Saturday 27 March 2021


One of the delights of listening to Lara Maiklem's Mudlarking is her sense that, picking up a fragment of Tudor window-glass from the Greenwich fore-shore, Henry VIII might have looked through that same window 500 years ago as he waited for the ship that would take him and his court to the Field of the Cloth of Gold. For her, even the gold and silver, although technically bullion and worth folding money today, is most valuable for its evocation of ordinary life in times gone by.

30 years ago, when I was working in TCD, a young Italian intern came to work in our group. His most evocative story was about going, as a truculent teenager, to Greece for a holiday with his parents. As you do, they went on a day trip to visit the Temple of Apollo at Delphi [prev]. They toiled up the dusty path from the car-park behind a coachload of chattering Japanese tourists. Teen Michele was staring at the ground rather than the trees, the sky or the looming ruins. There in the middle of the path was a single silver tetradrachm which had been working its way to the surface for at least 2,000 years, destined to be picked up and treasured by a boy from foreign.

I told this story to Dau.II and she said "That's the sort of thing that could chart the direction of your whole life" Indeed it could, but in this case, the boy was set to embrace science at least for the rest of the century. LinkedIn suggests he is a business magnate now.

Tetradrachms τετράδραχμον were both coins and bullion, each owl-stamped slug weighed 17g and the stamp certified its purity. Although minted in Athens and used to buy all manner of luxury stuff to delight and impress the citizenry, these coins circulated far and wide across the ancient World as far away as India, whose people had no experience and limited knowledge of Attica. But the tetradrachms, as later Maria-Theresa thalers, became the definition of Good Money. At the time of Sophocles, 1 tetradrachm would buy you 
  • the service of a soldier or an artisan for four days
  • a bushel and a half = 55 lt of wheat
  • 12 lt = qt of olive oil
  • 36 lt = 10 gallons of plonk
The silver ore was dug from the notorious mines at Laurion which had been a source of silver, lead and zinc since at least the Bronze Age of Homer. Modern science can ID Laurion silver from the isotopes of the residual lead; other silver mines have a distinctively different physicochemical profile. It's like the Petréquins finding the Italian quarry for neolithic hand-axes from England. The conditions in the mines where so dangerous and life-shortening that no free man would work there. The wealth that created the Wonder that was Athens was founded on the shoulders of slaves working in terrible conditions underground and exposed to lead fumes in the smelting sheds. I feel dirty thinking of it, so let's finish up [R] with a Little Owl Athene noctua whose big-eye cartoon form adorned all the Athenian tetradrachms and, indeed, modern Greek €1 coins

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