The cultural evolution of coinage as an informational system

The invention of coined money significantly changed economic history, by introducing a convenient and universal medium of exchange, whose value is regulated and guaranteed by a political authority. In order to be used as a means of payment, coins need to be recognized as valid and trustworthy. Combining carefully designed material features with inscriptions and images, they form a system of symbols that store and transmit information, primarily of an economic nature. The aim of this thesis was to investigate how coins encode information, and to understand how historical dynamics and human cognition shaped their evolution as an informational system. These questions were explored over three studies. The first study investigated the influence of changing political and economic circumstances in the ancient Mediterranean (7th - 1st ct. BCE) on the informative role of graphic designs as marks of issuing authority and monetary value. The second study discussed the advantages and challenges of digitization, standardization and quantitative approaches to cultural data, with a focus on coin iconography. The third study examined the representation and perception of monetary value in the properties of contemporary coins. This thesis shows how we can examine the structure and evolution of coins within an interdisciplinary framework, using quantitative methods, combined with insights from evolutionary and cognitive anthropology, and information theory. The increasing availability of expertly curated digital collections opens more possibilities for developing quantitative approaches necessary for proper interpretation of the processes which shaped observed patterns in cultural data. The approach taken in this thesis complements the research in numismatics and economic history on the origins and development of coinage, while also highlighting the possibilities of using historical artefacts to study large-scale patterns in the evolution and transmission of cultural traits.

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