This month in Archaeology: The origins of money
This month in Archaeology, Dr Way discusses the origins of money examined in the recent PLoS ONE publication, ‘The origins of money: Calculation of similarity indexes demonstrates the earliest development of commodity money in prehistoric Central Europe’ by M.H.G. Kuijpers and C. N. Popa.
‘Money’ – what it is, its origins and its importance – is an interesting concept and was the subject of a recent study that presents evidence for pre-coinage money in Central Europe. While the world’s oldest minted coins date to the beginning of the 7th century B.C.E. in Asia Minor (Kroll and Waggoner 1984), coinage globally is thought to have replaced earlier systems of trade involving standardised precious metal objects.
This paper examines the evolving history of coinage in Central Europe and argues that three bronze objects – rings, ribs and axe blades – were used as pre-coinage ‘money’ in the Early Bronze Age in this part of the world.
While it has long been thought that pre-coinage money existed, it has been difficult for archaeologists to say definitively which objects acted as objects of value exchange before the advent of coins.
What this paper argues
The authors examined 5,028 Early Bronze Age rings, ribs and axe blades from Central Europe and found that they were highly standardised in terms of weight. Standardisation is a central characteristic of money, in terms of weight and/or visual appearance.
In this recent study, the authors develop a method for identifying standardisation or similarity on the basis of weight estimation by hand, as there is no evidence for weighing apparatus such as balances.
They found that bronze rings, ribs and axe blades were often the same weight, and therefore held the potential to be interchangeable in terms of value. They argue that this indicates their suitability as commodity money.
What they looked at (the evidence)
The 5,028 complete rings, ribs and axe blades were found in hoards and dated to the European Early Bronze Age (2150-1700 B.C.E.). Rings and ribs are found in the southern parts of Central Europe in southern Germany, Lower Austria, and parts of the Czech Republic. Axe blades are typically found in central and north-eastern Germany and in between, primarily in the Czech Republic, rings, ribs, and axe blades are regularly found together. These objects are also found in smaller numbers in Southern Scandinavia.
The bronze objects were cast using moulds made of clay or stone or they were casted directly in sand, which made serial production possible.
What they found (the results)
They found that the rings, ribs and a selection of axe blades from the Early Bronze Age displayed sufficient similarities in terms of weight to have functioned as commodity money. Standardisation occurred around a weight of 195.5 grams, with objects in a weight range of 176-217 grams perceived as similar when weighing the objects by hand.
This standardisation was possible because the medium – bronze – could be cast, allowing an unprecedented equality in weight to be produced.
When were rings, ribs and blades replaced, and what is the next commodity money?
Interestingly, axe blades in the following Middle and Late Bronze Ages show no standardisation. Rings and ribs also disappear from the record during this period as a new system of trade in scrap metal and casting cakes appears. These metal objects are not at all standardised, so balances are needed to determine their value. This was made possible during this period by the introduction of the first sets of scales in Western Europe.
What about the world outside Europe?
Europe was a relatively late adopter when it came to both bronze and currency. In Central Europe, the Bronze Age began around 2000 B.C.E., approximately a thousand years later than Mesopotamia (Childe 1930). Around 3000 B.C.E. the first form of currency – the Mesopotamian shekel – also appeared in Mesopotamia (Powell 1996).
What is bronze?
Bronze is an alloy of copper and another metal, often tin. This makes it harder and more durable than copper. People worked with copper for a long time, possibly from as early as 6,000 B.C.E. in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, before they started mixing it to make bronze.
The Bronze Age ended around 1200 B.C.E. when people began to forge an even stronger metal: iron.
Dr Amy Mosig Way, Scientific Officer, Archaeology, Australian Museum Research Institute; and Conjoint Lecturer, School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Sydney.
- Childe, G. 1930. The Bronze Age, Cambridge University Press.
- Kroll, J. H. and N. M. Waggoner. 1984. Dating the Earliest Coins of Athens, Corinth and Aegina: American Journal of Archaeology , Vol. 88, No. 3, pp. 325-340. https://doi.org/10.2307/504555
- Powell, M. A.. 1996. Money in Mesopotamia. Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient Vol. 39, No. 3, pp. 224-242.