Online Review: Book

Weights in Context: Bronze Age Weighing Systems of the Eastern Mediterranean Chronology, Typology, Material and Archaeological Contexts

Judith Weingarten


Edited by M.E. Alberti, E. Ascalone, and L. Peyronel. Pp. 384, figs. 98, tables 59. Istituto Italiano di Numismatica, Rome 2006. Price not available. ISBN 88-85914-44-6 (paper).

Most Bronze Age metrological knowledge is based on analysis of administrative documents rather than actual weighing tools. The goal of the Weights in Context colloquium was to emphasize archaeological material—weights, findspots, and associated artifacts—at each site and for each period. It is a first step toward a historical metrology, linking changes in weights and measures to social, economic, and political developments.

Metrologists agree that the talent and the mina were widespread throughout the eastern Mediterranean by the Middle Bronze Age (MBA). This means that bulk commodities (esp. wool and metals) could have circulated without difficulty from one economic region to another. The Levantine shekels—Hittite/Anatolian (±11.75 g), Ugarit/Syrian (±9.4 g), Karkemish (±7.83 g), and, to some extent, the Mesopotamian (±8.3 g)—were connected by a simple ratio, so that merchants and buyers could easily convert from one to another.

Rahmstorf’s (9–45) survey tackles the problem of identifying third-millennium weights throughout the Near East: weights should have regular shapes, form a distinct class of objects, be of similar hard materials, and should be found in sets ranging from light to heavy in a logical sequence of multiple units. In Egypt there are no secure weights before the Fourth Dynasty, and most early weights are squared stones; the Old Kingdom Gold Deben (13.6–13.9 g) fluctuates by as much as ±7%. The earliest secure dating for Mesopotamian weights is Tepe Gawra VII: a variety of shapes already fit the standard unit of 8.3 g. The earliest in Syria is at Ebla EB IVA Royal Palace G: a common mina of 470 g divided into 60, 50, or 40 shekels (“Syrian,” “Karkemish,” “Anatolian”), all in contemporary use. In Anatolia Early Bronze Age (EBA) weights are known from Tarsus and Troy, but the unit is uncertain. The author has recently identified EBA Aegean spool-shaped stones as weights, based on three possible units: Syrian, Mesopotamian, and Karkemish.

In the mid and later third-millennium eastern Mediterranean, the Syrian and Mesopotamian systems were most widely used. Both were found outside the regions for which they are named, in overlapping “interactive spheres” (fig. 5). Economic consequences were momentous: along with widespread trade in gold, silver, and tin, the metals themselves became standards of value, measured exactly by their mass.

While the main local unit at Ebla was the 7.8 g shekel at 60 units to the mina, Ascalone and Peyronel (49–70) demonstrate, from in situ weights in Royal Palace G, that units based on 50 and 40 shekels were also found—sometimes all three in the same room (L 3532). Two pear-shaped two-mina weights suggest specialized application; one was discovered with 17 kg of lapis lazuli in storeroom L 2982, and another with raw lapis lazuli in L 2906. Altogether, approximately 37 kg of lapis lazuli were excavated in the southern sector of the Administrative Quarter where precious objects and imported goods were stored under direct control of the king. Pinnock (347–59) suggests that such long-distance valuables were under the kings’ personal control and therefore rarely appear in written documentation. Rather, it is the customary part of the administrative process—local redistribution of basic commodities and the import/export of “middle distance” products, such as wine and oil—that leaves abundant written traces.

Ascalone and Peyronel (127–60) examine more than 100 weights at MBA Ebla excavated in floor deposits (or the destruction levels over them) from public buildings, fortifications, private houses, and a temple. Four different shekels are attested: the Syrian, a coastal Syro-Palestinian or “Egyptian” shekel of about 9.4 g, the Anatolian, and the Mesopotamian. A few may belong to the Aegean system of 65–68 g. Three of the four systems (minus Anatolian) are represented in “upper-class” private houses. Their function is suggested by an associated cuneiform tablet dealing with land and house properties, paid in silver “according to the weight of Ebla.” Two weights from the cella of Temple N (dedicated to the sun-god Shamash?) suggest that the words “weight of Shamash” symbolically indicate a “correct” standard of measure with concomitant concepts of justice and rectitude.

Bobokhyan (71–125) takes on the difficult task of making sense out of weights at Troy found during Schliemann’s excavations, almost all without reliable contexts or stratigraphy, and from Blegen’s finds (still unweighed). Only 35 objects from Korfmann’s recent excavations can be analyzed, including weights from Troy I to VII. The underlying weighing systems are elusive, but this paper has cleared the field for further study.

Ascalone (161–83) describes two groups of stone ovoidal weights from in or near houses of EB IIIA and IIIB date at Tell es-Sultan/Jericho; both attest a 470 g mina and the Syrian shekel. Earlier contexts are domestic and craft locations; later weights are associated with food preparation and cooking.

Cambon’s (185–202) paper concentrates on written documentation at Mari during Zimri Lim’s reign. Actual weights are scarce, but the ample textual material shows that Mari is on the Mesopotamian standard. Although based on the same unit, documents distinguish “weights of the king’s office” from “weights of the market.” The “weight of the city of Karkemish” is also mentioned, as is a set of weights belonging to a man named Burqân, who witnessed loans between merchants.

