Bronze Age Ring Money
You only have to walk a few yards down any high street in Britain and the chances are that you will see someone wearing a pair of earrings based on a Bronze Age design, and the owner will be blissfully unaware of their origins. The originals date from the late Bronze Age 1000-600BC and have been labelled with many names from hair rings, penannular ring and ring money. The workmanship is exquisite, and involved casting, forging and twisting, mostly in gold but occasionally with white and yellow gold. Archaeologists have long speculated as to whether they are really some form of currency (ring money), and in the following article, Chris Rudd draws together some interesting thoughts and some stunning parallels from Africa.
This article first appeared in the Searcher magazine May 2003 and I am very grateful for being allowed to reproduce it with the images.
Is Ring Money Really Money?
Woman of the Fulani tribe, West Africa, wearing ring money on her finger, nose and ears. The large earrings, worth about £2000 each in the early 1980s, were given by the husband, who often had to sell his cattle to buy them. Did the same sort of thing used to happen in Bronze Age Britain?
How gold ring money was used in the Late Bronze Age, c.1100-600 BC, is far from clear (Fig.1). Was it used as jewellery or was it used as money? Scholarly opinion is divided and there has also been some confusion in relation to the 1996 Treasure Act.
Fig.1. Some of the main types of Bronze Age penannular rings: plain 1-11, trumpet 12, 13, 16, twisted 19, 20, 22-24, striped 25-30, tubular 31-34. From various private collections.
The situation two years ago was neatly summarised by Gillian Varndell of the British Museum in her authoritative article in Antiquity, September 2001. She said: ‘Under the old Treasure Trove laws, small, single items of precious metal were frequently dismissed by Coroners as casual losses (although they still had to be reported). This meant that numbers of small items never went to inquest, as one of the criteria for Treasure was that in all likelihood objects had been buried with the intention to recover them (the animus revertendi). This criterion was removed when the new Act was passed some five years ago. The extension of the law to cover such items has thrown up at least one problem of definition.’
‘A later Bronze Age gold penannular ring was recently found not to be treasure at inquest, because the piece was held to be a coin. Single, stray finds of coins are not counted as treasure, whereas any ornament of precious metal at least 300 years old, small or large, is now eligible under the 1996 Treasure Act. This raises two issues. The first concerns the definition of ‘coin’ as explained in the Code of Practice; the second is about terminology, and specifically the use of the term ‘ring-money’ to describe such objects.’
‘Archaeologists have commonly used ‘ring-money’ or ‘tress-ring’ as a form of shorthand. Others have used the terms literally, believing these objects to be either an early form of currency or hair ornaments; there is evidence for neither…To return to the second point: the Code of Practice of the 1996 Treasure Act is quite clear on the definition of ‘coin’. This includes ‘any metal token that was, or can reasonably be assumed to have been, used or intended for use as or instead of money’. However, this only includes coins and tokens ‘made after the introduction of the first coinage into this country during the Iron Age period and excludes objects made earlier such as iron currency bars’ (Section 3,  of the Act and p.4 of the Code of Practice).’
‘The type of Bronze Age gold ring under discussion may fairly be regarded as an ornament. Some of them are beautifully striped with alternate bands of yellow or whiter gold while some are plain; both of these categories may be either solid, or composed of a gold wrapping around a base metal core. Items of personal ornament could of course have been exchanged for other goods or services. So could cows, or the shirt off your back. Metal items, especially those of precious metal, undoubtedly had a bullion value as well as a perceived value to the owner, but this does not make them coins.’
I have quoted Gillian Varndell extensively because she expertly exposes that the prime problem has been one of definition. Much depends on how we define ‘money’. If we say that money means ‘coins’ then ring money cannot possibly be regarded as money. If, on the other hand, we take a broader view and say that money is a ‘means of exchange’ or a ‘means of making payments’, then I believe that Bronze Age penannular rings may well have been used as prehistoric money, as well as prehistoric jewellery. Several eminent numismatists in the British Museum encourage us to take this broader view of money.
In Money, from Cowrie Shells to Credit Cards (British Museum Publications, 1986), edited by Joe Cribb, curator of the HSBC Money Gallery at the British Museum, we read that ‘money is simply the things we use when making payments. It follows that anything which has this function can be money’ and that ‘there seems to be almost no limit to the range of objects that have been used as money’.
Fig.2. Ancient Egyptian gold rings being weighed. Wall painting from tomb at Thebes, c. 14th century BC.
One of the many illustrations of primitive money in Joe Cribb’s well researched book is an ancient Egyptian wall-painting of gold rings being weighed on a balance. This wall-painting has been dated to about the fourteenth century BC; in other words, during the period of the British Bronze Age.
Fig.3. Gold rings being offered as tribute by Nubians. Ancient Egyptian tomb-painting, c.14th century BC.
