Weight, Value and Money - A contribution to the issue of weight standards in Bronze Age Europe

Aleksander Dzbyński


1. Instead of an introduction

2. Weight standards in Bronze Age society

3. The weight of currency

4. Measuring scale
5. What is money?

6. Money and the early Greek mind or Sacrum vs profanum

7. Summary or West vs East?



This article discusses some characteristics of the phenomenon we call money. It is not, however, a comprehensive discussion, its aim is only to touch on a number of points within this extensive area of research, which reaches from economy to philosophy to anthropology and could be interesting for archaeologists. The main point of view is anthropological. I will begin with Bronze Age weight standards and weights, a considerable number of which have been found throughout central Europe. I will then propose an argument for a local, European development of the phenomena discussed. This will be followed by some remarks on money in ancient Greece and a comparison between the Near Eastern and European paths of pre-monetary development. It seems that they were two sides of the same coin and, together, resulted in what we call the universal story of how money spread throughout the world.

Keywords: weight standards, money, bronze, measuring scales, Europe, cognitive process, Eneolithic


1. Instead of an introduction

Let us begin with the following sentence…

"At the origin of money we have "a relation of representation" of death as an invisible world, before and beyond life - a representation that is the product of the symbolic function proper to the human species and which envisages birth as an original debt incurred by all men, a debt owing to the cosmic powers from which humanity emerged. Payment of this debt, which can however never be settled on earth - because its full reimbursement is out of reach - takes the form of sacrifices which, by replenishing the credit of the living, make it possible to prolong life and even in certain cases to achieve eternity by joining the Gods. But this initial belief-claim is also associated with the emergence of sovereign powers whose legitimacy resides in their ability to represent the entire original cosmos. And it is these powers that invented money as a means of settling debts - a means whose abstraction makes it possible to resolve the sacrificial paradox by which putting to death becomes the permanent means of protecting life. Through this institution, belief is in turn transferred to a currency stamped with the effigy of the sovereign - a money put in circulation but whose return is organized by this other institution which is the tax/settlement of the life debt. So money also takes on the function of a means of payment" (Bruno Thèret, The Socio-Cultural Dimensions of the Currency, Journal of Consumer Policy, 1999; cited after Graeber 2012: 58).


2. Weight standards in Bronze Age society

Some time ago Majolie Lenerz-de Wilde performed detailed analyses of numerous bronze finds and concluded that they had fulfilled pre-monetary functions (Lenerz-de Wilde 1995; 2002). Although at first glance this statement might seem excessively bold, the author’s studies clearly showed that highly rationalised communication and exchange systems did in fact exist in the European Bronze Age. Most notably, weight analyses of ring ingots (Ringbarren) from central Europe suggest that some kind of highly abstract concept of weight/mass of bronze raw material had to be involved in their making. The majority of ring ingots examined by Lenerz-de Wilde weighed between 180 and 200 g (Fig. 1). She also noted that new types of much lighter ingots, most of them weighing no more than 90 g, began to appear over time and interpreted this as part of the developing ring ingot exchange “market” in which “lesser” deals requiring smaller weight units were being made. Generally speaking, the ring ingot weights varied over time and from region to region. The chronological evolution consisted of the emergence of increasingly lighter standard weights. One of the consequences of this process appears to have been the severe fragmentation of bronze objects, mainly sickles, which thus assumed pre-monetary functions in the Middle Bronze Age (Primas 1986; Sommerfeld 1994).

As for the regional differentiation, Lenerz-de Wilde believed that the distribution of the various ring ingots marked the extent of distinct economic and “pre-monetary” provinces. Southern parts of Germany, Upper Austria and Bohemia occupied by the Únêtice Culture were characterised by large numbers of clasp and miniature ingots (Spangenbarren and Miniaturbarren), whereas lower Austria and Moravia yielded much greater numbers of ring ingots which were the earliest form of this type of artefact in Europe. Interestingly, central Germany has yielded many flanged axes dating from this period, which, according to Lenerz-de Wilde, were not as standardised in terms of weight as the ring ingots.

