History of the First Coins and Coin Collecting

When you look at your coin collection, you probably see a lot of perfectly round, shiny coins with cool pictures. But coins haven’t always looked so spiffy. It has taken many centuries for coins to get to where they are today.

Here’s a little history about coins that coin collectors, both young and old, should know:

The Beginning of Money

In early civilizations, people often used animals and objects, such as cattle and shells, as a form of barter. As time went on, people started using metals as money instead.  Two major civilizations started shaping these metals into the earliest known coins. These people lived in China nearly 3,000 years ago and in the ancient country of Lydia about 2,600 years ago.

The Chinese Bronze Cowrie

As early as 1200BC, the Chinese used little shells called cowries as a form of money. Soon the Chinese started making copies of cowrie shells out of metals that were around them, mostly copper and bronze. Historians consider these metal shells as the earliest coins. As time went on, the metal shells transformed from the shape of cowries into more round objects, much like the coins we have today.

Instead of using a coin purse, the ancient people of China carried their coins on a string. That’s because these early coins often had holes so that you could string them together.

Silver Coins in Lydia

Nearly 600 years after the people of China started making coins, people in Lydia began making their own coinage. Lydia was once located where Turkey is now, between the Mediterranean and Black Sea.  The coins of Lydia were made using lumps of silver.

These lumps varied in size and shape; their worth was determined by the weight of the coin. Over time, these silver coins became flatter and looked more like the coins of today. People also started marking the coins with different designs. One coin might show a picture of an animal known in the area, for example.  The idea of coins spread from Lydia across the region and into the lands of Greece, Persia and Macedonia. Soon nearly every major civilization began using coins.

The First Coin Collectors

Coins were fairly standard by the time the most powerful nation of the ancient world—the Roman Empire—came along. The leader of Rome was named Cesar Augustus, and he is also the first person we know of who collected coins as a hobby. Not only did he collect coins, but he also gave them as gifts. Later during Medieval times, coin collecting took off as a hobby, mainly with royals and the wealthy. It was called the “Hobby of Kings.”

As you can see, coins and coin collecting have been around a long time. Each coin you collect is making you a part of this amazing history!

Check out this NOVA article to learn more about the history of money.

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