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Dr John Creighton
University of Reading
Major Research Fellowship

Money and the rise of inequality and the market in northern Europe

John Creighton’s monograph will focus on how the evolution of money, over two millennia ago, transformed social relationships, bringing with it the emergence of the market which has come to dominate our lives

A Roman figurine of a bound captive from near Andover (Winchester Museum Service) against a background of Late Iron Age coinage
A Roman figurine of a bound captive from near Andover (Winchester Museum Service) against a background of Late Iron Age coinage from Britain.

Iron Age and Roman Northern Europe have been well studied, but generally by different sets of people. This has inevitably meant that themes crossing the transition have tended to be neglected, with authors on either side seeing the world through radically differing lenses. This is unfortunate as some of these themes are central to the human experience today: How did the market come to dominate our lives? How did inequality become so thoroughly entrenched? How did an earlier Iron Age, sometimes characterised as egalitarian, transform into the top-down, coercive world of the Roman Empire? How did the world of gift exchange and ‘special purpose money’ cope with the introduction of the socially disruptive technology of ‘general purpose money’ and the market? Most syntheses have tended to sidestep these issues.

In the last couple of decades archaeological research has tended to focus on the nature of identity and generally eschewed economics. Interest has now reawakened in the context of ideas about globalisation and the Classical Mediterranean, but most scholars still see the world through a very classical economic lens which elsewhere has been increasingly challenged by economic anthropology. Meanwhile, anthropology has developed apace, needing many of the ideas generated there to be incorporated within our archaeological narratives, such as: David Graeber’s ideas about the links between elite display and the evolution of monetary objects, and Daniel Miller’s exploration of the connections between ritual sacrifice and the practise of shopping.

This research aims to challenge conventional thinking and craft a people-focused narrative about change, disruption and adaptation in the centuries leading up to and beyond the Roman conquest of northern Europe; to explore how social sanctioning to prevent inequality failed and hierarchies became entrenched; how money and its manifestation as coinage was adopted; and how people adapted to the new phenomena of shopping and the market, where even humans could become commodities.

The issues this touches upon are all too pertinent to the world today where the nature of money is again evolving and its relation to states and sovereignty is questioned as cryptocurrencies vie with fiat money; global inequality continues to rise; modern slavery is less hidden than before; and the market continues to fail to deliver an equitable distribution of resource. 

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