Metal Story: Silver (Ag) – Of a Noble origin
Winning one victory after another, the irrepressible army of Alexander the Great was marching to the east. Behind lay the subdued Persia and Phoenicia, Egypt and Babylonia, Bactria and Sogdiana. In 327 B.C. the warriors invaded India and it seemed there was no force that could stop the great commander. But suddenly the Greek army was struck by an outbreak of a mysterious gastrointestinal disease. Exhausted and suffering, the men rose demanding to be sent home. Anxious though he was to follow the road of conquest, Alexander was forced to turn back.
There was one inexplicable fact about that episode: the Greek military commanders fell victim to the mysterious disease far less frequently than their men, although they were sharing all the hard-ships and privations of camp life.
More than 2 000 years had passed before scientists could find an explanation. And it seems the whole point was that the soldiers used tin cups and their superiors, silver ones.
It was proved, remarkably, that silver dissolved in water killed many harmful bacteria. A few thousand-millionths of one gram of silver are enough to purify a litre of water. It was perfectly natural, therefore, that the army top using silver cups were much less exposed to disease than the men under their command.
The ancient historian Herodotus writes that in the 5th century B.C. the Persian King Cyrus, when on the march, kept his water in “sacred silver vessels”. Indian religious books describe how water was purified by immersing white-hot silver in it. In many countries silver coins were traditionally thrown into wells during consecration ceremonies.
Perhaps the purifying action of silver can be considered the oldest “occupation” of this metal, although it is also true that sometimes it was used for downright ridiculous purposes to satisfy the whims of those in power. For example, the Roman Emperor Nero, a notorious spendthrift, had thousands of his mules shoed with silver. But that was no more than a minor episode in the history of this metal.
The second oldest profession of silver, its “life’s work”, was to serve as a value standard — to play the role of money. Romans began to mint silver coins in 269 B.C. or 50 years before gold ones. In Russia locally made coins appeared much later. Still preserved are silver coins (srebrenniki) of the Russian Prince Vladimir made between the 10th and 11 th centuries. One side of the coin had a stamp showing Vladimir sitting on the throne and the other, his family emblem. The inscription said, “Vladimir on the throne and this is his silver.”
In the 12th and 13th centuries Russian coins disappeared from circulation. By that time the lands which had been united around Kiev to form Kievan Russia, had again disintegrated, and the minting of the single national coin was stopped; Silver ingots began to be used as money once more. Historians describe this period as “coinless”.
It was then, in the 1 3th century, that the rouble came into being — a silver bar weighing about 200 grams. In some old literary sources this silver piece is also called a rouble grivenka or grivna. This is how the grivenka was made: a long narrow silver bar was cast and then cut into pieces with a point-tool. One piece was one rouble grivna or simply a rouble.
The Mongol-Tatar invasion detained the minting of Russian money still longer. The Golden Horde issued its silver coin— dirgema or denga (in Tatar dertga means “jingling”). Gradually the Tatar denga became the Russian dengi, money.
It was only in the middle of the 14th century when the Russian people had succeeded in undermining Mongol-Tatar power that the minting of national coins was begun.
In 1534, during the reign of Yelena Glinskaya, the mother of the future Ivan the Terrible, a single Russian national monetary system was introduced. Small silver coins had a picture of a horseman with a sword and they were called mechevye (mech is in Russian a sword.). Heavier silver coins were with a horseman holding a spear and they were called kopeinye (kopye is a spear), from which the modern word “kopeck” was derived.
Although it is difficult to get at the actual truth now, but probably it would be correct to suppose that the first counter-feiters appeared together with the first money. Even some royalty were guilty of counterfeiting. Philip IV the Fair who ruled over France at the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th centuries is referred to in some historical sources as Philip the Counterfeiter. In order to build up his personal wealth this monarch shamelessly reduced the weight of gold and silver coins or replaced some of the noble metal with copper or tin. The great Dante included Philip IV among the other sinners in his Diving Commedia .
A case when the issue of counterfeit money was attempted at state level dates to the 17th century. The year was 1654. The burdensome war with Poland had emptied Russia’s treasury, but more money was needed all the time. Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich raised taxes, large as they were, but the impoverished people could not pay them. Fedor Rtishchev, a boyarin, devised a measure which he thought would enrich the treasury but which led to damaging consequences instead.
