Ancient Forms of Money

Before coins and paper notes many objects were tested out for the use of money. Some because of their rarity and others because they had a common use other than just as a piece of currency. From squirrel pelts to salt, here is a list of five ancient forms of money!


Plate of squirrel fur backs

Squirrel Pelts
During the Middle Ages, Russians had taken a liking to trading squirrel pelts, often using the claws and snouts for pocket change. This odd form of currency may have accidentally benefited the Russians in a non-economic way as well. During medieval times, Europe was ravaged by the infamous Black Plague, but Russia wasn’t hit nearly as hard. Since the plague was most often carried by rodents, killing a bunch of rodents and using their pelts as currency likely reduced the number of plague carriers. Interestingly, modern day Finland actually recognizes squirrel pelts as a currency, and values them at 3 cents each.


Tursiops_truncatus_01Dolphin Teeth
For hundreds of years on the Solomon Islands, dolphin teeth have been used as currency. The islands have a long history of hunting dolphins and the age-old practice came to a halt around the middle of the nineteenth century. However, as a result of the devaluation of the country’s dollar, some parts of the island have reverted back to the traditional use of dolphins teeth.



Naturally formed salt crystals

Salt’s ability to preserve food made it a precious and highly valued commodity during the Roman Empire and throughout the Middle Ages. It was used as a method of trade and currency and historically, people would lick the salt block to make sure it was real and break pieces off to make change. Interestingly, the word salary stems from the Latin term ‘salarium’, which refers to salt money.




A brick of Hubei mǐ zhūan chá (米磚茶),

Tea Bricks
Tea Bricks are blocks of whole or finely ground black tea, green tea, or post-fermented tea leaves that have been packed in molds and pressed into block form. This was the most commonly produced and used form of tea in ancient China prior to the Ming Dynasty. Due to the high value of tea in many parts of Asia, tea bricks were used as a form of currency throughout China, Tibet, Mongolia, and Central Asia. Tea bricks were in fact the preferred form of currency over metallic coins for the nomads of Mongolia and Siberia. The tea could not only be used as money and eaten as food in times of hunger but also brewed as allegedly beneficial medicine for treating coughs and colds. Until World War II, tea bricks were still used as a form of edible currency in Siberia.


Shell money usually consisted either of whole sea shells or pieces of them, which were often worked into beads or were otherwise artificially shaped. The use of shells in trade began as direct commodity exchange, the shells having value as body ornamentation. The distinction between beads as commodities and beads as money has been the subject of debate among economic anthropologists.

Some form of shell money appears to have been found on almost every continent: America, Asia, Africa and Australia. The shell most widely used worldwide as currency was the shell of Cypraea moneta, the money cowry. This species is most abundant in the Indian Ocean, and was collected in the Maldive Islands, in Sri Lanka, along the Malabar coast, in Borneo and on other East Indian islands, and in various parts of the African coast from Ras Hafun to Mozambique. Cowry shell money was important at one time or another in the trade networks of Africa, South Asia, and East Asia.


Digging Up the Past: A Detectorist’s View of Coins and History

Scott Bevan is a metal detectorist in Birmingham, England, and has uncovered quite a few interesting coins and other historical artifacts; follow him on Twitter to keep up with his detecting adventures. This interview has been edited for clarity; all photographs are courtesy of Scott Bevan.


Stamp and Coin Place (SC): What is the best or most interesting coin you’ve ever found?




Scott Bevan (Scott): That’s a tough question to answer! I categorize my coins into 3 groups: milled coins, hammered coins, and ancient coins. I’ve only ever been lucky enough to find one ancient coin, which was a copper alloy Roman coin, minted in Trier (Germany) between the years of 310-313 AD, under the reign of the emperor Maximinus Daia II. I’ve always had a fascination with Ancient Rome and Roman Britain, so this was an extra special find for me.




But saying that, I’ve only recently unearthed my second hammered coin: a King Edward VI sixpence, minted between 1551-1553, which is also a fantastic coin, even though somebody from the period decided to clip a lot of the silver from around the edge of the coin. A common practice in medieval Britain, although not normally to this extent. If I was pushed to make a decision, I’d probably opt for the Roman coin, purely because of the period it’s from and the fact that it’s my only one.



SC: Quite a find! What was the most valuable item you’ve uncovered? The most unusual?




