Bronze Age Europeans Used Rings, Ribs and Ax Blades as Money

New research identifies similarly sized artifacts found across the continent as one of the world’s oldest currencies

Bronze Age ribs
Similar in weight and appearance, these Bronze Age ribs, or curved rods, may have been used as an early form of money. M.H.G. Kuijpers under CC-BY 4.0

Some 3,500 years before diamond rings emerged as costly symbols of love, their basic bronze precursors may have served as an entirely different measure of value: money.

As Becky Ferreira reports for the New York Times, a study published last week in the journal PLOS One recorded distinct similarities between more than 5,000 Bronze Age rings, ribs and axes found in 100 hoards across Central Europe.

Around 70 percent of the rings analyzed were close enough in weight to be considered practically identical when held in one’s hand (a perception-based phenomenon known as Weber’s law). While the ax blades and ribs, or curved rods, didn’t quite reach this level of overall uniformity, certain “subsets” of the objects were virtually indistinguishable, according to a statement.

The bronze artifacts’ standardized appearance and weight points to their use as an early form of European currency. To qualify as money, lead author Maikel Kuijpers, an archaeologist at Leiden University, tells Live Science’s Mindy Weisberger, ancient objects must have also been used in exchanges and produced in large quantities. (Bronze Age humans’ development of metal casting streamlined the creation of duplicates; these “near-identical copies” may have “laid the mental groundwork for the invention of weighing tools and technologies” that followed, notes the Times.)

Bronze Age Europeans Used Rings, Ribs and Ax Blades as Money
Bronze Age rings that may have been used as early money M.H.G. Kuijpers under CC-BY 4.0

Before the Bronze Age, early humans traded flint daggers and other items that derived their worth from their prestige. Comparatively, Kuijpers explains, the newly detailed artifacts’ value stemmed from their status as standardized commodities. If an individual attempted to trade with a set of rings of varying size and feel, for instance, they would likely run into difficulties.

“That’s an important aspect of this group of Bronze Age objects,” the archaeologist says to Live Science. “[T]hese are clearly, intentionally standardized.”

Per the study, the majority of the hoards contained just one or, in a few cases, two of the three artifact types. But several stashes unearthed in the Czech Republic held all three, potentially pointing to regional differences in how Bronze Age people used rings, ribs and ax blades. As David Nield writes for Science Alert, locals may have treated the items as displays of wealth “rather than as precursors to coins.”

Speaking with the Times, Nicola Ialongo, a prehistoric archaeologist at Germany’s Georg August University of Göttingen who was not involved in the study, outlines an alternative to Kuijpers and co-author Cătălin Popa’s findings. The artifacts’ similar weight, he argues, could be the result of artisans using a limited number of molds, or perhaps a mold with a standardized shape. The number of tokens, rather than the relative weight of the objects, might have been more important to Bronze Age barterers.

“Simply put, you don’t need a weight system to be able to use metals—or any other commodity—as money,” Ialongo explains.

Despite disagreeing with some of the researchers’ methods, Ialongo tells the Times that their work represents “a remarkable attempt to break one of the oldest and most persistent taboos in prehistoric archaeology, that ‘primitive’ societies do not have a proper commercial economy.”