Monetising the system

Long before coins became a commodity and determining value for an item, people traded goods. This system allowed early and savvy civilisations to interact with new cultures, exchange foreign and exotic goods as well as get rich. Places such as Egypt and Mesopotamia grew wealthy from trading goods. A pottery maker and seller may need milk for his family trade one of his pots to a goat farmer in exchange for milk. The issue with this approach was bartering for an item that was of greater value for a lesser object, especially if the latter trader was slick in their sales pitch. The Mesopotamian’s and Egyptians developed a system to counter this issue and introduced silver rings, but this too, wasn’t fail safe.

Incised tokens from Tello, ancient Girsu, present day Iraq, circa 3300 BCE. Viewing the top row from right to left, the tokens represented: one length of textile, one jar of oil, uncertain, one measure of wheat. Continuing along the bottom row from left to right: one sheep, one length of rope, one ingot of metal, one garment.
(Image provided courtesy of Denise Schmandt-Besserat and Musée du Louvre, Département des Antiquités Orientales, Paris.)

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University), “Mathematical Treasure: Mesopotamian Accounting Tokens,” Convergence (September 2012), DOI:10.4169/loci003901

Not all citizens had access to silver rings, and according to some archaeologists, it was used by the wealthier people of Mesopotamia going back to 2,500 BCE. Prior to the introduction of silver rings, early Mesopotamian’s used tokens made from clay in different shapes and sizes. Each token represented an item; for example, a jar of oil, sheep’s milk, rope, furniture or perhaps you’d like some perfume or metal to make a knife, or a mat for the house. The clay tokens were phased out and the silver rings—shekels—were introduced and became standardised currency of Mesopotamia.

Haematite weights in form of ducks. Ancient Mesopotamia, about 1700 BCE
Photo taken by Sokolijan

Archaeologists have found tablets inscribed with prices for timber and grains, and equated against the worth of shekels. A shekel would get you 7 grams of wheat; that is one month of wages earned for labour. For the mainstream population, they used money made from tin, copper or bronze, and they could use barley as well for bartering.

Cuneiform tablet: receipt of a bull and sheep
Period:Ur III
Date:ca. 2041 B.C.E.

Spar, Ira. 1988. Cuneiform Texts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Volume I: Tablets, Cones, and Bricks of the Third and Second Millennia B.C. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, no. 19, pp. 26-27, pl. 18.

Silver was valuable and people were cunning by mixing various metals with silver and passing them on as pure silver, so much so, that fraud and cheating became a major problem. There is a passage in the Old Testament that forbade people from tampering with weights and using heavier stones. Temples were the earliest banks especially for gold, silver and valuables, and records from Babylon have shown where priests gave out loans to the poor and entrepreneurs.

Next article: earliest coins
Thank you for your continued support and as always, I look forward to your comments and will respond.

Historical fiction novelist and a secondary teacher, Luciana Cavallaro, burnt out but not done… yet.


Facts and details. (2019). Mesopotamian economics and money.

Mark, J.J. (2018, 14 March). Mesopotamia. Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Whipps, H. (2008, 18 February). How ancient trade changed the world. Live Science.


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  1. Linnea Tanner

    This is an interesting historical overview of how the monetary system has come into being and the importance it is to trading. It is sobering to think about how fragile the monetary system is to outside forces such as the pandemic and other catastrophes.

    Liked by 1 person

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