Oriental Institute exhibit examines commerce, trade in ancient Near East

University Communications

A new exhibit at the Oriental Institute Museum, “Commerce and Coins in the Ancient Near East,” examines the role of commerce and trade from 3000 B.C. to the third-century B.C. On view in the museum’s Mesopotamian Gallery from Aug. 11-28, the exhibit is presented in conjunction with the American Numismatic Association’s World’s Fair of Money, which is being held Aug. 16-20 in Chicago.

Commerce, trade and early forms of currency can be documented for thousands of years before the first coins were minted in southwestern Turkey in the sixth-century B.C. Exchanges of goods and services before that time were tracked by detailed receipts and notations that took many forms. Among the earliest are represented in the exhibit by clay balls that contain small tokens that represented numbers and commodities. Once the delivery was made, the ball was broken open to verify that the amount of goods matched the tokens in the ball.

Among the other receipts in the show is one for the delivery of a dead sheep written in wedge-shaped cuneiform script on a clay tablet. A third tablet, dating to about 2000 B.C., is a request for money to purchase a female slave.

Egyptian and Mesopotamian weights and measures document the standardization of trade in early barter economies. In Mesopotamia, the adoption of a silver standard that equated measures of barley with a set amount of silver is illustrated by a rare example of a spiral coil of silver dating to about 1500 B.C., lengths of which were snipped off to pay debts.

Among the early coins is a silver stater coin probably of king Croesus (570-547 B.C.) of Lydia (southwestern Turkey) that was excavated by the Oriental Institute at Persepolis in southwest Iran, and large bronze coins from Egypt that illustrate the state’s effort to spread the use of standard coins.  Other examples of very early coins from Egypt include a gold stater of Ptolemy I (305 B.C.), and coin molds that show how Roman coins were made and forged.

Brittany Hayden and Andrew Dix, both doctoral students at the Oriental Institute, are curating the exhibit.