In Bronze Age Britain (2,500 to 800 BC), gold was frequently mined and used to manufacture a range of decorative and ceremonial objects. But in contrast to other areas, it seems that people of that era were not exchanging pieces of gold as currency—at least not on a widespread or organized basis.
This is the conclusion of a new study that has just been published in the journal Antiquity. The author of that study, Dr. Raphael Hermann from Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, found that gold objects made in Bronze Age Britain did not demonstrate any measurable uniformity in weight. This was a characteristic of gold pieces that were used for money in mainland Europe and Mesopotamia during the same time period, and would have been an essential element in any ancient gold-based monetary system .
“We now know that weighing as a method to quantify things did exist in Bronze Age Britain, as evidenced by balance weights and scale beams found in England at Potterne and Cliff End Farm,” Dr. Hermann said. But his evaluation showed that gold objects that came from this time didn’t exhibit any patterns that would suggest they were carefully weighed to meet any particular type of standard. This was contrary to expectations as previous research had seemed to show the opposite.
Balance beams of bone from late prehistoric Britain: 1) Potterne; 2) Cliffs End Farm 1 (images taken from Lawson 2000: 236; Grimm & Schuster 2014: 188; courtesy of Wessex Archaeology; scale 1:1). ( Antiquity Publications Ltd )
Testing Confirms the Lack of Uniformity in Ancient Britain’s Gold
The data used in this latest study was acquired through an analytical technique known as Cosine Quantogram Analysis, or CQA. This is a mathematical formula that can demonstrate meaningful correlations between physical measurements of objects.
“CQA looks at a group of values (for example the mass values of a load of gold objects) and finds common multiples (so-called quanta) that they all share,” Dr. Hermann explained. When enough of those common quanta are discovered, it can prove that the similarities were based on deliberate choice and could not have been coincidental.
A previous 2019 study of a small number of gold objects from Britain, Ireland, and France had applied this methodology. After completing his analysis, that study’s author claimed to have found evidence that the gold pieces had been intentionally made to conform to certain weight ranges. This suggested gold had been used as a form of money in Britain more than 3,000 years ago. Such a result would not have been surprising, as previous research had already established that gold pieces were used as currency in regions to the east of the British Isles.
The Lambourn Hoard, from Lambourn, Berkshire, with three bracelets and two folded twisted torcs. (Portable Antiquities Scheme / CC BY 2.0 )
Intrigued by the results of the 2019 study, Dr. Hermann, an ancient history expert, used CQA results to evaluate a much bigger sample, collecting data on more than 1,000 gold pieces excavated from Bronze Age British sites . These objects were on display in various museums, and included pieces that had previously been weighed along with many that hadn’t. Hermann and associates traveled to these museums in several instances, to make sure they had accurate weights for all the items included in the database.
In total, Dr. Hermann was able to collect precise weights for 863 gold objects. These objects came in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and forms, many of which were designed to be worn. The list included bars, ribbons, rings, bracelets, dress and sleeve fasteners, and other small, light items that would have been easy to exchange for other goods and services.
In Dr. Hermann’s exhaustive study, no CQA correlations were found between the objects he studied. “Despite the undoubted attraction of gold and the existence of weighing and measuring in later Bronze Age Britain, objects made of the most precious of the metals apparently were not generally regulated by weight,” he said.
Gold used for money or its equivalent would have required a relatively uniform and reliable weight. Traders taking gold in exchange for valuable goods would have needed to know the value of a gold piece without having to weigh it on their own. “Although gold could have been used in transactions—negotiated on an individual basis—the lack of regulation and compliance with weight systems makes it unlikely that gold was used as currency or as a reference material for value ratios,” Dr. Hermann concluded in his Antiquity article.
Another study found that more than 3,000 bronze objects retrieved from European metal hoards were fragmented into pieces with similar mass values. These metal fragments are from the “soldiers’ bag” of the late Bronze Age battlefield of Tollensetal, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Germany. (Volker Minkus and Thomas Terberger / Georg-August-Universität Göttingen )
Britain Lagged Behind in Standardizing their Gold
The discovery that residents of Bronze Age Britain were not standardizing their gold pieces is curious, because it does not align with what was happening elsewhere during that time frame. “Metal objects of regulated mass are a well-known phenomenon of European prehistory,” Dr. Hermann confirmed.
For example, a recent study found that more than 3,000 bronze objects retrieved from European metal hoards were fragmented into pieces with similar mass values. Nearly 4,000 years ago, mass regulation was practiced by hacksilver processors in Mesopotamia, where textual evidence has proven that silver was exchanged directly for valuable supplies. In late Bronze Age Mycenae , it is known that gold cut to standardized weights was regularly used as a form of money.
Why such practices were slow to develop in Bronze Age Britain remains a mystery. It wasn’t until the second century BC that actual gold coins were first made and used in Britain, so it seems it took quite some time before the ancient peoples of Britain finally began to incorporate gold into their monetary systems.
Top image: The nine classes of gold objects from Bronze Age Britain analyzed in the study. Source: © The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 / Antiquity Publications Ltd
By Nathan Falde