Between 1520 and 1650 Spain’s economy took a dive. This was previously attributed to the belief that too much imported silver from the New World entered circulation as currency, but new analysis has revealed that this was not the case.
Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Spanish extracted as much as 300 tons of silver per year from mines in Peru and Mexico. If the heavy bars managed to survive the hazards of the Atlantic, both natural and piratical, they could either be coined into pieces of eight or be traded with other countries to offset Spain’s many costs, which at this time included financing wars in the Netherlands and importing porcelain and silk from China.
But did the Spanish actually use the imported silver to make coins? To find out, archaeometrist Anne-Marie DeSaulty and colleagues at the University of Lyon in France used mass spectrometry to measure the ratios of several metal isotopes—atoms of the same element with different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei—in 91 old coins: 24 ancient coins from Greece and Rome, 23 medieval coins from around Europe, 25 coins minted in Spain from the 16th and 18th centuries under a succession of different kings, and 19 coins minted from Latin American silver.
Story: Sara Reardon, Science Now | Photo: (Left) Photo courtesy of Daniel Frank Sedwick, LLC; (Right) Howard Pyle “An Attack on a Galleon” frontispiece/Wikimedia Commons