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Plant motifs

What can be learned from the historical use of plant designs on coins?

Though coinage arose early in China, it was strictly ‘purpose-built’, the holes in the centre allowing them to be threaded on strings and rods and, until relatively recent times, with the surface carrying script only. The tradition of ornamented surfaces began in the Mediterranean and Near East passing to Persia and India.

Many coin traditions developed very early in coin history, partly as logical necessity and partly cultural tradition. From the Greeks came the convention of round coins as flattened flans composed of three series of denominations of increasing value depending on standardised weights and the increasing value of bronze (copper), silver, and gold.

Also from the Greeks came the use of a person’s head on one face of the coin. At first this was a deity (like Athena on the Athenian ‘owl’) and later a human, generally a religiously sanctified leader (like Alexander the ‘Alexander’). Across the world the depiction of political and religious leaders on the obverse face of coins still persists.

From the earliest days it was realised that coins, as objects used by all the citizenry,  were an ideal medium for propaganda, for statements of religious, political and economic power. In Ancient Greece the reverse face was often used to promote individual city-states. the honey-bee for Ephesus, flying horse for Corinth and so on. This has been expressed in the modern era by the use of heraldic symbols and emblems.

Though animal symbols of power were popular with the Greeks – the lion, eagle, bull, and horse – plants were also depicted, though less frequently, on ancient Greek coins.

Coin iconography

Plants have been used on coins in three major ways: first, as decorative embellishments, seen in the pervasive wreaths of laurel, olive and oak appearing either around the periphery of the coin or decorating the heads of various dignitaries; second, as floral emblems, a specially selected plant used to indicate a particular country or territory – perhaps most notable here being the rose of England, the thistle of Scotland, the Shamrock of Ireland, and the leek/daffodil of Wales – or the maple leaf of Canada; third, to indicate economic products or uses appropriate to the region, such as the wheat sheafs displayed by many countries or the banana and breadfruit represented on the coins of Samoa.

It seems that botanical motifs stamped on Greek coinage, though few, were proportionately many by nation than on subsequent coins of the world. Better-known ones are: the Rose of Rhodes; the Parsley of Selinus Sicily; the pomegranate of Pamphylia; the Fan Palm of Kamarina Sicily; the Fig leaf of Kamiros, Rhodes; the Grapes of Boiotia; the Silphium plant of Kyrene; the Siculo-Punic Date Palm that was grown commercially in Carthage and Sicily; and the Wheat ear of Metapontion in Lucania where some of the world’s most beautiful and desireable coins were struck.

Roman coinage though following the established coin traditions, was less decorative than the Greek coins and more consistent in bearing a ruler on one face and a, mostly, military theme of some kind on the other. Perhaps their use for paying soldiers was influential here. There were wreaths but no individual plants beyond the occasional palm frond or wheat ear.

Motifs

Plants are most evident on coins as embellishments or decoration rather than icons in their own right.

Wreaths

Wreaths are known from deep antiquity used in assorted ceremonies and rituals by cultures across the world bringing an associated rich and diverse symbolism. They can be worn as a chaplet around the head, or as a garland around the neck.

Used as a head decoration (sometimes referred to as a chaplet, coronet, diadem) they are well-known from Etruscan and Greco-Roman ceremonies where they also appear on jewelry and are made from gold or other precious metals. As a garland worn around the neck they are a feature of, for example, Polynesian culture. In English-speaking countries they are used in Christian ceremony as an Advent and Christmas decoration.

Evergreens symbolize strength, resurrection and eternity as they persist through winter. Roman magistrates wore golden wreaths as crowns, signifying their lineage back to Rome’s early Etruscan rulers and others used them as an adornment to represent occupation, rank, their achievements and status. The plants most commonly used for wreaths are the ivy, oak, olive, myrtle, laurel, wheat and vines. The oak, a powerful symbol in the mythology of Germanic peoples, features, for example, on the coins of Germany, France and England.

