Bronze Age Coins & Ring Money

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson takes a look at the origins of money as we know it. From clay tokens to golden rings, see how Bronze Age people traded goods when society got too large to use the barter system.

Reach into your pocket and pull out some change. Look at it for a moment. You know that coins today are not made purely from precious metals anymore; you can tell by looking at the side of a quarter to see that there are layers of metal stacked up with a silver finish. If coins aren't valued by the material they are made of, what does money represent? Well, it represents an amount of work you did to earn it, and the goods you might want to buy from the work you did.

Now imagine if we didn't have money in the form of coins or bills. That's what life was like in the beginning of the Bronze Age. People lived in smaller groups, but populations were growing thanks to the birth of agriculture. In small communities, you could trade goods and services through one-on-one relationships with people you know; a system called barter. With the growth of trade, however, you couldn't always exchange things in person. This is where symbolic thinking comes in handy. People began representing the value of the exchange by estimating how much of one good, such as a cow, was worth in terms of another good, like sacks of grain.

The Barter System
Barter System Illustration

Banking Before Money

It might surprise you to know that Bronze Age people actually set up a system of banking long before the invention of coins. Temples in Egypt and Mesopotamia would allow people to deposit valuables to keep safe, or deposit livestock and produce to be traded. The temples even created a system of loans and interest.

Currency Types

So how did people keep track of their exchanges once populations got too big to know everyone in the community, or wanted to trade goods over long distances? While it might seem intuitive for us to use coins, for Bronze Age people, the idea of circular, stamped metal representing a unit of value was still a good distance into the future. In fact, the first true coins didn't appear until the Iron Age, but that doesn't mean people didn't experiment with similar concepts that would develop into what are known as proto-coins or proto-money. They used various kinds of tokens, much the way we do with money today. They just didn't have official, printed coins yet. Let's look at some of the things they used.

Shells and Beads

Shells were used as currency around the world. In Asia and Africa, cowrie shells were the most commonly used. Prized for their beauty, they were used as decorative additions to clothing and hair, but also used as a portable form of wealth. In fact, in parts of Ethiopia and in some remote African communities, cowrie shells are still used as currency today. Decorative beads were also used in the same ways, for decoration and as tokens of exchange.

Cowrie Shell
Cowrie Shell

Clay and Stone Markers

In some areas of the Mediterranean, people engraved round, clay markers or carved small pebbles with symbols representing their exchange value. In many ways, these could be considered the first coins, except they were not made of metal, nor were they printed by a governing body.

Clay Accounting Markers
Clay Accounting Markers


Bullion were small, measured quantities of precious metals cast into portable sizes. These were usually not stamped, except to verify their weight and purity. Some were, in fact, the size and shape of coins, but a better way to think of their use would be buying a car with gold bricks. They are an exact value exchange of goods, rather than the symbolic exchange that is represented by coins and money.

Bullion Today: Even now we use measured quantities of gold as wealth.

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