Coin That Connected a World

coin with head of athena; reverse side shows owl
(Click image to enlarge)
1982.2.291 Athenian “Owl” Coin, Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East © President and Fellows of Harvard College

Coin That Connected a World, Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East

A Museum Perspective

Featuring the head of Athena on its front and an owl on its back, this ancient coin is a silver tetradrachm dating from 449–413 BCE, minted in Athens. It is one of the most recognized coins of the ancient Greek world, widely used throughout the Mediterranean region, and even copied by non-Greek states. Standardized coinage, the first true money, originated in the region around modern-day Turkey sometime before the seventh century BCE. It was an innovation that literally changed the world. Money offered a standard, commonly understood medium for communicating value that allowed for trade and exchange among dissimilar peoples and over great distances. In this way, early money helped to connect peoples of different languages and cultures into an expansive trading network that not only spanned the Mediterranean region, but gradually reached deep into Africa, Asia, Europe, and ultimately well beyond.


Notice Details…
The front of a coin is called its obverse; the back is called its reverse.
In Greek mythology, an owl often accompanies Athena. Notice that an owl is the central image on the reverse of a coin celebrating Athena.
What other details can you make out on the reverse of this coin?
Did you notice the olive sprig in the upper left, or AΘΕ to the right?
AΘΕ indicates that the coin is “of the Athenians.”

Make Connections…
Ancient coins offer clues about the cultures that produce them.
Many were somewhat smaller than a United States quarter.
Use a magnifying glass to examine details on a modern quarter.
Where is the phrase E. pluribus unum located?
What other details do you see?
Consider what they reveal about our own culture.


The currency displaying the head of Athena is among many coins used throughout the Greek empire as an exchange for goods and services, and each coin had its own visual depictions that set it apart from the others. Created nearly a century later, dating to about 300 BCE, this silver tetradrachm displays Alexander III of Macedon, better known as Alexander the Great. It was a standard of exchange used over a broad territory—from Greece to India—during and after the reign of Alexander the Great. Minted more than twenty years after his death, this coin depicts him donning a headdress made of lion skin in the style of the Greek demigod Herakles. Aptly known as the “Head of Herakles,” Alexander considered himself a direct descendent and offered sacrifices to Herakles during his many military campaigns. By the age of thirty, Alexander had conquered most of the lands between Greece and India; economic and social networks emerged; and Greek language, culture, and people spread throughout the region.

alexander the great coin with head of herakles wearing lion skin headress
(Click images to enlarge.)
Silver tetradrachm. Posthumous Alexander III (the Great). Probably Tyre,  305-290 BCE. Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East 1982.2.306; (obv) Head of Herakles wearing lion’s skin headdress.


Before coinage, assorted pieces of precious metal, usually silver, were weighed out on scales. Coins provided a standardized weight and value to be used in trade. They also preserve unique details of history, religion, politics, and culture—all in a miniature sculpture stamped on a disc of metal. In 1999, the United States launched the 50 State Quarters Program which gave each state the opportunity to feature its own unique design on the reverse side of the quarter. The obverse (front) side of each coin was standard, showing George Washington’s profile, while the reverse side might show a Minuteman in front of an outline of the state for Massachusetts, a buffalo with sunflowers by its side for Kansas, or a scissortail flycatcher in flight, as the state bird of Oklahoma. Many people have collected this series of coins, as well as other coins, as souvenirs of travel, experiences with other cultures, and time periods.

Make your own coin coasters. For this activity, you will need the following materials: a few dozen coins that you find interesting or have sentimental value, cork material or cardboard, decoupage glue or rubber cement, and a craft brush. Cut your cork or cardboard into four circles about 4 inches in diameter; these will be the bases for your coaster set. Arrange coins on the circles to cover as much area as possible; it will probably take a few attempts, so play around with placement and pay attention to the thicknesses of your coins. Once you have them arranged the way you want, cover the coins with your adhesive, making sure to fill in all the spaces between coins. Your coaster will be more effective and last longer if you also coat the sides and bottom with your adhesive or a sealant to make them waterproof and stiff.

Enjoy reminiscing about faraway places or contemplating the history of your coins with each sip!