Lenerz-de Wilde also speculated on the origins of the ring ingots, which were quite alien in a central European context. Similar artefacts were discovered in a hoard in Byblos dated to between 2130 and 2040 BC, prompting some researchers to interpret the oldest ring ingots in Europe as evidence of imports from the Levant (Schäffer 1949). However, it was eventually shown that many of the European ring ingots were in fact older than those from the Levant, suggesting that the transfer of this type of artefact had to have occurred in the opposite direction (Lenerz-de Wilde 1995: 300). It has also been pointed out that very similar objects made of copper had previously been present in the Baden Culture in Austria (Menke 1982; Sachße 2010). Despite a hiatus between the early copper form and the later bronze ingots, Lenerz-de Wilde allowed for the possibility that what we are dealing with here is a continuous presence of the ring-ornament form. This hypothesis is also supported by the fact that bronze ring ingots actually made their first appearance in Austria.

Ring ingots, however, are not the only artefact standardised with regard to weight. Neugebauer (2002) gives a detailed description of hoards featuring bronze cauldrons whose weights were “adapted to fit” the weight of ring ingots. The hoards from Ragelsdorf and Unterradlberg (A) thus illustrate the next metrological leap marked by heavy neck rings (Ösenhalsringe) weighing twice as much as the ring ingots.

In summing-up her article Lenerz-de Wilde proposes that these heavy neck rings (Ösenhalsringe), which had initially been purely ornamental, abruptly acquired a new function in the Early Bronze Age and began to be circulated as a form of raw material ingot within a system of exchange. The author believed, however, that this function was short-lived and that in later periods ring ingots already served as “physical object money” (aes formatum). In southern Germany, Upper Austria and Bohemia the weight of the ring ingots decreased steadily and by the A2 phase of the Bronze Age one can observe an emergence and development of their smaller equivalents, namely clasp and miniature ingots. Lenerz-de Wilde believed the latter served as “small change” which would have made possible a wider variety of transactions. However, no such evolution is discernible in Lower Austria and Moravia where the ring ingots remained in circulation as before and their smaller equivalents were only sporadically used.

Towards the end of the Early Bronze Age the exchange system involving massive rings, ring ingots and flanged axes gave way to one based on massive quantities of fragmented metal objects, most importantly bronze sickles (Primas 1986; Sommerfeld 1994). This turning point was stressed especially by Sommerfeld (1994; 2004). In the Urnfield period (ca. 1200 BC) a radical change in the composition of bronze hoards can be observed, with ingots and axe-heads being replaced entirely with sickles. Researchers are fairly confident that fragmentation of these implements was intentional. The fragments remained in circulation for long periods. Sommerfeld agreed with Primas that the fragmentation had nothing to do with technological considerations but completely disagreed as to the interpretation of this practice. While Primas (1986: 37) believed that the bronze objects were broken up more or less haphazardly, Sommerfeld was of the opinion that the broken-off fragments were intended to meet a specific weight standard (Sommerfeld 1994: 57; 2004).

Towards the end of the Bronze Age hoards underwent another change. Now the fragmented bronze objects were replaced with small, intact bronze rings which eventually comprised more than 90% of the bronze hoards in that period. Sommerfeld (2004) pointed out that the rings were more functional as value indicators than fragmented bronze artefacts and concluded that they must be evidence of the emergence of the idea of coinage. This statement points to a development that was limited to Europe as I will attempt to outline here.

Fig. 1: Bronze ring ingots and their metrology (after Lenerz-de Wilde 1995).


