• latw-16-10
    Touchstone (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)
  • latw-16-20
    Touchstone. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)


Ca. mid-sixth century BC, Lydian
Sardis or Museum Inv. No.
Object Type
MMS-I 85.1
MMS-I 84.1 Locus 34
B-Grid Coordinates
E144.5 / S68.7
Bar of very fine black stone, rectangular in section, broken at one end, other end finished. Polished smooth surface, slightly convex. Preserved length 0.052 m, width 0.012 m; thickness 0.010 m.
Touchstones remain a convenient and widely used method of assaying the purity of gold. The sample would be rubbed against the fine dark stone, leaving a streak; then this would be compared to streaks made by needles of known proportions of gold and silver. With practice a jeweler can achieve better than 2-3% accuracy, and it is claimed that 19th century Japanese jewelers could achieve 1% accuracy. The Greek poet Theognis, probably living in the sixth century BC and so contemporary with this example, is the first attestation of the word for touchstone in Greek (βάσανος; Theog. 415-18 = 1164c-h). Theophrastus (De Lapidibus 45) claims that the source of all touchstones was the “River Tmolus” — presumably a mistake for the Tmolus Mountains; Pliny (NH 33.126) quotes Theophrastus, and describes the stone as Lydian.

From a Lydian house destroyed in the mid-6th century BC (Area 1, with Nos. 62, 64, 65, 66, 68, 72, 73, 75, 81, 87, 88, 96, 97, 100, 102, 103, 137, 138). There is no other evidence that the occupants of the house were jewelers or had a similar occupation; its discovery suggests that ordinary Lydians had a need to assay gold. Three other black chert river pebbles, smooth but not worked, were found in a nearby house, and may also have been used as touchstones.

This specimen was examined at Ege University by Doç. Dr. Yılmaz Savaşçın and Doç Dr. Orhan Kaya, both of whom were of the opinion that it was a touchstone, not a whetstone. Two sides were analyzed by X-ray fluorescence at Ege University, but this examination did not reveal traces of gold.

See Also
Greenewalt, “Gods of Lydia”; Greenewalt, “Gold and Silver Refining”; Kroll, “Coins of Sardis”.
Greenewalt et al. 1988, 68, n. 13, fig. 10.