Hard currency: Stone money of the Yap Islands

We have all grown accustomed to seeing new forms of payment pop up every day. Cash is used less and less. To be “with the times” now requires making payments electronically, and invisibly. Actual tangible objects, such as coins or bills, are exchanged less and less. Instead, electrons silently move funds from one account to another. Payment is still made, but the way in which it is done has changed dramatically. This blog entry deals with a form of payment that is quite different from what we would consider normal in the Western world. How would you feel about making payments with stone money?

The inhabitants of the island of Yap do exactly that: they pay with stones. They also use shells as currency. Each one of these forms of payment has one thing in common: the exchange medium represents something rare, or something that requires hard work to obtain, thus making it valuable.

We will start out this blog by finding where in the world Yap is located. Then we will see how the Yapese made their stone money, and where they went to get the stone (you will be surprised). Finally, we will answer the question: is this still used today, or is it ancient history?

Micronesia, Federated States of - . Map.

Federated States of Micronesia. The Yap Islands can be found in the far western portion of the Federated States.

Yap Island is part of the Federated States of Micronesia. With a total surface of 271 square miles, the land area of the entire Federated States represents about four times the size of Washington, DC.

Yap_Islands

The Yap Islands are comprised of several islands, the largest of which is the eponymous Yap Island. (“Yap Islands”. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.)

Wikimedia Commons

Yap Islanders use stone and shells as currency, or more specifically, as an “exchange valuable” (Fitzpatrick 2003:67). Yap stone money discs take the shape of a donut. They range in size from small (measuring just a few inches in diameter) to enormous (12 ft in diameter, 1.5 ft thick and weighing 8,800 lbs).

The origin of these stone discs remains murky. Some researchers have suggested that the earliest stones, alleged to have been very small, might have imitated stone or shell beads (Fitzpatrick 2003:68).

The intrinsic value of such a Rai stone, as they are known among the locals, is based on the effort that went into quarrying it, the quality of its finish, and its history. The latter is important, if not a bit morbid. If it is known that a person lost his life while bringing the stone back to Yap, then the value of that stone increased (Fitzpatrick 2002:229; 2003: 77-79). You read this right: they brought the stones back to Yap. The stone used to make these money discs does not come from Yap Island. Rai stones were made from limestone (Fitzpatrick 2003:68, 116-124) from the islands of Palau, located 280 miles southwest of Yap Island. To a lesser degree, the Yapese also traveled in the opposite direction, to Guam, to quarry stone money (Fitzpatrick 2003:70). This was quite a feat. How was this done?

Palau Islands

ps_large_locator Palau Islands and their location in the Pacific.

Excavations and radiocarbon dates have revealed that the quarrying activity took place in Palau (Fitzpatrick, 2002: 227, 239) at least several hundred years prior to European contact; it intensified shortly thereafter. About ten quarries in Palau from which the Yap islanders extracted their stone money have been recorded; more remain to be investigated (Fitzpatrick, 2003:8). One of these localities was Omis cave. It contained several unfinished money discs (Fitzpatrick, 2003: 138-160). Radiocarbon dates suggest that work in this cave was carried out during the historic period, going back around two to three centuries ago (Fitzpatrick, 2003: 159).

Work done by archaeologists in 1999 and 2000 identified at least 15 stone money discs in various stages of production in the vicinity of four quarries on the Island of Palau. Shellfish and other faunal remains were also found (Fitzpatrick, 2002: 228; Fitzpatrick, 2003:299).

As far as we know, Palauans never traveled to Yap to participate in trade; instead this was a one-way trade, with Yapese setting out for Palau and returning with the much desired stone money (Fitzpatrick, 2003: 6, 40).

Imagine setting out in your outrigger canoe to travel from Yap Island to Palau to mine stones and shape them into the stone donuts we have come to know. This process involved several stages (Fitzpatrick, 2003: 295-297).

Selecting the quarry: Yapese workers had to obtain permission from Palauan chiefs to quarry. Once they did, they would select a cave or rock shelter along the coast.

Perform carving: upon selecting a suitable deposit of limestone, a general shape was “roughed out.” This was done in situ, meaning the blocks were not hauled off to another area to be transformed.

Detailed carving: Yapese workers used gouges and chisels to create a flat and smooth surface. The disc was probably removed from the limestone deposit during or after this stage.

Abrasion/flattening: after the shape of the disc was complete, the surface was further flattened using a chisel made from shell, stone or iron.

Perforation: the disc was then perforated in the center. Oral traditions tell us this was initially done with coral and a fire drill. Later, iron tools were used.  

Polishing: this represents the final stage of the process. The use of an abrader, such as pumice, mixed with water resulted in a smooth finish of the stone’s surface.

