The creation and use of a currency has long been considered a critical benchmark of state building. These humble fragments are proof of the earliest fabrication of currency in West Africa. In its heyday, Tadmekka had a far-reaching reputation. Writing from Andalusia, the 11th-century geographer and historian al-Bakri proclaimed, “of all the towns in the world, [Tadmekka] is the one which resembles Mecca the most. . . . Their dinars are called ‘bald’ because they are of pure gold without any stamp.”
Until recently al-Bakri’s allusion to working gold into unstamped or “blank” coins at Tadmekka was largely dismissed as fictionalized. Indeed, the majority of gold processing in the medieval period has been attributed to north of the Sahara. However, in 2005 excavations at Tadmekka uncovered the terracotta fragments with cup-like indentations on view here. Adhered to one fragment are small droplets of gold (see illustration). Analysis led scientists to conclude that they were used to mold the very same “bald dinars” celebrated by al-Bakri.
Working with the archaeologist who recovered the mold fragments, material scientists from Northwestern University have tested a process for purifying and casting gold using the same material resources available at Tadmekka. Gold dust was melted and filtered through crushed glass to purify it. Copies of the mold fragments were then used by the scientists to cast replica blank dinars in bronze.