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Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

Wealth : August 27, 2000


Buried wealth

S. Suresh

The author is an archaeologist, travel writer and Consultant, INTACH.

It is easier to write about money than to acquire it; and those who gain it make great sport of those who only know how to write about it.

- Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary (1764)

Wealth. The very word conjures up, in our minds, visions of affluence, abundance, plenty and prosperity. In medieval England, the word "wealth" also denoted "welfare". The most tangible and popular form of wealth is money or currency. In the entire gamut of human history, money alone has been the focus of so much fevered and constant attention, occasioned so much religious and moral strictures, and been the cause of so much violent strife and rivalry between individuals, institutions and nations.

Poonam Anand Kumar/Fotomedia

Archaeology throws welcome light on the varied forms and concepts of "wealth" and "money" during different periods of history. In the remote pre-historic past, people simply gave away whatever they possessed in surplus in return for the objects they required. Thus, the barter system was born. But this practice could not endure for long because it caused problems when big objects were to be exchanged for very tiny ones. At this point of time, man realised the need for a common medium of exchange viz. currency on the basis of which the value of different objects could be fixed.

Before the introduction of coins, a variety of objects was used as money in different parts of the world. For example, the teeth of elks (large-sized deer), wild boars, bears, sharks and even dogs were used as currency. Even feathers and human skulls have sometimes served as currency. The South Africans used the bristles from the tails of elephants as money. The people of Ethiopia (Abyssinia) often used salt as money. Long strings of tusks along with glass beads were used for the same purpose by the early Indian tribes in western North America. One of the most famous primitive currency-types is the "wampum" of the Indian tribes of eastern North America. It is made from beads cut out of the shells of a marine clam. The beads are attractively tied together in the form of a band or a belt. The value of a dark bead was supposed to be double that of a white one.

The island of Yap in the Pacific Ocean used stones as money. Huge stone boulders, excavated in distant islands, were brought to Yap in canoes and rafts. The stones were later cut into circles with a hole in the centre.

Ancient Roman coin found in India.

India has a long and glorious history of money. In very early times, Indians used cowrie shells, grains and cattle as money. The cowrie shell which served as money in many other parts of the ancient world has even been addressed as cuprea moneta or money cowrie.

The earliest literary reference to the use of cattle as money occurs in the Vedas which were most probably written in the late second or early first millennium B.C. The use of cattle as money is also stated in the Iranian Avesta, a text almost contemporary to the Vedas and even in ancient Greek and Roman literature. At a much later date, the Manu-Smriti (Laws of Manu) refers to payments and valuation in terms of cattle.

The earliest descriptions of metallic money is also contained in the Vedas. The Vedas mention a number of sacrifices and rituals such as the ashvamedhayaga (horse sacrifice) that a great king has to perform to assert his supremacy over the neighbouring kingdoms. The king has to pay in gold, the priests and scholars who conduct the various Vedic ceremonies for the benefit of the king and his subjects. Thus, metallic money was first used in India for religious and social purposes and not for commercial or political reasons.

Ancient Roman coin found in India.

The gold currency mentioned in the Vedas is either an uneven bit of metal or else, a neck ornament known as the nishka. Gifts as low as 100 nishkas and as high as 40,000 nishkas were bestowed on poet-priests. The Buddhist Jatakas refer to the nishka as nikkha. The large corpus of ancient Tamil poems, popularly called the Sangam literature, also refers to the use of metallic bits and jewels as currency. Gradually, these metal bits and ornaments were replaced by quadrangular and later, circular coins.

Even after the inauguration of coined money, the earlier currencies continued to be used, albeit to a limited extent, in certain societies. In other societies too, the earlier currencies continued to be considered precious wealth. Thus "money" and "wealth" came closer to one another.

A gold chariot from the Oxus Treasure.

Money made man greedy and possessive. He wanted wealth to improve his comforts and to create more wealth for himself. Hence, he began to accumulate and hoard wealth. This accumulated wealth had to be protected from covetous family members, neighbours and armed robbers. In the absence of modern banking systems, the best way to protect the wealth was to bury it under the ground. Thus, Mother Earth acted as the supreme custodian and guardian of the wealth of her sons and daughters.

The burial of each treasure was a guarded secret, not revealed even to the closest relatives and friends of the hoarder. Hence, if the hoarder failed to retrieve his buried treasure in his lifetime, it remained cocooned in the bosom of Mother Earth, till it was exposed by the spade of the treasure-digger or the archaeologist.

Stories about such treasure hoards arouse much excitement and curiosity. One of the world's largest treasure-troves of ancient jewels, curios and coins was discovered in the late 19th century on the banks of the river Oxus in the Republic of Tajikistan in Soviet Central Asia. This hoard, widely known as the "Oxus Treasure", contains objects representing a bewildering variety of art traditions and styles including the Achaemenid (Persian), Scythian, Sassanid, Graeco-Roman and Indian. The hoard is currently in the British Museum, London.

The face of a gold finger ring; 1sr century A.D., Karur, Tamil Nadu.

India is particularly known for such buried treasures. Old Indian coins, jewels and bronze icons packed in mud pots have been unearthed from many parts of India. Hoards of ancient Roman coins have also been discovered in certain regions of the country. Some of these hoards such as those from Vellalur and Karur in Tamil Nadu also contain Roman jewellery. These foreign coins and jewels reached India through traders and sailors.

Burial of precious things was not always for the safety of those things. People buried money and wealth for religious and sentimental reasons as well. Many ancient graves and tombs contain coins, jewels, grains, weapons, agricultural tools and other objects used by the deceased during his lifetime. Some of the tombs exhibit sculptures of the servants and slaves of the dead man. People believed that the dead person would need all these forms of wealth including the servants in the other world.

People also deposited coins, gemstones and other precious articles as ritualistic offerings within Buddhist stupas and below the foundations of Hindu temples. Such ritualistic hoards are common in north-west India and Pakistan.

Sometimes money is buried underground not by man but by natural factors such as earthquakes, floods and sea erosion. Many glorious cities and civilisations with all their architectural, artistic and artifactual wealth have simply disappeared below land or sea due to such acts of nature. Present-day archaeologists are using modern technological devices to learn more about these hidden civilisations. The cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro (in Pakistan) that flourished around 2500 B.C. are classic examples of such "lost cities" brought to light by modern excavators. In recent years, archaeologists have initiated underwater digging at the ancient port towns of Dwaraka (Gujarat) and Poompuhar or Kaveripattinam (Tamil Nadu) both of which are partially submerged under the sea. Hampi (in Karnataka), the capital of the mighty medieval Vijayanagar empire, is yet another city retrieved from Mother Earth by archaeology.


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