British Museum blog

The Mooghaun Hoard: early ‘currency’ or bands of equality?

Mooghaun Hoard. © National Museum of IrelandNeil Wilkin, curator, British Museum

Question: What do you call a Bronze Age coin specialist?
Answer: Flat broke and misspent, for there is no evidence from this period of coins or currency systems, as we know them, in Europe!

And yet… a journey through the Citi Money Gallery begins with a group of Bronze Age objects. Among them are gold objects from the ‘Mooghaun hoard’ (about 800 BC), a find that has recently been honoured with a place in Fintan O’Toole’s ‘A History of Ireland in 100 Objects’ series, supported by the National Museum of Ireland and the Royal Irish Academy.

Some of the objects from the Mooghaun Hoard on display in the Money Gallery.

Some of the objects from the Mooghaun Hoard on display in the Money Gallery.

But why are they in the gallery? Their recent honour gave me the perfect opportunity to explore that question.

The start of our story is bitter-sweet: in March of 1854, workmen in County Clare, Ireland discovered at least 150 finds of what was then described as ‘fairy gold’, weighing approximately 5kg, mostly consisting of jewellery. The gold must have poured from the small stone chamber it was found in – childhood dreams of gold pots and rainbows come to mind!

Objects from the Mooghaun Hoard in the British Museum collection, and the National Museum of Ireland collection, as well as some reproductions.

Objects from the Mooghaun Hoard in the British Museum collection, and the National Museum of Ireland collection, as well as some reproductions. © National Museum of Ireland

It was certainly one of the biggest discoveries of Bronze Age gold ever found in Ireland or even North West Europe. Sadly, accounts tell of hats full of gold being sold for less than their true value to be melted down, forever lost. Only 29 objects survive today.

Around the same time, in Mold, Wales, a separate group of workmen came across another famous find of Bronze Age gold, known as the Mold Gold Cape. Like the Mooghaun Hoard, the cape was also dispersed. But unlike the Mooghaun Hoard, the fragments were not melted down and they were eventually purchased and re-assembled. So, why did the Mooghaun Hoard not receive the same treatment?

Unlike the complex decoration of the unique Mold Gold Cape, most of the Mooghaun finds consisted of many very similar bracelets or armlets with very little decoration. Perhaps they were a way of storing wealth – even an early form of ‘currency’? In melting and spending the gold, the modern finders may have been recognising this key quality.

However, there is more to the story. The finds at Mooghaun were made close to (or even within) a lake and close to one of the biggest Bronze Age hillforts in Ireland. This setting is typical of Irish hoards deposited for spiritual and religious reasons, rather than ‘banked’ for safe-keeping to be returned for later.

The similarity of the objects could also relate to the status of individuals. For while the Mold Gold Cape could only be worn by a single, very important person, the Mooghaun hoard could decorate the bodies of many people at once.

The Mooghaun finds therefore tell us that not all gold was for important individuals and that we can’t always separate economics from spiritual beliefs. In that sense, they provide the perfect starting place to the story of the history of money.

The Mooghaun Hoard is object 11 in A History of Ireland in 100 objects

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Spending all over the world…

Coins from each of the 193 countries recognised by the United Nations arranged in a spiralThomas Hockenhull and Ben Alsop, curators, British Museum

The British Museum collects and displays objects from across the world, and every year we are visited by millions of people from many different countries. In one section of the new Citi Money Gallery we had a simple plan to display at least one object from every country, and we decided that we could only achieve this within the available space by using coins.

Looking at the list of UN-recognised countries we began to search the extensive collection of the Department of Coins and Medals. Where possible we planned to exhibit coins, of the national currency, rather than a sub-denomination. The UK currency, for example, is represented by a pound coin and not a penny; the Euro by a euro coin and not a cent, and so on.

Coins from around the world arranged in a spiral

Coins from around the world arranged in a spiral

For the purposes of display, it was suggested that a spiral would be a really visually arresting design. Beginning with a two Afghani coin of Afghanistan and finishing with a Zimbabwean dollar, the coins spiral alphabetically by country from the centre to the outer edge of the display panel. There are 192 coins in total, with one space representing South Sudan, which issues banknotes but is yet to issue coins, following its independence in 2011.

A glance at the spiral provides for some interesting observations. For instance, not all member states of the United Nations have their own currencies. Some are part of monetary unions, such as the Bank of Central African States, while others, such as Micronesia, use the money of a much larger neighbour, the U.S. dollar.

The symbols and images countries choose to use on their coinage can be very different, each offering a different idea of nationhood. Individual countries may choose to depict a person, animal or symbols which are very particular to their society and history. Monetary unions on the other hand need to find a unifying factor which helps to group the various countries together using one image.

We are keen to display the most recent coins possible and welcome the donation of newer coins to help us keep the display as up to date as we can.

We also created an online version: why not see how many you recognise?

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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