Harvest wreaths

These were used as a pagan decoration in ancient Europe associated with animistic spiritual beliefs often related to the changing seasons and fertility. Wreaths were used at funerals where particular flowers were used to express specific sentiments in the ‘language of flowers’. Cypress and willow often formed the wreath and were associated with mourning by the Victorians and are laid at the tombs of soldiers at memorial cenotaphs during Memorial Day and Remembrance Day ceremonies. They are also thrown into the water to commemorate those lost at sea.

Laurel wreaths

Early Greek coins known as stephanophoroi or ‘wreath coins’ that features laurel wreaths as an enclosing element for their designs. In ancient Greece leafy twigs of the bay laurel (Laurus nobilis an aromatic broadleaf evergreen tree)[6] were woven into a coronet or chaplet that was worn around the heads of those victorious in athletic events. This was the tree of Apollo who is frequently depicted wearing a laurel wreath. Romans adapted this tradition by applying it to military and other heroes. The denarius of Caesar Augustus illustrated above, symbolizing a pair of laurels flanking the entrance to his house, is one of few coin designs from ancient Rome that display plant icons. Since Archaic times such pairs of trees had flanked the headquarters of the oldest priesthoods, at the Regia, the Temple of Vesta, and the seat of the flamines, and pontifices. Thus the laurel trees conferred on the entry to Augustus′s house a sacred aura and invoked the powers of primordial religion. The use of columns for porticos in classical architecture are a probable reference to this ancient tradition.

Today the laurel is used as a universal symbol for victors or ‘winners’ and may apply to academic or other achievement, such as the elevated status of a poet laureate or Nobel laureate.

In art the wreath is frequently used for the decoration of architecture, furniture and textiles with flexibility in the kind of plant used, popular variants including oak leaves, flowers, holly, and rosemary.

World coinage timeline

 

BCE

c. 700 – Coins first minted on the island of Aegina.
609 – 560 – Reign of Alyattes of Lydia. Minting of first coins made from electrum
600 – 300 – Dionysos appears on the coins of Naxos, Mende and various other Greek city states.
600 – 550 – The silver stater coin of Calymna in Caria depicts a tortoise shell lyre on its reverse side
546 – Persian Achaemenid kingdom adopts the Lydian bimetallic system
c. 560 – Lydian King Croesus (595-c. 546 BCE) introduces the use of gold and silver coins (bimetallic system)
c. 550 – The silver drachma of Delos depicts a lyre – symbolic of Apollo – on its reverse side.
470 – Gortyn on Crete begins to mint its own coinage.
c. 360 – Pan appears on the reverse of coins of the Arcadian League.
326 – The first Roman coins are minted at Neapolis.
c. 211 – A new system of Roman coinage is introduced which includes the silver denarius.
c. 200 – Rome now dominates the production of coinage in Italy.
c. 157 – There is a boom in the production of Roman silver coinage, in part thanks to the acquisition of silver mines in Macedonia.
c. 141 – The Roman bronze as coin is devalued so that now 16 as equal one silver denarius.
c. 135 – The Roman magistrates responsible for coinage begin to stamp coins with images of landmarks, events and personalities.
c. 100 – Coins of Kos and Thespiai depict a lyre on their reverse side.
84 – Sulla mints new silver and gold coins to pay his army.
c. 46 – Julius Caesar mints the largest quantity of gold coins ever seen in Rome.
c. 23 – The brass orichalcum sestertius is first minted in Rome.
16 – The Roman mint at Lugdunum is established.

