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Natural electrum "wires" on quartz, historic specimen from the old Smuggler-Union Mine, Telluride, Colorado, USA. Electrum on quartz Telluride (cropped).jpg
Natural electrum "wires" on quartz, historic specimen from the old Smuggler-Union Mine, Telluride, Colorado, USA.
The Pactolus river, from which Lydia obtained electrum for its early coinage. Paktolos.jpg
The Pactolus river, from which Lydia obtained electrum for its early coinage.
Electrum cup with mythological scenes, a sphinx frieze and the representation of a king vanquishing his enemies, Cypro-Archaic I, from Idalion, 8th-7th centuries BCE (Louvre, Paris). Cup Idalion Louvre N3455.jpg
Electrum cup with mythological scenes, a sphinx frieze and the repre­sentation of a king vanquishing his enemies, Cypro-Archaic I, from Idalion, 8th–7th centuries BCE (Louvre, Paris).
Brooch with a griffin protome, from the necropolis of Kameiros, Rhodes, c. 625-600 BCE (Louvre). Griffin protome Louvre Bj39.jpg
Brooch with a griffin protome, from the necropolis of Kameiros, Rhodes, c.625–600 BCE (Louvre).

Electrum is a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver, [1] with trace amounts of copper and other metals. It has also been produced artificially, and is often known as green gold. The ancient Greeks called it 'gold' or 'white gold', as opposed to 'refined gold'. Its colour ranges from pale to bright yellow, depending on the proportions of gold and silver.

Alloy mixture or metallic solid solution composed of two or more elements

An alloy is a combination of metals or a combination of one or more metals with non-metallic elements. For example, combining the metallic elements gold and copper produces red gold, gold and silver becomes white gold, and silver combined with copper produces sterling silver. Elemental iron, combined with non-metallic carbon or silicon, produces alloys called steel or silicon steel. The resulting mixture forms a substance with properties that often differ from those of the pure metals, such as increased strength or hardness. Unlike other substances that may contain metallic bases but do not behave as metals, such as aluminium oxide (sapphire), beryllium aluminium silicate (emerald) or sodium chloride (salt), an alloy will retain all the properties of a metal in the resulting material, such as electrical conductivity, ductility, opaqueness, and luster. Alloys are used in a wide variety of applications, from the steel alloys, used in everything from buildings to automobiles to surgical tools, to exotic titanium-alloys used in the aerospace industry, to beryllium-copper alloys for non-sparking tools. In some cases, a combination of metals may reduce the overall cost of the material while preserving important properties. In other cases, the combination of metals imparts synergistic properties to the constituent metal elements such as corrosion resistance or mechanical strength. Examples of alloys are steel, solder, brass, pewter, duralumin, bronze and amalgams.

Gold Chemical element with atomic number 79

Gold is a chemical element with the symbol Au and atomic number 79, making it one of the higher atomic number elements that occur naturally. In its purest form, it is a bright, slightly reddish yellow, dense, soft, malleable, and ductile metal. Chemically, gold is a transition metal and a group 11 element. It is one of the least reactive chemical elements and is solid under standard conditions. Gold often occurs in free elemental (native) form, as nuggets or grains, in rocks, in veins, and in alluvial deposits. It occurs in a solid solution series with the native element silver and also naturally alloyed with copper and palladium. Less commonly, it occurs in minerals as gold compounds, often with tellurium.

Silver Chemical element with atomic number 47

Silver is a chemical element with the symbol Ag and atomic number 47. A soft, white, lustrous transition metal, it exhibits the highest electrical conductivity, thermal conductivity, and reflectivity of any metal. The metal is found in the Earth's crust in the pure, free elemental form, as an alloy with gold and other metals, and in minerals such as argentite and chlorargyrite. Most silver is produced as a byproduct of copper, gold, lead, and zinc refining.


The gold content of naturally occurring electrum in modern Western Anatolia ranges from 70% to 90%, in contrast to the 45–55% of gold in electrum used in ancient Lydian coinage of the same geographical area. This suggests that one reason for the invention of coinage in that area was to increase the profits from seigniorage by issuing currency with a lower gold content than the commonly circulating metal. (See also debasement.)

Anatolia Asian part of Turkey

Anatolia, also known as Asia Minor, Asian Turkey, the Anatolian peninsula or the Anatolian plateau, is the westernmost protrusion of Asia, which makes up the majority of modern-day Turkey. The region is bounded by the Black Sea to the north, the Mediterranean Sea to the south, the Armenian Highlands to the east and the Aegean Sea to the west. The Sea of Marmara forms a connection between the Black and Aegean seas through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits and separates Anatolia from Thrace on the European mainland.

Lydia Iron Age kingdom of western Asia Minor

Lydia was an Iron Age kingdom of western Asia Minor located generally east of ancient Ionia in the modern western Turkish provinces of Uşak, Manisa and inland İzmir. Its population spoke an Anatolian language known as Lydian. Its capital was Sardis.

