The Aegean systems of weight during the pre-coinage period of the Late Bronze Age

Anna Michailidou


This project refers to the archaeological and textual evidence concerning the measuring tools of weight (fig. 1,2) in the Late Bronze Age Aegean sea, and its contribution to the problem concerning the estimation of value in the Pre-coinage economies of the Bronze Age, that is, at a time when no market exchange systems existed. The diffusion of the so-named Minoan/Aegean weighing system is presented by marking on the general map the sites where balance weights – most of them based on the so-named Minoan-unit - were found. As for the merchandise circulated, the evidence comes from the Mycenaean script, which recorded commodities measured by weight.


The great Greek archaeologist Christos Tsountas was the first to comprehend the special significance of weights and scales in Bronze Age economies. He expressed the view that weights stand one step before the invention of coinage (Tsountas 1893). The discovery of weights at various sites indicates that the people living in that specific historical society had a concept of measuring, that they had understood the equivalence of mass to weight, and that they had devised the idea of the modular unit, which is repeated by a constant ratio; Colin Renfrew has defined the study of weight metrology as one of the tasks of the so-named ‘Archaeology of the Mind’ (Renfrew 1983). Balance weights facilitated exchange mechanisms because they were in fact the material witnesses of the quantity given, perhaps to be returned or reiterated. What is more, this quantity could be multiplied or subdivided (with the addition or removal of the balance pan of weights of the same mass). Therefore, they are often regarded as “tools of both industry and trade” (Petruso 1992).


For commodities exchanged during long distance trade, we have the archaeological evidence deriving from shipwrecks. Especially helpful in this discussion is the Uluburun wreck, since, in Pulak’s view, its load may represent a royal gift destined for a certain Mycenaean port (Pulak 2005, 295).

Taking into account additional evidence from Mycenaean and Near Eastern texts, we may conclude that several commodities were accounted by weight, these being metals, wool and goat’s hair, linen (possibly also measured in bundles), yarn, textiles (e.g. when tested in relation to the raw material used, otherwise officially recorded by numbers: Tzachili 2001), ropes (apart from cases involving the measuring of length), alum, wood (occasionally, otherwise mostly calculated in pieces), ivory, precious stones, hides (sometimes, otherwise mostly counted: Trantalidou 2001), as well as some condiments, perfume and dyes (Sarpaki 2001) such as ponikijo, red safflower, saffron, the majority of the rest being measured by volume. Also weighed are celery, wax, and tendons. As for foodstuffs, there were only some cases of loaves being recorded by weight (they were normally counted) fish (which are normally counted or measured by volume) and possibly meat (Michailidou 2010).

Yet, it seems that wool was traded also in another form, that of the sheep’s fleece. The oldest wool mina from Lagash (680.5 gr), obviously responded to one fleece’s weight, and this is also the weight of a special wool unit in Nuzi records named kuduktu. It seems that there was a widespread diffusion of this common standard, and that before the evolution of precise systems of measurement, wool was regularly bartered in terms of its most natural unit, namely the clip of one sheep at shearing time. Thus, a balance weight from Akrotiri was probably intended to be equivalent to the target of 750 gr. wool quota per animal (Parise 1986). The four dots on this disc (fig. 3) may indicate that it corresponds to one fourth of a greater unit of the period that would be equal to 3 kilos or 6 minas (Michailidou 2008). This greater wool unit is equivalent to the nariu wool unit at Nuzi and to the LANA wool unit of Linear B (Petruso 1986), both having the same value of 6 minas (i.e. 3 kilos).


Extremely rare are depictions of weighing in the Aegean, and only the actual quantities of commodities measured by weight are found in the records of weighing in the palatial accounts of the Mycenaean Linear B texts, whilst in Near Eastern texts and in Egyptian iconography the process of weighing itself is attested in the following activities: manufacture (fig.4 ), transport/transmission and exchange of various levels (fig. 5). The smaller portable balance is also the trader’s equipment, since it was the tool for measuring the weight of the merchandise and also the value of the commodity given in return within the environment of the pre-coinage economy of the Bronze Age era.


