Severe Rain Brings Important Ancient Coin Workshop in China to Light

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by Hongxia Zhang and Sven Günther

February 21, 2019 – Sometimes, important findings appear naturally, and at the right place. A huge ancient coin workshop, dating back to the first century AD, was washed out in October 2017 in Nanyang city, Henan Province, China, due to heavy rain causing an area at the yard of the ‘Museum of Magistrate Yamen’ to collapse.

The Excavation Site, from (23.01.2019).

Valuable data on coin casting in Qin-Hand dynasties

“The pits were discovered with mainly copper coin moulds, and other two kinds of coin-moulds especially for coins of ‘Da Quan Wu Shi’ (‘Big Fifty’) and ‘Xiao Quan Zhi Yi’ (‘Smaller One’),” said Bai Yunxiang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, to
He continued that this is an important discovery providing valuable data for the research on the coin casting industry in Qin-Han dynasties and the social-economic policy of the following Wang Mang period.

Wang Mang – and his monetary reforms

Wang Mang was one influential relative by marriage of the Western Han Dynasty. After the last emperor Han Shuai Di died at young age, Wang Mang built up his own, the so-called Xin (‘New’) Dynasty (AD 8 to 23, often called Wang Mang Dynasty) in December AD 8 by replacing the Han, and took the reign title ‘Shi Jian Guo’, meaning ‘the beginning of established state’. During his reign, he launched a well-known and ill-famed money reform, among others. He established a complex currency system and issued various series, one with the two kind of copper coins found. Shortly afterwards, six kinds of copper coins were issued. The related denominations arranged from smallest to biggest, were: ‘Xiao Quan Zhi Yi’ (‘Smaller One’), ‘Me Quan Yi Shi’ (‘Small Ten’), ‘You Quan Er Shi’ (‘Young Twenty’), ‘Zhong Quan San Shi’ (‘Middle Thirty’), ‘Zhuang Quan Si Shi’ (‘Strong Fourty), ‘Da Quan Wu Shi’ (‘Big Fifty’). Eventually, the very complicated denominations and relations to the other series with different metals as well as materials caused economic problems due to the lack of trust in this money among the people. So, Wang Mang only kept the production of the ‘Smaller One’ and the ‘Big Fifty’, however, an underground economy with using the older coinage of the Han Dynasty was flourishing.

Some of the excavated coins, photo by SIMA Lianzhu, from (23.01.2019).

‘Da Quan Wu Shi’ (‘Big Fifty’) is simple in shape; however, nowadays different versions are known, with different sculptures, lucky words or animal images on it. ‘Xiao Quan Zhi Yi’ (‘Smaller One’), on the other hand, was the most common coin during Xin Dynasty. The moulds discovered at the site were used to cast this biggest and the smallest denomination, respectively, likely deriving from the first introduction of these two kind of copper coins in AD 9.

Dating through inscriptions

The dating seems to be secure as two of the pottery-coin-moulds discovered bear inscriptions: ‘Shi Jian Guo Yuan Nian San Yue’, that is ‘March of the first year of the established state’ and ‘Hou Zhong Guan Gong Bao Zao Shi Yi’, which can be translated as ‘The mould with the number Eleven was made by a craftsman with the name of Bao in the Hou Zhong Guan (= the central mint)’.
One researcher from the Chinese Numismatic Association, Yang Jun explained to that the first inscription points to the year AD 9, while the second inscription provides proof for the historical record that Wang Mang dispatched fifty magistrates from the capital Chang’an (nowadays Xi’an) to the counties, to supervise the coin production.
The Curator of the ‘Museum of Magistrate Yamen’, Liu Shaoming said to Nan Yang Daily that the ‘Zhong Guan’-title of the mint existed already in Western Han Dynasty (202 BC to AD 8). In Wang Mang Dynasty, it was developed into the former (Qian) and the later (Hou) Zhong Guan. Liu Shaoming further stated that, since Wang Mang carried out his currency reform, he certainly needed laborers in a large scale for the extended production. As written in ‘Shiji’, i.e. the ‘Records of the Grand Historian’ by Sima Qian, already 100,000 worked for the central mint (‘Zhong Guan’) that existed during the Western Han Dynasty. It is therefore perfectly possible that ‘Hou Zhong Guan’, i.e. the ‘later mint’, was established to coordinate this increased production requirements in course of Wang Mang’s reform.

Besides these important findings, other relics have been discovered, for instance, copper coins, copper refinery dross, artifacts of carriage, parts of crucibles, pottery sherds, animal bones and different ashes in kilns, which have 3 cm sintered surface, perhaps due to drying moulds. 

Expert consultation meeting

On 16 January 2019, an expert consultation meeting organized by The Relics and Archaeology Institute of Henan Province and Nanyang City’s Culture and Heritage Bureau discussed the recent findings with experts from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Peking University, the Chinese Numismatic Association and other research institutes in Nanyang City. The 75 square meters up to now excavated, are apparently only a small part of the whole site; so the experts advised the responsible archaeologists to conduct a systematic excavation by expanding the area and using interdisciplinary methods. Thereby, they believe to find out more about the scale, layout, and procedure of the coin production at this site. Furthermore they suggested that an own museum for exhibiting the findings shall be established. One can hope that more details about this exciting period, not only in numismatic terms, will be found out soon.

Both authors teach at the Institute for the History of Ancient Civilizations, Northeast Normal University, Changchun, Jilin Province, China. You can reach them at their e-mail addresses:
Hongxia Zhang and Sven Günther


Here you can learn more about the Institute for the History of Ancient Civilizations in Changchun.

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