Workshop: "Weights and their identification" – University of Copenhagen

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Workshop: "Weights and their identification"

The study of use of weights and metrological systems in the ancient past is a highly neglected field despite its obvious importance for understanding the economic and social organisation of early societies. Much depends on the inadequately researched and published material evidence on which we have so far based our assumptions. The aim of the workshop is to discuss methodological approaches in order to assess and enlarge our data sets of weighing equipment in various regions between the Atlantic to the Indus dating from the late 4th millennium BC to the Early Medieval period.

See the conference poster and read the programme (pdf).

See all the workshop abstracts (pdf).

The following problems will serve as the basis for the workshop:


  • One should use various indicators (archaeological, sequential and statistical) to make the identification of weights plausible, yet the overall indications are often rather ambiguous. Can we develop a rigorous scheme of tests in order to assess the probability of the suggested identification?
  • The problem of identification does not arise with weights of well-known shapes (‘canonical weights’) but is related to randomly produced weights, of only slightly modified or even purely natural forms. In the latter case even the terminology is not yet established (cf. pebble weights, unregulated weights, non-canonical weights)
  • Their identification depends especially on the archaeological context (sets of such objects found in a closed context, at best with other indications of metrological practice, e.g. the presence of a scale) and on its full publication with the mass of the objects provided. Are there any other indications which we may use to support the identification of such objects as weights?
  • Scale beams were most often made of perishable material (wood, bone). This holds true also for scale plates (bast, textile, wood, etc.). More detailed studies on archaeozoological material may increase our knowledge, especially in regard to small fragments.

Morphology, material and size

  • Sometimes morphologically distinct weight types were used in a similar way in specific cultures. What does this indicate? – were different shapes used for different units/weighing systems or for weighing specific goods and commodities?
  • Moreover, were different weights used in different economic zones?
  • What materials were used for the weights – stone, bronze, lead, etc.? Do we have any indications to why this specific material was chosen? Are there chronological, regional or cultural preferences?
  • In several cases the mass range of the weights attested in a specific culture is rather limited. Sometimes we only know of rather light weights but we lack the heavy ones or the other way around. Does this merely reflect the current state of identification (i.e. very heavy or light weights were of different/unusual morphology and are not yet identified) or were only light or heavy commodities weighed out (i.e. economic implications)?

Metrological analyses

  • Traditionally the metrological assignment of weights to certain units is often the result of the experience and authority of the scholar. The mass of the objects, however, often allows for various and contradicting interpretations. Can we move beyond this by applying non-a priori assumptions?
  • The cosine quantogram (CQG) method seems to be one key to make interpretations testable on a quantitative scale, but what is the effect of the sample size and material on the statistical detection of measurement units?
  • Random non-quantal simulation data sets have so far only been used in very few studies in order to assess the validity of CQG.
  • To what extent may further studies in the textual data on different weight units used in different places enlarge our knowledge on contemporaneously used standards?

Weight-regulated artefacts, hoards and Hacksilber

  • From textual evidence we know that metal artefacts were sometimes produced according to a specific weight representing multiples of a fraction of a certain weight-unit. The investigation of such classes of objects is still in its infancy, but it seems to be especially rewarding for objects made of gold and silver.
  • While it is already difficult to prove that an object is a weight, it is even more difficult to present watertight evidence for the existence of so-called weight-regulated artefacts. Thousands of bronzes from the European Bronze Age are either often produced in a similar shape or are intentionally fragmented. So far, investigations of any metrological basis for these fragmentations have mostly failed to produce convincing evidence. However, a statistically significant approach has not yet been applied systematically.
  • Extensive hoarding (‘archival’ or ‘sacrificial’) is a phenomenon often encountered in regions and periods when weights were used as well. This also often comprised the intentional fragmentation of artefacts of gold and silver (Hacksilber). What does this tell us about the general modes of exchange (barter/ Hacksilber/ monetary) and the origin of money?

Weights and their economic, political & social implications

  • What does the use of weights indicate? The existence of precise and generally shared concepts of material value?
  • It has been argued that the use of weights in Syro-Mesopotamia primarily indicates concerns with payment to the temples/palaces, and not necessarily evidence for trade and transactions such as buying and selling. Is this a realistic assumption in light of the archaeological evidence (i.e. the contextual distribution of weights and scales in various sites)?
  • Moreover, to what extent is it possible to enrich the long-standing debate of the relevance of state-driven and independent (‘private’) economy in the ancient world with the archaeological evidence from weights and scales?
  • Who was responsible for the dissemination of a certain weight standard in the first place and how weight systems were maintained/policed across large areas? By the ‘state’?, the king?, traders?, the elite? As weights were used both in state societies (Western Asia) and in segmentary societies (Europe) it seems difficult to answer this question unequivocally.
  • Who used weights, specialists or entire communities? If they were specialists what social rank did they hold in their societies?

These questions will be discussed both diachronically and synchronically from the perspective of various societies which used weights. An interdisciplinary approach combining archaeological, linguistic and statistical methodologies seems to be the most rewarding.

See all the workshop abstracts (pdf).