Getting to Palau was one thing, returning with a heavy stone disc must have been quite an experience. First they would have to be brought down to the water’s edge. This is where the hole in the center comes in handy: a sturdy wooden pole would enable porters to lift it and move it to the beach.

Stone_Money_of_Uap,_1903,_Jayne,_String_Figures,_p.160

Logistics of moving Yap money around. Note the wooden poles sticking through the stones.

At least three modes of transportation were used to get the stone discs from Palau to Yap. The first form of transportation involved the traditional watercraft in this part of the world, a canoe, or two canoes in the case of a large stone. A late 19th century account relates that the stones had “a large hole in the centre through which a log is passed and this, when laid across two canoes, is sufficient to support the stone in transit.” (Le Hunte, 1883:25). Another approach seems to have been to fill the canoes with water, then load the disc and bail out the water (Fitzpatrick, 2003:311).

A second way of moving the stones involved rafts (Fitzpatrick, 2003: 310-311). A late 19th century illustration depicts a set of Rai money discs resting on a raft. Oral traditions on Yap mention how an early Yapese navigator was caught in a typhoon as he was trying to return home with several stones. We learn that the typhoon “[s]plit the canoes into pieces, and some of the rafts carrying the stones sank, and other rafts were separated from the canoes. But Anguman [the navigator] was able to bring some pieces on his rafts trailing after his canoes” (Fitzpatrick, 2003:73-74).

Investigations close to Omis Cave have revealed the presence a dock at the entrance to the cave. At high tide, the dock is almost fully submerged; at low tide, it is fully exposed. This would have “facilitated the loading of stone money onto watercraft. Rafts could be placed on or adjacent to the dock at low tide and discs moved or rolled on top and secured. At high tide the raft could then be maneuvered out of the shallow lagoon into the deeper channel for eventual transport back to Yap” (Fitzpatrick, 2003:146).

Not all stone discs made it to their destination. Some found a watery resting place. Modern divers have encountered many sunken stone discs in the waters of these islands; there must be many more resting on the bottom of the ocean.

Yap harbor

Yap harbor, showing a raft supporting two stone discs. (From Hernsheim, Franz, 1883. Südsee-Erinnerungen (1875-1880). Berlin : A. Hofmann, p. 125.)

A third form of hauling the stone money was with European ships (Fitzpatrick, 2002: 228; 2003:311-312). This form of transportation allowed many more stones to be shipped safely to Yap. By the late 1800s Yap was inundated with stone money. The Yap islanders paid for these stones with copra (Fitzpatrick 2003:101). The Japanese counted over 13,000 disks during their administration in the 1930s. Typhoons, flooding, and the use of these stones as anchors and construction materials during WWII cut this number in half (Fitzpatrick 2002:229; 2003:111).

Transport by canoe and rafts depended on prevailing trade winds and open ocean currents. The best time to transport discs from Palau to Yap would have been between late April and the beginning of October. The ideal time for Yapese workers to come to Palau to prepare a load of money discs would therefore have been from September to February (Fitzpatrick, 2003:311 – 312).

Just in case you are wondering, the US dollar is now the common currency in Yap. The last stone disc was carved and brought to Yap in 1931 (Fitzpatrick 2003:111-112). From that moment on, the US dollar replaced it as commonly used currency. However, stone money is still used to this day for major transactions like payment of dowry or purchase of land. Moreover, small pre-contact discs are considered more valuable than larger post-contact discs (Fitzpatrick, 2003:302).

Because of their size and weight, the largest stones have not moved since the day they were brought ashore in Yap. We find them lining roads, propped up in front of a house, or standing in someone’s backyard. When transactions involving Rai money occur, ownership of the stone is transferred, but the stone itself does not move. People just know that someone else now owns it.

Yap license plate

Old currency proudly remembered on modern license plate on Yap Island.

More prevalent and much easier to transport are the images of Rai money. As a symbol of Yap Island, they can be found on the island’s license plates.

Speaking of the stone money being a national symbol, one stone disc was presented on the inauguration of the Federated States of Micronesia (July 12, 1978).

 

Yapese stone money for FSM

Presentation of Yapese stone money for FSM (Federated States of Micronesia) inauguration.

Today they help draw and entertain tourists. On Yap Day, March 1st and 2nd (sic), strong island men carry “small change” around, much to the delight of assembled tourists.  Speaking of small change, the Houston Museum of Natural Science also has a small (but still heavy) example of this Rai money.

HMNS stone money

Stone money disc, Yap Island. (HMNS collection.)

Much smaller and rarer than Rai money is Yapese shell currency. In earlier days, shell money served as small change. Two kinds of shell money existed: the mother-of-pearl (yar) and non-native Spondylus shell (gau) (Fitzpatrick, 2002: 228; 2003:7).

