By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
The Incas had rivers full of gold and mountains full of silver, and they used gold and silver for art and for worship, but they never invented money because it was a fiction they had no use for. (Goldstein, 4)
THE CLASSIC DEFINITION of money found in most Economics textbooks is divided into three parts: money is a medium of exchange (you can trade it for other things), a store of value (you can save it), and a unit of account (you can express the value of many other things in terms of money).
Long before the emergence of coinage in the Mediterranean world in the seventh century BCE, people used money for these purposes. Early civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, and other places arose, created complex economies, and accomplished great things, entirely without coins. For example, the Egyptian workers who built the pyramids were paid in standard loaves of bread and jars of beer. In many early civilizations, cattle was the most important form of wealth. But perishable foodstuffs and livestock on the hoof were not a practical “store of value”.
One of the earliest accounts of a cash transaction in Western literature is found in The Bible, in Genesis (23:16). The patriarch Abraham is buying a cave to bury his wife, Sarah:
And Abraham weighed to Ephron the silver … four hundred shekels of silver, current money with the merchant
Biblical chronology is – to put it mildly – a can of worms, but scholarly consensus dates the death of Sarah to circa 1859 BCE – many centuries before the invention of coinage. The shekels that Abraham is carefully weighing out in a pan balance, using a set of stone weights, are not coins but bits of silver from broken jewelry or cut from rough cast ingots. There were many different standards ranging from 7 to 17 grams for the shekel, but 11.5 grams is a likely value for the Babylonian shekel Abraham might have used. The Code of Hammurabi, dated to c. 1800 BCE, valued a year of unskilled labor at 10 shekels, and Exodus 21:32 sets the value of a male slave at 30 shekels.
Archaeologists use the German term hacksilber (“chopped silver”) to describe a form of money widely used for millennia. In the ancient Near East, so-called “chocolate bar” ingots were cast with deep horizontal and vertical grooves, so that square chunks could easily be broken off for small purchases. The biblical First Book of Samuel recounts an incident that took place around 1049 BCE illustrating this. Young Saul, the future king, accompanied by one of his father’s slaves, is searching for some lost donkeys. They are about to give up when the servant suggests they consult a holy man in a nearby village. Saul objects that they have nothing to offer him:
And the servant answered Saul again and said ‘Behold, I have here at hand the fourth part of a shekel of silver that will I give to the man of God, to tell us our way.
That would have been a chunk of about three grams (a bit more than the 2.5-gram American dime). The holy man, Samuel, tells Saul not to worry about the stray donkeys, which have already been found, and informs him that he will become king.
Hoards of hacksilber found in the Near East have been analyzed to determine the origin of the metal. Lead is a common element is silver ores, and different sources of silver have different patterns of lead isotopes. The metal in these pre-coinage hoards came mainly from ore deposits in the Aegean (including the rich Laurion silver mine near Athens), Sardinia, and distant Spain (Gentelli, 8).
One of the most remarkable proto-money artifacts to come on the market in recent years is a 41.5-gram silver ingot stamped with the name of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun who ruled c. 1345 – 1327 BCE. One of only two examples known, and said to come from the collection of Roger Pereire (French, 1906-1968), the piece brought over $32,000 USD in a 2019 Swiss auction. Although ancient Egypt had rich gold mines, silver was rare and highly prized.
The cowrie is a marine mollusk or sea snail native to the Indian Ocean. The modern scientific name Monetaria moneta (formerly Cypraea moneta) indicates its widespread use in Eurasia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas as currency. In ancient China, cowries were so important that many written characters relating to money contain the symbol for cowry: 貝, or 圓 (or simplified 圆) is “yuan“, the name of the modern Chinese currency unit.
Beginning over three thousand years ago, cowry shells, or metal replicas, served as money. Durable, conveniently sized, and impossible to counterfeit, cowries circulated as small changes in parts of India and Africa until early modern times. Harvested in the Maldive Islands, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia, cowries can be purchased online quite inexpensively in bulk, and are used in a variety of arts and crafts.
The Pacific island nation of Fiji honored the cowrie on a 1978 $20 commemorative coin. Between 1971 and 1985, the currency of the African nation of Guinea was the syli, divided into 100 cauris, and the shell appeared on the 50 cauri coin.
The CoinArchives Pro database, which currently lists over two million auction items sold over the past two decades, returned 143 hits on the search term “ring money”. Almost all are described as “Celtic”, an origin that sprawls across most of Iron Age (c. 800 – 50 BCE) Western and Central Europe. Some 76 were gold or electrum (an alloy of gold and silver), with prices ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Some of the “gold” rings were actually plated over a base metal core.
Bronze is an alloy of copper, typically with 10-15% tin and sometimes other metals. Durable and easy to work, it was used for cooking vessels, statues, tools, armor, weapons, and many other useful objects for centuries before it was minted into coins. In much of Italy, crude lumps of bronze circulated by weight as a form of currency before the widespread introduction of coinage in the fourth century BCE. Know as aes rude (Latin for “crude bronze,” pronounced ICE roo-deh) these lumps occasionally appear in ancient coin auctions.
