Shang Dynasty 1766-1154 BC
Bronze Cowrie shell money, the Earliest Coin
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Reference: Hartill 1.3
Weight: 5 grams; Size: 24 mm; Material: Bronze
COWRY AND COWRY IMITATION COINS
By the Shang Dynasty and continuing into the Zhou Dynasty, actual cowry shells were used as a form of money but they fall more into the category of "primitive money" than true coins. Their use far pre-dates the first true coins as shown by Wang on pages 64 and 65 of his book "Early Chinese Coinage" where he describes a bronze Tsun vessel bearing the inscription.
Inscriptions and archaeological evidence shows that cowrie shells were regarded as important objects of value in the Shang Dynasty (c. 1766-1154 BC). In the Zhou period, they are frequently referred to as gifts or rewards from kings and nobles to their subjects. Later imitations in bone, stone or bronze were probably used as money in some instances. Some think the first Chinese metallic coins were bronze imitations of cowrie shells found in a tomb near Anyang dating from around 1200 BC, but these items lack inscriptions.