Ancient Currency: A Guide to Money in Ancient Times

Human beings didn't always trade goods and services for paper notes that can be used to buy pretty much anything within a country's borders. For the vast majority of the existence of the species, bartering was the best method of trade. Ancient writing systems, like cuneiform, first started as a method of keeping track of barters. The journey between trading barley for wool and trading a piece of paper for a new pair of wool socks is a long and complicated one, but the first step in the journey included developing a system of barter with smaller items of recognized value.

This primitive money came in many forms across the globe, but in many locations, cowrie shells seemed to be very important for trading. In the Solomon Islands, rings were made out of the shells, and these were a hot trading item. Across the whole Indochina-Pacific region, cowrie shells were the first type of money. Things changed in that area when bronze casting and porcelain technology came to China. Even then, though, people didn't immediately start making ancient coins. Instead, they created items recognizable for their value that could be traded, like bronze spades or bronze knives. In China, these farm instruments eventually transformed into the recognizable circular, square-holed coins that were used thereafter for hundreds of years.

On the other side of the globe, however, is possibly where the first coin was minted. The Lydia coin was made from a silver and gold mixture called electrum that was stamped with the image of a lion, which was a symbol of royalty at the time. Lydia, which is in modern-day Turkey, started a craze on that side of the world, with Greek and Roman coins to come shortly thereafter. Often hand-minted with a hammer and a few tools, Greek coins are considered to be works of art. (According to American scholars, it was the Syracuse dekadrachm that inspired President Theodore Roosevelt to insist that American coins be created more artfully.) Greek coins often sported the images of gods and goddesses, whereas Rome often printed the images of their god-like emperors. It may have been the broad reach of the Roman empire that made coin usage popular in Europe. Roman coins had a hierarchy of worth, with a solidus being the most valuable. They ranged in size, design, and type of material used.

Early coins like these had a higher inherent value because they were often made from silver, bronze, gold, or some combination of those metals. Today, other metals, like copper and zinc, are commonly used. While some parts of the world standardized their money with the advent of the great empires (such as the Persian and Roman empires), in remote parts of the world that were untouched by these empires, bartering and non-standard-money-trading was commonplace. For instance, wampum was used in North America as late as the 1700s.

The first paper money was most likely Chinese in origin, created during the Song dynasty to keep merchants from having to carry large quantities of heavy coins. These paper notes were adopted as a representative proof of deposit or a bank note. Earlier paper money was fixed to a gold standard, meaning that all of the paper currency could be exchanged for a certain amount of gold and the nation's gold stockpile supported the value of the paper money. Today, the gold standard is no longer in effect, and as money evolves, more and more financial transactions are electronic, meaning that the future may very well lie in an e-currency or some other intangible type of money.