indian sub-continent minted silver drachmas from 400 BCE to 100 BCE and strongly influenced the evolution of silver coinage in other regions of the Indian sub-continent. Gold and bronze coins, but not silver, were first issued in China around 380 BCE during the Warring States period.
One of the most important reasons for the rapid growth of silver coinage throughout ancient Greece was the discovery in 482 BCE of rich silver-lead ore about 60 kilometres southeast of Athens, near the town of Laurion. Silver was produced from over 350 mines at Laurion using 20,000 slaves working in conditions described as ‘hell on earth’. Annual production reached 1,000 talents or 50 tonnes of silver. Each tonne of lead ore contained 1.2 to 4.0 kilograms of silver. Laurion was the largest single source of silver in the world for over two hundred years. The silver mines financed the rise of Athens and sustained its power. In 480 BCE, Athens defeated the Persian king Xerxes at the naval battle of Salamis with a fleet of new ships bank-rolled by Laurion silver. The mines were eventually depleted in the 1st century CE.
Greek miners – c. 450 BCE
Silver gained enormous importance and distribution as the indispensable currency of the Roman Republic and Empire. The 5-gram silver denarius was first minted around 211 BCE and contained about 94% silver, 4% copper and minor lead and tin. Almost 6,000 tonnes, equivalent to 200 million ounces, were in circulation during the height of the Roman Empire.
Marcus Antonius silver denarius – c.50 BCE
Roman silver was mined in the Rio Tinto region of southwest Spain and from Mount Pangaion in Macedonia. Large volumes of silver were also looted by the Roman army from ancient treasuries throughout Europe, North Africa and Asia Minor.
International trade during the Roman Empire dispersed silver and silver coins from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Peninsula, central Asia, India and China to a lesser extent. Indigenous Indian silver coins in the early first millennium CE were strongly influenced by the Roman Empire and the Indo-Greek states in present day Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Gupta Empire produced the first widely circulated silver coins in India during the period 320 – 480 CE. In China, silver was first used as a store of wealth during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). Silver coins were not issued in China for monetary use until the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE).
Gupta Empire silver coins – c. 400 CE
Silver’s ‘ancient’ history closes with the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE. Silver currency and jewellery had little value to the barbarian tribes who conquered much of Western Europe and ushered in the Dark Ages (5th-10th century CE). Much of the Roman silver coinage was buried or recycled into ingots.
To be continued...