Fitzpatrick, Scott M., 2002. A Radiocarbon Chronology of Yapese Stone Money Quarries in Palau. Micronesica 34(2):227-242. [link].

2003. Stones of the Butterfly: An Archaeological Investigation of Yapese Stony Money Quarries in Palau, Western Caroline Islands, Micronesia. Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Oregon. [link].

Le Hunte, J.R., 1883. Report of HMS Espiegle to Sir G.W. Des Voeux, Acting High Commissioner for the Western Pacific, 10 October 1883. General Proceedings (1-83). Central Archives of Fiji and the Western Pacific, Suva: Fiji.

Museum curator thanks his inspiration: a sixth-grade history teacher

As a museum curator, I have the pleasure of working with lots of volunteers. Most of them are students who are interested in archaeology, anthropology and museum careers. This time of the year, as graduation nears, there is an uptick in requests to come visit with me and ask for information and advice. “How did you become a museum curator?” is a question I hear often. “How long do you need to study?” is another one. One of the first things I bring up is that finding employment in anthropology is not easy. However, it is possible. Moreover, I ask my visitors to suggest one field of study where one would be guaranteed a job upon graduation. I can think of only very few.

Van den Bossche, Gaston

Gaston Van den Bossche, a man who made a difference with his students.

The first question – How does one become a museum curator? – has many answers, I am sure. In my case, there was one elementary school teacher who made a difference, now 44 years ago, to be exact. The sixth and final year in elementary school, my class had a teacher who loved history. He loved the city we lived in too, and it just so happened that city had a very long history.

As the year went by, he organized us into groups and assigned various projects. One involved painting a bird’s eye view of what our hometown would have looked like in the Middle Ages. That required research. It also entailed getting covered in paint as we worked on that assignment. Eventually two different canvases were finished. Much to our delight, they were hung in the entrance to the library. In another assignment, we were divided into five or six groups, each named after a Medieval guild. Some of us were the “coopers” or barrel makers, others the “tanners,” “bakers,” etc.  We were given assignments. To get the answers, we had to visit museums and churches, observe and ask questions. It made us interact with the past, and made this past come alive. It became part of what I got interested in. All because of a teacher.

As time went by, that sixth grade class went on to graduate. I found myself continuing down this path of “studying old things.” This took me from a university in Belgium to a U.S. institution in New Orleans, always pursuing the study of these “old things.” Over the years, that meant studying Roman and Greek history, some Egyptian history, and ultimately the art, archaeology, and history of American cultures, especially the Maya.

Photo by Robin Merrit

Photo by Robin Merrit

I have been very blessed to find a job, and to find myself working at a museum, where I now teach visitors, young, old and anyone in between. Sharing what you have learned about a culture that happens to be the topic of an exhibit is a joy. It is very rewarding to see the light come on in a child, when they “get it.” I love hearing visitors say to each other “I did not know that…” as they walk out of an exhibit. I am indebted to my old teacher for this sense of awe. It never left him. I hope it will never leave me.

Sadly, I recently received news that the man who sent me on my quest, and created that spark in me, had passed. Reason for sadness? For sure. Another reason to keep guiding people as much as possible, and maybe, just maybe, make a difference with one or two people? Absolutely. Next time you see a teacher at a reunion, and you know they made a difference in your life, say so. Give them a hug. They deserve it.

Sanxingdui: China’s lost civilization revises history

When you walk through the limited engagement collection of artifacts from China’s Sanxingdui (pronounced “sahn-shing-dwee”), or “three stars mound,” you feel an immediate connection to a looming unknown. Where these artifacts were discovered is clear enough, as is when they were created, but by whom, why and how are questions still puzzling archaeologists.

The artifacts, large, strange, and beautiful, with a verdant tarnish on the ancient bronze, depict human forms with large eyes, protruding pupils, and pointed ears. If these items were a direct imitation of the people who created them, they were an odd culture indeed.Bronze Head with Gold Mask copy

The relics were discovered in 1986 when a group of Chinese construction workers accidentally broke into the underground pit where the items had apparently been broken and dumped, yet another enigma. Were these items created with such meticulous effort sacrificed? If they were, then why? Archaeologists found a second pit nearby. Though research on artifacts from the Sanxingdui culture had continued since 1929, this monumental discovery was the find that caused historians to revise their ideas of the development of Chinese culture.

The items in both pits, Bronze Age masks, statues and charms, date back to about 1800 BC, but there is no information to reliably link Sanxingdui to the culture that existed contemporaneously in the Central Plain 1,200 miles to the northeast on the Yellow River, thought to be the birthplace of Chinese civilization. No writing was buried with the artifacts, and ancient texts make no mention of Sanxingdui.

