Having commenced operations in 1535, the Mexico City Mint is the oldest mint operating continuously in the Western Hemisphere. The British Royal Mint has it beat by almost 640 years, having been established in 886 A.D. Monnaie de Paris, the mint of France is even older, having been founded in 864 A.D.
These mints are children when compared to the recent archaeological discovery made in Guanzhuang, Henan Province in China. It is estimated the mint in Guanzhuang was in operation at least 2,600 years ago and could likely have been in operation even earlier.
It is understood coins in the Western tradition were first minted in Lydia (now part of Turkey) likely between 640 B.C. and 550 B.C. It is known coins in the Chinese tradition date likely from as early as 900 B.C, that being bronze substitutes for cowry shells used as a form of primitive money.
Writing in the publication Antiquity, Zhengzhou University archaeologist Zhao Hao said the Guanzhuang mint “is currently the world’s oldest-known securely dated minting site.”
Using radiocarbon dating, the Zhengzhou University team determined the Guanzhuang mint began operating sometime between 640 B.C. and no later than 550 B.C. The ashes left by fires used to melt metal for coinage production was tested. The tests showed the ashes were approximately 2,600 years old.
Zhao theorizes the mint’s location was close to the seat of the city’s administration and indicates “the minting activities were at least acknowledged by the local government.”
Two spade money “coins” and multiple clay molds from which spade money coins were cast were found at the dig site. One coin is described as being in nearly perfect condition. This coin is almost six inches long and about 2.5 inches wide, with a weight of 27 grams.
In Antiquity Zhao cautions, “Political involvement in spade-coin production [remains an issue] for further research.”
There are competing theories that money was introduced either as a practical substitute for barter, or as a way governments could collect taxes and debts owed to that government.
Bill Maurer is a professor of anthropology at the University of California Irvine and director of the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion. Maurer is not involved in the Guanzhuang excavations but is quoted in the August 6 issue of National Geographic magazine as saying, “Finding both coins and their molds is what allowed the researchers to radiocarbon date the mint, lending weight to their assertion that it’s the oldest known in the world.”
According to Maurer, the discovery “demonstrates—in the routinization, the standardization, and the mass production of these items associated with a political center— lends weight to the hypothesis that anthropologists and archaeologists have long held: that money emerges primarily as a political technology, not an economic technology.”
This much is known: Metal substitute for cowry shell coins were introduced during the Spring and Autumn period of 770-476 B.C. Round coins replaced those shaped as knives and spades about 350 B.C. All these early Chinese coins were cast, not struck.
Guanzhuang was founded about 800 B.C. The city had a defensive wall and moat for protection. A foundry at which cast or beaten bronze vessels, weapons, and tools was established in 770 B.C, according to Zhao. Also, according to Zhao, it wasn’t for another 150 years that workers began minting coins outside the southern gate of the inner city.