3. The weight of currency

Middle and Late Bronze Age graves also contained objects interpreted as balance weights (Pare 1999). They are discovered in richly and very richly furnished graves which also contain weapons, ornaments, toiletry articles and decorated bronze vessels. The weights are usually small rectangular bronze bars. One of the graves in Gondelsheim (D) yielded two such artefacts weighing 7.45 and 60.65 g respectively. A simple calculation shows that the weight ratio of the two objects is exactly 1:8, which is highly significant in the context of early metrology. Pare analysed objects weighing from 2 to 27 g, demonstrating that the three most distinct maxima quite probably correspond to multiples of 3.6 g., 6.9 g and 20.1 g (Table 1).

Table 1: Balance weights from the Middle and Late Bronze Age (after Pare 1999).

The metrological system for balance weights in central Europe as reconstructed by Pare is compatible with the Late Bronze Age system in the Aegean (Pare 1999: 491). Petruso (1992) demonstrated that the Aegean balance weights, which were usually lead plates, represented a basic weight unit of 61 g. The bigger weight units in this system were the mina (488 g) and the talent (29 kg), both known in Antiquity. The 61 g unit is one eighth of a mina. Most of the balance weights recovered from graves dating from the Middle and Late Bronze Age were probably derived from - or more accurately - compatible with the Aegean system. The best evidence of this compatibility are the weights from Gondelsheim mentioned above (Pare 1999: 436).

Most balance weights from central Europe date from the Late Bronze Age while those analysed by Petruso are some 200 years older (Petruso 1992). However, there is no straightforward link between the European weights and their Aegean predecessors, if only because of the typological differences between the two. The most popular Aegean balance weights were flat, circular discs made of lead or stone, whereas their Central European equivalents were made of bronze and were usually rectangular bars (Fig. 2). Pare concluded from this that the shape of the latter was the result of an original development process in central Europe (Pare 1999: 492). This is a significant observation in that it emphasises the role of the European communication space within which, as I have tried to demonstrate, specifically directed rationalisation processes had been active since the Neolithic period (Dzbynski 2008).

Pare ended his article with comments on Lenerz-de Wilde’s findings, arguing that while it is not possible to demonstrate precise weighing techniques in central Europe prior to the mid-2nd millennium BC, the metric standards in the form of ring ingots dating from the end of the 3rd millennium BC force us to assume that simpler systems of mass measurement, such as balance scales, must already have been in existence much earlier. Pare, like Lenerz-de Wilde before him, interpreted the increasingly smaller ingots emerging locally as a response to the social need for smaller units, which were more useful in retail transactions (Pare 1999: 512). This development trend was effectively terminated by the “invention” of the sickle and its fragmentation which facilitated more precise measurements of metal weight. He wrote: “In the Middle and Late Bronze Age, bronze (probably also copper, tin and gold) attained the status of a general purpose currency, the importance of which is reflected in the practice of hoarding; the intensive exchange of metals formed the basis of a well-functioning network of communication and trade. With the transition to the Iron Age this system collapsed” (Pare 1999: 508).

Pare wondered about the kind of social context that would require precise measurements with balance weights, as were practiced at the time in Europe. He noted that this phenomenon as well as the existence of complex metrological systems were also technological achievements which, in theory, could find diverse applications in, for example, exchange systems, administration, ancient medicine and metallurgy. Exploring this issue, Pare mentioned analyses of social aspects of ancient metrology in Europe and pointed out that weighing implements were rare in graves throughout the ancient world. Equipment of this kind was deposited in graves in just a few periods and within a limited territory. It is important to note here that in all periods and territories which have provided archaeological evidence of such practices, it is likely that this evidence is linked to a special form of economy which we may call the “Weighed Currency” economy. This kind of economy flourished most on the peripheries of economies with minted coins, in areas deprived of strong rulers who could lend credibility to the currency and where value had to be measured according to individually devised scales (Pare 1999: 511).