We now focus on the importance of weighing activity in the evaluation of commodities. Recalling that «Πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον ἄνθρωπος» (Protagoras: “man is the measure of all things”) and that χρήματα (lit. ‘money’) means ‘that of which I am in need’ (ἔχω χρεία) , that is, πράγματα, ἀγαθά (‘property’, ‘goods’, ‘wealth’), we can now proceed to the phrase that «χρήματα δὲ λέγομεν πάντα ὅσων ἡ αξία νομίσματι μετρεῖται» (lit. “we call money all that deserve to be measured by coins”: Aristotle, The Nikomachean Ethics IV, 1,2). Hence the variation in the meanings of the words ‘money’, ‘currency’ and ‘coinage’ becomes comprehensible. In pre-coinage societies, such as the Bronze Age Aegean and its neighbors, we are dealing with the commodities that were in demand, and it has rightly been noted that “what was spreading can be summarized as consumer demand” (Sherratt & Sherratt 1991, 355-6). Certain commodities became trade goods par excellence and they were actually occasionally used as means of payment. The cheapest of these was barley, measured in volume, and the most universally acceptable were metals, measured by weight, with silver serving also as a denominator of value. It is rightly pointed out that even in Egypt, where the barter system involved goods being traded against goods, ‘value’ came in time to mean ‘metal value’, which may be defined as an almost monetary conception (James 1984, 257). Thus, we are dealing with a monetary, albeit pre-coinage, stage of economy. It was within the Bronze Age that barter exchange gradually turned to a monetary system based on metals. The invention of coinage that followed in the first millennium, serves as an ante-quem for our discussion.


Bronze pans from the equal-armed balance (fig. 2 ) are usually found in pairs, but are under-represented at ancient sites, as they were poorly preserved, their metal was recycled, and they were often part of a set of personal belongings. No intact balance is found in the prehistoric Aegean, apart from three non-functional gold balances (fig. 6) found in one Mycenaean shaft grave (Michailidou 2008). Initially, the purpose of a balance was to measure equality. Its first practical use was to confirm two equal parts of the same product which could then be transported. They could be suspended from the two ends of a long pole resting on the shoulders of the bearer and also measured in relation to each other upon distribution (Michailidou 2005). Absolute measurement started from the moment when a stone was placed on one of the pans, to balance the commodity placed on the other pan. This provided a visual and more permanent witness to the mass measured, since the stone could be kept and the weighing repeated or the initial result be checked. A further advance is represented by the use of a series of stones of various interrelated ratios, the balance weights themselves that led to the invention of a metric system of weight, a cognitive invention indeed, ascribed by the Egyptians to their god Thoth (Michailidou 2000) and by ancient Greeks to their hero Palamedes of the Trojan war (Michailidou 2010). The materials of the weights were mostly stone, lead or bronze, while the shapes of the weights varied (fig. 7, 8) – discoid, sphendonoid, domed, geometric, animal/man shaped, or other –, and they are found in all contexts (domestic, palatial, cultic, funerary, shipwrecks). Only occasionally are balance weights found in a cluster (Michailidou 1990, 2008) and rarely together with scale pans.


The context of a balance weight may point to its owner. Balance weights found in a domestic environment may prove that all inhabitants of the settlement were using them, as long as they are found in most of the houses. Sometimes they were even found in clusters and/or along with loom weights, hence used in textile production (Michailidou 1990). They are often found without the balance, which had less chances to survive in time since it was primarily made of wood (and with fragile and valuable bronze pans), but we know from Old Babylonian texts that balances were indeed part of the property inherited.

In regard to palatial buildings or cultic environments, central authorities had the task of inventing the standards for measuring goods. In the Egyptian iconography we see at least two persons involved in weighing, the specialist(s) for the function of the balance and the scribe assessing the result. More information on the technique and the persons involved in weighing in a palatial environment we gain from texts coming from Mari (Joannès 1989), where the person in charge of the balance’s function is usually a worker on precious-metals or a clerk, and the scribe recording the result is in charge of writing and not of the use of the weights. Very important was the role of the ebbû, translated in French by Cecil Michel (1990) as the “Prud’Homme”, who was appointed to supervise the entire action, for precision was demanded to the level of one shekel. When traveling, the king of Mari took with him not only balances and weights, but also those responsible for using the balance.

Concerning funerary sites, weighing tools were deposited both in male and female graves, and the most common find is the balance, with or without the weights. The balances found are carefully made and functional, and according to Pare (2000) they were generally not placed in the graves invested with any profound symbolic meaning, but were the deceased’s personal possessions e.g. in the Vapheio tomb (fig. 16 ). This leads him to the interesting conclusion that “scales and sets of weights were possessions fairly common among high status individuals in the Aegean between the 17th and the 12th cent. B.C.”. The gold balances (fig. 6 ) from the Mycenae Shaft grave III are regarded as an exception to this rule, though there is also the opposite view (Michailidou 2008).

