What is Celtic Ring Money ?


Long before the introduction of struck coinage into ancient Celtic Europe, copper and gold rings were used as currency by Celtic tribes and were often worn on clothing or tied together by ropes. These particular rings, often referred to as “proto-currency”, were created in ancient Moesia (now Bulgaria) as long ago as 7th century BC.  The sizes range from 10mm-40mm.

Most of archaeologists and numismatic experts once thought to be Celtic ring money has now been dated back to the Bronze Age – well before any Celtic culture began. As such, the term “Celtic Ring Money” may now be a misnomer.

Gold Ring Money - Penannular ring (plain type) c. 1200-100 BC, 3.98g, allegedly found in Co Clare in the 19th C

Gold Ring Money – Penannular ring (plain type) c. 1200-100 BC, 3.98g, allegedly found in Co Clare in the 19th C

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Before coinage was introduced to Britain in the Late Iron Age, people had to conduct transactions by bartering their products, goods and/or services.  This process of payment and exchange may have been facilitated by gold “ring money” (most of which seems to date from the late Bronze Age, therefore they are not ‘uniquely’ Celtic and may not have even been used by the Celts as a ‘proto-currency’).

For example, we now know that by the 2nd century BC (the Late Iron Age in Britain) the locals were trading iron “currency bars” shaped like swords, spits, plough-shares and bay leaves.  The use of the so-called ‘ring money’ as a proto-currency may have died out well before this.

  • Iron Currency Bars from Celtic Britain
    • Type 1 – sword-shaped (most common type)
      • Sword-shaped bars had a flat, narrow blade 780-890 mm long and weighed between 400-500 g
      • They show two common attributes of money: they conform to a weight standard and have a standard, easily recognized appearance
      • This variety of bar was used in what would later become the territories of the Corieltauvi, Dobunni, Durotriges and Atrebates
    • Type 2 – spit-shaped
      • Rare, found in the area later associated with the Dobunni
    • Type 3 – bay-leaf shaped
      • Rare, known from only a few Cambridgeshire sites
    • Type 4 – ploughshares
      • Rare, found along the Thames Valley & West Midlands

They may have also traded neck torcs and arm bands of gold, silver and bronze. These objects are found throughout Ireland, England. Scotland and Wales. Many are found at Bronze Age sites, or in a Bronze Age context at a site occupied over a long period of time

  • As such, this ring money may have its origins back in the Bronze Age
    • The bronze and gold ring money may even be a Bronze Age cultural artefact
    • Evidence suggests that it may have remained in use as a ‘proto-currency’ (a store of wealth) until well into the Late Iron Age
    • Given the dearth of Iron Age sites in Ireland, Irish ring money may be attributed to the Bronze Age in Ireland
Ancient British (Celtic) ringmoney - found in Lincolnshire in 1980s

Ancient British (allegedly Celtic) ring money – found in Lincolnshire in 1980s

There are, however, certain types of so-called ‘ring money’ that have been dated into the Celtic era and these are not restricted to gold. Many archaeologists and historians believe that ring money made from ‘bronze’ was used by the Celts in trade from Ireland to the Danube region.  However, the dating of of this Celtic ring money is still not certain.

Celtic Ring Money. Gaul. Uncertain Tribe. Quadrangular gold ring with abutments in each corner. c. 200 - 100 BC. 0.86 g, 14 mm

Celtic Ring Money (gold) from Gaul – Uncertain Tribe

The problem with earlier (Bronze Age) gold ring money, or gold pennanular rings are they are now called, is that they do not seem to adhere to any uniform weights, shapes or appearance. As such, it is difficult to imagine them being used as ‘standard units of currency’ at an every day transactional level.

Ring Money, or pennanular rings as they are now called, varies in shape, weight and form - some are single rings, others are double, and the gold content varies from solid rings, to hollow rings and gold plated. Celtic or Bronze Age?

