Monday, February 25, 2013

A Ramble on Pitt Rivers and Hordes

This week I took a little trip to Oxford to visit the Ashmolean Museum and the Pitt Rivers Museum. The inspiration for the trip was a special exhibition of Gold Coinage in Britain which is running from the 23rd Oct 2012 to 23rd of April 2013 at the Ashmolean. With such a proliferation of 23s and the start date being on that most holy of days, Money Burning Day, a visit was a must.

To be brutally honest though, it was a bit of a let down. The Ashmolean felt a bit corporate to me. Just a.n. other big museum. And the Gold coinage exhibit was pretty small. Plus, I hate that the display notes are directed at disinterested 12 year olds. Why not assume your visitors are interested? If they're not, creating display notes that read like wackaging won't help. It will only serve to irritate.

Anyway. None of that matters because I went to the Pitt Rivers Museum first. It's like the best junk shop you've ever dreamed of, to the power of ten.

So to the ramble.

The most obvious thing to hit me was how Pitt Rivers (unintentionally) makes clear the arbitrary nature of currency. There is a section called Coins and Currency. We'll come to that. Let's start with Votive Offerings.

If you're unfamiliar with theories on the origin of currency, you may well ask what have these got to do with money? Some folks - especially those on the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) side of things - think that the things given to and received from temples and places of worship were the beginnings of modern currency.

Those MMT folks do tend to focus on the Greeks, though. They look to build a story about money developing through religious ritual and then ending up with the first coins in Lydia about 2700 years ago. It's worth remembering that Greek Philosophers thought that money had been 'invented*' in some earlier age. And take a look at this little fella. Nothing to do with the Greeks. He's from Malaya. Could easily be a votive offering but is actually described by its note as a 'crude form of currency'. Whatever goes on between money and the human mind, it manifests itself across different cultures and at different times.

I think that all objects can be 'currency'. I think the term 'currency' can be a hindrance  It creates a kind of material certainty about Money which confuses us. A trip to the Pitt Rivers makes it obvious that what is classified as currency depends not on the object itself, but on the context of the object. If the original possessor of the object says "This is money", then it is regarded as currency by the collector. I think it can be that simple. Look for example at this (the Klingon-esque blade at the top):

Nothing to do with money you might think. Here is the note associated with it.

"23. Ngala people, border of DR Congo (Zaire) and Central African Republic
Made before 1911
It was thought that this distinctive knife with its triple pommel was used for executions but there is no direct evidence of this. What is true, however, is that these types of weapon could be exchanged as currency.
Purchased in Belgium in 1911"

(It had to be number 23, didn't it)

There's something else that a visit to Pitt Rivers makes obvious too. Trade. There's loads of wonderful examples of shells, bracelets and mats that are well documented as being used as currency. Here's a few examples:

And then the following display makes it clear what our reaction was to all this. Back in the day.

The title of the display is 'Trade Ornaments made in Europe'. A more accurate and revealing description might be 'Counterfeit Primitive Currencies'. It seems as soon as the west began exploring Africa and the Americas it began to manufacture counterfeit currencies to use in trade. There are examples in Einzig of how this practice inflated prices for the indigenous communities.

Here's a picture of the actual 'Coins and Currency' bit. Of course it doesn't look that different from the other objects except that we're told that these objects 'officially' have that quality known as 'moneyness' !

And talking of 'moneyness' (which is JP Koning's phrase) I can't resist sharing that most unputable-in-your-pocket of all currencies, the famous Yap stones. Only a little one this, just loose change really, but quite pretty.

I'm feeling somewhat guilty now for being down on the Ashmolean. I feel like I should include at least one picture here. I guess what I liked about the Pitt River was that it just presents a ton of stuff to you and allows you to draw your own conclusions. The Ashmolean holds your hand a bit more, which probably suits some. Anyway, I don't think the Ashmolean would regard this as a particularly significant item. But I do.

