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 The Great Norwegian Cowrie Shell Mystery

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nordmann
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PostSubject: The Great Norwegian Cowrie Shell Mystery   Thu 01 Oct 2015, 08:47

Occasionally archaeology throws up rather big mysteries based on scant - but important - material evidence unearthed. Quite literally unearthed in this case where in three separate grave excavations from the 7th century in Tjeldsund, Lurøy and Lødingen, each delivered a fine example of cowrie shells having been deposited as burial goods.

So far so "normal" - at least for those of us who maintain that traditional assessments of how active and globally widespread trade networks were in the so-called "Dark Ages" have been inclined to be vastly underestimated and unappreciated in terms of the ability of societies of the day to not only recognise their place in global commerce but effectively avail of it. Goods travelled vast distances, and not always down to serendipitous happenstance. However the Norwegian finds, while supporting this view completely, raise quite another question regarding just how underestimated these people have been.

For a start there is the location of the three finds (the only three such finds in Norway). All are situated in Norway's far north, an area traditionally viewed as having been "outside of the loop" in terms of Iron Age trade in the Scandinavian lands. And then - most mysterious of all - is the type of shell that has been found.

Cowrie shells have two characteristics which are of huge importance archaeologically. Firstly they can be classified as distinct types indicating distinct uses. The type found in the three Norwegian graves however are all "Cypraea moneta" (money Cowries) and as their name suggests had one very specific and vital role in commerce - they were used as currency. However they were used as currency by traders operating between Asia and the Middle East on the Indian Ocean trade routes of the day. In archaeological terms their existence when found has tended to be taken as evidence of these late Iron Age and early medieval routes and especially of Arab involvement where it occurs.

Which then leads to the "Cowrie shell trail". As expected it emanates from its highest concentration in the Maldives and surrounding trading centres of the period and then stretches out, tentacle like, through the arteries of the two great established trading networks of the period - the Asian "Silk Road" and the vast European, Levant and North African network that had developed under Roman dominion and remained arguably its most virulent legacy. But there are offshoots. One probes deep into Polynesia, raising some questions about traditional assumptions regarding population and development in that region. Another snakes up the rivers leading deep into Russian territory as we now understand it. Based on other small-scale finds in Sweden and Finland (and the complete absence of any similar finds elsewhere in Norway) the Norwegian finds are being logically ascribed to a hitherto unappreciated extension to this route.

Bear in mind however we are talking about a period which, in past assessments of that part of the world, has always been regarded as pre-Russ, pre-Viking and in fact pre-trade, not only for North Norway but throughout Northern Scandinavia and down along the great Russian rivers which - we have always assumed - were first effectively used by the expanding proto-Viking peoples emanating from Sweden some centuries later.

So back to the shells. Given that one of these graves' age is actually disputed locally and could well be two hundred years older even than first estimated, how did Arab currency get so far north? Associated grave goods support the view that these were not incidental deposits either - other "pearl-type" finds are evidence of a society which at that point was developed enough to import luxury goods, and from really far afield too.

For we "don't diss the Iron Age business community" people these three shells have therefore been very welcome news indeed.


Indian Ocean traders using Cowrie shells as currency
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Priscilla
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PostSubject: Re: The Great Norwegian Cowrie Shell Mystery   Thu 01 Oct 2015, 09:12

Apart from their use in trading, and their being rather nice to handle, cowries, esp the monata type, are easy to attach for decorative purpose. Women of the 'Kafir' tribes of the Northern Foothills still use the for their unusual long hats.
That cowrie is still common in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean margins.... they also have a role in fertility rites. I own a silver 'money' cowrie - an interesting conversion - bought in an old bazaar some time back. There are of course many types of cowrie I have wondered why this one became coined because there are others that are as common and more attractive......I have quite a collection, as it happens.

Clues that hint of wide ancient trade links which we must assume were slow, are indeed surprising. No one has been able to explain  silk found in an Iron age chietan's grave (Swiss) nor a type of flourite vase found in an Indus dig  of 2500BC city which  could onlyhave come from one source in the Carpathians.
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Vizzer
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PostSubject: Re: The Great Norwegian Cowrie Shell Mystery   Thu 01 Oct 2015, 09:49

@nordmann wrote:
Cowrie shells have two characteristics which are of huge importance archaeologically. Firstly they can be classified as distinct types indicating distinct uses.

The reader is left hanging here a bit. The opening post doesn't then seem to give the second of those characteristics. That's unless I've misread it or misunderstood it.
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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: The Great Norwegian Cowrie Shell Mystery   Thu 01 Oct 2015, 10:11

Sorry, Vizzer - write in haste and repent at leisure!

What I meant was that they have two specific characteristics that archaeologists like. One is that their types tend to conform to specific uses (money, dice, ornament etc) and the second is that their distribution by type can therefore be held as a very reliable clue to the nature of the societies that used them.

Priscilla, the ones collectively known as "Monateria moneta" tended not to be strung as elements in jewellery (and nor had the Norwegian examples been drilled, suggesting they had retained their original purpose). They functioned well as currency since the particular variety most often used in the Indian Ocean came basically from only one source - a tightly administered Buddhist society based in the Maldives who effectively controlled their production and therefore could underwrite their common value. It helped also that the shells were of highly distinctive appearance with a high glaze effect and distinctive green colour in the veins.

