Week 19 SCRAP Reading Group: Ancient Currencies

Thank you to Dr. Geoff Braswell for joining us in Friday’s conversation about money/currency (did it exist??), its production and procurement, and core-periphery relations in the ancient Maya world. See below for article summary and discussion questions (courtesy of Matt Longstaffe).

Baron, Joanne P. 2018. Making Money in Mesoamerica: Currency Production and Procurement in the Classic Maya Financial System. Economic Anthropology 5(2):210–223. DOI:10.1002/sea2.12118.

What is money? How did it develop in complex societies such as the Maya? What evidence do we have for it (in its varying forms) and how did it change over time? How did money configure and reconfigure socioeconomic relationships? These are just a few of the questions raised in “Making money in Mesoamerica: Currency production and procurement in the Classic Maya financial system”.

In the article, Joanne Baron proposes a historical process of monetization in which items indexical to elite status, such as cacao and cotton textiles, see their value extended beyond elite contexts to become money or currency. This process accelerates in the seventh-century CE when large polities across the southern lowlands begin to devote more resources to their market economies as they become reliant on goods exchanged in marketplaces. It is argued that this process of shifting materiality–through discourse and practice cacao and cotton (and woven cloth) assume new value and become currency–ultimately reconfigures relationships between core urban polities and agricultural zones in the peripheries of the Maya world.

Discussion Questions (in no particular order):

  1. Cacao, salt, jade, shell, and copper. These are all examples of environmentally distributed resources that ultimately become important to the commercialization of Maya economies. Baron highlights eastern and southern Belize as regions strongly affected by this process. Do we agree with the presented scenarios? Is the shift in value of goods such as cacao, salt, or shell represented directly or indirectly in the material record of our sites? If so, what does this look like? In what types of contexts is this observed?
  • Standardization of production (or products) is important to the creation of a standard of value. What approaches can we use (or already use) to identify standardization in the material record?
  • While the article focuses predominantly on the institutional economy, how does increased commercialization and monetization impact the functioning of domestic economies? What material patterns should we expect in households in increasingly commercialized Maya societies?
  • Does intensive production of commodities such as cacao or salt require elite monopolization?
  • Core-periphery relations are not a new topic of study in Mesoamerican archaeology. However, research about money/currency is forcing a re-examination of assumptions about the dynamics of social, political, and economic relations between regions, polities, and producers-consumers, for example. How might regions such as Stann Creek (once called an “unoccupied cultural backwater”) be reconsidered in light of evidence for incipient commercialization during the Late Classic?
  • While we may or may not agree with the scenario(s) presented by Baron, there were undoubtedly interactions (in many forms) between eastern and southern Belize and other regions. These interactions were certainly not constrained to individual sites. How can we think more regionally? How can we better integrate meso- and macro-scale data to understand our material patterns? What might this tell us about the scope and scale of interactions between Stann Creek/Toledo and regions further afield.