Debunked: Bronze Age Britons Did Not Use Gold Pieces as Currency

The British Isles were awash in gorgeous gold jewelry and objects but there’s no sign they were regularized by mass, deduces Raphael Hermann of the University of Goettingen

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The nine classes of gold objects analysed. All objects are in the British Museum collection.
From top left to bottom right: lunula; bar torc ; sleeve-fastener ; striated ring ; ring-money ; lock ring ; dress-fastener; penannular bracelet and ribbon torc
The nine classes of gold objects analyzed: From top left: lunula; bar torc; sleeve-fastener; striated ring; ring-money; lock ring; dress-fastener; penannular bracelet and ribbon torc

The period may have been called the Bronze Age but gold had long been discovered and become beloved, or coveted. From Europe to Canaan and beyond, people were fashioning ornate artifacts, from delicate rings and earrings to finely fashioned collars and chokers and even, in one instance found in Wales, a molded cape.

The question revisited by Raphael Hermann of Germany’s University of Goettingen is whether the Bronze Age Britons were using precisely weighed pieces of gold as an early form of currency. An earlier paper concluded that they probably were. Hermann, writing in the journal Antiquity, found that the gold objects found in Bronze Age Britain cannot be divided into groups by mass, and concluded that gold was not used as currency.

Let us begin with the fact that there were sophisticated metrological systems, based on weights and weight-regulated metal serving as proto-currency in the Bronze Age, well before the invention of coinage.

In Europe, this was done using bronze, Nicola Ialongo and Giancarlo Lago reported in 2021. In the Middle East the metal used for this purpose was silver – for example in Canaan and in Ebla, which is today in Syria.

Nowhere is gold known to have been used for this purpose, though the ancient Mycenaeans may have been an outlier in that respect.

Golden cup from Mycenae, decorated with repoussé spirals

“I doubt that gold was used as a proto-currency in Europe (availability for example is an issue), but an extensive study of the European material is still outstanding,” Hermann qualifies.

Might the ancient Britons have, like their neighbors on the Continent, been using bronze as a proto-currency? Probably. “Given the intensive exchange between Britain and continental Europe and the fact that weighing practices did exist in Britain at the time (there are balance beams from Potterne and Cliff’s End Farm), I think it would be highly unlikely if they didn’t also use bronze fragments as money,” he answers.

His paper debunking the ancient Britons’ purported use of gold as early currency is based on a broad analysis of gold objects found in Britain, which included lunulae – crescent-shaped gold sheets probably worn as chokers or headpieces – tightly twisted gold bars called torcs, some of which were shaped into bracelets and one even into a belt; and what may have been cuff links (or dress fasteners).

Gorgeous, they are; beautifully fashioned, some are. Regulated by mass (the amount of matter in the artifact) and serving as currency, they were not, Hermann concludes.

The Lambourn Hoard, from Lambourn, Berkshire, with three bracelets and two folded twisted torcs (West Berkshire Museum)

The earliest gold

Gold mining goes back to the Chalcolithic period and plausibly dates to more than 7,000 years ago, based partly on a bead found in Bulgaria. It bears noting that the people of prehistoric Pazardzhik originally hailed from Anatolia in Turkey, which was home to some of the world’s earliest permanent settlers, as opposed to nomadic hunter-gatherers). More gold from the Chalcolithic – beads and other artifacts – was also found in the prehistoric Varna Necropolis in Bulgaria and other sites in the region. Some of the pottery found at Varna had even been embossed with gold.

So by the Bronze Age, the shimmering metal was abundant and prized in Europe and Britain, and in the Middle East. But it may not have been used for financial purposes per se.

Hermann’s paper refutes a narrower study carried out a few years earlier by Lorenz Rahmstorf, also of the University of Goettingen and also published in Antiquity, that concluded the opposite.

That paper had been correct for the time, based on the information available; the new paper simply includes much more data and reached a different conclusion, Hermann explains. Rahmsdorf’s opinion was based on a relatively small sample, about 150 objects, while his own study is an expansion of the research based on 810 pieces.

Mold cape on display at the British Museum.

Had Rahmstorf been right it would have meant that British gold objects were regulated in some sort of way that can be traced through their mass, he explains: “To argue for use as currency you need further indicators, for example large scale availability and weight regulation in line with the weight units commonly used during the period (all of this is given for bronze fragments for example).”

This is exactly what has been detected in silver fragments found from Turkey to Mesopotamia to Canaan, known as hacksilver, sometimes called hacksilber – bits with a precise mass, sometimes originating in broken jewelry and other items. The theory is that they were used as currency in the early second millennium The Mycenaeans, also a Bronze Age culture, would place gold grave goods with their dead, and may have used weighed gold in transactions.

While Rahmstorf felt that he could group the British objects, after analyzing many more of them Hermann concluded that he could not detect a common denominator regarding their mass; he could not find a consistent weight unit, and thus concluded that they could not be categorized as mass-regulated and likely did not serve as a standardized currency. “To have a standardized system of currency you have to have the ability to quantify things by weight or mass or size, or whatever,” he adds.

The gold objects that Hermann checked ranged in mass values from less than one gram to more than 1.3 kilograms, he says.

He stresses in his paper that the methodology he used, cosine quantogram analysis, cannot determine whether objects were regulated; it can only prove or disprove a hypothesis. While a majority of the artifacts fell into the category of “light weight,” indeed, no peaks were found. Analysis of gold rings, for instance, found no grouping at any specific weight.

Gold lunula found in Blessington, Co. Wicklow, Ireland

“Archaeologically speaking, this could mean that most British Bronze Age gold objects were not regulated by mass, but that a minority may have been somewhat regulated,” he wrote.

It remains possible that some objects or small groups of them were manufactured or collected based on a specific mass, size or some other factor, he qualifies. But all in all they are not statistically significant. One possibility underlying that outcome is a craftsperson who meticulously made things the same way, he points out. Also, it’s no surprise to find that certain objects, such as rings or clothing fasteners, or rings would fall within a fairly narrow range: How much of a range is there in finger circumference?

Contrariwise, in Europe, where bronze was used as the basis for a form of mass-regulated currency, bronze rings, blades and jewelry were found to have a common mass denominator. Broken pieces of weapons and jewelry adhered to mass regulations equivalent to the types of balance weights found in Europe. Some suspect these may have been damaged goods that were deliberately broken into specific pieces to serve in trading – sort of a Bronze Age equivalent to having to break large bills for change.

“It really seems like people fragmented bronze objects to a certain standard and then used that and said, this is 17 chunks of bronze and their value is equal to a horse,” for instance, Hermann said.

Irish gold "gorget", 800-700 BC, found Tonyhill, Co Clare. NMI, Dublin

Now for a moment on human nature.

If there was proto-currency in Britain, there were probably also rogues. Such is life. Over in the Levant, after the Late Bronze Age collapse, around 3,200 years ago, long-distance trade in silver imploded, at least to a degree. Israeli archaeologists have even identified counterfeiting in Canaan for a while after that time: The almost-pure silver was doctored with lead. Even a lot of lead. 

In Britain there are gold rings from the Bronze Age, and there are gold-plated rings. If indeed the rings served as a form of proto-currency (which Hermann says he highly doubts), then this may attest to counterfeiting by surreptitious adulteration with cheaper metals. And if the rings didn’t serve as a predecessor to money, he points out, then all this shows is that the jewelers and artisans of yore used a range of materials, just as craftsmen do to this very day.

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