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Volume 48, Number 5September/October 1997

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The Autobiography of a Coin

Written by Frank L. Holt
Illustrated by Bob Lapsley
Additional reporting by David Warsh

I was born in the fires of an ancient forge in the hills of the Hindu Kush. Amid the clatter of hammers and the chatter of Greek, I paused on a battered anvil for the final pangs of my creation. Beneath me lay a hardened die bearing the image of my king; atop me pressed another, etched with horsemen and some mirror-image words. Then the hammer struck, hard and heavy, ringing out the news of my nativity. With each blow the dies dug deeper into my flesh, stamping their images as father and mother of a freshly minted coin.

As I look back across two millennia for these earliest memories, I marvel at my long, now legendary, journey from mine to mint to market to museum. I remember Rome as a rising power, a century before the first Caesars; I recall the early days of Emperor Asoka's moral conquests and the building of China's Great Wall. I have outlived six of the seven wonders of the ancient world. (I am told the Great Pyramid still stands.) Yet I am no mute ruin: Money talks. Mine is the voice of history, recorded by numismatists trained to hear my ancient stories of art, industry, worship, and war. My eloquence can turn back time, and carry us all to the golden age of my youth, when legends traced my origins to a colony of giant ants.

Most gold in ancient times was mined by condemned criminals and slaves whose lives meant little to their taskmasters. In my day, the mines of Egypt were legendary hives of human misery. But it was said that gold in great abundance could be found near India, where giant ants piled gold-bearing dust at the entrances of their tunnels. These ants—nearly the size of dogs, the legend said—defended their burrows fiercely against men who dared to steal the spoils of their digging. But such danger was trivial given the normal costs of ancient mining, and so the legend spread as far as Greece. When Alexander the Great invaded the Indus Valley in the fourth century BC, his Greek soldiers eagerly searched for this legendary lode. Local guides displayed for them the dappled skins of the ants themselves, but the invaders could not find a single mound of precious gold.

Only a few generations later, however, Greek settlers were gathering large quantities of gold in this very region. These descendants of Alexander's warriors created a wealthy kingdom called Bactria, famous for its beautiful silver and gold coins like me. (See Aramco World, May/June 1994.) Where, scholars have long wondered, did the Greek kings of Bactria find so much precious metal? International trade constitutes one obvious source, but giant "ants" might be another. Two thousand years after I was born, explorers discovered that burrowing marmots on the remote Dansar Plateau, near the borders of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China, do indeed heap mounds of gold-bearing earth at the mouths of their burrows. (See page 13.) These stocky rodents, called "mountain ants" by the Persians who passed the legend on to the Greeks, grow to the size of small dogs and pitch up meter-high hills of auriferous subsoil. Even in modern times, local tribes harvest this gold in an age-old tradition that recalls the legends of my youth. It is possible, after all, that inhuman marmots, rather than inhuman misery, brought my gold to the forges of man.

From the moment I left the royal mint of my king Eucratides, eager hands grasped for me. I was a beauty then, the envy of every monarch and merchant from the Indus to the Euphrates. Great artists had carved my parent dies in mirror-image, etching tiny Greek words and figures backward so that these negative forms would produce positive impressions on my two faces. The result, when smashed into 8.5 grams (0.3 oz) of gold, is a splendid coin called a stater—a treasure of art as well as riches. My obverse (the "heads" face produced by the lower, anvil die) boasts a once-brilliant portrait of King Eucratides, framed in a circle of small dots. Behind the king's neck trails the royal diadem, a ribbon tied around his head as the unmistakable emblem of his office. His cloak, engraved in high relief, is that of a cavalry commander, and his great crested helmet resembles a Boeotian design lauded by the historian Xenophon as the best headgear for cavalrymen. Attached to my king's helmet is a frontlet that sweeps back and ends in bull's horns and ears. Some consider this a symbolic evocation of Alexander the Great's war-horse Bucephalus ("Ox-head"), who had horns according to some accounts, and who had been buried by Alexander near my own birthplace. Like Alexander, my king rode with valor at the head of his elite cavalry and conquered with an aggressive Greek spirit.

