Islamic Silver Unveiled: Geochemical Insights Rewrite History

A groundbreaking study has shed new light on the sources of early Islamic silver coins, known as dirhams. Lead isotope analysis of over 100 precisely dated silver coins has revealed a fascinating geochemical perspective on the origins of Islamic silver, challenging existing narratives and uncovering multiple new sources stretching from Morocco to the Tien Shen.

Published in the journal Antiquity, the study examines a boom in silver minting taking place between the years 700 and 900. The Umayyad and, more significantly, Abbasid caliphates would see a vast amount of new money entering their economy that boosted agricultural production and trade.

Silver hoard from Lublin-Czechów, comprising 214 silver dirhams issued between 711–712 and 882–883 CE, now at Lublin Museum – photo by National Museum in Lublin / Wikimedia Commons

While the broader effects of this coinage have been extensively studied, the sources of silver have received less attention until now. By employing lead isotope and trace element analyses, the researchers identified previously unknown sources of Islamic silver, stretching from Morocco to the Tien Shen mountain range in Central Asia, and shed light on the economic and geopolitical landscape of the Abbasid period.

Lead isotope analysis has emerged as a powerful tool in archaeological studies, allowing researchers to trace the origins of metals used in medieval artifacts with unprecedented precision. By analyzing a diverse range of silver coins from different regions and time periods, the research team has not only expanded our understanding of Islamic silver sources but has also demonstrated the potential of geochemical data in unraveling complex economic structures and trade networks of medieval societies.


Analysis of some of the coins reveals their metal came from the Taurus Mountains in what is today southern Turkey. It was in this region that the Abbasids and Byzantines had a long-running border war, marked by frequent raiding. It was previously believed that this warfare was very low-key, as they fought over lands that were sparsely inhabited and with few resources. However, this study suggests otherwise.

The authors write:

We contend that the raids may have been motivated, in part, to secure mineral resources vital to the output of the Caliphate’s most productive mint, with the many fortress sites in the area potentially playing a strategic role in protecting silver mines. The Byzantine eastern-border region, including the area around Pirajman, was a focus of Byzantine raids and Islamic refortification from the AD 750s to the 770s. The Abbasid fortress of Shimshat, north-west of Pirajman, was captured by the Byzantines c. AD 770, but was back in Muslim hands by 775. The securing of this fortress, and nearby precious mineral resources, may explain the upsurge in mintingv at Baghdad from c. AD 770–80. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers could have served as transport routes taking the silver downstream from the mountain region to the Iraqi mints.

The study’s findings have significant implications for the fields of Islamic numismatics and economic history, offering a fresh perspective on the interconnectedness of medieval trade networks and the intricate systems that supported the minting of silver coins in the early Islamic world.

The article, “Sources of early Islamic silver: lead isotope analysis of dirhams,” by Stephen W. Merkel, Jani Oravisjärvi and Jane Kershaw, appears in Antiquity. Click here to read it.


See also: Nearly 500,000 Dirhams were buried in Viking-Age Scandinavia, study finds

Top Image: Silver dirham minted between 787 and 789. Photo by Jean-Michel Moullec / Wikimedia Commons