Though there were world quality mints in Germany and France the imperial mint in Britain provides an overview of the broad trends in coinage production that have occurred in the modern era. This timeline is an adaptation of Royal Mint Timeline at www.royalmintmuseum.org.uk/history/timeline/index.html

CE

650 – Moneyers operating in London
1279 – William de Turnemire appointed master moneyer at Royal Mint, now the central mint. First groats (fourpence) struck in 1279.
c.1472 – A three-man Mint Board of Warden, Master and Comptroller established. Last seal of the Mint Corporation engraved c.1709
c.1540 – Last ecclesiastical mints closed in reign of Henry VIII. Royal Mint usually the only mint in operation.
1542-1551 – In attempt to raise money, Henry VIII and successor Edward VI debase shilling (testoon) of Henry VIII
1561 – Queen Elizabeth I visits Royal Mint on 10 July for final recoinage of the debased coins. Silver medal struck to mark occasion
1560s – Attempts by Eloy Mestrell to introduce coining machinery unsuccessful although there is a milled shilling of Elizabeth I
1601 – Portcullis money was struck for the East India Company, one of the first export orders undertaken by the Royal Mint.
1662 – Screw presses and horse-driven rolling mills installed at the Royal Mint and hand striking of coins abandoned the following year
1696 – Isaac Newton appointed Warden of the Royal Mint then, in 1699, Master, remaining in the post until his death in 1727.
1701 – Plan of Royal Mint by William Alingham shows it occupies entire area between the inner and outer walls of the Tower of London .
1770s – Extensive recoinage of gold to overcome the ‘infamous and daring Practices of Coiners, Clippers, Sweaters’. A guinea struck in 1774
1804 – New purpose-built factory on Tower Hill for steam-powered machinery.
1810 – Production begins at Tower Hill with a flow of work from melting to rolling, then blanking to coining
1815 – Campaign medals were struck for the victorious troops at Waterloo, the first time the Royal Mint had undertaken such work
1837 – Investigation of Royal Mint by Parliamentary Select Committee
1851- Administrative reform of the Royal Mint, a ‘complicated, difficult, operose, and unintelligible’ organisation to be more like a government department.
1855 – The first overseas branch of the Royal Mint opened in Sydney (1855-1926). Additional branches subsequently established in Melbourne (1872-1968), Perth (1899-1970), Ottawa (1908-1931), Bombay (1918-1919) and Pretoria (1923-1941).
1870 – Following the appointment of the Chancellor of the Exchequer as ex officio Master of the Mint, day-to-day administration devolved onto the Deputy Master. Sir Charles Fremantle, Deputy Master 1868-1894 (hence Fremantle in Western Australia)
1899 – Production rises to 100 million coins a year. More than 40 million coins struck for Hong Kong in 1899
1901 – Deputy Master becomes ex officio Engraver of His Majesty’s Seals, at the Royal Mint and is responsible for the engraving of official seals including the Great Seal of the Realm of Edward VII
1917 – Four workmen were killed on 13 June when the Royal Mint hit by bomb during an air raid.
1920s – In a significant historical development the Royal Mint touts coinage orders from overseas. Silver half-roubles struck for the Soviet Union in 1924
1922 –The Royal Mint Advisory Committee established to examine new designs for coins, medals, seals and decorations
1940 – A bomb kills three staff on 8 December in main administrative building
1941 – Auxiliary mint was set up in one of the Pinewood Cinema Studios near Iver Heath in Buckinghamshire (closed in 1945)
1964 – Output exceeds 1000 million coins a year. A Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) rupee is one of more than 70 million Ceylon coins struck in 1964
1966 – On 1 March Govt announces decimal currency and 100s of millions of decimal coins struck for 1971, while retaining overseas customers, forcing the construction of a new mint.
1967 – In August work begins on new Royal Mint at Llantrisant in South Wales
1968 – On 17 December the first coins are officially struck at Llantrisant by Queen Elizabeth
1975 – The last coin, a gold sovereign, struck at Tower Hill on 10 November 1975.
1980 – Tower Hill buildings relinquished after the Royal Mint Museum collection transferred to Llantrisant.
1986 – Royal Mint celebrates 11 centuries of minting with bronze medal
2007 – Royal Mint adopts a new corporate identity
2009 – 31 December Royal Mint becomes a government-owned company with greater create commercial freedom

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First published on the internet – 1 March 2019

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