The People’s Daily (人民日报) on May 20, 2000 announced that Chinese archaeologists had unearthed a “mountain” of ancient Chinese coins in a field near the city of Cangzhou (沧州) in China’s northern province of Hebei (河北省).
The initial discovery of the buried coins actually dates to 1997.
The coins were made of iron and were stuck together in very large and heavy pieces. Closer examination revealed that the coins were cast during the Song Dynasty (宋朝 960-1279).
But what startled the archaeologists most was the huge number. They initially dug up about 48 tons of the coins.
The largest single chunk of coins weighs about 7 tons.
Moreover, it is estimated that an additional 50 tons of the coins are still buried in the ground.
The total find is thus estimated to be about 100 tons.
The archaeologists also discovered that the iron coins had not simply rusted together but showed clear signs of having been melted together.
Why such a large quantity of Song Dynasty iron coins were buried in the area and why they had apparently been melted together in large chunks is a mystery which to this day remains unsolved.
An article in the April 4, 2013 edition of the China Culture Journal (中国文化报) has renewed attention to this discovery and provides some insight into current theories to explain the mystery.
The coins are now displayed at the Tieqian Ku (“Iron Coin Treasury” 铁钱库) in Cangzhou.
According to Ms. Wang Yufang (王玉芳), the Director of the Cangzhou City Bureau of Cultural Relics (沧州市文物局), no historical documents mention the existence of this unusual coin cache.
Ms. Wang says that experts have proposed three possible theories to explain the mystery.
One theory is that the field where the coins were discovered was the site of a Song Dynasty mint.
However, other experts refute this theory because this area of China was a frontier region during the Song Dynasty and the authorities would not have built a mint in such a remote border area.
Ms. Wang proposes a second possible explanation for the find.
In ancient times, Chinese cash coins were typically carried by threading the coins together on a cord or string. A standard unit of 1,000 coins on a string was called a guan (贯).
Close examination of the massive iron coin chunks reveal that the coins were first neatly stacked in rows of guan. There is also clear evidence that the coins were then exposed to fire and melted together.
According to this theory, the coins were transported from other locations to this site in order to be melted down and destroyed.
Other experts, however, reject this proposition. They say there would not have been any necessity to move such a large quantity of coins to this single location to be destroyed. Also, the effort and expense to do so would not have been worthwhile.
Ms. Wang says that there is a third theory to explain the existence of the huge iron pieces composed of Song Dynasty coins. This theory takes into account the historical background of the times.
The area now known as Hebei was considered the northern border of China during the Tang Dynasty. With the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in 907 AD, the area became divided among several regimes during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (五代十国 907-960). The area was not reunited until the reign (923-926) of Emperor Zhuangzong (庄宗) of the Later Tang Dynasty (后唐).
However, during the reign (936-942) of Emperor Gaozu (高祖) of the Later Jin (后晋), a good part of the northern region of Hebei, known as the Sixteen Prefectures of Yanyun (燕云十六州), was ceded to the Liao Dynasty (辽朝 907-1125) ruled by the Khitans (契丹).
What is pertinent to this discussion is that during the Song Dynasty there was much contention for this sixteen prefecture area between Song China and the Liao Dynasty. During the Southern Song, all of this northern region of present day Hebei was abandoned and fell under the rule of the Jin Dynasty (金朝 1115-1234) ruled by the Jurchen (女真).
The third theory takes into consideration the historical reality of the time to explain the existence of the massive chunks of Song Dynasty coins. The iron coins were sent to the area in order to pay for the expenses of the Song army contending for control of the Sixteen Prefectures of Yanyun.
The forces of the Song were eventually defeated. Forced to withdraw from the area, the Song army was faced with having to transport a huge quantity of iron coins. Since transport would have been difficult, and given the necessity for a hasty retreat, the decision was made to abandon the money.
To prevent the money from falling into the hands of the enemy, however, the coins were partially melted down.
According to Ms. Wang, all three theories seem reasonable although many experts are now leaning towards the third theory. She says additional research and discoveries will need to take place before the mystery of the 100 tons of melted Song Dynasty iron coins is fully explained.
It should be noted that the quantity of coins may actually exceed 100 tons. The newspaper articles referenced above do not mention that, since the initial discovery, even more chunks of partially melted Song Dynasty iron coins have been unearthed in the area. Please see “Tons of Song Dynasty Iron Coins Discovered” for coverage of this more recent find.