(Editor's note: this is the first part of a feature by Jeff Starck
about coins that show maps or are shaped by maps. The story
originally appeared in the March issue of Coin World).
Maps predate the birth of coinage and both have played critical
roles in the development of mankind’s economies and exploration of the
world. It is no surprise, then, that coins have depicted maps for
hundreds of years. Some coins are even shaped like maps.
Collectors have, literally, a world of options to consider, but here
are some starting points.
Ancient coins depict maps
From ancient times, maps have recorded and communicated data about
the natural world, society, and culture.
And from ancient times, maps have been featured on coins.
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According to research in the Journal of Hellenistic Studies by
A.E.M. Johnston (issue 87, 1967), a reverse design on certain coins
from the region of Ephesus, a city on the Aegean Sea in modern-day
Turkey, might depict a map, making them the earliest such coins to
serve a cartographic purpose.
Writing in the article “The Earliest Preserved Greek Map,” Johnston
suggests that the unusual design on the reverse of these coins “could
represent a map of the hinterland of Ephesos with the valleys of the
Kaystrus and the Maeander.”
Several examples of these coins have been offered in auctions since
2002, according to research conducted at ACSearch.info, a site that
allows collectors and researchers to search auction records for coins
Auction houses suggest a few different rulers and denominations for
these coins, in varying strike quality, but generally all date them to
the fourth century B.C., in Asia Minor. These coins often show a
Persian king kneeling or running, advancing right.
Roma Numismatics offered a bronze example in a Sept. 30, 2015,
auction apparently issued under Memnon of Rhodos. This piece has a
dark patina and was graded Very Fine by the auction firm and hammered
for £320 (about $485 U.S.).
The admiral of the Persian navy, Memnon of Rhodos, was charged by
Darius to halt the Macedonian advance on Asia Minor under Alexander
the Great. Although Memnon took Ephesos, he was defeated decisively in
334 B.C. at the River Granicos in Mysia by Alexander who had crossed
the Hellespont earlier that year.
A circa 334 B.C. piece bearing the apparent map reverse and
attributed to Memnon, a silver 2.5-sigloi coin, was offered in the New
York Sale in 2002 and then again in Dmitry Markov’s auction No. 99 in
2003, but it is in rough condition and failed to sell in both appearances.
Another example, a silver tetradrachm in Extremely Fine condition,
sold in Hess-Divo’s Nov. 17, 2015, auction for a hammer price of
15,000 Swiss francs (about $14,889 U.S.)
The better condition allows the topographical nature of the reported
map reverse to be more apparent. Given the use of coins as a medium of
communication in ancient times, the usefulness of such a coin,
especially when clans and peoples were often at war, is obvious.