Seigniorage, also spelled seignorage or seigneurage, is the difference between the value of money and the cost to produce and distribute it. The term can be applied in two ways:

Electrum was used as early as the third millennium BCE in Old Kingdom of Egypt, sometimes as an exterior coating to the pyramidions atop ancient Egyptian pyramids and obelisks. It was also used in the making of ancient drinking vessels. The first metal coins ever made were of electrum and date back to the end of the 7th century or the beginning of the 6th century BCE. For several decades, the medals awarded with the Nobel Prize have been made of gold-plated green gold.

Old Kingdom of Egypt period of Ancient Egypt in the 3rd millennium BC

In ancient Egyptian history, the Old Kingdom is the period spanning c. 2686–2181 BC. It is also known as the "Age of the Pyramids" or the "Age of the Pyramid Builders", as it encompasses the reigns of the great pyramid builders of the Fourth Dynasty— among them King Sneferu, who perfected the art of pyramid-building, and the kings Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure, who constructed the pyramids at Giza. Egypt attained its first sustained peak of civilization during the Old Kingdom—the first of three so-called "Kingdom" periods which mark the high points of civilization in the lower Nile Valley.

Pyramidion capstone of an Egyptian pyramid or obelisk

A pyramidion is the uppermost piece or capstone of an Egyptian pyramid or obelisk, in archaeological parlance. Speakers of the Ancient Egyptian language referred to pyramidia as benbenet and associated the pyramid as a whole with the sacred benben stone. During Egypt's Old Kingdom, pyramidia were generally made of diorite, granite, or fine limestone, then covered in gold or electrum; during the Middle Kingdom and through the end of the pyramid-building era, they were built from granite. A pyramidion was "covered in gold leaf to reflect the rays of the sun"; during Egypt's Middle Kingdom pyramidia were often "inscribed with royal titles and religious symbols".

Ancient Egypt ancient civilization of Northeastern Africa

Ancient Egypt was a civilization of ancient North Africa, concentrated along the lower reaches of the Nile River in the place that is now the country Egypt. Ancient Egyptian civilization followed prehistoric Egypt and coalesced around 3100 BC with the political unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under Menes. The history of ancient Egypt occurred as a series of stable kingdoms, separated by periods of relative instability known as Intermediate Periods: the Old Kingdom of the Early Bronze Age, the Middle Kingdom of the Middle Bronze Age and the New Kingdom of the Late Bronze Age.


The name "electrum" is the Latinized form of the Greek word ἤλεκτρον (èlektron), mentioned in the Odyssey referring to a metallic substance consisting of gold alloyed with silver. The same word was also used for the substance amber, likely because of the pale yellow colour of certain varieties. [1] It is from amber's electrostatic properties that the modern English words "electron" and "electricity" are derived. Electrum was often referred to as "white gold" in ancient times, but could be more accurately described as "pale gold", as it is usually pale yellow or yellowish-white in colour. The modern use of the term white gold usually concerns gold alloyed with any one or a combination of nickel, silver, platinum and palladium to produce a silver-coloured gold.

Latin Indo-European language of the Italic family

Latin is a classical language belonging to the Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. The Latin alphabet is derived from the Etruscan and Greek alphabets and ultimately from the Phoenician alphabet.

Greek language Language spoken in Greece, Cyprus and Southern Albania

Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages, native to Greece, Cyprus and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. It has the longest documented history of any living Indo-European language, spanning more than 3000 years of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the major part of its history; other systems, such as Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary, were used previously. The alphabet arose from the Phoenician script and was in turn the basis of the Latin, Cyrillic, Armenian, Coptic, Gothic, and many other writing systems.

<i>Odyssey</i> Epic poem attributed to Homer

The Odyssey is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. It is, in part, a sequel to the Iliad, the other Homeric epic. The Odyssey is fundamental to the modern Western canon; it is the second-oldest extant work of Western literature, while the Iliad is the oldest. Scholars believe the Odyssey was composed near the end of the 8th century BC, somewhere in Ionia, the Greek coastal region of Anatolia.


Electrum consists primarily of gold and silver but is sometimes found with traces of platinum, copper, and other metals. The name is mostly applied informally to compositions between about 20–80% gold and 20–80% silver atoms, but these are strictly called gold or silver depending on the dominant element. Analysis of the composition of electrum in ancient Greek coinage dating from about 600 BCE shows that the gold content was about 55.5% in the coinage issued by Phocaea. In the early classical period, the gold content of electrum ranged from 46% in Phokaia to 43% in Mytilene. In later coinage from these areas, dating to 326 BCE, the gold content averaged 40% to 41%. In the Hellenistic period, electrum coins with a regularly decreasing proportion of gold were issued by the Carthaginians. In the later Eastern Roman Empire controlled from Constantinople, the purity of the gold coinage was reduced, and an alloy that can be called electrum began to be used.

Phocaea ancient Greek city-state

Phocaea or Phokaia was an ancient Ionian Greek city on the western coast of Anatolia. Greek colonists from Phocaea founded the colony of Massalia in 600 BC, Emporion in 575 BC and Elea in 540 BC.