At that time silver money was in circulation in Russia. Since the country had no silver of its own then, coins were minted from … foreign money pieces, usually joachimsthalers (coined in the Czech town of Joachimsthal), called by Russians yefimki. The Latin inscription was removed from them and replaced with a Russian one. Advised by Rtishchev and other boyars, the tsar decided to make profit by ordering that one-rouble stamps be put on the yejimki that cost the treasury 50 kopecks each. Simultaneously the poltinnik (50 kopecks), polupoltinnik (25 kopecks), grivennik (10 kopecks), altyn (3 kopecks) and kopeika (one kopeck) were to be made from cheap copper, but valued as silver ones. The royal financiers had calculated that the measure was to bring four million roubles to the treasury — 10 times more than all the annual taxes amounted to. The thought of all that money went into the tsar’s head and he ordered the new coins to be made “in a hurry, day and night and with great diligence so that much money can be had soon.”
Soon the cheap coinage had flooded Russia. But money has its own laws and even monarchs are powerless to govern them. If there is more money in circulation than there should be, its buying power declines and prices for all goods go up. And that was exactly what happened in the Russian State. Common folk were soon to feel the consequences of the tsarist reform: the prices of bread and other products were rising fast, while traders accepted only silver as payment. But where was it to come from after the bulk had settled in the tsar’s coffers? Famine struck the land, the people’s endurance was wearing thin. In 1662 an uprising which went down in history as the “copper riot” broke out in Moscow, It was ruthlessly suppressed, but nevertheless the people had their way: copper money was taken out of circulation and replaced by silver.
During the rule of Peter I money was mainly minted by the Moscow Mint which was situated in the region called Kitai-Gorod. In 1711 the Senate decreed that “silver money is to be made only by one mint, the one in Kitai.” In 1724 a new mint was set up in St. Petersburg by a royal order. Today it is the Leningrad Mint which recently was 250 years old.
Peter I took energetic measures to increase the production of gold and silver. But despite the impressive progress made then, Russia was to buy these metals abroad for a long time yet. History has preserved some documents proving this fact. For example, in 1734 the government instructed the Vice-Governor of Irkutsk to buy a big consignment of silver in China.
At about the same time the ore explorers of Akinfy Demidov (the Demidovs were a powerful dynasty of iron-manufacturers in the Urals) found a deposit of silver ore. Under the law of that time silver ore, wherever and by whomever found, was the property of the imperial court. But Demidov had no wish of parting with his treasure. He began to coin his own money which was just like government coinage with the exception that it contained more silver. Most likely that was the only case in history where counterfeits were more valuable than genuine money.
Legend has it that in Nevyansk, the Demidovs’ estate, there was an underground mint with slaves chained to the walls in a basement floor of a tall tower, minting counterfeit money day and night. It was a terrible prison which no one could ever hope to leave: never was the government to know about the secret. However, all precautions notwithstanding, a rumour about the Nevyansk tower had leaked out and reached the capital. At first it was only a vague rumour and even Empress Anna Ioanovna did not risk spoiling her good relations with the uncrowned king of the Urals. But according to one story, when the Tsarina accepted some brand new silver coins from Demidov one day — her win from a card game with him — she suddenly asked him: “Are these of your or my making, Nikitich?” Demidov got up from the table, spread his arms, bent his head humbly and answered with a smile: “We are all yours, your Majesty, and I’m yours and all that is mine is yours too!”
Soon after that an incident occurred that put an end to the underground mint. One of Demidov’s craftsmen, terrified by his master, managed to flee from Nevyansk to St. Petersburg. The minute Demidov learned about it, he sent a pursuit party with orders to seize and kill the man or, in case of failure, rush to the Empress with the “good news” that a silver deposit had been discovered in the Urals.
The fugitive was not caught and the “good news” about the silver reserves had to be reported at the court. An acceptance commission was dispatched to Nevyansk. Two days before its arrival Demidov ordered the sluices connecting the tower basement with a nearby lake to be opened and all the workers in the mint — the main witnesses of his crimes — remained under water forever.
Silver has been used in jewelry since time immemorial. It has always been prestigious to own silver services, cups and goblets, powder- and cigarette-cases and snuff-boxes. Silverware was especially valued by Russian and French aristocracy for whom their “family silver” was something like a visiting card speaking of its owner’s noble origin and r wealth. Count Orlov had a unique silver service which consisted of 3 275 articles into which about two tons (!) of pure silver had gone.
