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Bronze Age Money: Early Metal Artifacts May Be Europe’s First Currency

Bronze Age Money: Early Metal Artifacts May Be Europe’s First Currency

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Did the occupants of Central Europe in 2,000 BC have a functioning monetary economy? Said another way: did these people have Bronze Age money? Yes they did, say a pair of archaeologists from the Netherlands. They drew this conclusion after studying hoards of standardized bronze objects recovered from approximately 100 Early Bronze Age excavations, throughout the region now occupied by Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic.

The bronze objects are “the oldest known form of money from prehistoric Europe ,” according to Maikel H. G. Kuijpers, who, along with his research partner Cătălin N. Popa (both faculty at Leiden University in the Netherlands), explained the significance of their findings in an article published on January 20 in the open access journal PLOS ONE . The idea of Bronze Age money isn’t new but the Dutch scientists’ theory certainly is.

The locations in Central Europe where the hoards of “identical” Bronze Age ribs, rings, and axe blades were found. (CC-BY 4.0)

The locations in Central Europe where the hoards of “identical” Bronze Age ribs, rings, and axe blades were found. ( CC-BY 4.0 )

Bronze Age Money And The Weber Fraction

To reach their fascinating conclusion, the Dutch archaeologists analyzed more than 5,000 separate bronze objects , which had been shaped into ribs, rings, and axe blades. Within each of these three subsets, all the objects were of similar size, shape, and weight. The collections of bronze objects were buried intentionally on land and at the bottom of rivers, for unknown reasons. Most of the objects were found in stashes that contained only one specific shape, but mixed collections were found on occasion.

 

 

The Leiden University archaeologists were not the first ones to posit the theory that these objects were in fact a form of Bronze Age money. But their work broke new ground by employing an innovative method of analysis.

Relying on a psychological and physiological principle of calculation known as the Weber fraction, they determined that most of these objects had been deliberately mass produced to be interchangeable in every aspect, as would be the case if they were meant to be used as money.

A collection of Bronze Age rings (Osenringen), which are all identical from the Weber fraction perspective. (M.H.G. Kuijpers, author photo / CC-BY 4.0 )

According to the Weber fraction, objects that fall within a certain weight range will seem to weigh exactly the same if held in the human hand, and thus will be seen as identical. The Early Bronze Age occupants of Central Europe didn’t possess the measuring technology to produce physical objects with exactly matching weights. Apparent uniformity of weight would have been the best they could do, if they were trying to mass produce objects that would have value as money.

Because these objects were created with precisely standardized dimensions, were made from durable metals, had no obvious practical uses, and had been collected as valuables in individual hoards, Kuijpers and Popa believe the bronze objects must have been used as a form of Bronze Age money. As a type of proto-coin, these mass-produced objects would have had exchange value when traded for a variety of goods and services.

“There was lots of discussion, but we lacked a proper methodology to test this idea,” Kuijpers explained . Confident in the soundness of their approach, Kuijpers and Popa assert that their report “provides definite evidence that we are dealing with commodity money.”

The Dutch scientists believe that these axe heads and jewellery objects may have been used as Bronze Age money. (M.H.G. Kuijpers, author photo / CC-BY 4.0 )

Money Makes The World Go Round … Or Does It?

The theory that these ancient items represented a form of Bronze Age money has much to recommend it. But alternative hypotheses are conceivable.

The bronze objects studied were intentionally standardized in shape and size, that much has been proven. But moving beyond that fact to draw more general conclusions inevitably involves a degree of conjecture, which leaves space for other imaginative but plausible interpretations.

For example, if we assume Early Bronze Age people were interested in recreation, the objects might have been game pieces . Or the pieces could have been given as awards to competitors in games or athletic contests, possibly representing first, second, and third place finishes depending on the shape of the object awarded.

In fact, the objects could have been handed out as rewards for a variety of accomplishments, or in recognition of certain types of community service. In modern terms, they would have been the equivalent of trophies or citations, which would be collected and displayed as a matter of pride.

Many other possibilities are imaginable. They could have been valued as a form of mass-produced art, or simply as collectibles that might have had exchange value, but only if exchanged for each other. Or they may have had practical uses that we are unable to comprehend, given the mysterious nature of prehistoric peoples. They may have had some relationship to spiritual or metaphysical beliefs, and people may have collected them for use in rituals or observances, or to create holy displays.

None of these theories may fit the evidence quite as neatly as the hypothesis offered by the Leiden University archaeologists, which certainly has merit. But the likeliest explanations are not always true, and even determining the likeliest explanation can be difficult when the available data is limited.

Without a time machine that allows us to travel back to lost eras to observe history unfolding live and in person, the truth about why Early Bronze Age people in Central Europe were making and collecting standardized metal objects will remain elusive. Without a written record or eyewitness testimony, the “facts” are always open to interpretation.

Top image: Bronze Age money? Bronze ribs or Spangenbarren which are all the same and thus interchangeable as money.                       Source: M.H.G. Kuijpers, author photo / CC-BY 4.0

By Nathan Falde

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