Issued at the time of the First World War by the Treasury (rather than the Bank of England - see underneath the signature) they served to replace gold. (Larger denomination) Bank notes had been around for ages of course, but I think the Braburys are significant because they are symbolic of (the beginnings) of a change in our consciousness about money. Perhaps because their introduction seemed to make sense to folks in terms of the war effort, they were readily accepted. This led people to think less about Money as Value embodied ultimately in a physical thing, and more of it as abstract, as embodied in symbol. (Both are wrong, imo). During the course of the twentieth century Coins and Notes, became Notes and Coins and the Bradbury was a big part of that story.

Seeing as you've got your money boots on now, fancy a proper ramble?


The Mitchell's garden adjoined the bottom of my parent's garden. The Mitchells had not long moved to Hertfordshire from Scotland, and with both sets of parents being keen to be neighbourly I was dispatched to play with Kevin and his Matchbox Hotwheels set a couple of times. He was a few years or older than me and was proving to be something of a handful. After seeing him just lick the icing from the top of his mother's homemade cakes and then throw soggy remainder into the bushes at the bottom of his garden, to my six year old mind, Kevin was definitely a naughty boy.

One day I was playing at the bottom of my garden when Kevin appeared over the fence.

"Psst. Guess what I found in the woods?" he said in a conspiratorial whisper.

"What?", I said.

"Diamonds." said Kevin. "Wait there."

Kevin disappeared back into the house quickly returning with a biscuit tin. He removed the lid and showed me that it was half-filled with bright sparkling brilliant diamonds. I was young, but I knew that diamonds were very valuable. I knew that in that tin there was huge wealth. I was even a bit jealous of his luck in finding them.

"Here" said Kevin. "Have you got any money? I'll sell you some if you like. I don't mind. I've got loads of them."

I was unable to accede to Kevin's generous proposal, because I didn't have any money. And I was confused as to why he wanted to sell them to me, rather than just share some of them with me as he had, by his own admission, so many. After all, we we're friends. We'd played Hotwheels together. I disappeared into the house. I told my father about Kevin's find. At first not mentioning that Kevin was prepared to sell some of the diamonds at a greatly discounted price.

My father, gently and wisely, offered me another possibility. Something I had not considered. "I'm not sure" he said, "they'd be real diamonds."

"They look like diamonds. And Kevin said he'd sell me some if I wanted 'cos he's got so many", I replied.

"Well then, I really don't think they're diamonds at all, Jonathan."

I avoided Kevin for a while after that. A little bit of me held onto the idea that he had found diamonds. And that I'd missed an opportunity for great riches. On the other hand, his family didn't get a Rolls Royce, neither did there seem to be an appreciable difference to their standard of living.

The nagging doubt about Kevin's diamond horde remained until I saw, several months later, a shattered car windscreen.


There were a few hordes on display at the Ashmolean. Perhaps they were the spark to my memory of that experience with Kevin. Although these were gold coins, not diamonds. Still hugely valuable, though. One horde was the equivalent of 10 years wages for a Roman soldier.

Diamonds and coins share a quality of material permanence that seems intrinsic to their ability to act as a 'store of value'. Not only that, Gold, silver and diamonds also seem to have managed to lodge themselves into our collective consciousness as almost divine representations of the highest value.

However, in the form of coins, gold and silver achieve a specificity, a date and a place, that diamonds lack. A coin has authority and authenticity inscribed.

So deeply is the power of a gold coin lodged in the modern mind - or was so until the beginning of the C20th - it is easily forgotten that the most significant of all representations of value to man across the span of human evolution isn't gold or silver; it's livestock and slaves. They have the advantage over metal coins, in that they can't be clipped or counterfeited. But where this fear of fakery was allayed, and a critical level of acceptability - of belief - was present, the coin connected to Value in a way that changed the world.

It perhaps easy to forgive those people then who believe that a gold coin has an intrinsic Value. After all, the gold coin was supposed to make us believe that. Convincing us of its value was its raison d'etre.

Even today, a baseline common sense argument holds sway for many economists. Their story is that gold coins were a technological solution, albeit one that spontaneously arose, to the problems of trade. Precious metals have a inherent value, they're also malleable but hard-wearing enough to work well as currency. Another view, one that's made a significant headway into the mainstream in the past few years, is less concerned with a notion of the intrinsic value of gold, and instead emphasises the value given to the coin (or note, or whatever form of currency) by the inscription.