Scott: Again, that’s a bit of a toughie. I have absolutely no intention of selling any of my finds if I can help it, therefore I never really pay much attention to the monetary worth of my finds. However, I have two finds that particularly stand out when considering both the uniqueness and value of my collection. The first would be a medieval chest or casket key that I discovered recently in Staffordshire. Dating from the period 1150-1400, the key is one of my favorite and most unusual finds. I was reliably informed that it was worth in the region of £150 – £200.



The second would be my Bronze Age flat axe head. I’ve still got to take it to the museum to be appraised, but it’s at least 3,000 years old. It could be as much as 4,500. I found it in a field in Nottinghamshire a few months ago. I have no idea of the value of the axe head but I suppose like pretty much everything that’s for sale, it’s only worth as much as someone is prepared to pay for it. Mine’s not for sale!


SC: I have to ask: what’s your best story from a time you went out detecting?




Scott: You’re probably expecting a vivid account of the time I found my Roman coin, my key, or my axe head. But it’s another day that stands out head and shoulders above any of those, and the finds were sparse on that day. I’d only been detecting for a few months when a friend and I attended a club dig in Derbyshire. It was a busy dig with around 50 or 60 people present. As the finds were so few, my friend and myself decided to call it a day around mid-afternoon. There was only one exit from the fields and as we’d had a deluge of rain in the days prior to the dig, the land leading through the gate had turned into a swamp.


Like the caring person that he is, my friend urged me to lead the way, picking my way through the bog, looking for any sign of semi solid ground. I was about 4 or 5 feet from the safety of the car park when I spotted what I thought was a cement ledge. It looked wet but I assumed that was because of the recent rainfall. So, spade in one hand and detector in the other, I leapt for the ledge…and landed two-footed in what can only be described as a trough of manure. Seriously, it was about 2 feet deep and I was sinking at an alarming rate. It was above my knees and every time I attempted to pull a foot out, it was like a vacuum sucking it back in. It was at this point that I began to scream. Like a Royal Marine, I’d like to add, which only helped to gain me a bigger audience. Eventually, having used my spade and detector like crutches, I managed to free myself, minus a boot. At no point did anyone standing around laughing offer to help. The journey home was a quiet and rather smelly one.


SC: Well, that’s definitely an experience to remember! Can you tell me about your basic process? How do you go about finding things and what do you do once you’ve found them?


4588c19b-459e-4b17-8ca1-b8c41efb1eb1.pngScott: I’m still relatively new to metal detecting, but I’ve noticed that people have different approaches to the hobby. Some people do extensive research of an area before detecting. Others, like myself, are grateful of being granted permission to detect anywhere. Permission is vital, though. Wherever I detect, I first get permission from the landowner: it’s imperative. Then it’s all down to patience and, dare I say it, luck. If you don’t walk over it, you’ll never find it. Obviously there’s an element of skill involved, mostly in the setup of your machine, but I’m still learning and it’s very much down to trial and error at the moment. When I do discover something of note, I show it to my local Finds Liaison Officer, who’ll identify the item for me and record it in a database that is aimed at recording all finds in Britain for the purpose of research. I then add them to my collection, and often spend hours wondering who the last person to hold them was and how they were lost. I’ve spent many an idle hour lost in thought to those questions.
SC: So with the chances of not finding anything, along with bad weather and the danger of cow droppings, why keep detecting? Why is it important to you? Do you think it offers any benefits to society?


b2d6287e-b9d5-43f2-ae2f-4e83af3e8da3.pngScott: There are varied opinions on metal detectorists but I can only answer this question from my own personal experiences. I’ve always had an affinity for history and the past. Even as a boy, I’d marvel at discovering an old Victorian penny; I excelled at history in school. But as I got older, I discarded my love of history and pursued alcohol and less academic interests. 4 years ago I gave up drinking, which subsequently led to me becoming quite withdrawn. I lacked interest in doing anything and often found myself spending days on end at home. Then someone suggested that I go metal detecting. At first, I dismissed the idea. I thought it was a hobby for old people with no social life or scavengers illegally searching for items to sell on the black market. I think this is the perception that a lot of people have about detectorists: people detecting illegally in the hope of making money, without the slightest interest or regard for the history that they’re unearthing. I’m afraid that does happen; they’re the people who make it so difficult for the rest of us.


