Appendix B: Amber and Furs — Means of Exchange in Ancient Lithuania

Jonas Karys

Amber has been known to the Baltic peoples since the most ancient times. Many studies have shown that the exploitations of amber on the coasts of the Baltic Sea dates back to the Stone Age. The Baltic coast, from present-day Latvia to the western shores of Jutland, is the primary source of amber. Long before the birth of Christ, it had found its way to Central Europe and the Mediterranean civilizations. Amber from the Baltic has been found in Rome, Egypt, Phoenicia and Judea and in all the lands between these and the Baltic Sea.

When did the Baltic amber reach these lands? An answer to this question will indicate, at least approximately, the time when the inhabitants of the southeastern Baltic coast began to appreciate the value of amber. For it is difficult to doubt that only after foreigners began to show an interest in it, and to attempt to acquire it either by pillage or by trade, could it become the means of internal exchange. The notion of “money” arose in many other lands under similar conditions. Amber would have become a medium of internal trade at about the same time that it became a suitable object of trade with foreigners.

Baltic amber reached Central Europe in the II millenium before Christ. From here it made its way to the south — to Italy, Greece and elsewhere. It was highly regarded everywhere. As an ornament, Homer ranked it immediately after gold; it was known to him as “electron.” The philosopher Thales from Miletus even thought that amber had a soul.[1] To the Romans it was solis radiorum sucum — an abstract of the sun’s rays. Pliny the Elder praises amber for its “nobility,” its refined beauty. In Egypt it rivaled gold.

There is little evidence that amber reached the Mediterranean civilizations in large quantity in the early days of the amber trade, or that it was shipped there regularly. The land routes were very long and difficult, while river navigation, at least in one direction, was obstructed by opposing currents. The rare scattered finds give no evidence of more substantial shipments. Only with the advent of the seafaring Phoenicians did the trade in and shipment of amber assume larger proportions. There is evidence that the Phoenicians reached the English Channel in the sixth century B.C. At that time or somewhat later, according to the travel descriptions of Pytheo of Marseilles, they discovered the principal source of amber, the Baltic Sea.[2]

It may be surmised that the Phoenicians, after discovering the source of amber, began peaceful trade relations with the local inhabitants, offering their own goods as barter. These goods consisted of various bronze artifacts, arrow and spear heads, and other metal objects. The findings of evidences of bronze culture in the Baltic lands indicate substantial metal imports; the metal objects had probably been bartered for amber. This is substantiated by the Estonian historian E. Uustalu, who states that the Balts had so much bronze they could export some of it to the Estonians.[3] It may be safely assumed that the necklaces worn by the ancestors of the Lithuanians were fashioned from bronze bartered for amber — not only that bought from the Phoenicians but also from earlier trades. There is no evidence as to how long the Balts traded with the Phoenicians. Also, little is known about the amber merchants from the southeast, who in the Hellenic period reached the Baltic by navigating north on the Dnieper and then crossing to the Dvina, the Nemunas or the Vistula. But it would seem that if the flow of amber dwindled to a thin trickle. It never ceased up to the time that the Romans extended the amber trade late in the pre-Christian era.

According to Tacitus, amber became especially well known in decadent Rome. The emperors dispatched whole expeditions in search of it. No one has counted up these expeditions, but one of them — led by Julian, Nero’s master of gladiators — brought back so much amber to Rome that it was even used to decorate the nets that separated the podium from the gladiatorial beasts. Furthermore, during the games amber was lavishly displayed in the balconies of the nobility, the lanterns and the gladiator’s weapons. The largest piece brought back by Julian weighed 13 pounds.[4]

At about the same time the culture of the Balts reached a peak, and amber and articles made from it assumed an even greater value among them and became the most popular “money” in the area. Baltic trade with Rome and her provinces acquired a new and clearly defined character. The Roman coins now found in present-day Lithuania (and Latvia) made their appearance. “Roman pottery, fibulae, and glass and enamel beads testify to a lively trade with the Roman provinces,” Dr. M. Gimbutas notes; “the reason for all these imports was amber.”[5] It is hardly necessary to explain that the goods imported from the Romans circulated in the Baltic area through the medium of amber “money,” the very same “money” for which they had been acquired from the Romans.