It must be borne in mind that in the period considered here minted coins were still some centuries away and the “Weighed Currency” economy was in place all over the world. The cardinal difference was that while in the Middle East the economy developed based on precious metals such as gold and silver, the main metal used in Europe for a long time was bronze. Accordingly, Pare made the logical assumption that central Europe was just another area where the “Weighed Currency” economy prevailed: „Central Europe, I believe, was another area with a »Weighed Currency« economy, at least in the Recent Bronze Age and probably in the Middle and Final Bronze Age too. The advantage of this suggestion is that it explains a number of phenomena: the custom of providing weighing equipment in graves, the necessity of men of high status to carry weights and balances in their pouches and the adoption of Aegean and East Mediterranean metrological standards. Although this seems a sensible interpretation of the data, we must at the same time make quite clear that our knowledge of the Bronze Age economy in Central Europe is extremely limited. The convincing arguments put forward by Lenerz-de Wilde and Primas concerning the important economic change at the end of the Early Bronze Age, with the transition to an exchange system based on weighed bronze, are particularly important…: »These features speak for a widespread use of weighed metal as a means of payment«. The weights in the graves of the Recent Bronze Age, however, would surely be too light for weighing bronze, but the fragments of gold in the Marolles-sur-Seine pouches (…) make it likely that gold was weighed, and had a function as a currency” (Pare 1999: 512).

The origin of a system of this kind is obvious to Malmer (1999). The Bronze Age economy in Greece relied on exchange and trade, and trade is difficult without rational measurement solutions such as systems of weight. Solutions of this kind are part of the intellectual achievements of societies engaged in intense communication and exchange of ideas. Malmer therefore expected to find Bronze Age weighing systems in territories as far apart as Greece, central Europe and Scandinavia. It is quite obvious that the picture painted by Malmer refers to a common cognitive frame of reference which prevailed practically over half of Europe (Malmer 1999: 39)

Fig. 2: Balance weights from a grave at Steinfurth (after Pare 1999).


4. Measuring scale

Researchers studying weight standards and related phenomena in the European Bronze Age have been able to clearly show that we are dealing with a widespread, long-lasting and crucial process that is characteristic for rationalisation and civilisational development. Here I would propose to take a closer look at this process. How long did it last and how far-reaching was it? Let us begin with a classical typological observation. Lenerz-de Wilde emphasized, quite correctly, the typological resemblance of two types of rings. Earlier examples came from the Baden Culture, were made of copper wire and very simple in shape. There are hundreds of years between them and later bronze rings which was probably also the reason why Lenerz-de Wilde did not analyse them with regard to their weight. It would have been as unjustified as it would be to analyse the weights of copper artefacts from the Copper Age. A trial using Zabitz-type copper axes allowed her to reject the hypothesis concerning their metrological structure, which was evident in the case of later bronze artefacts. Still, apart from the shape, there are "metrological" analogies which connect earlier copper rings with their later bronze weight standards. What are these analogies?

Some copper finds support the notion that early metal artefacts were used for measuring or weighing purposes. Let us begin with Baden finds that include copper rings, mentioned by Lenerz-de Wilde as being a model for later bronze ingots. A couple of copper rings of this kind were found in a grave in Leobersdorf (A); one of the rings was whole while the other had been halved (Fig. 3A; Sachße 2010: Taf. 86). Unfortunately, Baden Culture graves with copper rings are rare, but other examples have indeed been found. Similar artefacts and findings are known from the Alpine region where they are called Ösenhalsband. A comparison between some specimens from different places shows that their lengths would have been treated as a half, a quarter or a whole (Löffler 2010, Tafel 23). They are dated to the end of the 4th millennium BC, i.e. to the same period as the Baden Culture copper rings (Fig. 3B).

Dating from slightly earlier, copper beads from the Cortaillod Culture were manufactured using the same method as the artefacts mentioned above. They were made from a copper rod, which was divided into fragments. The rod underwent plastic forming resulting in small bars, which were then spliced to form a bead. Some fragments were subsequently stretched to twice or four times their original length to produce an appropriate amount and value of beads. In other words, the production of such items involved the manipulation of a metal rod and application of simple mathematical rules of proportion (Dzbynski 2008a; 2014).

