Archive for the 'silverwork' Category

Object: Silver Drachm of Alexander the Great

Figure 1 Drachm of Alexander the Great from Classics Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Figure 1 Drachm of Alexander the Great from Classics Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

336-323 B.C.
Materials: Silver

When Alexander the Great, or Alexander III of Macedon, came to power, he entered into an already expansive empire of Greek city-states built by the expeditions and military successes of his father, Phillip II. Alexander followed his father on campaigns, received the best education from tutors, such as Aristotle, and successfully gained the throne at the age of 20 after his father’s murder. Unfortunately, at the beginning of his reign, he inherited both the land his father had conquered as well as the great amount of debt his father acquired while trying to enforce his claim as hegemon of Greece. For this reason, Alexander had to borrow money early in his new reign in order to provide the financial means to secure the borders of his empire. He pursued his father’s legacy of conquest and after much warring, more debt, and victories against the Persian realm, Asia Minor, and various other territories, he finally gained the resources he needed to continue his military efforts and pay his debts. Alexander then ruled a massive empire that reached from the Adriatic Sea up to the Indus River. He wanted to extend his rule all the way to the end of the world. So, he required great sums of money to afford his expensive troops, pay for supplies, and provide presents to significant cities and persons in order to maintain important ties. His need for coined money was great while he was trying to fund his campaign, so be began introducing his own currency, the date of which is under dispute. This currency system would unexpectedly gain validity in years to come.

The most prevalent coins of Alexander’s reign were the drachm and tetradracm. While coins struck in that time often had minor differences because of the sloppiness of technique by which they were created, the drachm was usually about 18 mm wide and made of silver. The process of striking the coins, commonly believed to have been made of smelted silver and gold gained from Alexander’s campaign, involved “an oven for heating blanks (flans), tongs for handling hot flans, a table or bench on which an anvil was mounted, and a pair of dies struck with a heavy hammer to impress the design into the flans” (Classic Coins). Dies were made of hard bonze or iron. One (the obverse die) would be mounted on the anvil while the other (reverse die) would be struck to make the impression as the punch. There has been some debate about the techniques used for both creating the flans as well as the actual striking of the coins since artisans wanted to protect the security of the coins so they could not be illegally copied. To learn more about how we believe blanks and coins were most likely created in Alexander’s time, take a look at this video:

Similar to the coins made before his time, Alexander’s drachm portrayed the head of Hercules on the obverse (front) and Zeus, father of Hercules sitting in his throne holding a scepter and eagle on the reverse (back). There are many theories as to why Alexander chose the image of Hercules for this coin. Some contend that it was a way, in keeping with previous tradition, to proudly link the possible lineage of the Argead dynasty to the profound hero. Others believe it was to show the pronounced physical likeness between Alexander and the hero Hercules. Yet others believe Alexander wanted to portray himself as a symbolic figure of heroism to the people he was exchanging and trading with (Kampmann). Hercules was a renowned hero in Greek mythology, and the lion headdress he wears on the drachm is believed to have portrayed his heroic slaying of the Nemean lion. Lions were also an important symbol for Macedonia, where this specific coin is believed to have been created.

Coins created during Alexander’s reign were believed to be sound money because those who exchanged them knew they were regulated by magistrates and thoroughly inspected by their creators. Often these magistrates marked the coins with their official symbols or monograms, and it was not uncommon to find test cuts made in coins where a person had checked to make sure they were of good quality silver. During his lifetime, there were 26 mints producing his coins. After his death at the age of 32, there were nearly 52 mints, representing the peak of coin production for the Alexandrian Empire. Alexander’s empire devolved into many city-states after his death, and they were warred over by his generals. These conflicts were called the Wars of Diadochi, and they lasted until finally they decided to crown Alexander’s brother as king until Alexander’s son could come of age. In this time after his death, there are many who argue that the head of Hercules on coins began to show characteristics of Alexander’s features. This is believed to show both the prominence and acceptance of the coins in the Greek and non-Greek worlds as well as a way of remembering the legacy of the king who created them. However, coins differed across different regions and varied based on the reasons they were used. In any case, it is evident that the coins of Alexander the Great of Macedon left a great and lasting impression on the field of numismatics.

[Destiny Trejo]


Art Institute of Chicago
2012    Launchpad: Coin Production in the Ancient Greek World. Facebook.

Classical Coins
N.D.    How Ancient Coins Were Made. Classical Coins. Kampmann, Ursula

2015    The Coins of Alexander the Great of Macedonia. CoinsWeekly.

British Museum
2007    Coin of Alexander the Great, III. Self made, Photographed at the British Museum.

2014    Alexander the Great: between god and man. Museum of the National Bank of Belgium.

Object: German Silver Stickpin

Stickpin by Murray Tonepahote
Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma
North America: Plains, Oklahoma
Date: 20th Century
Materials: German silver (aka Nickel silver)

This small German silver stickpin is only 3.25 inches long by 0.5 inches wide. It is in the shape of a tipi with a gourd rattle head on top and four slender pendants dangling below the base of the tipi. On the back, the pin portion is attached where the top of the tipi meets the bottom of the gourd rattle. This pin was made by master metalsmith Murray Tonepahote, a renowned Kiowa artist.

Figure 2    Navajo man wearing a German Silver Concho belt, photo by Don Blair in the 1950's

Figure 2 Navajo man wearing a German Silver Concho belt, photo by Don Blair in the 1950’s

German silver, also known as Nickel silver or electrum, is an alloy of copper, zinc, and nickel. Native American communities have used German silver in their jewelry and metalworking for centuries, ever since it was introduced into North America in the late 1800’s. Countless examples of German silver objects such as earrings, belts, conchos, tie slides, bracelets, and hair combs among others can be found throughout native communities today. To learn more about the production of German silver objects, take a look at a previous post from 2011.

