23-2017, tome 114, 4,  p. 711-737 - Pierre-Yves Milcent - Valeurs d?€?usage et d?€?échange. La dimension prémonétaire des dépôts en Gaule atlantique du XIIIe au Ve s. av. J.-C.

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23-2017, tome 114, 4, p. 711-737 - Pierre-Yves Milcent - Valeurs d?€?usage et d?€?échange. La dimension prémonétaire des dépôts en Gaule atlantique du XIIIe au Ve s. av. J.-C.

En Gaule atlantique, 696 dépôts métalliques non funéraires du Bronze final et du premier âge du Fer ont été découverts en milieu terrestre, spécialement dans le Massif armoricain et ses marges. Ils matérialisent deux séquences bien distinctes et successives de pratiques de constitution des dépôts. Au Bronze final, les dépôts réunissent essentiellement des objets variés, entiers ou cassés, à divers stades de leur vie technique. Au premier âge du Fer, ils consistent en objets intacts dont la forme est celle d’une hache, mais qui sont inutilisables en tant qu’outil. L’hypothèse développée ici est que ces dépôts atlantiques fossilisent des formes d’échange et de thésaurisation de la richesse. Plus précisément, nous pensons que les deux séquences matérialisent deux conceptions différentes de la valeur et de l’usage du métal dans un registre économique prémonétaire : la première est fondée sur du bronze pesé en vrac, la seconde sur du bronze plutôt compté sous la forme d’instruments standardisés à cet effet. Ces échanges ayant pour support le métal ne recouvraient probablement qu’une partie des sphères de transaction de l’époque. Sans doute matérialisent-ils le paiement d’obligations sociales particulières.


Mots-clés : Bronze final et premier âge du Fer atlantiques, Gaule, dépôt métallique, « hache » à douille armoricaine, économies prémonétaires.


In Atlantic Gaul, 346 non-funerary metal hoards from the Late Bronze Age and 350 from the Early Iron Age have been discovered on land, especially in the Armorican Massif and its fringes. The hoards were constituted, respectively, of 18,666 and 40,638 metallic elements. A more precise chronological study has helped to envisage the main variations in intensity of hoarding practices from one period to another. The two periods of maximum hoarding were during the 9th c. BC (BFa 3 récent or Vénat horizon), and the 6th c. BC (1er Fer a. 2 and 3, or Trelly and Saint-James horizons). Independent of these variations in the number of hoards and the amount of hoarded objects, we can observe two very distinct and sequential practices relating to the formation of these hoards. During the Late Bronze Age these hoards were made up of various objects, intact or broken, in diverse stages of usage. The more we advance in the Late Bronze Age, the more the objects are broken and disseminated from their place of origin. During the Early Iron Age, the manner in which objects are hoarded is radically different, although less so in the Armorican Massif. The Early Iron Age hoards consist of intact objects all belonging to the same functional category. These objects are shaped like axe blades, but are not usable as tools or weapons. Throughout the Early Iron Age, these pseudo-axe blades decrease in size, to the point that they become miniatures.

The aim of this paper is to answer two main questions: How do we explain the great differences between the composition of hoards from the Late Bronze Age and those of the Early Iron Age, even though the objects found are made of the same metal (copper alloy)? What was the biography of the objects before and during their deposit in their respective hoards, and what does that tell us about their protohistoric economy?

In my attempts to answer these questions, I investigated the ‘chaîne opératoire’ with regard to the manipulation of objects. I also used the concepts of the use value and of the exchange value of the metal distinguished by 19th century economists.

During the Late Bronze Age, most objects were used before hoarding. The biggest ones were systematically broken after having been used, therefore losing their functional value. At the beginning of the Late Bronze Age, the fragments of large objects found in the hoards can often be pieced together into the original form. This is indicative of a short time between fragmentation and deposition. However, as the Late Bronze Age progressed, fragments of the same object were no longer found together. This is evidence of the dispersion of the fragments long before their inclusion in a given hoard. This shows that the handling of objects between their being broken and being deposited in the hoard became more complex and/or took place over a greater period of time. I interpreted this phenomenon as the circulation of metal, in the form of fragments or else in smaller, intact objects that had lost their functionality.

During the Early Iron Age, the pseudo-axes are hoarded in an unfinished state. Other clues (miniature size, improper alloy for tools, flimsy cutting edge) prove that they did not have any use value. However, these objects were not made to be hoarded. Even though they have no trace of being worn down the way a tool or weapon would be, they nevertheless show signs of wear and tear in the sense that they have passed through many hands. In some cases, the presence of ties (metal wire, strings) joining the axes to one another would have facilitated their transport. The diversity of typological assemblages of the pseudo-axes in most hoards also supports the idea of long-term circulation.

The hypothesis developed here is that the pseudo-axes of the Early Iron Age, having no functional value, were circulated uniquely for their exchange value. Thus, they would have served as a pre-monetary currency. This hypothesis is not new, but it was put aside for several decades. What is important to note is that these were the first objects conceived to be used solely as currency in Atlantic Europe. Other small objects used as currency are known in the world around this time, especially in China, and demonstrates that this was not an isolated phenomenon. Since the hoards of the Early Iron Age fossilized a pre-monetary exchange system, we could imagine that the hoards from the Atlantic Late Bronze Age also gather goods used essentially as currency and a store of pre-monetary wealth. To support this hypothesis, I note that the heaviest and longest objects were shattered and compacted over a long period of time, and the fragments were widely dispersed from their presumed place of production. My interpretation is that bronze objects were reduced to their exchange value, that is to say their metallic weight, serving as a currency for pre-monetary exchanges. The shattering of large objects would be first linked to successive transactions and to the need to have metallic pieces that were more easily manipulated. The identification of beams and weights used in scales discovered in Late Bronze Age settlements in Atlantic Gaul shows that it was possible to weigh metallic objects or pieces precisely. Historical and ethnographical parallels show the use of weighed metal as currency in pre-monetary exchanges.

To sum up, the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Atlantic hoards represent two different, successive sequences of forms of exchange and hoarding of wealth. Specifically, I believe that the two sequences demonstrate two different concepts of value and the use of metal in a pre-monetary economic setting: the first is based on bronze weighed in bulk, the second on bronze tallied in the form of instruments standardized for exchanges. Such trade, with metal as an underlying currency, probably only represents a portion of the exchange systems at that time. In all likelihood, they demonstrate the payment of particular social obligations. Finally, the ideas developed in this paper do not contradict the hypothesis that hoards could reflect ritualistic practices, because hoards are very numerous and sometimes discovered in particular or remote places, such as marshlands. If that were the case, hoards would be the fossilization of exchanges during a ritual.


Keywords: Atlantic Late Bronze Age, Atlantic Early Iron Age, Gaul, hoard, Armorican axe, premonetary exchanges and hoarding.