Other finds also suggest that metrological systems, albeit of a different kind, were in use before the Bronze Age. One characteristic feature of the sheet and wire industries of the later Copper Age are artefacts that actually support the thesis. They were deliberately made as long and thin (Fig. 3D), perfectly suited to be perceived along their outer dimensions. Finally, similar measuring mechanisms survived on the peripheries of the Bronze Age world as shown by objects made from copper sheet and wire, which continued to be used by Epi-Corded Ware communities (Machnik 1984; Baczyńska 1994). Formal comparisons can be made with the artefacts mentioned earlier (Fig. 3E). Many artefacts of the sheet-and-wire industry in fact resemble the Cortaillod Culture beads.

To further underpin the thesis one could ask: how is it possible that advanced metrological systems appeared so suddenly at the beginning of the Bronze Age? In the absence of perceivable external influences, it is reasonable to assume that such systems would hardly appear suddenly in central Europe at the very beginning of the Bronze Age without any predecessors. One would expect similar types of artefacts to have existed previously, but that is not the case. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The relevant artefacts differ formally from their counterparts but correspond with regard to the raw material.

The metrological systems of the Copper Age were, however, markedly different from the complex and abstract weighing systems of the Bronze Age. Nevertheless, the fact that they did exist at a later date, means that numerical concepts must have been in use before the Bronze Age, and, most importantly, a number scale must have existed, giving perspective to the measuring process. This scale, which was in fact linear, as one would expect, was already in use in the Copper Age, if not earlier. It was a cultural and cognitive achievement of societies that were manufacturing flint and metal tools within the growing social complexity of that period (Dzbynski 2013). As many authors today admit, it is likely that much of the Neolithic lifestyle persisted into the Copper Age. In both periods the population mainly depended on agriculture and had modest social differences. However, there is also evidence from both periods of the production of elaborate objects not directly related to subsistence or daily life whose manufacture would have required a certain amount of specialist skills (Kienlin 2008). The foremost examples are macroliths whose production depended on raw materials from far away. Macroliths became a kind of counterpart to copper objects, as I have stated elsewhere, restricting access to new types of prestige goods, and even replacing copper in certain contexts (Dzbynski 2011). Finally, in both the Neolithic and Copper Age there is a lack of evidence of institutionalised social ranking. The dissemination of metallurgical knowledge did not require the presence of strong leaders and political control to be efficient. The more likely scenario is that of a ‘self-organisation’ among segments of the Copper Age society which were familiar with metallurgical practices (Kienlin 2008).

The issue of a linear scale has so far not been discussed to a similar extent as has the issue of numbers in the Copper Age. However, the two topics go hand in hand. Without a number scale one can only weigh two objects to see which one is heavier. To measure this weight, a number scale is needed. Could this emerge within a simple weighing process? This assumption would be rather unreliable since weighing requires the use of abstract numbers which is a late stage within the mathematical development (Damerow 1999). Such abstract concepts developed as an effect, and not as a cause of metallurgical production (Dzbynski 2013). In earlier times people used concrete counting and measuring, had no abstract numbers and a very limited arithmetic knowledge. In these conditions only a concrete linear number scale could have appeared which was, as my previous analyses suggested, an extrapolation of a line in various forms: a segment of string, a stick or a pace. The term "measuring stick metaphor" is, in my opinion, a good theoretical basis upon which to understand the issue of measuring and counting before the Bronze Age in prehistoric Europe. The most important number and measuring scale, however, was the human body, which served as one of the main sources of mathematical cognition (Lakoff and Núñez 2000; Dzbynski 2013).

Fig. 3: A comparison of a number of copper objects from the Alpine region dated to the end of the 4th millennium, which may have performed metrological functions (after Sachsse 2010, Löffler 2010, Sangmeister & Strahm 1974, Endrizzi & Marzatico 1997, et al.).