More puzzling is the level of craftsmanship in the artifacts. The materials used to make the items reveals technology “that seems to arise out of nowhere,” to quote placard information. The Sanxingdui culture created huge figures like the eight-foot-tall statue that may depict a god or a shaman and the large masks that may have been attached to columns or walls.Standing Figure

Along with their size, some of the items were created using advanced techniques such as piece mold process casting and soldering, different from those used in the Central Plain, yet no foundries have been discovered. Even if these people had the knowledge to make the bronzes, where did they get the tools to manufacture them? Stranger still, after 500 years, the culture vanished for reasons unknown.

Archaeologists discovered a few answers in 2001 at Jinsha, where they unearthed artifacts depicting the same metallurgy and conception of the human form as those at Sanxingdui. The figures from Jinsha are much smaller, but they show the same standing or kneeling postures, tight clothing, almond-shaped eyes, braided hair, and hand positioning. Radiocarbon dating found these artifacts were made 500 years after the rise of Sanxingdui. Perhaps no more than a mass migration is to account for their abrupt disappearance, but then why did they leave?

Archaeologists have concluded that the Sanxingdui culture must have existed alongside other Bronze Age cultures, trading techniques and perhaps other information. Whereas historians believed China grew from a central birthplace, the revision of history tells a story of multiple centers contributing to the development of Chinese civilization.mask with protruding eyes

Limited Engagement: Come see the story for yourself at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. China’s Lost Civilization: The Mystery of Sanxingdui is now on exhibition through Sept. 7.

Behind-the-scenes Tour: Join us for “The Bronzes of Sanxingdui” Tuesday, May 19 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets $37, members $27.

Distinguished Lecture: Dr. Liu Yang, curator of Chinese art at the Minneapolis Institute of the arts, will visit the HMNS to present “Unmasked: Mysteries of the Ancient Shu Kingdom and its Bronze Art” to shed further light on the artifacts from the Sanxingdui culture. Tuesday, June 2, 6:30 p.m.

King Richard III, Rediscovered: Forensic engineer to hold reburial lecture

The remains of King Richard III, the last English king to die in battle, were discovered under a parking lot and identified in 2013 using DNA, radiocarbon dating and the identification of his distinctive curved spine by a team from the University of Leicester. What science revealed from Richard’s skeleton has triggered a revival of scholarship regarding his reign.

Dr. Sarah Hainsworth, Forensic Engineer on the Richard III Project, will visit the Houston Museum of Natural Science Tuesday, April 21 to discuss the project’s findings and how history, archaeology and genetics were woven together to learn more about Richard III. Her lecture, “Richard III Rediscovered,” begins at 6:30 p.m.Richard III

Following the lecture, a real-life King Richard will join us for a festival featuring food, drink, dance and music inspired by the Renaissance. The event is cosponsored by the Houston Society of the Archaeological Institute of America.

For more fascinating insights into the Richard III Project and reinterment, check out “From the Trenches,” the blog of the AIA, Houston Society. Excerpts below:

Richard III’s “Rebirth” and Reburial

 Richard III – Defiled in death, reviled in history…today, reburied with pomp and circumstance. image001

On March 26, 2015 momentous events took place in Leicester, England as Richard finally received a burial fit for a king, 530 years after his death on the battlefield. A processional lead by armored knights on horseback winded through the streets of Leicester to the cathedral for a service that included the Archbishop of Canterbury, descendant Benedict Cumberbatch, and descendants of both the noble from the Wars of the Roses.

image003

Face to Face with History

With the discovery of the remains of King Richard III, a unique, exciting opportunity presented: the chance to discover Richard’s appearance. Perhaps at no other time in history, has it been possible to really know about the appearance of a ruler. The historian has textual evidence and artistic representations. These depictions are diluted through the opinions of the writer or the painter, often serving propagandistic purposes. The most famous portraits of Richard III, depicting him as dark-haired and steely eyed were painted 25 to 30 years after his death. However, archaeology has tools at its disposal that help to create a clearer portrait.

Richard III (Physiology & Experimental Archaeology)

One of the fascinating discoveries of the project was the physical evidence from the bones. For over 500 years, detractors (Shakespeare among the most famous) portrayed Richard III as a twisted, deformed tyrant. The remains that were found of the king put to rest the story of his skeletal deformities – it was immediately and dramatically apparent that Richard did indeed suffer from scoliosis.image004

New questions now emerged: could medieval armor be made to fit a person with that degree of scoliosis, how could a person with such deformities fight ferociously in battle, could he sit astride a horse? Anecdotal evidence mentions his fighting ability, his horsemanship, and his graceful dancing. Could these stories be true? Enter the field of experimental archaeology and physiology to work to arrive at answers. Today, we share the story of a young man who has the same type of scoliosis as Richard III. Researchers began working with him and the results are fascinating.