Thousands of years ago, people were giving only very simple names to everything. The way they perceived a phenomenon they had encountered was mostly instinctive. That in turn, the language appeared to reflect almost some children’s perspective of the world.
The history of currencies (or money as we also call it) dates back to the times of the first exchange customs. First, exchange fairly coincided with distribution, dividing, assigning, and holding. Secondly, a fascinating etymological chain rolls on, appearing like a time travel machine, through which we can enjoy the process of #ArtOfDiscovery.
Etymology is a linguistic discipline dedicated to discovering origins of the words. For instance, many modern English words can be tracked back to some Middle English words, which in turn could originate from old Norse or medieval French. The chain can be tracked back further, thus uncovering to Latin and Greek origins. The ultimate origins are often unclear, but many are supposed to be related to some hypothetical languages such as Proto-Hellenic, Proto-Indo-European, or even some unrelated languages which are known but not fully debunked due to a lack of evidence. For example, we don’t know which language was spoken in the copper-age Vučedol Culture, because they didn’t have any writing yet. It is only believed that the language they spoke should have been an Indo-European variation.
From distribution to law
The etymological chain of the word numismatics can be tracked back to Ancient Greek, and further to some hypothetical origins. The theoretic Proto-Indo-European languages had a word that might have sounded like “nem”, and it likely meant “to take” or “to hold”. Curiously, it is the likely origin of the German word “nehmen” with the same meaning, and the Latin “numerus” which in turn evolved into the English “number”.
Unsurprisingly, the meaning of taking or holding was closely relating to counting and numbers. As a result, the first notion of ownership came around.
While the theoretic “nem” remains a theory, it is well known that the Ancient Greek dictionary contains the word νέμω[nemo], with a slightly more complex meaning. It is a verb used in meanings related to distributing, assigning, dividing, or holding. In Modern Greek, the verb διανέμω [dianemo] has this meaning, clearly holding the same root.
After that, we are talking about a noun, νόμος [nomos].
Early on in ancient times, this word would describe usage or custom. As a derivation from the verb nemo, it describes the acts of distributing, assigning, dividing, or holding. It is pretty clear this act could be described as a custom, and in turn the law. Additionally, the word nomos gave the origin to another related word – economy. With οίκος [oikos] meaning home, and nomos meaning law, economy is basically the home law or the law of the home.
From the law to – judging!
If there is a law, it certainly assigns someone to be a lawyer. Now, let’s move on to the next station of this journey. From the noun, we are back to a verb, and this time it gets a new meaning in the chain. Νομίζω [nomizo] is the word used for the act of holding a custom, of signing a law, or – judging. In Modern Greek, this word is used in the context of saying “I think that…” (Not to be confused with σκέφτομαι [skeftomai], meaning the process of thinking, and the origin of the word “sceptical”).
In the same vein, the process of applying the law and proceeding to the justice was derived from the term that meant customs. These were not necessarily written laws, just yet. As a result, saying “I think that…” could easily be understood as “I judge”. It is an assumption. So, this is the time to get to the final point.
From judging to the “current measure”
In this fascinating chain of meaning, we got from a verb to a noun, and then again to the verb. The last station is yet another noun, νόμισμα nomisma. It is a word that described a “current measure unit”, or better said, “a currency”. Now we come to the point of understanding that Greek origins are not only in words, but also in meaning and logic. Although “currency” is not a word of Greek origin, it follows an ancient logic of meanings. The currency was as important as is could be, and some pre-written customs and assumptions were assigned to that.
The story gets more complex in the moment when we realize that there were many currencies in ancient and medieval times, many of them unregulated and undocumented. It was definitely more complicated than today. We are looking forward to seeing some next #ArtOfDiscovery stories about currencies of the past.
Numismatic Museum of Athens
A great story of passion for collecting resides in a lavish neo-classical building in central Athens. The Numismatic Museum of Athens is more than a collection of ancient νομίσματα [nomismata], or in our words, currencies. It was the home of the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann and his wife Sophia. The German professional and enthusiast for ancient history became famous for his works in uncovering the ancient Troy and Mycenae.
Archaeological excavations usually result in findings of surprising small treasures. One of the most common and important findings are coins. Aside from having their special ancient beauty, coins also answer many questions about culture that resided or passed by the excavated site. For that reason, Schliemann gave a special value for coins. However, it took over 100 year after his death before the house became what it is today.
Nowadays, it looks like a beautiful residence for a collection. There are quite detailed explanations about the history of currencies, placed right next to the key items from the collection. In terms of information and clarity, it is one of the best museums I have visited. The museum also possesses a library with thousands of books about the particular numismatics science. For not being listed on “must-visit” places in Athens, it is mostly frequented by visitors who want to discover this particular story and passion for collecting. While one hour might be perfectly enough to visit the whole building, it is totally nice to spend up to 3 hours inside. I consider it a perfect idea for a slow traveller to spend some peaceful time exploring. It is the #ArtOfDiscovery in a full flow.
Explore museums virtually and let us know about more museums
The Museum has a nice website, but it seems to be only in Greek. On the other hand, the Museum is present on the Google Art Project for some nice virtual exploration.
Do you know about more numismatic museums or collections? Let us know in comments here or on social media. Let the #ArtOfDiscovery flow…