Bordreuil (203–32) studies the written records from Ugarit together with an abundance of 575 excavated weights (14th–12th century). Five marked weights suffice to define the local system as having an average shekel of about 9.4 g. As one would expect at a great trading city, weights of Hittite, Karkemish, and Mesopotamian units are also found. Nine Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform tablets from the House of Rap’anu provide a Babylonian “table of weights and measures,” apparently school texts written by apprentice scribes. Comparing actual weights with these texts, the lightest weight (1.1 g) corresponds to 23–25 grains, and the heaviest (28,900 g) to approximately 3,600 shekels, or one talent. Putting weights and texts together gives a better understanding of Ugaritic metrology, the cross-point of so many Bronze Age systems.

Pulak (47–8) summarizes the quantal analysis of weights from the Uluburun and Cape Gelidonya shipwrecks. Uluburun weights point to a unit of approximately 9.3 g as well as about 7.4 g and about 8.3 g units; Gelidonya weights are perhaps based on an approximate 9.4 g unit. No Late Bronze Age Aegean weights were found, which suggests to the author that the Mycenaeans on board the Uluburun ship (as identified by their sealstones) were envoys or messengers rather than merchants.

Michailidou (233–63) reminds us that one or two lead weights are found in almost every building at Akrotiri on Thera, and as many as 26 disks in the West House. She now examines stone objects that are possible weights. While lead weights are normally on the Minoan standard (62–65.5 g), problems abound when it comes to stone: e.g., a group of tuff cones found together might be gaming pieces, tokens, or weights, yet one large cone marked with a circle—the sign of an Egyptian deben—weighs 91 g, exactly a deben.

On Crete different sites report possible heavy (ca. 65 g) or light (ca. 61 g) Minoan measures. Weights from the Late Minoan IB port settlement of Mochlos indicate intrasite variations between both standards (Brogan, 265–92). Newly excavated lead and stone weights and three balance pans come from different community levels: the ceremonial center, houses, artisans’ quarter, and a farmstead. More than 100 copper ingot fragments from the artisans’ quarter suggest intentional division into Minoan fractions. An appendix (Stos-Gale and Gale, 290–92) analyzes 42 Late Minoan weights, all made of lead from the Lavrion mines in Attica.

Aravantinos and Alberti (293–313) describe finds from the Kadmeia at Thebes, in the “Armoury” and nearby “Ivory Workshop,” both closely associated with Linear B texts. Two Armoury lead weights fit the Aegean tradition and Linear B “M” system. More diverse Ivory Workshop weights (including five hematite sphendonoids) are linked to a “Mycenaean” “P” unit of about 20 g; the Levantine sphendonoid appears to have been integrated into the Aegean metrological tradition.

Alberti (315–40) takes us from mainland LH IIA Vapheio to LH IIIB Thebes and compares Cypriot weights from LC IA–B Ayia Irini tombs with those of MC III–LCIIB Enkomi. From Vapheio the nine lead disk weights (in multiples of 1–16 units) and 10 bronze scalepans suggest a complete weighing set, probably an early phase of mainland adaptation of the duodecimal Minoan system. The Theban weights (cited above) combine Minoan, Mycenaean, and Levantine traits in a mixed system, sexagesimal for multiples and decimal for fractions. “History,” as the author says, “has left its traces” (320). Weighing tools are common grave goods at Ayia Irini Paleokastro and probably personal possessions of the deceased. Tomb 3 may signal a switch from the Karkemish standards in the earlier level to Ugarit shekels in the successive level. At Enkomi Ayios Iakovos, MC III and LC IIA–B tombs with weights (lighter units of Ugarit, Karkemish, and Mesoptamian measures) are among the richest for the periods; the restricted weight range indicates either precision weighing or weights as a strictly symbolic part of the display of prestige items and ideology. Ayios Iakovos Tomb S 17, rich in gold but without weights, held the famous “Zeus” crater, showing a robed man holding what may be a two-scale balance and a lower-status male bearing an ox-hide ingot.

Mesopotamian kings tried to unify weights and measures throughout their territory, as Biga explains (341–45). An Old Babylonian copy of a Sumerian law attributed to Ur-Nammu, first king of the Ur III, boasts, “I standardized weight stones from the pure one shekel weight to the one mina weight.” Such standards were probably placed in the temple of Nanna in Ur; a number of inscribed weight stones were dedicated in this and other temples.

Finally, Lo Schiavo (359–79) draws attention to six complete ox-hide bronze ingots found in Nuragic Sardinia and elsewhere in the central Mediterranean. Although their shape is generally similar, their weights range from 25.8 to 33.3 kg. The copper in the four Sardinian examples has been traced to the Apliki region in Cyprus.

After such a feast of measures, it seems greedy to say that I wish there had been a paper dedicated to Egyptian metrology of the Middle and Late Bronze Age. Rahmstorf (16) and Ascalone (164–65) both touch on the origin of the Egyptian kedet standard of 9.4 g; it was news to me that the kedet probably originated in the Syrian coastal region in the EBA and only became the prevailing standard in Egypt during the Hyksos period. That shows which way the trade winds were blowing.

Italian scholars have been especially strong in ancient metrology and indeed the whole study of exchange systems (gift, tribute, trade practices). Weights in Context continues and deepens this tradition. It amply fulfills its goal of elucidating the complex links between different economic regional spheres and the different weighing systems of the ancient Mediterranean. Anyone interested in Bronze Age interconnections will consider this rich array of evidence (with up-to-date bibliographies) essential grounding for further research.

Judith Weingarten
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Book Review of Weights in Context: Bronze Age Weighing Systems of the Eastern Mediterranean. Chronology, Typology, Material and Archaeological Contexts, edited by M.E. Alberti, E. Ascalone, and L. Peyronel
Reviewed by Judith Weingarten
American Journal of Archaeology Volume 112, Number 2 (April 2008), published online at
 DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1122.Weingarten

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