“You give me letters instead of money?” Commercial transactions in the Near East and the Western Mediterranean ca. 1100-600 BCE: social innovation and institutional inhibition of Phoenician commerce
Two of the most crucial and fundamental problems in proto-historical and anthropological research relate to the popularization of literacy and the origins of money. The reasons behind the sudden and sweeping spread of the Phoenician alphabet in the 8th-7th c. BCE remain unresolved, yet endlessly debated. At the same time, the scholarship paradox that the Phoenicians, the traders of antiquity par excellence, seemingly did not use any form of physical currency remains largely overlooked, despite their Mediterranean-wide commercial networks. Yet recent research points to the high degree of the monetization of Phoenician commercial networks, as well as to the fact that forms of ‘proto-currency’ were circulating in the Levant at least from the 8th c. BCE. This article aims to look at these two problems from an entirely novel perspective, exploring the links between them and testing whether causality can be established between the sudden popularization of literacy and the absence of currency in the Phoenician economy, focusing on the Western Mediterranean. It suggests that increasing monetization developed through patterns of commercial exchanges established in the Near East during the 3rd millennium BCE, which allowed for transactions using promissory notes, with payments made in various means, for example via an established index of value (e.g. to silver)
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