The Baltic people did not trade only with the southern and western lands; archeologists have found amber artifacts in the northern regions — in present-day Sweden, Finland, Estonia and northern Russia. Little information is available as to when and how the amber made its way there, but there is substantial evidence that the amber came from the East Prussian and Lithuanian coasts.[6]

The richest amber-producing region in Lithuania was the Kuronian coast, from Juodkrantē to the vicinity of Palanga. Juodkrantē itself was one of the must important producers of amber and amber artifacts throughout antiquity. Some 500 prehistoric amber artifacts, belonging to various cultural periods up to and including the Iron Age, have been found in its neighborhood. One hundred and fifty items similar to those found at Juodkrantē have been discovered in the vicinity of Palanga.[7]

Thus it may be concluded that the ancestors of the present-day Lithuanians began to value amber quite early: they collected it for domestic trade and local use, carved it and bartered it with foreign traders. As we have seen, it was useful as a salable commodity, as an ornament and as a medium of exchange. We may further conclude that amber, in its natural state or fashioned into artifacts, was probably the earliest medium of exchange of the Baltic peoples. We cannot yet speak, of course, of the systematic use of amber “money” or of a constant exchange rate for pieces of natural or carved amber. The user employed them as best as he could. From the time of its first use until the time, beginning with the fourth century A.D., when it was replaced by other commodities, it remained a primitive medium; no marks like those usually found on money have been found on amber. It may be surmised that when such “money” was used, its value was determined offhand, and its authenticity was tested by rubbing or heating it.

In the course of time various other media besides amber were occasionally used for internal exchange. For a long time, of course, the Balts had no need for frequent exchanges. But one can easily imagine that there were places — especially settlements some distance from the sea, where amber was not readily available — where exchanges did take place, even if slowly. Finds from ancient cemeteries show that in such cases the means of exchange were axes, metal spears and arrow heads, pins, necklaces and other objects, including the most ancient bone and stone implements. These objects were used as oxen and sheep were among ancient pastoral nations, as snail shells were in the Pacific islands, and so forth. This archaic “money” was later followed by metal coins, unmarked or variously marked, private and official. In the East gold and silver quickly became popular, while in the West bronze predominated. These primitive “moneys” gradually developed into the coins now in use.

Since the Balts never possessed their own sources of metal, commodities were still used as money in the Baltic lands long after the introduction of coins in other areas. It would seem that the Balts were not particularly impressed by the Roman coins they received in trade. An interesting comment can be found in the writing of Adam of Bremen, who in the 11th century noted that the Balts seemed to show little interest in precious metals.[8] Even after they had acquired quantities of silver, for many centuries they did not mint coins from it but rather made necklaces and stick-like bits of metal and considered these as money. Necklaces, primarily designated as ornaments, and cast silver sticks served as moneys in Lithuania up to the time coin were minted in the 14th century. And even with the introduction of coins, this “money” was not soon forgotten.

In the Baltic lands, as everywhere, various social distinctions arose in very ancient times. Governments sprang up, and with them officials; specialization developed, and people became artisans, hunters, farmers, fishermen, and thus lost the ability to satisfy all their needs themselves. This differentiation changed the nature of trade relation and created the need for a popular medium of exchange. Barter or the use of the chance mediums mentioned above increased the difficulties in acquiring the needed goods. The use of amber, with its pieces of various sizes and its artifacts of varying value, became too complicated. Besides, large quantities of the best amber were needed for export purposes, and local needs had to be satisfied with what was left. Such other chance media as axes and spearheads passed out of currency by themselves as living conditions changed, and in any case they could not cope with the increasing trade turnover. Necklaces were good “money” but were too bulky and valuable, and of course they were always in scarce supply. The still rarer pieces of cast silver, used from the time Roman coins were first introduced, were hidden by their owners as invaluable possessions and assumed a certain importance only in the VIII-IX centuries.