Mytilene Place in Greece

Mytilene is a city founded in the 11th century BC. Mytilene is the capital city and port of the island of Lesbos and also the capital of the North Aegean Region. The seat of the governor of the North Aegean Region is Mytilene. Mytilene is also one of 13 municipalities (counties) on the island of Lesbos. Mytilene is built on the southeast edge of the island. It is also the seat of a metropolitan bishop of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Hellenistic period Period of ancient Greek and Mediterranean history

The Hellenistic period covers the period of Mediterranean history between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the emergence of the Roman Empire as signified by the Battle of Actium in 31 BC and the subsequent conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt the following year. The Ancient Greek word Hellas is the original word for Greece, from which the word Hellenistic was derived.


Lydian electrum coin (one-third stater), one of the oldest known coins, early 6th century BCE. BMC 06.jpg
Lydian electrum coin (one-third stater), one of the oldest known coins, early 6th century BCE.
Electrum coin of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus, c. 1080. Histamenon nomisma-Alexius I-sb1776.jpg
Electrum coin of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus, c.1080.
A mummified male head covered in electrum, from Ancient Egypt, Roman period, 2nd century CE (Musee des beaux-arts de Lyon). Mumified head IMG 0515.jpg
A mummified male head covered in electrum, from Ancient Egypt, Roman period, 2nd century CE (Musée des beaux-arts de Lyon).

Electrum is mentioned in an account of an expedition sent by Pharaoh Sahure of the Fifth Dynasty of Egypt. It is also discussed by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia . Electrum is also mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, whose prophet Ezekiel is said to have had a vision of Jehovah on a celestial chariot (Ezekiel 1:4).

Sahure Egyptian pharaoh

Sahure was an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, the second ruler of the Fifth Dynasty, who reigned for about 12 years in the early 25th century BC. Sahure is considered to be one of the most important kings of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, his reign being a political and cultural high point of the Fifth Dynasty. He was probably the son of his predecessor Userkaf with queen Neferhetepes II, and was in turn succeeded by his son Neferirkare Kakai.

The Fifth Dynasty of ancient Egypt is often combined with Dynasties III, IV and VI under the group title the Old Kingdom. The Fifth Dynasty pharaohs reigned for approximately 150 years, from the early 25th century BC until the mid 24th century BC.

Pliny the Elder Roman military commander and writer

Pliny the Elder was a Roman author, a naturalist and natural philosopher, a naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, and a friend of emperor Vespasian.

Early coinage

The earliest known electrum coins, Lydian and East Greek coins found under the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, are currently dated to the last quarter of the 7th century BCE (625-600 BCE). [2] Electrum is believed to have been used in coins c.600 BCE in Lydia during the reign of Alyattes. [3]

Electrum was much better for coinage than gold, mostly because it was harder and more durable, but also because techniques for refining gold were not widespread at the time. The discrepancy between gold content of electrum from modern Western Anatolia (70–90%) and ancient Lydian coinage (45–55%) suggests that the Lydians had already solved the refining technology for silver and were adding refined silver to the local native electrum some decades before introducing the pure silver coins cited below. [4]

In Lydia, electrum was minted into coins weighing 4.7 grams (0.17 oz), each valued at 1/3 stater (meaning "standard"). Three of these coins—with a weight of about 14.1 grams (0.50 oz)—totaled one stater, about one month's pay for a soldier. To complement the stater, fractions were made: the trite (third), the hekte (sixth), and so forth, including 1/24 of a stater, and even down to 1/48 and 1/96 of a stater. The 1/96 stater was only about 0.14 grams (0.0049 oz) to 0.15 grams (0.0053 oz). Larger denominations, such as a one stater coin, were minted as well.

Because of variation in the composition of electrum, it was difficult to determine the exact worth of each coin. Widespread trading was hampered by this problem, as the intrinsic value of each electrum coin could not be easily determined. [3]

These difficulties were eliminated circa 570 BCE when the Croeseids, coins of pure gold and silver were introduced. [3] However, electrum currency remained common until approximately 350 BCE. The simplest reason for this was that, because of the gold content, one 14.1 gram stater was worth as much as ten 14.1 gram silver pieces.

See also

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The Croeseid, anciently Kroiseioi stateres, was a type of coin, either in gold or silver, which was minted in Sardis by the king of Lydia Croesus from around 550 BCE. Croesus is credited with issuing the first true gold coins with a standardised purity for general circulation, and the world's first bimetallic monetary system.


  1. 1 2 Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Electrum, Electron"  . Encyclopædia Britannica . 9 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 252.
  2. Kurke, Leslie (1999). Coins, Bodies, Games, and Gold: The Politics of Meaning in Archaic Greece. Princeton University Press. pp. 6–7. ISBN   0691007365.
  3. 1 2 3 Konuk, Koray (2012). Metcalf, William E. (ed.). Asia Minor to the Ionian Revolt. The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage. Oxford University Press. pp. 49–50. ISBN   9780199372188.
  4. Cahill, Nick; Kroll, John H. New archaic coin finds at Sardis, AJA 109 (2005). pp. 609–614.