Bars of precious metal as Currency, Precursor of coined money and to store Wealth: A history of Bar Money through the Millenia


Sometime at the end of the Neolithic age, people learned to work with metal. They melted copper, for example, to produce an ax. Much later, probably by about 3300 AC, People discovered that these axes were stronger if they contained 10% tin. The Bronze Age had begun.

The use of tools and weapons of bronze brought a social revolution. Hierarchically organized structures controlled the farming communities, dominated by the powerful few who controlled metal mining and trade.


Join us on our trip through the world of money. Today, we trace a special means of payment through the millennia, the currency bar.


At some point at the end of the Stone Age, the people learned to process metal. They melted down copper to produce, let’s say, an axe. An axe like the one a certain traveler carried with him on his trip over the Alps, a traveler that captured mass media under his nickname “Ötzi the Iceman”. Much later, presumably around 3,300 B. C., people realized that these axes could be improved when they were not made entirely of copper, but were added 10% of tin. The Bronze Age had begun.


The use of tools and weapons made of bronze triggered a social revolution. Agrarian communities became state entities with a hierarchical organization, ruled by the ones in power that controlled the quarrying of metal and the trade. They became incredibly wealthy and, as the first ones in history, were able to store this wealth.


Although it would be tempting to have a look at the Palatial Period of the Minoan Civilization at this point, that would take us too far afield. Suffice it to say that neither copper nor zinc is a natural resource available in every part of the world and hence a wide-ranging trade with these precious goods developed.


Copper was mined mainly on the island of Cyprus. To facilitate the trade, the raw material was processed to assume a shape that reminds us of an oxhide. That is why these bars are called oxhide ingots today. They were made during the 2nd millennium B. C. and weigh between 20 and 35 kilograms.


Our ancestors in Southern Germany and Switzerland, too, liked to trade metal in uniform shapes. They used copper to produce those arm spirals that were buried near Ravensburg in the early 2nd millennmium B. C. Here we have rib ingots that were made at roughly the same time.


The Celts favored double pyramid bars made of iron, with a weight ranging between 5.5 and 7.5 kilograms, that were bundled before transport.


Strictly speaking, the first coins were nothing else than small, standardized bars made of precious metal.


The first bronze small change from Sicily actually looks more like a bar than a coin.

Pieces like this one remind of the fact that, for centuries, the Western world did not draw any clear distinction between a coin and a bar. Bars could become currency and coins from abroad were traded at their metal value.


There were even some monetary systems in which bars and coins circulated side by side. From the middle of the 5th century until the late 4th, the Romans paid with the so-called Aes rude, rough bronze. At that time, Athens minted the tetradrachms that were replaced at the end of the 4th century by the coins of Alexander the Great as the most important currency.


Around 225 B. C., the Roman coins still looked quite similar to currency bars. As currency for the foreign trade, in contrast, they already produced wonderful didrachms at that time.


Many countries used bars as well as coins. In China, for example, silver smiths made silver shoe-shaped bars as an addition to the circulating bronze cash coins.


Bars served as currency right into Modern Times particularly in Africa. Katanga, which was rich in copper, produced the Katanga crosses. They were so important for the self-esteem of their users that the short-lived state of Katanga had them depicted on their flag.


Bracelets made of copper became the most important currency in the African Gold Coast. They are called manillas. About 50 manillas was the price a dealer had to pay for a slave. This bronze from the Kingdom of Benin features one such dealer with long hair and a beard. He wears the costume of the Portuguese. It is clear to see what the artist deemed the most important element: the Portuguese is surrounded by the cherished manillas.


This bronze depicts the African business partners who likewise hold manillas in their hands.

Even though our means of payment have nothing in common with currency bars anymore, in the face of inflation we quickly return to old habits and hoard neither francs nor euros or dollars but gold bars. 

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