5. What is money?

According to Sommerfeld there should be no doubt that the development of Bronze Age technology led to the creation of real currency. But what is money? An interesting answer to this question was recently proposed by Graeber (2012). His anthropological point of view aimed to connect two very distant stages of human development, modernity and the prehistoric past, making his theories very useful for archaeologists.

Graeber wrote that our standard account of monetary history is in fact false. People did not begin with barter, then discover money, and eventually develop credit systems. In fact it happened the other way around. What we now call virtual money actually came first. Coins came much later, and their use only spread unevenly, never completely replacing credit systems. Barter in turn, largely appears to have been a kind of accidental by-product of the use of coinage or paper money: historically, it has mainly been what people who are used to cash transactions do when for one reason or another they have no access to currency (Graeber 2012).

Graeber admitted that anthropologists have been complaining about the "myth of barter" for almost a century. Occasionally, economists point out that there is a fairly simple reason why they are still telling the same story despite all the evidence against it: anthropologists have never come up with a better one. Whilst this is a justifiable objection there is a simple answer to it. The reasons why anthropologists have not been able to come up with a simple, compelling story for the origins of money is because there is no reason to believe there could be one. Money was no more "invented" than music or mathematics or jewellery. What we call "money" is not a "thing" at all; it is a way of comparing things mathematically, as proportions, a way of saying one of X is equivalent to six of Y. As such it is probably as old as human thinking. The moment we try to get any more specific, we discover that there are any number of different habits and practices that have converged in the matter we now call "money", and this is precisely the reason why economists, historians and the rest of us have found it so difficult to come up with a single definition (Graeber 2012: 52).

If money, as Graeber suggested, is such a delusive phenomenon we must obviously ask what, then, does it measure? Graeber’s answer was simple: debt. Obligation toward the other was at the beginning of exchange, and continued over millennia to converge more and more into things, before it finally turned into a numerical symbol. We can ask then: what is debt?

Debt is a very specific thing, and it arises from very specific situations. It first requires a relationship between two people who do not consider each other fundamentally different, who are at least potential equals, or equals in those ways that are really important, and who are not currently in a state of equality but for whom there is a way to set matters straight. For a long time mutual obligations were responsible for exchange. In simple societies, the objects that are being exchanged are seen as equivalent, regardless of whether we would agree: when a gift is met with a counter-gift and there is no further obligation, each of the two parties is equally free to walk away. Within such communities there is almost always a reluctance, as Graeber stated, to allow things to cancel each other out. This is one reason that if money is in common usage, people will often either refuse to use it between friends and relatives (which in a village society includes pretty much everyone) or alternately use it in radically different ways (Graeber 2012: 122).

Therefore the difference between simple, non-commercial exchange and commercial trade is that the latter is impersonal: who is selling something to, or buying something from us, should in principle be entirely irrelevant. We are simply comparing the value of two objects. However, this, according to Graeber, as is the case with any principle, is rarely completely true in practice. There has to be some minimal element of trust for a transaction to be carried out at all and, unless one is dealing with a vending machine, this usually requires some outward display of sociality. Even in the most impersonal shopping mall or supermarket, retailers are expected to at least simulate personal warmth, patience, and other reassuring qualities. Graeber used the example of a Middle Eastern bazaar where one might have to go through an elaborate process of establishing a simulated friendship: sharing of tea, food or tobacco before engaging in similarly elaborate haggling, continuing with an often prolonged mock battle over prices. This is all done on the basis of the assumption that buyer and seller are, at least at that moment, friends, but it is also a little piece of theatre. Once the object changes hands, there is no expectation that the two will ever have anything to do with each other again (Graeber 2012: 120).