Silversmiths of Novgorod were famous throughout the land and far beyond for their inimitable craft of embossing and engraving. Their cups, bowls and vessels enraptured contemporaries by the beauty of design and finish. According to some historical sources, there were nearly one hundred master silversmiths working in 16th century Novgorod, as for smaller craftsmen who specialized in making crosses, rings, ear-rings, and other personal ornaments, they could not be even counted. The Novgorod silverware is today on display in the Armoury, the State History Museum and the Russian Museum in Leningrad.
While naturally retaining its role ot a jeweller’s and craftsman’s metal, silver today has many more serious things to do as well. Ever since Daguerre, the French painter and pioneer photographer, developed a process by which permanent pictures could be produced on sensitized materials X in 1839 silver has been inseparably linked with photography. The main part in this process is played by an extremely thin layer of silver bromide deposited on photographic film or paper. Under the action of light silver bromide disintegrates, with the bromide bonding chemically with the gelatine in the layer and silver precipitating in crystals so tiny that they cannot be seen under an ordinary microscope. The rate of disintegration of the silver bromide is directly proportional to the intensity of light to which it was exposed.
Further processing (development and fixation) produces a negative image which becomes a positive picture when printed. Great though the advance in photography has been during its history of more than a hundred years, it is still inconceivable without silver and its compounds.
Scientists have found a fascinating job for silver iodide: it is an effective help in fighting tropical cyclonic storms. In order to reduce the devastating force of a storm it is necessary to stretch it, as it were, that is, to increase its diameter. This is what silver iodide does, owing to its ability to condense atmospheric moisture into rain drops.
This method was tested for the first time some ten years ago on a hurricane. A “screen” of silver iodide suspension 10 km high and 30 kilometres long was put up on its way by means of planes. Having struck against the screen, the “unsuspecting” storm rolled it and swallowed it up. The same instant the cloudy wall around its central section, the so-called hurricane eye, fell apart spilling rain and the force of the wind dropped sharply. True, it was not “taken aback” and began forming another cloud wall, but it was much bigger in diameter, hence moving much slower than before. The destructive effect of the “silver-sprinkled” hurricane had grown considerably weaker. It is noteworthy that impressive as the size of the screen was, it had required only a few metric tons of silver iodide.
Silver has been used in mirror making from the middle of the last century. A sheet of polished glass silvered at the back has the greatest reflecting power of all the known metals. It is indispensable not only in everyday life but also as the doctor’s tool and as an essential component of telescopes, microscopes and other optical instruments.
No other metal is as good a thermal and electrical conductor as silver. Silver wire is used in the most sensitive physical instruments; it is from silver that vital terminals in various relays are made and it is also with silver that important components of radio systems are soldered.
The numerous automatic devices, rockets and submarines, computers and nuclear installations, means of communication and signalling systems -none of these can do without contacts. During its life every one of them is brought into operation millions of times. In order to be able to withstand such colossal strain, the contact must be wear-resistant, reliable in exploitation and must meet a number of specifications. The contacts are usually made from silver. Specialists are well satisfied with this metal -it does its difficult job perfectly. But silver displays even more valuable properties once rare-earth elements are added to it. The life of contacts made from such silver increases several times over.
According to Western mass media, the nozzles of some jet engines are manufactured from foam tungsten saturated with silver. Probably not many people know that the US submarine Thresher which so mysteriously disappeared in the ocean waves in 1963 carried several tons of silver that had gone into the manufacture of her accumulators.
Silver is so ductile that it can be beaten into a transparent leaf only 0.00003 centimetres thick, while a one-gram grain of it can be drawn out into a wire nearly two kilometres long.
Pure silver is a beautiful white metal and its Latin name “argentum” comes from the Sanscrit “argenta” meaning “light-coloured”.
While we are on the subject of names, we would like to tell you about some remarkable facts associated with some of them. The map has often helped discoverers to find a name for a new element. Take a look at the Mendeleyev Table and you will see ample prof: germanium, francium, europium, americium, scandium and californium. Such cases are quite common, but a case when a big river and even a whole state were given a name in honour of a metal is probably inique. The metal was silver and this is what happened more than 400 years ago.
