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READ: A Little Big History of Silver

A Closer Look at the Popular Metal

A Greek silver tetradrachm from about 160 BCE © Hoberman Collection/CORBIS
By Big History Project
It’s amazing how much you can learn when you look at things through the lens of Big History. Take a medium-weight element like silver, a shiny whitish metal with an unassuming spot (atomic number 47) on the periodic table between palladium and cadmium.

The value of silver

Silver puts the luster in jewelry, helps our cell phones and MP3 players work better, and even makes hospitals safer. Let’s explore the many roles that silver has played throughout history.
What makes silver more valuable to us than other minerals? Its beauty is one thing. This attractive and reflective metal has fascinated men and women for a long time. Silver also is fairly scarce — and things that are both beautiful and rare tend to be worth a lot (think diamonds, gold, and masterpieces of art). Silver is very durable, too. And it’s malleable, meaning it’s easy to shape. All these qualities have made silver very useful and valuable to this day.
Silver’s monetary value has long been appreciated. Thought to be perhaps the oldest coin, the “Lydian Lion” was minted in modern-day Turkey some 2,700 years ago; early metalworkers — chemists of sorts — made the coins from electrum, an alloy of gold and silver. The Minoan civilization, which flourished on the island of Crete around 2000 BCE, and the Mycenaean people of early mainland Greece imported great amounts of silver mined in ancient Armenia. Transport of the metal between all of these places helped to accelerate trade throughout the Mediterranean region.
After the catastrophic destruction of the Minoan civilization in 1600 BCE, and the decline of the Mycenaean culture around 1200 BCE, silver’s prominence continued as production shifted with the rising civilization of Classical Greece. The silver mines of Laurium (near Athens) paid for the Italian lumber used to build the fleets of triremes (warships with three levels of rowers) that made ancient Athens a naval superpower. The Romans would later adopt silver as one of their main currencies as well.
Silver helped advance global civilization by connecting East and West through trade. Silver was scarce in China, but nonetheless much valued as currency. So, during the Middle Ages, Europeans used silver to buy Chinese goods — gunpowder, tea, ceramics, and silk — which were then carried over the fabled “Silk Road.” Later, when the Spanish discovered silver mines in Mexico and Peru, they established a sailing route across the Pacific, trading South American silver, some of it plundered, for Chinese silk. Silk was desirable because it made light and cool clothing much in demand by Spanish settlers in the hot, humid climate in parts of Mexico, Central America, and South America. As we’ll see elsewhere in this course, when goods get traded, so do ideas. So silver played a role in advancing collective learning.
A 1739 Spanish silver dollar, also called a “piece of eight,” public domain
By the 17th century, Mexican “pieces of eight” — also known as “Spanish dollars” — had become the world’s first global currency. The U.S. dollar was based on these coins and for a long time many U.S. coins contained silver.
The Latin word for silver is argentum. What South American country sounds like that? Right — Argentina! During the time of the Spanish explorers in the 1500s, Argentina was thought to be rich in what shiny metal element? Silver, of course.

​The many uses of silver

Silver also has strong antibacterial properties that have been acknowledged for millennia. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, sometimes called the “father of medicine,” wrote of silver’s healing properties, and early records indicate that the Phoenicians used silver vessels to keep water, wine, and vinegar pure during their long voyages at sea. You may have heard the phrase “born with a silver spoon in your mouth.” That’s not necessarily about being rich. In the 18th century, babies fed with silver spoons were thought to be healthier than those fed with spoons made from wood or other materials. Today many hospitals fight infections with equipment that is embedded with silver. Silver is even used in the thread of some socks. Why? The silver kills bacteria that make the socks smell bad!
Silver is the best metallic conductor of electricity, better than copper or gold. That’s why so many electronics, like your computer keyboard or music player, rely on it. Alloys of silver are used in dentistry, photography, even in the operation of nuclear power plants. Silver also helps keep airplanes aloft. Because of its poor coefficient of friction (meaning, it’s slippery!), silver is used to coat the ball bearings used in jet engines.
But did you know that billions of years ago there was no silver anywhere in the Universe? So where did it come from? Like most other elements in the periodic table, silver was created in dying stars — and in the cataclysmic supernova explosions that sometimes marked their final demise. This is the only place where temperatures get hot enough to fuse hydrogen nuclei together to form larger atoms. These larger, heavier atoms eventually went on to help form planets like Earth. So in a sense, silver, like everything else around you, was made from the first atoms of hydrogen. Where and when was hydrogen created? In the Big Bang itself.
It turns out silver has a pretty big history!

