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Most major economies using coinage had several tiers of coins of different values, made of copper, silver, and gold. Gold coins were the most valuable and were used for large purchases, payment of the military and backing of state activities. Units of account were often defined as the value of a particular type of gold coin. Silver coins were used for midsized transactions, and sometimes also defined a unit of account, while coins of copper or silver, or some mixture of them (see debasement), might be used for everyday transactions. This system had been used in ancient India since the time of the Mahajanapadas. The exact ratios between the values of the three metals varied greatly between different eras and places; for example, the opening of silver mines in the Harz mountains of central Europe made silver relatively less valuable, as did the flood of New World silver after the Spanish conquests. However, the rarity of gold consistently made it more valuable than silver, and likewise silver was consistently worth more than copper.

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