At the beginning of the 16th century Juan Diaz de Solis, a Spanish seafarer, discovered a big river flowing into the ocean off the eastern coast of South America. Not overburdened with modesty, he gave the river his own name, en years later Captain Sebastian Cabot happened to sail up the same river and was amazed at the amount of silver his men had seized from the local population. And he called it Rio de la Plata (in Spanish silver is la plata). Later it became the name of the whole country. But at the beginning of the 19th century Spanish rule was overthrown and in order to forget their sad past the people of the country changed the Spanish “La Plata” into the Latin “Argentina”.
There is another story connecting silver with a geographic name. In 1577 a fleet of several ships under the newly-fledged Admiral Francis Drake sailed from the British coast. He had been honoured with the high rank by Queen Elisabeth for his many years of faithful service as a … pirate. And the purpose of his new voyage secretly blessed by Elisabeth was the looting of cities owned by Spain on the Pacific coast of South America. Elisabeth and her entourage had become “shareholders” of the “Drake and Co” hoping to make fortunes out of the notorious “iron pirate’s adventures.
For several months had Drake s ships plied the seas and oceans diligently “working” to the Queen’s good. In his many battles Drake had lost four out of his five ships, but the Golden Hind, his flag-ship, continued to terrify the population of coastal towns. At dusk one day the pirate turned up near Callao where roughly 30 Spanish ships were moored. Drake, it must be admitted, lacked nothing in courage: his Golden Hind entered the harbour and stood there the whole night side by side with the enemy vessels. The Spanish sailors had had enough rum to drink to forget everything and were having a marvellous time on decks long after midnight. Some of them were loudly discussing other ships that had left harbour not long before, loaded with precious cargos. According to them, the royal galleon Cacafuego was literally overflowing with treasure. Hearing about it, Drake immediately weighed anchor and hurried in pursuit.
It was for good reason that Drake s ship was called the Golden Hind: few ships could contest its speed. Very soon, near the coast of Ecuador, Drake boarded the Cacafuego . This is how one of Drakes associates described the developments that followed: “Next morning inspection and assessment of the cargo began and it lasted for six days … There we found gems, 13 cases of silver coins, 80 pounds of gold and 26 casks of unstamped silver … At the end of the sixth day we said goodbye to the captain and, somewhat unburdened, he hurried to Panama and we headed for the open sea.”
The far-sighted Drake realized that the Golden Hind was far from her journeys end and that the Spaniards might yet try to get their treasure (plundered in South America) back. But overloaded as she was, the ship could not maintain her high pace. Was Drake to listen to common sense or give in to avarice? Drake’s decision was correct: 45 tons ‘of unstamped silver went overboard. In memory of the lost treasure the pirate named a nearby island La Plata.
Naturally this was not the only case where silver, gold and other valuables ended up on the seabed During the ages-old history of seafaring thousands of ships were wrecked and sunk, sometimes taking with them countless treasure down the blue abyss. This is a fact that has long since deprived numerous treasure seekers of their peace of mind.
The sea is unwilling to give up its riches but people are tireless in attempting to lay their hands on them.
In 1939 an old fisherman salvaged a few oblong stone blocks from shallow water south-east of Pigeon Keys, an island off the Florida coast. He used them for some time as ballast in his boat but then threw them out. One block was left in the boat accidentally and the old man began to use it as an anvil on which he straightened nails. Two years had passed. From the many hammer blows and scratches the stone seemed to become softer and was beginning to show a lustrous surface. It was then that it had dawned on the fisherman that his “anvil” was a bar of pure silver. But instead of rejoicing the old man was desperate: what an old fool he was to have thrown overboard with his own hands the treasure God had sent him!
But not all was lost, he thought to himself, and put to sea, to the place where he had seen numerous such “stones” with his own eyes. The fisherman searched far and wide, through all the bays, but could never find the inconspicuous ridge of reefs where a galleon had met its end a few hundred years ago.
McKee, an American diver, was more successful. In May 1949 he was making an underwater survey in the vicinity of the coast of Florida, not far from the reefs of Key Largo. One day he noticed what looked like a shipwreck at a depth of 20 metres. He made a careful inspection and discovered several guns, an anchor and three heavy oblong blocks. McKee’s curiosity aroused, he raised them to the surface and was rewarded handsomely: the bars turned out to be pure silver stamped NATA. Specialists at the Washington historical museum established that the stamp had belonged to an old silver mine in Panama and that the ship McKee had discovered was one of the 14 Spanish galleons wrecked in the terrible hurricane that swept the area in the spring of 1715.
