The modern world thrives on a constant flow of money that has its roots in simpler protocurrencies developed at the regional level by ancient peoples.
Two archaeologists believe they have identified a very early example of commodity money in Europe that was used in the Bronze Age about 3,500 years ago, with designations in the form of bronze rings, ribs and ax blades. At that time, people often buried collections of these ubiquitous objects, leaving an abundance of scattered “hoards” across the European continent.
In a study published in PLOS ONE on Wednesday, Maikel Kuijpers, Assistant Professor of European Prehistory at Leiden University in the Netherlands, and Catalin N. Popa, a postdoctoral fellow there, compared the weights of more than 5,000 Bronze Age rings. Ribs and blades obtained from over 100 hoards that contained five or more items.
The results showed that 70 percent of the rings were so tight in mass – about 7 ounces on average – that if they had been weighted by hand, they would have been indistinguishable. While the ribs and ax blades are not quite as uniform, the study concludes that the artifacts are similar enough to collectively demonstrate “the earliest evolution of commodity money in prehistoric Central Europe”.
“It’s a very clear standardization,” said Dr. Kuijpers.
While other researchers questioned some of their conclusions, they agreed that the study expanded our knowledge of the economic activities of ancient peoples.
As bronze smiths spread across Europe, these rings, ribs, and ax blades were cast for functional uses – like jewelry and tools – that might not have anything to do with money. Some of the items in the data set likely retained strictly functional or decorative roles as their weights were well above the calculated average.
The comparable weight of a large part of the artifacts leaves “no doubt that at least the rings and ribs meet the definition of commodity money,” the authors wrote. The bronze items reflect forms of currency based on tools known as paraphernalia and discovered elsewhere, such as knife and spade money from China and Aztec chopping and ax money from Mesoamerica.
“We have examples in other regions of the world where you seem to be developing in a similar way,” where “a practical tool is being converted into this parcel money and then into this commodity money,” said Dr. Kuijpers.
A key innovation in bronze is the ability to create duplicates by pouring the metal into molds. The study speculates that over time these nearly identical copies led to an abstract concept of weight that laid the mental foundations for the invention of weighing tools and technologies that emerged centuries later in Europe during the Bronze and Iron Ages.
Nicola Ialongo, a prehistoric archaeologist at the Georg August University of Göttingen in Germany, said the study “made an important contribution to understanding how early funds work,” but that there was a less complicated explanation for how these standardized objects came about.
“As the authors acknowledge, the regularity of their samples could be explained simply by imagining that the objects in their records were cast with a limited number of shapes, or that the shapes themselves were of a standardized shape,” said Dr. Ialongo.
In addition, ancient peoples might have counted this currency the way we count coins today instead of focusing on weight.
“Put simply, you don’t need a weight system to be able to use metals – or any other commodity – as money,” he said, adding that many other less durable things may have been used as money before these bronze items.
The authors counter that “weight is important” because “there is evidence that certain types of objects have intentionally attempted to reach a certain weight interval”.
Barry Molloy, Associate Professor of Archeology at University College Dublin, who was not involved in the study, noted that “there has long been suspicion that systems of weights and measures were used in Europe during the Bronze Age”.
“The search was for an accurate metric such as that found in Southwest Asia and the Mediterranean,” said Dr. Molloy. ‘While this paper does not show that such a coherent system existed, it does provide important insights into how ancient people in Europe themselves approached these problems pragmatically before formal weight systems were developed in the Iron Age. “
While Dr. Ialongo disagreed with some of the researchers’ methods, he also praised the study as “a remarkable attempt to break one of the oldest and most enduring taboos in prehistoric archeology that“ primitive ”societies do not have proper commercial economies. ”