In fact, Eucratides called himself "the Great" long before that title was given to Alexander by the Romans. On my reverse (the "tails" side produced by the upper, punch die), you can still read the exalted caption "King Eucratides the Great." No Greek had ever put such words on his coinage before, but modesty was never my king's style. The armed horsemen who gallop within the inscription are Castor and Pollux. In Greek mythology, they were the sons of Zeus who would suddenly appear in a crisis to save the day, much like Eucratides himself, who wrestled the Bactrian throne from a faltering dynasty. These twins carry palms, brandish spears, and wear felt caps topped with stars.

Behind the rear legs of the trailing horse, you can discern a Greek monogram, W . This mark identifies either the mint or the magistrate responsible for my creation. Nearly every gold and Silver coin minted in Bactria carries such a birthmark, but the exact meaning of the many symbols has long been lost. For example, some scholars think that my monogram indicates the city of Balkh or Aornus; others see only the initials of some unknown Greek official who served a few months as midwife in the delivery of my king's new money.

If you look past the scars of my long life, I am as beautifully Greek as the Parthenon itself, though I was born 5000 kilometers (3000 mi) east of Athens. I am the mind of the West imprinted on the precious metal of the East. The implications haunt me. Am I propaganda etched on plunder, or the product of a peaceful integration? Do I personify apartheid or a partner ship? The design and distribution of currency are deliberate, official acts, so money can never be neutral in the struggles of any society. Look at a nation's coins and you will see the scatter-shot of its cultural canon: Even a melting-pot like America has a partisan coinage, its message overwhelmingly white, male, European, and Christian. In ancient Bactria, I was no less biased. My milieu is entirely Mediterranean, and my intrinsic value kept me beyond reach of the marginalized poor of the non-Greek population. Gold circulated over the heads of these farmers and servants, who relied upon small denominations of bronze or silver for their meager purchases. My king minted for them some square, bilingual issues struck on an Indian weight standard, but I belonged to colonial Greek aristocrats, the ruling elite of Bactria.

Unlike small bronze and silver coins which travel swiftly but never far, my gold brothers and I ranged into territories quite distant from our monarch's own marketplaces. Throughout the Middle East, Hellenistic states were quick to accept gold coins struck on a common Greek standard with recognizable types. I, for example, would be recognized in any market from the Balkans to Bactria. I had no restrictive local features, as did my square bilingual cousins, and my denomination conformed to the Attic Greek system used nearly everywhere in Alexander's old empire. The range of my travels can be easily documented: In Mesopotamia, for example, another Greek king so admired my design that he shamelessly stole every detail for his own coinage.

But globe-trotting gold cannot be too careful, for everywhere, insatiable melting pots stand ready. My parent dies produced as many as 20,000 siblings identical to me; now, of them all, only I have survived the gauntlet that gold runs. The most critical moment in any money's life is the day it ceases to be currency. Once a coin can no longer circulate in a given place or time, human hands are quick to convert it into some more useful form. Most of my brothers became bullion again, their identities soon lost in the issues of other, less ancient kings. Some may exist still as a statue's thumb or a goblet's lip, but I would not recognize them. I carry the last known imprint of our shared dies because an unusual circumstance spared my life.

Painful and defacing though it was, mat occasion added 2000 years to my story and gave me an unexpected career. A sturdy loop of metal was fused to my reverse side, right across my galloping horsemen. The attachment was sized to fit a finger, and I became a signet ring. This ancient operation changed the whole pattern of my life. My surfaces no longer wore evenly; instead, my obverse suffered horribly as it rode that band exposed to daily bumps and bruises, while my reverse design was now shielded from the world. I lived a strange new life on the wrong side of the human hand, banished from the palm where coins enjoy the camaraderie of active currency. Who had done this to me?

The Greeks, as far as I could determine, were gone. Shortly after my king's reign, Bactria fell to successive waves of nomadic invaders. Some of them later settled in the region and created the Kushan empire, astride theiamous Silk Roads that linked the empires of Rome and China. One Kushan ruler so exceeded my own king's ambitions that he proclaimed himself not only "the Great," but also "King of Kings, Son of Heaven, Caesar"—a title that is simultaneously Iranian, Indian, Chinese, and Roman. Although I finally found myself outside the closed world of my Greek makers, I felt welcome among these eclectic Kushans. They borrowed freely from my past. One of their graves contained a magnificent cameo imitating my design, and signet rings of Greek style were common elements in their elaborate gold-spangled costumes.