Another Egyptian wall-painting, also from the fourteenth century BC, shows Nubians offering gold rings as tribute and is featured in Money, a History (British Museum Press, 1997), edited by Dr Jonathan Williams, a curator in the Coins and Medals Department of the British Museum and a leading authority on ancient British coins. Seeing such pictures, one inevitably wonders if gold rings, which may have been used as money in ancient Egypt, may also have served as a means of payment in ancient Britain. Again, it depends on how we define money. In Money, a History we read that ‘Most general definitions begin with the idea of money as a ‘medium of exchange’…perhaps ‘means of making payments’ is a more appropriate starting-point, as this would allow us to account for systems in which commodity exchange was not the focus of attention’. For instance, in Bronze Age Britain a gold ring might have been given as a bride price; in other words, as a means of marital payment.
This broader view of money – seeing money as more than coins and banknotes – is repeatedly stressed in The Story of Money (British Museum Press, 1997) by Dr John Orna-Ornstein, a curator in the Coins and Medals Department of the British Museum. He says: ‘Today, when we think of money we think of coins, banknotes, cheques and credit cards. Money has not always looked like this. People in the past have used many things, such as cows, salt and sea shells, as money. In fact, money can be anything that people are prepared to accept in payment…. Why would anybody make an axe that was not sharp or a tool out of crumbly chalk? Sometimes archaeologists find objects like these. Since almost anything acceptable can be used as money, it may be that such items were types of money. Perhaps they were paid out at weddings or on other important occasions. Prehistoric jewellery may have been used as money too’ [my italics].
Fig.4. Iron Age gold neck-rings from Ipswich, Suffolk. ‘May have been used as money too’ says British Museum.
As an example of prehistoric money Dr Orna-Ornstein shows six penannular gold neck-rings of the first century BC found at Ipswich (Fig.4). If gold rings were perhaps used as money in the Iron Age, why not in the Bronze Age too? As Dr John Kent, Keeper of Coins and Medals at the British Museum, 1983-1990, once said: ‘Money can take many forms other than coins.’
I think it is clear from the extracts I have quoted from these three authoritative books that leading numismatists in the British Museum believe that prehistoric jewellery, including penannular gold rings of the Late Bronze Age, could have been used as prehistoric money. But what about coin dealers? How do they see Bronze Age ring money? Last year I asked five leading coin dealers and auction houses for their views, all of whom have extensive experience of ancient money and who have sold Bronze Age gold rings as money.
Edward Baldwin, managing director of A H Baldwin & Sons (established 1872), said: ‘These beautifully crafted gold rings were used as items of exchange or primitive money.’ Italo Vecchi, managing director (Europe) of the Classical Numismatic Group, said: ‘As the world’s leading dealers in ancient coins, we naturally encounter all kinds of primitive money. I therefore have no hesitation in agreeing that gold ring money was used as a type of prehistoric currency or proto-money in pre-coinage Britain, in much the same manner that ‘knife-money’ was used in ancient China and that lumps of unworked bronze (aes rude) were used by the Etruscans, Umbrians and Romans before they minted coins.’ Andrew Litherland, departmental director of Glendining’s (established 1900), said: ‘Glendining’s have always considered ring money to be what it says it is – money in the form of a ring – and, during my 25 years as a professional numismatist, I have not seen a scrap of serious evidence which negates this viewpoint.’
Peter Preston-Morley, a professional numismatist at Dix Noonan Webb, said: ‘Most professional numismatists, coin collectors and coin dealers believe ring money was used as a form of primitive currency in prehistoric Britain. I know this to be so because I work for a leading London auction house which specialises in all kinds of numismatic items, including primitive money.’ Finally, Mark Rasmussen, who worked for thirtytwo years at Spink (established 1666) before setting up his own business and who offered fourteen pieces of gold ring money for sale in his Autumn 2002 catalogue (see The Searcher, March 2003), replied: ‘My former boss at Spink, the late Patrick Finn, was always very clear about what could be described as money and what could not. Way back in 1970 we catalogued five pieces of ring money together for Spink’s Green Circular and it was precisely described as ‘ring money’…Patrick Finn was the doyen of British coin dealers and sat on the Treasure Valuation Committee. He would not have described ring money as money unless he was wholly convinced that it really was.’
There is a trend among some archaeologists to classify Bronze Age gold rings more as prestige ornaments rather than primitive currency. Indeed, a few would deny that they had any function whatsoever as money. Dr Stuart Needham of the British Museum, one of the foremost authorities on the British Bronze Age and an accomplished television commentator, insists that these objects must always be called ‘penannular rings’ and refuses to recognise them as ‘ring money’ which he regards as a highly misleading term. He could be right. His expert opinion correctly carries great weight with Her Majesty’s coroners; so do not imagine for one nanosecond that a Bronze Age gold ring can be reported as a ‘coin’ or ‘token’ and thus avoid being declared treasure. It can’t and won’t. Since the implementation of the 1996 Treasure Act, I know of only one metal detectorist who has managed to convince a coroner that his ring money was not treasure (The Searcher, June and July 2001).
Having said that, I must tell you that the narrow view of gold penannular rings, which sees them exclusively as objects of personal adornment, is by no means the universal view of today’s archaeologists. Many of them still believe that these rings could also have been used as a form of primitive money. For example, Dr Paul Robinson, who is Curator of Wiltshire Heritage Museum, which has one of the most important Bronze Age gold collections in Britain, says that the large number of surviving examples of ring money, plus the consistency of their size, shape and design, ‘make the identification of ring money as a primitive currency still a serious possibility.’ He also asserts that ‘iron currency bars are universally accepted today as a form of primitive currency and should not have been excluded from the definition of money’ in the 1966 Treasure Act’s Code of Practice.
