The Evolution of Money: Ancient Coins at the British Museum

Glass of coins with green plant

Money has always been an important part of the British Museum’s collection. Coins allow us to learn more about the kings and rulers who issued them, and the messages they wanted to send to their people. The British Museum has a whole department dedicated to coins and medals, and now money more widely: the Numismatics Department. In this fascinating gallery, you can observe the evolution of money across the world, and across the centuries.

The old British Museum money gallery  

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact origin of money as we know it, but one of the earliest and most widespread types of money around the world were shells. These were used from China to Africa to North America, from the Neolithic period all the way into the 19th century. Specifically, Cowrie shells were the most common. The classical Chinese character for money or currency, 貝, originated as an image of a cowrie shell.  

Cowrie shells at the British Museum: one of the oldest forms of money
Cowrie shells, like these ones at the British Museum, were used as currency

The world’s oldest coins

The very first actual coins as we know them appear almost simultaneously across the world from Turkey to China in the 7th century BC. Before this point, China had used bronze money in the shape of shells, or increasingly in the shape of spades or knives. This shows the value they placed in practically useful objects.  

Two small gold ancient coins, an important stage in the evolution of money
Ancient coin made of electrum, from Ephesus, 650-625 BC

The first coins seem to have spread out from Lydia in modern-day Turkey, then part of the Greek world and near the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a piece of which you can see in the British Museum). These coins were made of electrum, a naturally occurring composite of gold and silver. This metal would be melted into blobs of equal weight, then stamped with images to certify their weight and authenticity. These images were often lions, stags and owls, symbols of royal and divine authority.  

Banknotes Begin

China made their first coins out of bronze or copper with a square central hole. Known as “cash”, these coins were China’s uniform, only currency from the 3rd century BC until the 20th century AD. The coins could be strung together thanks to their useful central hole, and so merchants and bankers would need to carry huge heavy ropes strung with hundreds of coins.  

Eventually, this became so impractical that it led to the next important stage in the evolution of money: the world’s first paper banknotes. These early Chinese notes show pictures of how many collected coin strings they represent. They were documentation to prove you did have the actual huge weight in coins, simply stored with a trusted caretaker. They first appear in the 9th Century AD, but don’t take off around the rest of the world until much later. Britain didn’t have official banknotes until 1694! 

Yuan dynasty note and printing plate. Wikipedia

Countering the Counterfeits

When making any kind of currency, security is very important. You don’t want anyone to be able to simply make their own money, so coins or notes must be nearly impossible to copy. In the last five years Britain has replaced its £1 coins, and many banknotes for this reason: they had become too easy to copy.

The British Museum has a collection of counterfeit £1 coins, alongside an older method of coin copying, called clipping. Thieves used to clip metal off round the edges of coins, but just a little so it wouldn’t be noticed. Eventually, the cunning counterfeiters would have built up enough to melt into new coins. This was considered such a serious crime you would be executed if caught.  

Britain’s new notes are made of a plastic polymer, with transparent sections, colour changing foil holograms and hiden microtext. These are just some of the methods used to prevent piracy.  

The Money gallery at the British Museum
Counterfeit coins and, in the background left, Chinese coin strings and notes.

You can see all these objects in the British Museum’s Money Gallery, in person or on Google Street View. The British Museum is the largest indoor space mapped on that website. If you try to look through that gallery online, however, you will see many of the cases blurred out. This is because they have very modern objects still protected by copyright. These include an album cover by Nirvana showing a baby swimming after a banknote, and fake notes used by the BBC in filming Doctor Who, so they could blast them all over a street! 

These days, the museum is grappling with how to collect digital cryptocurrencies like BitCoin. Is this the next stage in the evolution of money?

For more on money…

Our British Museum treasure hunt contains more money treasures, like the Chinese Tang Horse in the Money Gallery (bonus challenge is to sell your pride for points by trotting around the neighbouring BM café). Money also appears in our Paris Kid Pack, as the 100 French Franc note took the design from Gericault’s Liberty Leading the People (the painting of which is also a treasure in our Louvre treasure hunt in Paris).

100 French Francs (Eugene Delacroix) - Exchange yours for cash

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