Eventually lost or interred—I cannot recall which—I reluctantly returned beneath the soil of Central Asia. For twenty centuries I slept; you cannot imagine the burden of time. My gold kept its luster while all around me the corrosive poisons of earth ate away the baser metals. Above me, kings gave way to caliphs and khans as new realms dawned and died. Other gold shone for the civilizations of Muslims, Mongols, and Mughals while I lay undiscovered, underground, my fame forgotten. Neither man nor marmot rescued me—until modern times.

Then, I suddenly awoke and saw myself reflected in the wide dark eyes of a jubilant discoverer. My new guardian considered the expedient of the melting pot, but my unusual appearance gave him pause. Not just another antique coin, I was a warrior's signet, well-suited to his own station. He was an Afghan officer, and I found a new home on his hand. There I was schooled in the long history I had missed. I learned that Bactria had become Afghanistan, where the weapons were new but the wars unchanged. Great powers still converged upon this rugged and remote bastion in order to control the gateways between Europe, Asia, and India. Now, however, this struggle was called "the Great Game." Intrepid spies from czarist Russia and imperial Britain crept along the snow-filled passes of Central Asia, and tired armies clashed in places called Kabul, Kandahar and the Khyber Pass. Rudyard Kipling and others romanticized the struggle, but brave men did not bleed the less for all this talk of games. I saw the fight firsthand.

This conflict had at least one happy consequence. British officers sent to India and serving in the Afghan campaigns soon began to collect the coins of ancient Bactria. While some melted down the bronzes in order to make cannon, most realized the historical value of these relics. Silver and gold were the prizes of these men who avidly sought to rediscover the forgotten kings of my youth. As these beautiful coins made their way to England, many ended up in the British Museum and stimulated generations of scholarly research. Lacking much else to guide them, historians and numismatists found in us a mine of fresh information about such monarchs as my own Eucratides.

One of the British officers who brought back gold from India was Major Charles H. Strutt. In the middle of the 19th century, Major Strutt amassed a fair collection of Bactrian and Indian coins, of which I was certainly the finest. Although he first saw me as a signet ring on the hand of an Afghan officer, the learned major immediately recognized me as a coin of great rarity. No other stater of Eucratides had ever been found, so I was a fabulous prize to be procured as the crown of his collection. I had no idea what this would mean for my career.

When I passed into Strutt's possession, he decided that I should become a coin again. In a determined operation to remove the ring, my reverse caught up with the 2000 years of scarring that my obverse had already suffered. The stubborn weld would not come free of my prancing horses. Like a wad of chewing gum, it sits there still. Worst of all, in a desperate attempt to cut the blemish away, my new owner chiseled deep into it and inadvertently sawed clear across my design. His effort to pry loose the offending lump peeled up the edges of the wound, and let his long blade bite painfully into my soft metal. Tiny striations on my edge, just in front of my king's face, betray the grip of the pliers which held me hard during the terrible ordeal.

My reward for this suffering was the pampered world of the collectible coin. My numismatic rarity more than compensated for my battered condition, so humans henceforth cared for me more than in any age since my birth. That esteem conveyed me more than once to 13 Wellington Street in London, the distinguished home of Sotheby's, the art auctioneers. My first trip there came in 1874, when Major Strutt's entire collection ("featuring a unique stater of Eucratides") was exhibited for sale. On the afternoon of January 26, I was promoted from the collection of Major Strutt to that of a Colonel Strutt. I am the only specimen the colonel bought at the auction, perhaps bidding high for sentimental reasons. Colonel Strutt, perhaps a relative of the seller's, knew my colorful story and won me with a bid of £25, far more than I would ever fetch again.

Many years later, Colonel Strutt sold me to a collector whose appetite for precious metal knew no bounds. Hyman Montagu gobbled up gold and silver coins like a man possessed by the need to possess. A successful lawyer, he found leisure in collecting coins and medals by the thousands; he also produced scholarly publications based on his acquisitions. He began collecting in 1878, and in 1882 became a member (and later an officer) of the Royal Numismatic Society. In fact, he had a considerable reputation in the field long before he purchased his first ancient coin in 1889. He soon owned many Greek masterpieces, as well as the world's largest private collection of Roman gold.

