The Sea Becomes the Land
The tiny city state of Aegina is an island located about 30 miles off the coast of Athens, located between the mainland and the Peloponnesus. Its location made it an important maritime trading center as late as the 6th century B.C. Thus, it should be no surprise that the island would have developed a currency for the trade. Until recently, in fact, it was widely believed that the first minted coins in the world were the common coin of Aegina, the turtle. Most modern scholars now give that honor to the coins of the small island of Lydia. Regardless, the mint at Aegina is one of the earliest mints in the world, with coins dating as early as the seventh century B.C.
The earliest coins were lumps of mixed gold and silver, called electrum. Aegina improved upon the idea by using almost pure silver, and standardizing the weight and general shape of each lump of metal. The practice of stamping a symbol on a coin also began in Aegina - it was meant as an assurance that the coin contained the standard weight of metal for its size.
The seafaring Aegina chose the turtle as its coinage symbol, very likely because it was the symbol of Aphrodite, whose temple stood on the island. In fact, some scholars believe that the money was originally issued by the Temple of Aphrodite. The turtles on the earliest coins are undoubtedly the sea turtle, with a pattern of dots clearly marked on its back. The reverse side of the coin was incised with a pattern of squares. This pattern remained long after the ability to create more complex designs was common, leading many experts to believe that the Aeginites were concerned about undermining the confidence others had in the coin by changing its design.
There were some changes in design over the years, though, particularly to the style of the turtle on the front of the coin. The earliest coins, those believed to have been minted as early as 600 B.C., depicted a turtle with a smooth shell, though still undoubtedly the sea turtle so popular in the sea around the island. The turtle evolved over the life of the silver turtle, from a smooth-shelled silhouette to one with three dots down the center of its back, to one with the plates of the turtle's shell clearly marked in the stamped die. From 480 B.C. to 457 B.C., the Aegina turtle acquired even more detailing, with pellets added near the head. The final change to the Aegina turtle happened after a period of years when the island was occupied by Athens.
About 450 B.C., Athens invaded and occupied Aegina. As part of their campaign, the Athenians forbade the minting of turtles, and forced the city state to use the Athens Owl instead. When they were finally defeated and driven out of Aegina, the mint began to strike new coins - but the new coins featured not the sea turtle, symbol of the goddess Aphrodite and testament to the maritime standing of Aegina but the land tortoise. There is no recorded reason for the change, and most numismatists and historians believe that the choice of the land tortoise was a reference to the loss of Aegina's supremacy at sea.
Aeginite turtles were, many believe, the first universally accepted, standardized currency, not intended strictly for local use. It's been estimated that Aegina minted over 10,000 turtles per year for over 70 years. The sheer number of coins minted has permitted many of those coins to survive to the present day. The most valued are the much rarer late Aegina turtles that depicted the land tortoise, but there are many fine examples of Aegina turtles available on the market, all of them of intrinsic value both beautiful and historical.