Away from the world of economics though, such ideas seem a bit academic. Pragmatism seems to be the preferred approach for those who actually have to deal with money. This is true for those indigenous people who rejected modern coinage in favour of their own types of currency be they cowrie shells, cloth mats, or fish hooks; or those who even today receive their pay in modern currency but transfer their wealth into cattle as soon as they can. And pragmatism is the rule for our modern day bankers and politicians too. When you have pressing financial matters to deal with you don't want to be hamstrung by some metaphysical debate about whether Value resides in the material or the inscription, whether money is real or abstract, whether money is object or subject.**

Leave that to the philosophers and academics. Politicians and bankers are already armed with Keynes anyway. He spent five years or so researching the origins of money - he referred to the time as his ‘Babylonian madness’. His Treatise on Money published in 1930 managed to squeeze a sociological 'abstract' conception of money into a 'real' mathematical model of savings and investment. Or should that be a 'real' conception about money into an 'abstract' mathematical model. Either way, he was the priest of an impossible marriage.

These necessarily pragmatic approaches to the origin of money - and its fundamental nature - make describing economy as it appears to us that much easier. We can find a reason for anything that happens. In fact, we can find several reasons. Economics, is very useful as a form of employment for economists***, and at providing a script for politicians and bankers to create a performance that justifies any action, or any inaction.

But then what about Truth? Clarity? Consistency?

Clarity seems a scarce resource in any of our explanations of Money and economy. But consistency (of theory) seems more abundant at the edges. The quality of consistency seems to exist in what economists like to term 'heterodox' theories. To my mind though, the breadth of theory provides a base upon which mainstream economics has built an unstable tower. Are any of the heterodox theories the Truth? Are the foundations of the tower solid?

It would be helpful if they were. Currency thrives on certainty.

I liked the certainty Hayek gave us. He seemed like a truth-seeker to me. He created a consistent theory of economy and for many, his theory seems, or for a time at least seemed, the best way to explain economic reality.

My problem was that it never really explained what Money was. It explained price, and Money was supposed to be born from that.

Hayek's stages of metaphysical evolution were Value, then Price, then Money. This is a change of causality where Money becomes the best technical solution to the problem of making Price visible. The difficulty I have with that, is that it doesn't describe our relationship with these phenomena now, or in the past. Hayek's theories are like the projection of an ordered mind that describes our material reality with an extreme precision, but says nothing about the totality of our experience. The myriad of currencies, symbols of value and votive offerings on display in the Pitt River show a plurality and multiplicity of economic experience that Hayek's perspective seems unable to absorb. It can only assimilate the objects by denying them their context. An object's role as currency, their very existence as artifacts is for Hayek, fathered by Price. But the essence the objects share isn't Price. They only have that quality in relation to each other.

In a philosophical sense, Price is non-essential to the objects. Value, on the other hand, is essential. Leaving us with THAT question, what is Money?' Does Money only exist between the objects, like price? (i.e. is Money a social relation?) Or is Money part of the essential nature of the object itself? (i.e. is money commodity).

And if the human race disappeared tomorrow how would that change things? Would the objects still have value? Would Money still exist?


Its difficult to make sense of these issues of certainty and uncertainty about Value. We'd dearly love to be certain about it. The ritual of the Trial of Pyx, still performed annually in the UK, where a representative of the Monarch tests the quality of the coinage produced by the Royal mint, tries to establish a certainty about Value. It looks for Value in the authenticity of coin, in Money.

I don't think they've ever found traces of Value or Money though. They seem illusive to any material investigation. I think you're infinitely more likely to find half a kilo of cut diamonds in a Hertfordshire wood.

On the way back home from Oxford, news of the latest Diamond heist came on the radio. Perhaps another reason why I've been thinking back to that incident at the bottom of the garden. £32 million pounds worth of diamonds were stolen. They're practically untraceable. Now would be a good moment for Kevin to resurrect his counterfeit diamond scam, I reckon. They'll be plenty of people in the market who really want to believe they're the real thing. News of the robbery might just give him the edge he needs.

*It might fairer to say something on the lines of 'money arose spontaneously from set of social structures and practices' or similar.

** There is an equivalent debate in religion between iconclasts and iconodules.

*** JK Galbreith said that, not me.

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