These difficulties made internal trade quite complicated and made necessary an easily usable and universally acceptable medium; without such a medium further economic progress was impossible. Since metals were lacking in the area, choice furs began to be used. The term kailinial mokesčiai (fur taxes), referring to various marriage, professional and municipal duties, dates from time immemorial and testifies to the use of furs as “money.” It appears that from deep antiquity the Lithuanian dukes and chiefs levied taxes that were often paid in furs. At first these furs were collected only for the use of the ruler’s “treasury.” Larger furs were used for household purposes, while the smaller and more beautiful ermine, beaver, marten and sable skins gradually began to be used for ornamentation, as gifts, and later, like amber, for export. They were used for making collars, hats, stoles, and coats, which the rulers sometimes gave as gifts to important guests and officials. Later furs were used to pay officials for services. It became possible to exchange these furs for other commodities. In time the rulers, in collecting taxes, began to specify the number and kind of furs due. And as these furs became valued by the rulers, they became valued and accepted by everyone. And so precious furs became in Lithuania the medium of exchange, gradually supplanting other mediums. This process did not, of course, take place overnight; only little by little did the population begin to accept furs in this role. At first all kinds of precious furs were used, such as ermine, marten, otter, squirrel, beaver, sable and possibly others, but this variety gave rise to great confusion in payments and in standards of value. Furthermore, it gradually became clear that these furs were not of equal value or desirability. Thus, probably through an official decision of some ruler, a single kind of fur was chosen; the problem is to determine which fur it was.

The solution to this question is indicated by several Lithuanian taxes whose names have come down to us. The names of the following taxes are all derived from the word kiauniē which means “marten”: a) virimo kiauninē, a tax paid by households that made beer and mead; b) išvedimo kiauninē, paid by a peasant groom who took his bride to a different administrative region; c) kiauninē, a Samogitian tax paid by a female serf to her lord as compensation upon her marriage; d) kiauninis mokestis (Mardergeld), a tax known in the vicinity of Isrutē (lnsterburg, now Chernyakhovsk) since the 16th century; e) kiauniniai pinigēliai, a tax whose value was still determined by the price of a marten pelt even after silver supplanted the fur in paying the tax, in the 16th century. These usages would indicate that marten pelts were primarily used; this is further substantiated by the ancient profession of kiaunininkas, or marten hunter.

No distinction was made between two principal marten families, mustela marten and mustela feina, the first gray in color and the second reddish. A third type, mustela zibellina, called sable, blackish-brown in color, is listed in ancient sources as a completely different animal, the black marten. But as concerns marten “money” the sable was not distinguished from the other species, probably because of their close resemblance.

Martens and sables were fairly numerous in Lithuania’s forests and rocky valleys. They were aided in their rise to the status of “currency” by several circumstances: they all grow to approximately the same size; the pelts, especially in winter, are beautiful, shiny and soft; they are small in size and weight and were thus easy to handle and store. They could easily be combined into larger units and were readily transportable. Furthermore, the earliest traders in Lithuania bought marten pelts almost as willingly as amber and would pay high prices for them.