The Maldives as the honest broker in international trade in the area ended with the Tamil takeover in the 11th century and had all but become a distant memory by the time Islam arrived in the 12th. However the distinctive shells still retained popularity as a currency for a good while afterwards, no other source for that variant ever having been found.

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Islanddawn
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PostSubject: Re: The Great Norwegian Cowrie Shell Mystery   Thu 01 Oct 2015, 10:11

Interesting, I wasn't really aware of this variety of cowrie being more accustomed to the Pacific varieties. Especially the Golden Cowrie which is quite rare, valuable and was used as status symbols in the Pacific Islands, still haven't managed to get on of those for my shell collection yet. Sigh.



The Money Cowrie  is not as large or as impressive to look at, one wonders how it became a form of exchange. And Cowries are only sea snails after all Smile



 A little bit more trivia on the Money Cowrie


The money cowrie was given its name after the fact that this shell has been used as money since ancient times. Thousands of years ago the use of this type of shell, called a cowrie, was recorded in the Chinese literature. The most famous example of its use as money was in Africa, where traders brought in these shells. This cowrie is very common in the shallow waters of the Indian Ocean, where it is an herbivore that can be collected on rocks. Many money cowries were gathered in island groups such as the Maldives and the Seychelles and then brought to Africa, and in the interior these were used as money to trade for goods. In the 19th century, 10 money cowries could buy a chicken, and 30 money cowries could buy a bride. After only fifty years later, inflation raised prices dramatically; a chicken required 300 cowries, and a bride was an astounding 3500. By the beginning of the 20th century cowrie shell money had lost its’ value and was no longer used as currency in Africa. While it lasted, the Arabs and Europeans made a huge profit on cowrie shells; it is thought that in the hundred years after 1660, the Dutch alone brought in 4.7 billion money cowrie shells into Africa, which they traded for ivory, gold and slaves. The other cowrie that was used as money in addition to the money cowrie, was the ringer cowrie, another shell in this collection.

Edit. And the Ringer Cowrie


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Priscilla
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PostSubject: Re: The Great Norwegian Cowrie Shell Mystery   Thu 01 Oct 2015, 11:40

The green veined Cypraea Monata is not peculiar to the Maldives - I have found it in 'my' reef of the Ind0- Pacific margins. ('My' because there is a huge stretch close to our beach hut where I rummaged for shells along with the villagers for many, many years at low tide.) There were others similar there also. Not my favoured local one though -  the Cypraea Turdis is an enchanting little job - despite its name. 

You long for a golden one, ID, I have one but its  gloss is a tad faded - also from the same waters but I would love a precious wentletrap - the smaller common one is a delight  I have found those. In shell lore the big ones are valuable and were once thought to be man made - partly because some were and put on sale........er, would that have been on an early sort of ebay?

Cowries - money kind were/ are stitched into designs. I have just realised I have a mounted old embroidery here - Gujrati, that one, probably with many...... some parts of my little house are like a folk heritage museum and they all my treasures.

One can understand the lure of these little gems, they have weight, a lovely gloss and sensuous appeal to run a hand through.
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Vizzer
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PostSubject: Re: The Great Norwegian Cowrie Shell Mystery   Thu 01 Oct 2015, 11:54

@nordmann wrote:
they have two specific characteristics that archaeologists like. One is that their types tend to conform to specific uses (money, dice, ornament etc) and the second is that their distribution by type can therefore be held as a very reliable clue to the nature of the societies that used them.

Thanks for that nordmann. That helps explain why the overland/Finnish/Russian route is conjectured as the origin for these shells as opposed to a more obvious maritime/Atlantic/Mediterranean route. In which case it really is an intriguing find.
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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: The Great Norwegian Cowrie Shell Mystery   Thu 01 Oct 2015, 12:17

Yes, Priscilla - the exact shade of green and pattern/glaze obviously played a role here. Which makes me wonder if they have used the proper criteria for identifying the Norwegian find as having to have been money in origin. But I imagine they did - the stuff has been thoroughly peer- reviewed here.

The info came from a master thesis written by a graduate of the Norwegian University of Archaeology and Social Anthropology, Ingunn Dahlseng Håkonsen, which has raised a few excited ruffles here (and in Russia) since she published it in 2012. The finds themselves are not newly discovered, just newly interpreted by Ms Håkonsen.
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ferval
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PostSubject: Re: The Great Norwegian Cowrie Shell Mystery   Thu 01 Oct 2015, 14:34

I'm inclined to think that the monetary significance of the cowries would not have been a factor in their curation and deposition, more their rarity and value as status indicators and luxury goods. Perhaps they figured in some gift giving, exchange and obligation network?

What interests me is, why have all the different varieties of cowries been so prized in so many different locations across the world? What characteristic of these particular shells has made them so important to so many societies?

We have mesolithic pierced ones from middens up here and this shows them being used in a Natufian skull from the Near East:

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Meles meles
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PostSubject: Re: The Great Norwegian Cowrie Shell Mystery   Thu 01 Oct 2015, 16:36

deleted - dumb comment as others have already said much the same
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