Wire Money of Earth and Elsewhere

All I know of A Game of Thrones is that the series, which I cannot watch due to a lack of HBO and/or time to devote, looks totally awesome. As with most stories with a devoted set of followers, the replica-makers come up with some pretty amazing stuff. A small mint has produced a set of Game of Thrones money, and I was particularly taken by the┬áDothraki Puli. This is a “chain” of coins, minted from a single strip of precious metal and designed to be left together as one piece of money, or cut off smaller denominations as needed. I was surprised to see the note from the maker, which says these coins were based on a Russian coin style that was used for nearly a millennium.

The common method for minting a coin is to start with a planchet or flan. This is a disk of the right size and weight for the intended coin, punched from a rolled-flat sheet of precious metals or cast from a blank mold. The disk is then placed between two dies, and are pressed or pounded to leave an impression of the obverse and reverse on each side of the blank. This tends to be more accurate for creating uniform size and weight of coins, although sometimes in the past the coins were cast with their fronts and reverses from the start, but that varied and depended on the material. Bronze, for instance, was a bit too hard for die striking and were cast entirely.

Beginning around 980AD, minters in Russia came upon a novel method of minting coins. They found that it was easier to control the uniformity of thickness and quality by starting with a wire of the precious metal, then cut it into lengths of the right weight, and then strike the coin from those wire chunks. Although the wire was flattened before the die striking, it gave the ‘wire money’ a unique look, oblong with obvious blunt ends were the wire had been cut off. This unique shape earned these coins the name ‘fish scales’ in the Russian language. The simplicity of the process kept it in use until the 17th century and the introduction of modern minting processes, and the last of these coins were made in the early 1700s.

You’ll note that this is quite a bit different than the fanciful Game of Thrones coins above, which retained their wire-like form. Actual minters and financiers would realize a large flaw in the Thrones money quite readily if it were ever used in practice. The weight of a coin in precious metals is something that requires uniformity to ensure that the coin can be trusted to be an accurate payment. “Reeded” edges on coins are designed to foil coin-shavers, people who cut off small amounts off the edges of coins to collect the precious metal and then spend the now-smaller coins at face value. Now, take a look at the Game of Thrones coins. If you were to pull out your string of wire money, you could snip off the requested denomination slightly smaller than needed, and hope that the merchant doesn’t check the weight. Then, you take the extra-long end you just made, and trim it off a little smaller than it should be, too. Do that enough, you get to keep a bunch of the copper or silver while shortchanging the people you do business with. Even the ‘pieces of eight’ were not commonly actually cut into eight pieces, at least not in common money dealings. I suppose, on far-off Westeros, they may have a different way of dealing with these fancy currency, but here on Earth we’re less trusting of hand-cut coins. Although the Shire Post website doesn’t currently have any of their wire coins for sale, real antique Russian wire coins are actually quite plentiful, and can be purchased many places for just a few dollars each.