For Further Discussion

Think about how the properties and location of chemical elements such as silver impact our lives today.
  • What would be different if silver were as plentiful as carbon?
  • What would it mean if silver were only found in one place on the planet?
Share your answer to one of these questions in the Questions Area below.

Want to join the conversation?

  • hopper cool style avatar for user ☣Ƹ̵̡Ӝ̵̨̄Ʒ☢ Ŧeaçheя  Simρsoɳ ☢Ƹ̵̡Ӝ̵̨̄Ʒ☣
    So does this align with the TV series, and will there be links to where you can catch the full episode?, or better yet links inside the academy so the kids are still safe, and can earn points! yay! everybody wins! But this looks like something out of a recent episode, and I was wondering to what degree will you merge that content? Thanks T.S.
    P.S. I know it's askin' a lot, but is there any chance Big history might align itself with the common core standards so we can more easily work it into lesson plans? Thanks again T.S.
    (15 votes)
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  • leaf grey style avatar for user Hashir Safdar
    If silver was as common as something like carbon, I doubt it would be used as it is today. How rare something is can help set its value. If it's not very valuable, it would not be used for items such as jewelry.
    It also wouldn't be used to trade between civilizations as it would be very common. People will have wanted something more rare to use instead.
    (4 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user Patrick Rivera
    In the 2nd sentence of the last paragraph, it is stated that silver was created because if the process of supernovae (dying stars). However, the final 2 sentences say that hydrogen was initially created during the big bang. My question is: IF THE SILVER WAS CREATED from dying stars (created after the big bang) then why does it say silver was directly made because of the hydrogen?
    (4 votes)
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  • starky tree style avatar for user Kaitlyn
    • What would be different if silver were as plentiful as carbon?
    It would be treated like aluminum or steel, still very helpful, but not expensive.

    • What would it mean if silver were to be only found in one place on the planet?
    No doubt war, if it were only found in one place it would be extremely rare. People would most likely fight over it. Everyone would want to be the "richest" country, the "better" country, etc.
    (3 votes)
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  • mr pink red style avatar for user r.domann
    How has Silver value fluctuated from the earliest use until the present?
    (3 votes)
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  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user sbbc64
    If silver was as plentiful as carbon, it would not be as expensive.
    (3 votes)
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  • leafers seed style avatar for user Michael
    If silver were as plentiful as carbon, its value would drop by a huge amount. The silk road would also have been traveled on much less, and the Europeans would have to find some other way of paying the Chinese. Collective knowledge would also have decreased, because trade routes carrying silver would never have existed. Silver would also probably not be used in jewelry because of its decreased price. It would also be used in a lot more products because of its decreased price and rarity.
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user aditi.ismal
    how does silver help in advance global civilisation by connecting east and west through trade?
    (1 vote)
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  • leaf yellow style avatar for user Lünee Vrümee #TYllwLf
    1. I would guess hyper-inflation.
    2. First, it would just be some sort of foreign delicacy until world trade occurs, when silver just starts circulating as it would have if it was located globally.
    (1 vote)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user Mateo Piper
    The first thought that pops into mind about how different it would be if silver was as common as carbon is that we would wouldn't value it as much as we do now. Maybe even the shininess wouldn't appeal to us because it's so common. It would be viewed in the same light as shiny rocks in gravel.

    If silver were only found in one place on the planet, I would imagine a lot of wars being fought at first to gain control of that area. As we were introduced to above, it was used as currency so I can only imagine how us humans would react if it were even less present on the planet but still as valuable. That's assuming quite a bit about how our behavior would stay the same but those are my thoughts right now eager to get onto the next page haha!
    (1 vote)
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