I arrived as one of the earliest ornaments of Montagu's collection of ancient coins. In 1892, I figured among his 29 "Unpublished and Rare Greek Coins" in an article he wrote for The Numismatic Chronicle in London; this occasioned the first publication of my photograph. Montagu mentioned my former career as a signet ring, and the damage done by my conversion back to coin. He must have gotten the story from Colonel Strutt himself as part of my noteworthy pedigree.

Hyman Montagu died a few years later, on February 18, 1895; his huge collection was hauled to Sotheby's for a series of memorable sales. I was the 774th specimen listed in one of the many auctions needed to disperse his accumulation of coins. It took six days to sell off the Greek coins alone, for a total yield of nearly £9000. I was one of six Bactrian coins auctioned on the sixth day, at a price of six pounds. Thus, on March 28, 1896, I left Sotheby's for the distinguished collection of Henry Osborne O'Hagan. Like Montagu, my new master was a determined buyer; he bought 49 of Montagu's Greek coins. I found in my new home the happy company of childhood friends, the coins of other Bactrian kings. Eventually I settled alongside four silver issues of Eucratides, lucky survivors of the ages. After a dozen years, however, O'Hagan chose to "relinquish the pursuit" of numismatics. Back to Wellington Street I went, my cousins and I, to the auction block again.

On May 9,1908, my future was determined by a disappointing bid of little more than two pounds, the victorious offer of Charles Theodore Seltman. His father had been present in 1896 when O'Hagan paid three times that amount for me. My injured pride now matched my injured appearance, but at least I was in the possession of an illustrious scholar. Destined to become an expert in classics and archaeology, curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum and an accomplished author, the younger Seltman carried me off to Cambridge University. His academic acumen later earned him medals from the Royal Numismatic Society, the Royal Society of Arts, and the American Numismatic Society in New York.

In November, 1921 I was purchased from Seltman by the president of the latter society, the incomparable Edward T. Newell; he paid less than $14. I should have felt flattered, for Newell never paid more than a few dollars for any coin. A Yale graduate and scion of a wealthy family whose fortune had been made selling wagons to American pioneers, Newell amassed an incredible coin collection and also wrote a small library of numismatic books and articles. His reputation placed the United States in the forefront of scientific research on ancient coins, and he devoted untold energy and resources to the development of his beloved American Numismatic Society. When he died in 1941, I was one of 87,603 coins he bequeathed to the institution over which he had presided since 1916.

Safely off the market at last, I thus completed my odyssey from ancient mine to modern museum. Wars might ravage the lands through which I had passed most of my life, but Manhattan offered permanence, peace, and protection. In a stately building on Audubon Terrace, overlooking the Hudson River, I still reside in a tiny box in the sliding drawer of a locked cabinet in a guarded vault. I have been watched over by some of the great names in Greek numismatic science, and visited by experts on Bactrian history intent on the stories I can tell. But—unless there is another reversal of fortune in my future, like the many in my past—my traveling days are done, and I have bid good-bye to the busy world beyond these sheltering walls. The myriad acts of kings, Caesars, and gold-giving lords have brought me here to rest.

Nearly two hundred coins of Eucratides surround me now, but none of them is gold. I am still quite exceptional and am often mentioned in publications; in 1968, however, I ceased to be unique. After all those centuries, another stater of Eucratides finally surfaced in eastern Iran. It is a little lighter in weight and has a different monogram, and it has none of my scars, nor my romantic history. It lives with the huge 20-stater medallion of Eucratides in the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris. More surprising still, since 1993 a stunning "crowd" of about 10 more Eucratides staters has been parading through the major auction houses of Europe and America. All of these new specimens appear as fresh as the day they were minted; most were struck from the same dies—though not the dies that gave me birth—and were never scattered into circulation. They must have been buried before they had much chance to live. Perhaps part of a lost military payroll, or of an emergency hoard hidden during the wars of my king's reign, these examples show how beautiful I once was. I marvel that my brothers can bring nearly 4000 times my last purchase price, not adjusting for inflation—or for the value of my adventures.

What am I then worth? I refuse to name a price. What are dollars or dinars to me, the illustrious ancestor of so much modern money? I am the golden voice of a great voyage that may only have just begun. I am more than money, and these memoirs serve notice that I am not yet spent.