Both the Florida fisherman and McKee became treasure hunters unintentionally. As happens much more often, underwater treasure hunts are conducted according to plan. But this does not mean that they fail less frequently than unorganized searches. Sometimes success comes when least expected. That was exactly the case with one William Phipps at the end of the 17th century who had been instructed by King James II of Britain to try to recover the treasure of a Spanish galleon which had sunk in the vicinity of the Bahama Islands.
Days, weeks find months had passed but the Phipps expedition was unable to find the wreckage. When a whole year had gone by, Phipps was ready to admit defeat. He called his assistants and announced the end of the search. Uttering his last words, he stamped his foot under the table in helpless fury and the same instant something rolled from under the table. It looked like a coral outgrowth but had a suspiciously regular form. Phipps struck it with an axe and saw a box of hard wood inside. Another blow and gold and silver coins poured to the foor.
It turned out that the piece of coral had been found and thrown under the table by one of the divers, a Red Indian. Several divers were immediately dispatched to explore the place where the “coral” had been found and they soon brought back a dozen similar objects.
Work got under way. Phipps himseli went down several times in a diving bell. In three months the expedition recovered 30 tons of silver, a substantial amountof gold and numerous cases with coins. The total value of the treasure was 300 000 pounds (more than one million by the present rate of exchange).
Not long ago silver found on the sea floor was the cause of an international dispute. Everything began in 1972 when Robert Marx, an American archaeologist of the Seafinders Company which engages in marine treasure hunting, discovered a sunk Spanish galleon 45 miles north of the Bahamas. A few days later work was in full swing on the spot in preparation for the recovery of its cargo. Soon it was established that the ship sank in 1656 with a large consignment of silver and other valuables worth about 2000000 dollars.
It was expected that the treasure would be intact in the ship’s hold or cabins. Indeed two or three weeks later the first batches of the treasure began to be raised to the surface. The company bosses were rubbing their hands in joyous anticipation when unexpected difficulties arose, learning about the find, the Bahama administration claimed the silver and everything else to itself. Work had to be stopped while the conflict assumed such proportions that the US State Department had to step in. Its spokesman declared that the galleon was not in the territorial but in international waters and for that reason the Bahama government had no right to its “contents”. The argument is still going on and it is hard to say where it will end.
Despite the fact that finds arc very rare, the army of underwater fortune seekers is constantly growing. It goes without saying that the modern scuba diver has much greater chance of being successful than, say, Phipps’ divers who had only their lungs to count on, but still the ocean is reluctant to yield its secrets.
Silver troves are found on the surface as well. For example, not long ago a treasure of 1000 Arab silver coins was found in Gotland, a Swedish island, under quite extraordinary circumstances. The lucky one was … a rabbit, a common grey rabbit which wanted to dig itself a hole in the country near the small town of Bjurse. When the animal was half-way through its “construction work” it was showered with metal discs and it must have been with the greatest difficulty that it threw them out of its hole. Soon the coins were discovered by archaeologists and were sent to the Stockholm Historical Museum. This is what specialists there were able to surmise.
Once upon a time Gotland was a rich trading centre of Europe frequented by merchants from many countries. Hundreds and thousands of silver coins changed hands there or settled in the chests of fortunate traders. Sometimes they got into the hands of the vikings who visited the island for their own ends. According to a legend, the treasure found by the rabbit was buried in those ancient times by a viking chief Staver. For many decades had the local population believed the story that about 150 years ago a drunken Gotland peasant dreamed he was visited by the devil who gave him a handful of silver coins from Staver’s treasure and told him in strict confidence that five generations from then people would find the whole treasure which the powerful viking had “put up for a rainy day”.
It is hard to say if the legend had any real background, but what is truly incredible is that exactly five generations later the treasure was discovered at the very spot indicated in the legend. If this is true, it would be interesting to know why the devil had withheld from the peasant the remarkable fact that the most important part in the discovery would be played by a rabbit.
Source: Tales About Metals, S. Venetsky