Counterfeiting Began Even Before Money Was Invented, Archaeologists Deduce
Evidently there always was one born every minute, and as the great civilizations around the Mediterranean collapsed 3,000 years ago, silver became extremely hard to obtain
Around 3,200 years ago, the great civilizations around the Mediterranean collapsed. The sprawling empire of ancient Egypt shrank back to the land by the Nile, and even suffered the indignity of invasion from overseas. The Hittite cities in Anatolia were burned to the ground. Ugarit (in today's Syria) was brought low, the Mycenaeans and Minoans vanished into the long night, the Babylonians descended into chaos and the Sea Peoples apparently became ascendant, sailing out of the Aegean.
And in the turmoil that descended over Canaan as the Egyptian forces retreated, a new industry arose in the land: counterfeiting, a team of archaeologists from the University of Haifa and the Hebrew University report in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
This was during the late Bronze Age period, and the peoples of the Levant were in the process of mastering advanced metallurgy. They had come a long way from the early furnaces dating to over 6,500 years ago, which were recently discovered in Be'er Sheva. The Bible itself indirectly indicates how far the industry had progressed from its prehistoric start in hammering copper out of ore and crude smelting in clay crucibles: "As they gather silver and brass and iron and lead and tin into the midst of the furnace, to blow the fire upon it, to melt it; so will I gather you in mine anger and in my fury, and I will cast you in, and melt you" – Ezekiel 22:20.
But coins hadn't been invented yet – that only happened about 2,500 years ago, it seems. So what exactly were the ancients of collapsing Canaan counterfeiting? Fragments of metal used as currency in the period predating coins. You would use it to buy, say, some goats and trick the vendor into thinking it was pure lovely silver. Alas, it was not; it was debased. Hoards predating the Bronze Age collapse were almost pure silver; hoards after the period of the collapse were silver again; hoards dating to the period of the implosion were alloyed.
These silver fragments used in commerce were not uniform in shape or size, so the amount of actual silver they contained mattered, explain doctoral candidate Tzilla Eshel of the University of Haifa with Prof. Ayelet Gilboa of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, and Prof. Yigal Erel of the Institute of Earth Sciences and Naama Yahalom-Mack of the Biblical Archaeology Departmen at the Hebrew University.
Who was behind this nefarious scheme, at least at first? Possibly, the imploding Egyptian regime.
Retreat to the Nile
"Cut pieces of silver were used as a means of payment in the 1,500 years before coins were invented," Eshel explains to Haaretz, adding that insofar as is known, coins were invented in Libya in roughly the seventh century B.C.E. Such tender only reached what is today's Israel in the Persian period.
She adds that the silver didn't have to be cut fresh from an ingot, as it were (all international metal trade at the time was in the form of ingots, many of which have been retrieved from ancient shipwrecks). "If someone had a silver ring that broke, they could use it for its silver value," Eshel says.
Some call the source silver ingots chocolate bar ingots because of proto-perforation that enabled their subsequent dismemberment into the silver pieces for trade.There is pretty much no silver in Israel, Egypt or anywhere near here. The closest sources were Anatolia, Turkey, and Greece, Eshel says. They studied silver pieces from eight sites in Israel, including Megiddo (aka Armageddon), Beit She'an and Ashkelon, from relevant layers dated to 1200 to 950 B.C.E. – the time of the region-wide upheaval. Long story short, the alloy "silver" pieces are so mixed that isotope analysis is not particularly helpful, the team explains. A separate analysis suggesting the silver ore may even have come from Spain cannot be verified, they add.
The copper, however, came from the so-called King Solomon's Mines in Timna. Likely the silver-bit-makers of yore had to resort to using what pieces of silver they could find lying around from earlier, better periods. That in and of itself would have muddied the chemical signal of the metal.
Wherever it came from, as chaos descended roughly 3,200 years ago, a shortage of silver was created in the Levant, especially in Egypt. Unable to import more, the perp – possibly the Egyptian leaders before they left Canaan once and for all – began doctoring the metal during production. And "silver" pieces used for trade came to consist largely of copper, a sliver of silver – and other constituents that would emulate the look of silver, chiefly arsenic.
That's why the archaeologists suspect the ancients of counterfeiting as opposed to some more mundane aspiration: there was a deliberate effort to try to make the things look like silver.
To be clear, silver pieces before the great collapse had been made of almost pure silver, the archaeologists explain. So were silver pieces afterward. But in the interim period, when the entire region had descended into chaos, they were not. In some cases, the "silver" pieces contained as much as 80 percent copper.
The archaeologists feel the creation of the copper "silver" pieces being systematic, not sporadic, supports the theory of fakery, at least at first (otherwise they could have left the things looking coppery).
As the practice persisted over 250 years, no less, we can assume the secret came out. But by then it was a sort of new normal, they explain.
Asked about use of gold pieces rather than silver, Eshel explains that "there were periods in which gold was also used, especially in Egypt. They had a lot of gold, imported from Africa, preferring it to silver. When they controlled Israel in the late Bronze Age, they apparently used gold too – but usually silver was more widely used," she says.
Just like today, gold was usually more precious than silver (based on ancient Assyrian and other texts). But in Egypt itself, silver was worth more than gold because it was relatively rarer, she says.
Anyway, not all sins inevitably come to light, but this one did. Israel is littered with archaeological finds, including several dozen hoards of precious metals. In fact, the research began with excavators reporting the discovery of hoards of bronze bits – they corroded green, as copper does. But when cleaning the artifacts in the lab, suddenly a silver-like look appeared, Eshel recounts. All the treasures to which this applied were from the same period: the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age – yes, that period when the great civilizations collapsed.
"It continued for 250 years, starting in the late Bronze Age when the Egyptians were ruled Canaan," Eshel sums up. "This counterfeiting begins shortly before they left – which is why we believe the Egyptians initiated it. We find it in the contexts of Egypt in Canaan, such as the site of the Egyptian garrison in Beit She'an." And it's still happening to this very day.