Cowrie shells

From China
Shang and Zhou dynasty, 16th-8th century BC

The earliest money in China

The cowrie shell has been used as money in many parts of the world, including China, Africa and Arabia. In China, inscriptions which talk of 'gifts of cowries', 'cowries in the treasury', 'seizure of cowries', 'use of cowries' and 'rewards of cowries' are found on bones and on bronze vessels of the Shang (sixteenth-eleventh centuries BC) and Zhou (eleventh century - 221 BC) dynasties.

Archaeologists have found that the distribution of cowrie finds coincides with the gradual acquisition of territories by the Zhou dynasty and noble lords. The natural supply of cowrie shells from the coastal regions could not meet the growing demand inland. People began to make imitation cowries out of bone, horn, shell, stone, clay, lead, bronze, gold and silver. However, not all the cowries and imitation cowries were used as money. Cowrie shells were also used as decoration, for example on clothes. Some cowries and imitation cowries have been found in tombs as money for the dead.

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More information


F. Thierry, 'The origins and development of Chinese coins' in Origin, evolution and circulat (Manohar, Sri Lanka, 1998), pp. 15-62


Museum number

CM 1952-10-29-24;CM 1952-10-29-25;CM 1952-10-29-26;CM 1952-10-29-28;CM 1952-10-29-30;CM 1973-6-20-56;CM 1988-8-9-14;CM 1988-8-9-15



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