6. Money and the early Greek mind or Sacrum vs profanum

If money only replaces earlier systems of communication based on mutual obligations (debt) we can surely ask what changes does it bring to a society? Let us look at the classical story of money - coinage. If the ancient Greeks were more advanced than the Bronze Age societies of Europe, it was due to the introduction of real money - a minted coin whose value no longer depended on its weight, but increasingly on the symbol stamped on it. Seaford (2004) believed that monetization for the first time made various features of Greek culture possible that have, in a sense, persisted up to the present. One of these was the idea that the abstract is more real than the concrete, which was the basis of much of ancient philosophy. Another feature was the absolute isolation of the individual: this was especially manifest in Greek tragedy, where, for instance, Oedipus was entirely alienated from the gods and from his closest kin. Both of these features are familiar to us today, but did not exist in pre-monetary societies, for example the city-states in the Near East and Mesopotamia, which I will come back to later. Thus, both philosophy and tragedy owe a lot to the invention of money (Seaford 2004: 256).

Seaford assumed that the Greeks were themselves very aware of the low value of their coinage: the obol (obolos) took its name from the iron spit (obelos), and "drachma" meant a few (six) spits. In communal, egalitarian systems, meat was distributed on iron spits, which were of a standard size and at the same time portable and durable; they could therefore be used as money (in a limited way). With the use of more precious metal, the term ”obol“ was then transferred to a piece of metal that was roughly equal in value, but much smaller in size (and thus even more convenient). Since spits are often found in large numbers in temple inventories, the transition from roasting spits to coins appears to be a transition from the sacrificial to the financial. This also supports the argument that animal sacrifice was an important factor in the genesis of coinage in ancient Greece. The public sanctuary became a centre of exchange and sacrifice was an early agent of monetization (Seaford 2004: 67).

An argument could be made that iron spits were the kind of objects that could function as money, or at least to some extent perform one or more monetary functions. Iron spits are qualified to perform monetary functions based on the following characteristics: portability, countability, durability, an economic value that is neither too great nor too small, standardisation of shape and size, mass production, the kind of familiarity that creates communal confidence, and substitutability for other objects. The first three, which are all inherent in the spits themselves, require no further discussion. The other five are conferred by social context (Seaford 2004).

But what is money itself? And what is the difference between money and coinage?

Economists often say that money is a measure and a medium of value. It is a measure because one can use it to compare the value of different things: e.g. one steak is worth the same as five loaves of bread. In this capacity, money can be completely abstract, there is no need for physical coins or bills. When money acts as a medium of value - i.e. to actually buy bread or pay for a steak ordered - this is of course no longer true. In either case, money is simply a tool - a concrete tool. The innovation introduced by Karl Marx, as Graeber wrote, was a third aspect of money, which might be called its reflexive moment: money as a value in and of itself. A tool facilitates action; it is a means to an end. From the perspective of people who are actually engaged in many financial transactions, Marx observed, money is this end. It becomes the very embodiment of value, the ultimate object of desire (Graeber 2001: 66).

Marx also made a distinction between the abstract and concrete aspects of money, i.e. a distinction between money and coinage. A coin, he said, is the physical object offered in exchange. It only becomes money in the strict sense of the term when it is temporarily withdrawn from circulation - that is, when it is not the immediate object of anyone's action but instead represents a kind of universal potential for action (Marx 1887: 187). By holding on to coins, the hoarder preserves his power, which is the power to buy things. For the hoarder, money becomes a kind of ascetic religion in which the owner tends to develop an intensely personal, even secretive relationship with the source of his power (Graeber 2001: 100).

The magic power of money was immediately detected by the Greeks, as Graeber suggested, by putting on it an image of state power. He stated that if polis felt the need to stamp money with its own image, it did so because it saw money as a dangerous, furtive power that had to be tamed and domesticated by rendering it visible. The emblem of public authority was to be impressed on it through violence, literally hammered in (Graeber 2001: 103).