Thus marten pelts became established both as a medium of internal exchange and as an export item. This development caused the rulers to intensify their efforts to gather the pelts for their treasuries. Normal taxes were insufficient, and special marten hunts became established. A further means of acquiring them was by almost outright confiscation from the provincial nobility. The new profession of kiaunininkai, marten hunters, arose.[9] An illustration of the interest that was shown in the pelts is the agreement between the Lithuanian Grand Duke Žygimantas the Elder and the governor of Samogitia, made in 1527. This changed the conditions under which the governor might rule Samogitia, and it specified that of the governor’s receipts all those paid in marten pelts be reserved exclusively for the Grand Duke.[10]

The receipt and expenditure of the marten pelts could be handled with each pelt counted individually, according to the treasurer’s personal estimate of its value. But the increased use of the pelts, both internally and for export, encouraged those who handled them to systematize the whole process of exchange. From the beginning individual pelts were a kind of monetary unit, and they remained so; but a larger unit, consisting of several pelts, had to be devised, since in larger transactions it became too involved to treat the skins individually.

The number of pelts that made up the earliest such units is not known. But historical sources indicate that finally a unit consisting of 40 pelts was adopted. Thus in the early 15th century the Grand Duke Vytautas received various furs as tribute from Novgorod and Pskov. These were counted in units of 40, and the sources suggest that this unit was also known to Vytautas’ predecessors. Furthermore, in the chronicle Das Rigische Schuldbuch it is stated in the 13th century Riga traders were purchasing furs in Lithuania that were sorted in units of 40 pelts. City assessments were determined by the same unit. As late as 1522 the city of Vilnius had to pay two units of 40 sable pelts to the Grand Duke, and it was only with his special permission that silver money was substituted for this archaic medium. By ancient usage, the Lithuanian unit of weight called the akmuo (stone) consisted of 40 smaller units. As Lithuania’s influence spread to the east in the 12th century, some neighboring Slavs also began to count their pelts in units of 40.[11]

Further evidence for the existence of this unit is provided by the fact that in Scandinavia, in the early Middle Ages a “monetary unit” consisting of 40 pelts was used, and from here the usage spread among the Eastern Slavs.[12] It is well known that the Scandinavians found their way very early to the Lithuanian and Latvian coasts. And in spite of the fact that the early contacts were not friendly, trade relations were eventually established. The demand for furs was great, the Lithuanians possessed furs in abundance, and by the end of the 9th century Lithuanian-Scandinavian trade had outgrown its small beginnings and become permanent. A city on the island of Bjorka became the chief center of this trade, and the Lithuanians began to ship their furs to this city. Several words that probably derived from this trade have survived till recent times. One, birka, a notched stick used for counting pelts, probably comes from the name of the island; another, vaizbūnas, a merchant, indicates trade relations with another well-known Scandinavian trading center — the city of Visby on the island of Gotland.

It is possible, then, that this trade influenced the adoption of the unit of 40. But all this does not imply that the use of furs as “money” was actually borrowed from the Scandinavians. Such a hypothesis would leave a gap of several centuries unexplained. For it had been as long ago as the 4th century A. D., with the great migrations, that the Lithuanian trade in amber had been discontinued and amber had consequently lost its place in internal trade. The few Roman coins that had found their way to Lithuania up to the 4th century, although they did suggest a more convenient monetary medium, were insufficient in number and soon passed completely out of use. Yet it was more than 300 years before anything like normal trade relations were established with Scandinavia. Therefore, if the Lithuanians did borrow fur “money” from the Scandinavians, it may be asked what was used during this gap of several centuries?

The epoch of amber “money” must have given the inhabitants a fair understanding of the use of money. It would be difficult to believe that after this long experience, no distinction would be made between outright barter and the use of a medium of exchange, or between taxes paid in perishable goods and those paid in durable goods that could be stored indefinitely and expended at will. It is probably that the use of precious furs as money became established during this period between the end of the amber trade and the beginning of the Scandinavian trade. Dr. Gumowski, one of the pioneer students of Lithuanian money, also remarked on the existence of this gap and suggested the use of furs as a possible solution.[13]

The unit of 40 was adopted, of course, only after a long period of time. The use of furs began with single pelts, and only after a time were the individual pelts tied into larger bundles. A term surviving from the 13th century Lithuanian fur trade indicates that the pelts were first tied into bundles of 15. This must have been in a very early period, for a bundle of pelts mentioned in a 12th century chronicle already consisted of 40, and it was this number that was finally adopted. Here we can see the Scandinavian influence. It is even possible that this was done at their insistence, for these traders carried the furs into all countries, and in Novgorod later they demanded that the pelts be unbruised and properly packed and that the animals be skinned in a specified manner.