Ring Money, or pennanular rings as they are now called, varies in shape, weight and form – some are single rings, others are double, and the gold content varies from solid rings, to hollow rings and gold plated. The diameter also varies greatly. Note: rings not shown to relative size here.

The later, bronze rings, do display a more regular weight, shape and appearance, leading to claims that they are all multiples of a standard unit, indicating a uniform principle regulated their size, i.e. their use as a ‘proto-currency’.

  • Bronze rings have been found in quite large hoards
  • The current concensus of opinion is that this suggests that they were used as a form of ‘proto-currency’
    • Others, however, believe the bronze rings are actually just strap fittings, not a trade currency
bronze rings

Simple bronze rings, such as the above, could be used for a multitude of purposes, including fixing clothing, the manufacture of leather goods, etc. It may be stretching the truth a little bit too far to suggest that they are all examples of ‘ring money’

Although many gold rings are single undocumented finds from the 19th C and not associated with any other archaeology, gold pennanular rings can be found as small hoards, e.g. the three rings illustrated below.

Bronze Age Gold - 3 Pennanular rings, tear drop shaped tapering to narrow terminals. Total weight 11.21g

Bronze Age Gold – 3 Pennanular rings, tear drop shaped tapering to narrow terminals. Total weight 11.21g

More research and accurately documented notes from professional archaeologists is needed before we have a clearer picture of where they came from, what they were used for and who used them.

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Caveat emptor

Gold Rings:

The appearance of gold rings described as Bronze Age or Celtic on eBay is becoming more frequent now. Some are quite ornate and are described as jewellery (ear rings and hair rings) with a vague allusion that they might be Celtic Ring Money. Potential buyers need to be very careful with these auction lots:

  1. Where do they come from?
    1. An illegally ‘robbed’ site?
    2. An unrecorded find ‘stolen’ from an archaeological dig
    3. A professional counterfeiter?
  2. Who has dated them?
    1. A professional numismatic source?
    2. A professional archaeologist?
    3. Some ‘chancer’ out to make easy money?
  3. Who has assayed them?
    1. Ancient gold is not 22 carat gold – it has too many impurities and other metals in with it. Bronze Age metallurgists could not extract pure gold from ore and most gold from this time also has varying amounts of silver, i.e. natural gold is usually found as a mixture, with silver often the main alloying metal
    2. Chapman cross-checked silver content in natural gold with artefacts from the early Bronze Age, 2,200 to 1,800 BC. The gold is consistent and seems to come from one area, possibly from river gravels.
    3. Chemical analysis of Irish Bronze Age gold objects revealed silver at 10%, which, combined with trace amounts of tin and copper, indicates the Mourne Mountains as the most likely source of these objects
    4. European Bronze Age gold objects, on the other hand, seems to have mostly been sourced in the Carpathian Mountains and has a slightly different chemical make-up from Irish material

Bronze Rings:

There are a lot of traders on eBay describing their small bronze and copper rings as Celtic ‘ring money’

  • These items have little or no provenance and could be as recent as the end of the Medieval in origin – over a thousand years since the end of the Celtic period
  • They might even be ‘left-overs’ from chain mail armour – common in Medieval times.
  • Be careful !

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “What is Celtic Ring Money ?

    • If I were you, I’d put that question to TWO people at the British Museum – firstly someone specialising in the Late Bronze Age and, secondly, someone specialising in the Early Iron Age. They should have the ‘latest’ insights. My understanding is that the so-called gold ‘ring money’ belongs to the Bronze Age but its extended use as a proto-currency into the Iron Age is in some doubt.

      Since you are talking about fiction, you would have the benefit of applying some ‘artistic license’ to the scenario.

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  1. By the 2nd century BC (the Late Iron Age in Britain) the locals were trading iron “currency bars” shaped like swords, spits, plough-shares and bay leaves. Would any of these items fit in well with your ‘fictional account ?

    The use of the so-called ‘ring money’ as a proto-currency may have died out well before this. The people at the British Museum would be better placed to comment on the Late Bronze Age / Early Iron Age transition period.

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