Dr. Frank L. Holt is a professor of history at the University of Houston. He has contributed toThe Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology and other reference works, and his third book on Bactrian history, Thundering Zeus, will be published next year by the University of California Press. He thanks the American Numismatic Society for assistance in preparing this article.

Bob Lapsley is a free-lance illustrator living in Houston, Texas.

David Warsh is a business and financial columnist for The Boston Globe.

Found: "Mountain Mouse Ants"
Written by David Warsh

One of the happiest stories of last year had to do with Herodotus and the ants.

Herodotus, you might recall, was the great Greek historian of the fifth century BC. A wide traveler of the ancient world, possessor of a good eye for detail, demanding with sources, he possessed a highly developed sense of what constituted an explanation. He was a gifted storyteller as well, accustomed to weaving quotations and point-making anecdotes into his narratives—even the occasional story which he noted he didn't quite believe, but which was too good not to pass along. Just as Hippocrates is the patron of doctors, Herodotus is the patron of newspaper reporters.

It was he who wrote up one of the most intriguing get-rich-quick stories of all time.

It appears in the section of his History of the Persian wars devoted to describing the extent and the organization of the Persian empire.

"In India there is a sandy desert where there are ants smaller than dogs but bigger than foxes. And these ants make their dwelling underneath the earth and they bring up the sand when they are tunnelling, just as ants in Greece do, and the sand which is brought up is of gold.

"The Indians go after this gold, each of them yoking together three camels.... The Indians have little sacks which they fill with sand as quickly as they can. They have to do it quickly because, as soon as the ants smell them, they chase after them...so if the Indians didn't manage to get a head start there is no way any of them would get out alive."

This account of animals bringing gold to humans had a compelling, dreamlike quality in the ancient world. It inspired an enduring quest among adventurers—from Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC to Alexander von Humboldt in the 19th century, nearly 2500 years later. Pliny the Elder claimed that ant's horns rested in the Temple of Hercules; Süleyman the Magnificent is said to have been given ants' "pelts" by the emperor of Persia.

Scholars agree that Herodotus placed the home of the ants north of Kasapatyros, the ancient capital of Kashmir—near the Karakorum Mountains where present-day Pakistan, India and China intersect. But otherwise there has been no consensus about the significance of his account. The plentiful presence of stories like this one in the History has inspired a certain division of opinion among historians. To most of them, Herodotus is "the father of history"; a few have insisted he was a gullible yarn-spinner, even the "king of liars." Until last year.

It was in the autumn that a French adventurer and ethnologist named Michel Peissel returned from the Dansar Plain, a high plateau on the upper reaches of the Indus River in northernmost Pakistan. He announced he had seen the "ants" and met the tribe that mined their burrowings. The "ants" were marmots, furry groundhog-like rodents possessing sharp teeth and long claws. Living in colonies, they burrowed deep in gold-bearing soil beneath the sand, then threw up their burrowings on the surface in mounds.

Minaro tribesmen, isolated Tibetan-speakers who inhabited the plain, collected the soil because it contained much gold dust, Peissel reported. Recently the bottom has dropped out of the business, as the price of gold sagged and rival soldiers used the marmots for target practice. (The Dansar Plain is claimed by both India and Pakistan.)

Much of the background is related in Peissel's 1982 book The Ants' Gold: The Discovery of the Greek El Dorado in the Himalayas. He relates other stories of his wanderings in the Himalayas as well: How he discovered what he believes is the source of the Mekong River; how he identified a breed of ponies unchanged since the Stone Age. What was news last year—as reported by Marlise Simons in The New York Times and Dana Thomas in The Washington Post—was that Peissel had finally located the marmots themselves.

So what accounts for the confusion over the centuries? Peissel says that the word for marmot in ancient Persian is "mountain mouse ant." Herodotus himself traveled as far east as Babylon, but he never made it to India. He isn't thought to have spoken Persian. Perhaps he was simply the victim of a bad translation.

A good deal of testing of Peissel's discovery remains to be done. Specialists of all sorts will have their say. But in the meantime, it is hard not to cheer the French ethnologist. "I think this confirms the legend," he says. "I think it vindicates Herodotus, who often has been called a liar."

This article appeared on pages 10-15 of the September/October 1997 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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