A question remaining for consideration is the name of this unit. We earlier mentioned metal necklaces that the Lithuanians had made and worn since considerably before the birth of Christ. For a long time they were made of bronze: later they were of silver. The necklaces that found date from the early years of the Christian era are especially well decorated, with various realistic figures on their ends. Archaeological finds related to burial cults show that these necklaces were used as “money,” though this “money” was not widely popular and circulated only among the nobility. The necklaces are brought up here because it is probably from them that the name of the unit of 40 derives. The necklaces were worn either under or on top of the hair at the nape of the neck, which was called karčiai (mane). Thus the necklace adorned not only the neck but the hair as well. When fur collars were introduced, these were called karčiai. A similar usage can be found among the Slavs, where both fur collars and necklaces were called by a name derived from the word griva (mane). We may thus conjecture that the unit of 40 was called karčiai, derived from the word for mane by way of the metal necklaces and fur collars.

The purchasing power of the karčiai must have been substantial. Its earliest value is unknown, but the value of a similar unit used by the neighboring Slavs in the 10th and 11th centuries, is known. A saddle horse could be purchased for three of these units, a mare for one and a half and an ox for one unit. When marten taxes were replaced by silver coins in the 16th century, one pelt was counted as 12 grašial; a sheep could be bought for four or five grašial and a goose for two.

Taken from LITUANUS Sept. 1959.

Jonas K. Karys, former head of the Kaunas mint in Lithuania, has taught political economy and money theory. He is the author of THE CURRENCY OF INDEPENDENT LITHUANIA. This article is condensed from “The Oldest Lithuanian Currencies,” which appeared in “Tautos Praeitis” (The Past of Nation), Vol. 1, No. I, Chicago, 1959.

  1. A. Spekke. The Ancient Amber Routes and the Geographical Discovery of the Eastern Balts, Stockholm, 1957.
  2. Boak, Slosson and Anderson. World History, Cambridge, 1947, p. 53.
  3. E. Uustalu. History of Estonia, 1952, p. 17.
  4. A. Spekke. op. cit., p. 39.
  5. Dr. M. Gimbutas. "Gintaro keliai priešistoriniais laikais" (Amber Routes in Prehistoric Times), "Aidai" (Echoes), Brooklyn, 1953, No. 6.
  6. Dr. M. Gimbutas. The Prehistory of Eastern Europe, Vol. 1., Cambridge, 1956, p. 185.
  7. J. Puzinas. "Gintaras" (Amber) and "Juodkrantē," in The Lithuanian Encyclopedia, Vols. VII and X. Boston, 1956.
  8. K. Jablonskis, editor. Lietuvių Istorijos Šaltiniai (Sources of Lithuanian History), Vilnius, 1955.
  9. See "Kiaunininkai," in The Lithuanian Encyclopedia, Vol. XI.
  10. K. Jablonskis. "Lietuvos Valstiečių Kova Prieš Feodalų Priespaudą iki Valakų Reformos" (The Lithuanian Peasants' Struggle Against Feudal Oppression up to the time of the Agricultural Reform), in Lietuvių Istorijos Instituto Darbai (Acts of the Lithuanian Historical Institute), Vol. I, Vilnius, 1951.
  11. M. S. Dushinovskij. Opyt Istoriji Deneznych Znakov v Rossii, Minsk, 1803, pp. 44-47.
  12. Albert R. Frey. Dictionary of Numismatic Names, 1947, p. 221.
  13. M. Gumowski. Numizinatyka Litewska Wiekow Srednich, Cracow, 1920, p. 2.


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