Taking the anthropological view for granted we can confirm that money is, indeed, a very illusive phenomenon. However, for the purpose of the discussion announced by the title we can sum up that money requires three characteristics for it to become money: modest social differences, which create obligations (debt), ritual context, which causes confidence, trust and a cognitive basis for it, and a precious substance which can be perceived as an abstract measure. It seems that these conditions were fulfilled in Bronze Age Europe at the latest.


7. Summary or West vs East?

This story is important because, based on what I said in the previous section, the transition from weight standard to coin can be treated, from a cultural and social point of view as a transition from the concrete, linear measure of the Copper Age (measuring sticks) to the abstract weights of the Bronze Age. In both cases the consequences were of great importance. However, our knowledge of the earlier part of the story is still very limited. It seems that the developments described above go back into prehistory, and as such have important consequences for archaeological thought. We can surely ask: is this a universal process? And we could obviously say: yes and no, which also means that if money is universal, as suggested by the anthropological point of view, there is either a flaw in the idea or there is additional important data which we have not yet considered. I prefer the second option, and I would like to explain why.

Some vital stages in the European development have been mentioned above. There are clear differences between prehistory in the Near East and in other non-European cultures. For example the vast redistributive economies in the Near East and Egypt were areas where monetary functions were performed by different commodities including barley, silver, copper, oil etc. This development can be observed as early as the Neolithic when the first tokens appeared in the Neolithic settlements of the Fertile Crescent where a farming economy was attested to (Nissen 1988; Schmandt-Besserat 1992). These tokens recorded mutual obligations of people involved in the exchange of goods. In other words they recorded debt which was, as Graeber suggested, purely theological and ritual in substance.

In the Near East the institution of debt was fully developed although no actual money seems to have existed. Whilst in the Near-Eastern temple and palace economies the circulation of goods had been enforced by a personal central authority (deity, king), the Greek polis achieved this by means of an impersonal object, i.e. small pieces of stamped metal. No traces have yet been found in the Near East of fiduciary money, or of a disparity between the conventional value of an item and its value as a commodity. Whatever the monetary functions performed by certain commodities, they remained commodities, prized also for their value of use. For example silver may have been valued in certain contexts entirely as a means of payment or exchange, whilst in other contexts it was valued purely from an aesthetic point of view (Seaford 2004: 335).

In the European context the situation since the Neolithic period has been different. Although metallurgical output was responsible for a range of richly furnished burials both in Europe and the Near East, it was in Europe that metallurgy was almost the only source of social differentiation and development. In my opinion, Europe exhibited the following, very special traits: (1) a transformation from group-oriented to individual-oriented societies, (2) whose cognitive base was the concept of linear measure (the measuring stick metaphor) which turned into the concept of metal weight (Dzbynski 2013), (3) and therefore the development of a new link between bronze and weapons of war, and as a consequence a masculine ethos that continued to develop over three millennia, leading first to the chieftain societies of the Iron Age and subsequently to chivalry of the Middle Ages (Renfrew 2007: 168).

To sum up the Near Eastern versus European development I would say that there are two narratives. One revolves around the entanglement of people into multiple relations with objects, commodities and goods which has been dubbed "subsistence or staple finance" in the archaeological literature. It was a discourse about relationship where the "primordial debt" was changed into many things of equal importance. In Europe, however, the emphasis was mainly put on one commodity only. In Neolithic Europe the first wave of communal living expressed in the construction of monuments was replaced by special objects including adzes, axes, long blades, copper artefacts and finally bronze, which on a cognitive level were used as a means to measure social relations (Dzbynski 2008, 2013). The spread of metallurgy, and its development and incorporation into the social fabric led to a cognitive revolution that is today called ‘mathematics’, although its origins, just as in the case of the Near East, date back to long before the Metal Ages. The kind of economy that was responsible for these connections in prehistoric Europe has been called a "prestige or wealth economy" (Brumfiel and Earle 1987). We can also call it a discourse on "wealth". United, staple finance and wealth economy esulted in what we call the universal story of how money spread throughout the world.

(Proof reading by Sandy Hämmerle)



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