CpbuUuDWEAA4if5As far as my experience goes, metal detecting has given me a new lease on life. It’s helped me to overcome a difficult period in my life and given me something to aim for and achieve. I only mention this to make people aware, in the hope that the next time they see someone searching a field with a detector in hand, that they won’t jump to assumptions as to who that person is or why they do it. It’s all treasure to me, regardless of its monetary value. Yesterday, I dug up a shoe buckle from the 1700’s. It’s a little bent and has obviously seen better days, but at some point 3 centuries ago, that was somebody’s pride and joy. And I get that. I respect it. And I feel privileged to hold it and have it in my collection. To me, it’s a personal connection to individuals who lived hundreds of years before me. A story that was on pause until I discovered it and pressed ‘play’ again, and now it resumes.


Even if you don’t necessarily have the urge or passion for metal detecting, I hope that at least on some level you can understand that connection. So yes, there are bad detectorists who deserve no part in this wonderful hobby. But on the whole, if done for the right reasons and with passion, metal detecting is a connection to the past and a way of unearthing treasures otherwise long confined to history. Just make sure you keep an eye out for wet cement, it’s not always what it seems!

Ancient Roman Coinage

Ancient Roman coins were some of the earliest coins in history. Bronze, copper, gold and silver coins made up Roman coinage.

(Looking for ancient Roman coins? Look no further.)

Because these coins were made of valuable materials like gold and silver, they had intrinsic value.

Around 300 B.C., the Roman Republican government introduced coinage (about three centuries after Greece, an embarrassingly late time) to its Republic. Because coin systems had already been established, Romans knew all about how to use their currency. Rome was a well-established republic at the time.

The coinage included some oddities. This included bronze bars called “stuck bronze” that weighed around 50 oz. with a high iron content.

Bronze bar, 450 B.C.

Bronze bar, 450 B.C. Courtesy of LmK, CC 3.0

Following Greece’s example, Rome created its own circular coins illustrating myths and scenes with gods and goddesses. Greek coins greatly influenced these designs.

When Julius Caesar took over, he issued coins with his profile. These were significant as they were the first coins to feature a living person. They served to spread Caesar’s image through Rome and beyond. Caesar also released coins showing Venus or Aeneas in the attempt to associate himself with divinity. Other emperors went even farther, however; in 192 Commodus ordered coins featuring himself dressed in a lion skin in an imitation of Hercules, proclaiming himself to be an incarnation of the famous hero.

Caesar profile coins continued even after Caesar’s assassination, along with featured gods and goddesses.

Romans put a lot of moral value on the images in their coins. The philosopher Epictetus wrote as a joke: “Whose image does this sestertius carry? Trajan’s? Give it to me. Nero’s? Throw it away, it is unacceptable, it is rotten.” Romans would not really throw away their coins, but the images still certainly meant a lot to them.

There is more to learn in the world of ancient Roman coins, but these are the basics.

What Were the First Coins?


We’re used to them now, but how did humans move from the bartering and trading system to the use of coins?

Before coins other pieces were used as a kind of currency. The ancient Chinese used shells and ancient Mesopotamians used a banking system of grains, livestock and other valuables that they could trade.

But eventually, money for the sake of money came around. No longer were otherwise valuable items used for trade. Gold and silver coins began to gain value.

Lydian coin with an archer. (Via dynamosquito on Wikimedia)

Lydian coin with an archer. (Via dynamosquito on Wikimedia)

The first-ever coins likely originate from Lydia (an ancient kingdom in where modern Turkey is now). The coin materials came from a natural mix of gold and silver called electrum and the coins featured the head of a lion. Their value was determined by their weight. One “stater” weighed about 14.1 grams; other denominations included half-staters, thirds, sixths, twelfths, and 1/24ths through 1/96ths. Maybe not the straightforward numbers we’re used to today, but at the time the system was quite innovative.

An ancient Lydian coin. (Via Jastrow on Wikimedia)

An ancient Lydian coin. (Via Jastrow on Wikimedia)

The first Lydian coins have the names Walwel and Kalil inscribed on them; however, historians don’t know who these names refer to. They could be the names of kings or the men who produced the coins.

Lydia succeeded in their coin system, and soon the coinage spread to Greek and Mediterranean cities. Their material also consisted of electrum. One early Greek coin reads “I am the badge of Phanes”, possibly an early stamp of guaranteed quality.

The major cities, including Athens, started to make their own coins by the 6th century B.C. All this local pride made the system complicated at first – how did a Persian coin’s value stack up to an Athens coin?

The earliest dated electrum coin hoard was found at the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in 1904-5. A pot of 19 coins had been buried near 74 other coins in the temple’s foundation.