Since the value of bronze was so much less than precious metals, a lot of it was needed to make a purchase. An ounce of silver was worth 120 ounces of bronze or more! The earliest Roman bronze coins (c. 280 BCE) were massive cast bronze pieces called aes grave (Latin for “heavy bronze”, pronounced ICE grah-veh) weighing as much as 280 grams (about 10 ounces).
Stone “Money” of Yap
Perhaps the most famous proto-money objects in the world are the pierced stone discs of the Pacific island of Yap (2010 population: 11,377,) part of the Federated States of Micronesia. Known as rai, they are considered sacred by the Yapese and used for ceremonial traditional transactions, such as marriage and inheritance. Very few authentic pieces have been exported; even fewer are collectable.
In 2021, a well-documented example, about 12 inches (30 cm) in diameter, weighing 23 pounds (10 kg) sold for $4,200 in a US auction. The cataloguer wrote:
“…the stones were quarried and shaped on the island of Malakal in Palau, then shipped back to Yap on native boats. …Some of the larger stones took as long as two years to quarry and shape using axes made from giant clams.”
The distance from Malakal to Yap is over 300 miles (500 km.) The largest of some 6,000 rai stones on Yap is 12 feet (3.6 meters) in diameter and weighs an estimated 8,800 pounds (4,000 kg). The National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. has a rai stone six feet (1.8 meters) in diameter weighing 4,000 pounds (1,814 kg).
Harappan Gold Discs
One of the most enigmatic ancient civilizations was the Harappan culture that thrived in the Indus Valley (now India and Pakistan) around 3000 to 2500 BCE. The language, written with hundreds of different pictographic symbols, has never been deciphered. Thin, flat pierced gold discs, varying in size from less than 3 mm to over 12 mm have been found at Harappan sites and hoards occasionally appear in numismatic auctions. It is uncertain whether these were simply ornaments, strung on necklaces, or a form of money. Perhaps they were both; even today in villages in India a significant portion of a family’s wealth may be in the form of women’s gold jewelry.
Monetary objects used before coinage are not usually considered a regular part of numismatics. Relevant information is scattered across the vast literature of archaeology and anthropology. Alison Hingston Quiggen’s pioneering book, A Survey of Primitive Money (1949, reprinted 2018) is still a useful reference. Quiggen (1874-1971) was a British anthropologist. The term “proto-money” is preferable to “primitive” or “traditional” since many of the societies that used these things were quite advanced, with sophisticated economies.
Collectors of proto-money will encounter thorny problems of authenticity and provenance. In many cases, it is impossible to determine whether an object was used as money rather than as an ornament, ritual offering, or ceremonial gift. Nevertheless, examples of proto-money appear from time to time in numismatic auctions and dealer inventories, and they offer us a fascinating glimpse into the pre-history of coinage.
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 I Samuel, 9:8. The Hebrew text reads: רֶ֖בַע שֶׁ֣קֶל כָּ֑סֶף reba sheqel kesep – “quarter shekel silver”.
 Numismatic Genevensis Auction 12, November 19, 2019, Lot 101. Realized CHF 32,000 (about $32,402 USD; estimate CHF 30,000).
 Stephen Album Auction 41, September 16, 2021, Lot 2431. Realized $160 USD (estimate $75-100).
 A recent search for “cowrie shells” on Amazon produced over a dozen different vendors; a typical price was $7.99 for 100 pieces.
 https://pro.coinarchives.com. Accessed July 19, 2022
 Leu Numismatik Web Auction 19, February 26,2022, Lot 52. Realized CHF 750 (about $808 USD; estimate CHF 100).
 Harlan J. Berk Sale 212, September 9, 2020, Lot 2. Realized $1,500 USD (estimate $975).
 Numismatik Naumann Auction 113, February 6, 2022, Lot 1. Realized €80 (about $92 USD; estimate €40).
 CNG E-Auction 501,October 6, 2021, Lot 245. Realized $200 (estimate $75).
 The very rare decussis (only about four examples known) weighed over a kilogram (2.2 pounds).
 Stack’s ANA Auction, August 16, 2021,Lot 41656. Realized $4,200 USD (estimate $4,000-$6,000).
 Stephen Album Auction 18, January 16, 2014, Lot 959. Realized $4,000 USD (estimate $900-$1,000).
Feingold, Ellen. The Value of Money. Washington (2015)
Gentelli, Liesel, et. al. “Metal provenance of Iron Age Hacksilber hoards in the southern Levant”, Journal of Archaeological Science 134. (2021)
Ghey, Eleanor. Hoards: Hidden History. London (2015)
Goldstein, Jacob. Money: The True Story of a Made-up Thing. New York (2020)
Quiggen, A.H. A Survey of Primitive Money. London (1949)
Sutherland, C. H. V. Gold: Its Beauty, Power, and Allure. London (1959)
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Mike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.
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