Dr John Creighton, who is a lecturer in archaeology at the University of Reading and author of Coins and Power in Late Iron Age Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2000), has a helpful way of defining penannular rings. He says: ‘I am happy to call these objects money – special purpose money. General purpose money is the type we use today and has a wide range of functions, almost unbounded. Whereas special purpose money is an object or type of coin which is produced for a very specific social function, such as maundy money or Anglo-Saxon blood money. If you go earlier in prehistory you find things like polished stone axes being exchanged and moving long distances, some never actually being used, as if they had a ceremonial exchange value to do with bride wealth of other transfer payments which we can only guess at now. Given that there seems to be a metrological link between things like gold torcs and gold staters, then yes, I am quite happy to call ring money special purpose money. I just don’t know what that purpose was.’
My own view of Bronze Age penannular rings is that they may have fulfilled several functions, at different times and in different places. They may have been worn for personal decoration and prestige display. They may have had some symbolic, ritualistic or shamanistic role. And they were probably used as a convenient medium of exchange or payment – in other words, as prehistoric money, proto-money, primitive money, special purpose money, call it what you will.
As Gillian Varndell of the British Museum correctly observes, ‘Metal items, especially those of precious metal, undoubtedly had a bullion value as well as a perceived value to the owner, but this does not make them coins.’ True, but it does make them money, if we define money as a means of exchange or payment (as most folk would). Moreover, I suspect that small gold rings would have been a more convenient and more acceptable medium of exchange in the Bronze Age than the ‘cows or the shirt off your back’ that Mrs Varndell mentions, particularly in the context of long-distance, cross-country and cross-Channel trading. Indeed, there are indications that some of the rings may have been exported from Ireland to Britain and France by way of trade.
If we want analogous evidence that gold rings may have been used as money in Bronze Age Britain, we should take the advice of Joe Cribb and look forward in time and see how gold rings have been used in more recent societies. Joe Cribb works for the British Museum and has probably handled more primitive money and more prehistoric money from around the world than anyone else in Britain. He says: ‘Parallels drawn from later cultures can be used to throw light on money’s prehistory.’ Moreover, Paul Einzig, one of Britain’s leading experts on primitive money and author of forty books, says that ‘you can follow ring money from its early beginnings in Ancient Egypt right to its present-day use in West Africa.’
For me by far the most persuasive and most illuminating parallel is to be found in Africa. For over seven hundred years, from the thirteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, ring money was used in several regions of Africa. It was used partly as jewellery – worn in the hair, on the nose and on both ears – partly for social status and partly as portable wealth which could easily be cashed to buy things. The fact that ring money and manillas (small Nigerian bracelets) were actually employed as currency in Africa until 1948 is widely known and has never been disputed. Nobody who objectively and dispassionately compares the medieval and modern ring money of Africa with the ancient ring money of prehistoric Europe can fail to be impressed by their astonishing similarity.
Fig5. African ring money worn from Senegal to Lake Chad. Some of these rings closely resemble the Bronze Age rings of western Europe.
To demonstrate this amazing likeness, I’m showing you illustrations of African ring money (Fig.5-7) from a beautiful scholarly book, Africa Adorned, by Angela Fisher (Collins Harvill, 1987). As you can see, some the African rings look as if they could have been made in Britain or Ireland three-thousand years ago.
Fig.6. Woman of the Fulani tribe, West Africa, wearing ring money on her finger, nose and ears. The large earrings, worth about £2000 each in the early 1980s, were given by the husband, who often had to sell his cattle to buy them. Did the same sort of thing used to happen in Bronze Age Britain? Fig.7. African ring money worn Fig.8 Bronze Age ring money with modern silver coins. worn in hair and ear.
Note too that one of the women is wearing silver coins in her hair as well, underlining the monetary usage of such jewellery.
Fig.8 Bronze Age ring money worn in hair and ear.
My guess is that for a couple of hundred years, sometime during the Late Bronze Age, gold rings were high-status, high-fashion jewellery in Britain, worn by men as well as women, sometimes in the hair and sometimes on the ears (Fig.8). My guess is that they were used as money too.
I am currently studying Bronze Age ring money of the British Isles and would like to hear from any readers who have any ring money. If possible, I’d appreciate a picture with details of size, weight and approximate provenance (nearest village would suffice). Any private information given to me will of course remain private. email@example.com
SOURCES OF ILLUSTRATIONS
I thank the following for permission to reproduce illustrations of which they own the copyright: The Trustees of the British Museum (2, 3, 4); Angela Fisher, author of Africa Adorned, and the publisher, Collins Harvill (5, 6, 7). Photos by Sandra Matthews (1), Heini Schneebeli (5), Fabby K.J.Nielsen (6, 9), Angela Fisher (7), Elizabeth Cottam (8). I also thank the owners of the rings for letting me show them in this article.