In 2010, the BBC and the British Museum collaborated in a project called A History of the World, based on one hundred objects from the collection of the British Museum, around which you can tell the history of humanity over the past two million years. The history was also presented in a series of fifteen minute podcast about each of the objects, written and narrated by British Museum Director Neil MacGregor and broadcast over the BBC.
Money was one of the themes in the exhibit, represented by four different objects: one of the world’s first gold coins produced over 2500 years ago; a 1375 banknote from the Ming Dynasty; a silver coin minted in Bolivia in the late 16th Century; and a plastic credit card exemplifying the changing role of money in the modern world. Why include money in such an exhibit? Because, as one of the podcasts noted, money, - along with sex and war, - has been one of the great constants in human affairs.
Transaction records actually pre-dated the advent of money. By analyzing the earliest recorded transactions, researchers believe that writing evolved in ancient Mesopotamia thousands of years ago, as an innovation to keep track of financial records. Money was later invented as a store of value and a medium of exchange to make commerce more efficient. For a long time, money was embodied in precious metals like gold and silver, but with the introduction of banknotes, money started to decouple from physical objects with intrinsic value.
“Today… we remain more or less content with paper money - not to mention coins that are literally made from junk,” wrote Harvard historian Niall Ferguson in The Ascent of Money: a Financial History of the World. “[W]e are happy with money we cannot even see. Today’s electronic money can be moved from our employer, to our bank account, to our favorite retail outlets without ever physically materializing. It is this virtual money that now dominates what economists call the money supply… The intangible character of most money is perhaps the best evidence of its true nature.”