Archaeology breakthrough: Researchers unearthed ‘world’s oldest coin’ in China excavation

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The researchers found a series of clay moulds used for casting spade coins, as well as fragments of the coins, at a location in Guanzhuang in Xingyang, Henan province, China. Believed to date back between 2,640 and 2,550 years ago, the moulds could be part of the Eastern Zhou period (770-220 BCE) bronze foundry, and functioned as a mint for producing coins. Dr Hao Zhao, of the School of History at Zhengzhou University, hailed the find, and described research into the “monetisation of ancient economies” as a main “research focus” for archaeologists.

He said: “The earliest coins are thought to have been minted in China, Lydia (in Western Asia Minor) and India.

“Of these, the hollow-handle spade coin (kongshoubu) minted in China is a likely candidate for the first metal coinage.

“The spade coin was an imitation of practical metal spades, but its thin blade and small size indicate that it had no utilitarian function.”

Dr Zhao explained that the earlier spade coins had a “fragile, hollow socket” which was similar to a metal shovel.

He noted that “several versions of spade coins” had circulated across the Chinese Central Plains, until the First Emperor of Qin was abolished in around 221 BCE.

He added: “Their origin and early history, and the social dynamics under which they were developed, however, remain controversial — a situation paralleled by the century-long debate over Lydian coins.”

The research was compiled by Zhengzhou University and Peking University, and also uncovered artefacts from various moments within the minting process.

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In a statement, the researchers continued: “Guanzhuang is located in the Central Plains of China, some 12km (7.5 miles) south of the Yellow River.

“Continuous excavations since 2011 have revealed the general layout of a city, which consisted of two walled and moated enclosures.”

They explained how the city was originally created in around 800 BCE, before being abandoned some 350 years later.

During excavations between 2015 and 2019, “a large craft-production zone in the centre of the outer enclosure” was found, which included workshops that produced bronze, ceramic, jade and bone-based items.

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The scientists concluded: “The existence of minting activity at Guanzhuang is further documented by numerous finds of clay cores and outer moulds for casting spade coins.

“All the moulds are made of reddish fine silt, which was also the primary material for producing clay moulds to cast other types of bronze products at the Guanzhuang foundry, after c. 640 BCE and no later than 550 BCE, and it made use of the workshop’s existing bronze-production capacity.

“Currently, Guanzhuang is the earliest-known archaeological mint site dated by robust radiocarbon dates in the world, and coin SP-1 is the earliest spade coin — and, more generally, the earliest Chinese coin — recovered from a secure archaeological context.

“The minting techniques employed at Guanzhuang are characterised by batch production and a high degree of standardisation and quality control, indicating that the production of spade coins was not a small-scale, sporadic experiment, but rather a well-planned and organised process in the heartland of the Central Plains of China.”

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