Murray Tonepahote (1911-1968), a member of the Kiowa tribe, began his artistic training under the teachings of noted Kiowa artists Monroe Tsatoke and Harry Hokeah. An early member of the Oklahoma Indian Arts and Crafts Cooperative, Tonepahote excelled at designing religiously inspired jewelry such as stickpins and earrings, many of which have become masterpieces of Southern Plains Indian art.

Murray Tonepahote, along with George “Dutch” Silverhorn, Julius Caesar, Bruce Caesar, and Homer Lumpmouth, has become recognized as one of the greatest Native metalsmiths in the country. The work of these extraordinary artists is now widely collected and exhibited across the United States.

Many of Tonepahote’s objects, like this stickpin, relate specifically to the Native American Church, which traditionally incorporates many Peyote rituals. The Native American Church originated in Oklahoma in the 1800’s and spread to many different Native American tribes around the country. The use of peyote, a small cactus, in rituals such as healings and births is believed to allow communion with deities and spirits.


Take a look at this video to learn more about the history of the Native American Church and the importance of Peyote rituals to many Native artists:

[Stephanie Lynn Allen]

Object: Coin

Tunisia, Carthage
AD 203
Materials: Silver

This object is a Roman coin that is made of silver. Roman coins were made in mints by many different workers. Roman coins had minting marks on them to inform the people that used them where the coins were made. Silver coins in the Roman Empire were used from around 800 BCE until the fall of the Roman Empire. During this period, coins were used similar to the way that newspapers are used today. The coins spread throughout the Empire to inform people about the Emperor and depict events during his reign. This specific coin, struck in AD 203, has a depiction on the front of the coin of the laureate head of Denarius of Septimus Severus. The reverse of the coin has Fortuna seated with a rudder in her right hand, a cornucopia in her left, and a wheel under the chair (Brown et al.).

Coins in the Roman Empire tell a story about Roman life and economy at the time that they were minted. This coin would have been valued as a denarius because it was made from silver.  Most Romans would have been paid using denari. For example, a fortune teller, or Haruspex, would make around 10 denari per month. A Roman guard, or Praetorian, would make about 60 denari per month. One denari was equal to four sestertii. One denarius was equal to sixteen “as.” The sale of food and other items were denominated in as and the price of food in the Roman economy  was very high. The price of wheat, which was a primary source of food, could sell for as high as 32 as for one modius! A modius is a unit of weight used to measure the wheat. A modius is equal to 6.67 kilograms in today’s measurement.  A typical Roman male ate about two pounds of bread a day, or 16 to 20 pounds per month! Thus, a typical Roman would need four modii per month to produce the 16 to 20 loaves of bread that they ate. Today, wheat is not as much of a staple food as it was in the Roman economy and it sells for $3.00 per 170 metric tons!

[Sarah Dumas]

References: Brown,Frederick L., Mario A. Del Chiaro, Barbara L. Gunn, A.J. Heisserer, A. Jamme, Daniel C. Snell. Classical Antiquities. The Collection of the Stovall Museum of Science and History . A.J. Heisserer. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, pg. 115-135.

Object: Kantharos


Replica, Kantharos with wreaths, fillets, thyrsi
Hildesheim Germany
ca. 100 CE
Materials: silver

This object is a replica of a silver kantharos found in Germany in 1868. The original was a part of a large treasure of about 50 silver pieces found by Prussian soldiers in Hildesheim, Germany. Now known as the Hildesheim Treasure, there are numerous replicas in museums. The reason such a large amount of Roman silver was buried outside of Roman territory is unclear. Many scholars have attributed the objects to a Roman general who may have buried the treasure to keep it safe. Also, dating the pieces is difficult but many are thought to date back to the 1st century C.E.

Named for its shape, the kantharos has two handles on each side. The design on the piece depicts Dionysus, who was the Greek god of wine. The design also incorporates masks, grapevines, and lion decorations, typical of items associated the cult of Dionysus. Before World War II, the original pieces of silver are in Berlin. Replicas such as this one allow students and scholars to study pieces of art that are located in far away places or no longer exist.

[Brittany Teel]

Object: Replica of Roman bowl

Replica of Roman bowl
20th century
Materials: Silver

In 1958 this silver bowl was brought to the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History, then called the Stovall Museum. The bowl was purchased, along with other objects, from the Chicago Natural History Museum, now called the Field Museum. The bowl is a replica of a part of the Hildesheim Treasure found in Hildesheim, Germany.

The Hildesheim Treasure was an extremely large collection of some 50 pieces of Roman silver found in 1868. The Hildesheim Treasure is believed to date back to the early 1st century C.E. but no accurate date can be given. The Hildesheim Treasure was discovered when Prussian soldiers in Germany were digging a hole and came across the treasure packed carefully in a chest. It is believed that the Hildesheim Treasure originally belonged to a traveling Roman general in Germany who buried the treasure so it would not be found by the German tribes. It is possible that not all the pieces of the Hildesheim Treasure are Roman since many scholars consider some artifacts to be Greek. The original Hildesheim Treasure is held in Berlin but reproductions of the Hildesheim Treasure have been manufactured and placed in museums all over the world.

This bowl, currently housed in the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History is a replica of one of the most famous piece from the Hildesheim treasure collection. The image on the bowl is of Minerva, shown in high relief, draped in gold with an owl (usually associated with her) on the left; she is gazing to the right. Minerva was the Roman equivalent to the Greek goddess of war and wisdom, Athena.

Reproductions are an important part of collections because they allow experts from around the world to study the objects without the originals being damaged. Replicas also allow researchers to study concurrently without having to transport the originals all over the world. [Susan Lemmond]

Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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