Weighing tools found in shipwrecks (e.g. at Uluburun or Cape Gelidonya) are defined as “of great value due to their contemporaneous use as functioning sets within related commercial context at the time of the ship’s sinking but they are more demanding for interpretation since every item found on a ship was carried onto that ship for a purpose” (Pulak 2000, 2005). The excavator further suggests that two Mycenaeans on board “acted as emissaries or envoys” accompanying a cargo of a reciprocal ‘gift exchange’, but they were not merchants, as merchants should carry their own balance weights. But the merchant’s status need not be the same everywhere and anytime, and the fact that the trader is not mentioned in the Linear B tablets possibly indicates that there was not yet such a division of labor in the Aegean. The Mycenaean on board could certainly act as a messenger, like the Cretan (and his interpreter) acquiring tin at Ugarit (according to a well-known tablet from Mari), but also be of any profession that would give him the ability and knowledge to travel and trade; perhaps even of the status of the ebbû from the Mari tablets (Michailidou 2010).


The large number of existing balance weights and the textual information on ancient metric systems give the impression that people in the Bronze Age used “as many standards as there were languages” (Petrie 1926). But since weighing and trade mechanisms were closely related, and intense trade relations existed between Egypt, the Levant, the Eastern Aegean, the Cyclades and mainland Greece, interconnections of weighing standards are something expected, and it seems that they are evidenced even from the Early Bronze Age (fig.9) (Rahmstorf 2006). In the following periods, Minoan Crete developed its own weighing system: the evidence for Middle Bronze Age weights is still scanty, but with the transition from the Middle Bronze to the Late Bronze Age, i.e. in the period of the new palaces and the so-called ‘Minoan thalassocracy’, the Minoan/Aegean weighing system spread throughout the Aegean world (fig. 26 ). Yet as Alberti summarizes, “at the same time, the intensification of sea-faring and international connections is reflected by the first appearance of weights with Levantine standards and Levantine types in Aegean contexts. Eastern influences become even stronger during Mycenaean times, when the Mediterranean trade system reaches its apex for the BA: Mycenaean weighing standards combine Minoan heritage, Mycenaean (i.e. Linear B) characteristics and Eastern units and types” (Alberti 2009).


All over the eastern Mediterranean, the high-planning of the metric systems (Powell 1971) resulted in easily identifiable shapes for balance weights, such as the sphendonoid (fig. 8, 10 , 15 ) and the duck shape (fig. 8, 13 ), which were the prevailing shapes in Mesopotamia. The sphendonoid (or barrel shape etc.) was less diffused within the Aegean (fig. 9 , 10 , 15). The so named ‘Minoan’, or by others ‘Aegean’, balance weights (fig. 1, 11 , 14 ) of the Late Bronze Age are of a distinctive shape, the discoid, and their most often material was lead. Weights of stone (fig. 12 , 14 , 17) were also in use (Petruso 1992, Michailidou 2006), since this was the appropriate material for precision weighing, and for this reason hematite (fig. 8 , 15 ) was the dominant material for sphendonoid weights. Regarding their particular social context, the Aegean weights come from settlements (especially ports), palaces, sanctuaries, tombs, shipwrecks. The Minoan /Aegean unit of 61-65.5 grams (fig. 14 , 17 ) is the dominant one in the Late Bronze Age, particularly in Crete and the Cyclades (Evans 1906, Caskey 1969, Parise 1971, Petruso 1992, Michailidou 1990). In contrast to the Egyptian and Near Eastern examples, they were without primary inscriptions (Michailidou 2001), but sometimes they were indeed inscribed with symbols (fig. 18 ), sometimes circles (fig. 17 , 19 , 20 ) related to their mass (Petruso 1992). Perhaps it is not irrelevant that the earliest known weights in Egypt linked to the measurement of gold, have as modular unit the so-named deben for gold of 13 grams, denoted in Hieroglyphic by the sign of the circle.

While there were differences in the metric systems used in the Levant, Mesopotamia, or Egypt (Alberti & Parise 2005), certain equivalences between foreign systems facilitated accounting and inter-regional trade. The West Syrian mina (fig. 10) is itself present in Akrotiri, on the island of Thera. The value of 65.5 grams for the Aegean standard was defined by Evans as the 5th multiple of the Egyptian unit of gold (around 13 grams), and by Zaccagnini as the 10th multiple of a Near Eastern shekel of 6.5 grams (Evans 1906, Parise 1971, Zaccagnini 1986, De Fidio 1998-99, Michailidou 2004). With regard to any intentional equivalences between the various systems of weight, the Minoan unit of 61-65 grams could have acted as a control on the value both of gold (that is, five Egyptian deben of gold of ca.13 grams) and silver (eight Egyptian shaty of silver of ca. 7.6 grams) while the heavier unit of 67 grams was equivalent to eight Babylonian shekels, of 8.40 grams. Therefore, it seems that particular weight values functioned as keys to interconnections among the various systems of weight, and that actual balance weights were intentionally manufactured based on these values (Michailidou 2004).


The Mycenaean Linear B tablets, given that they function only as ‘system-internal mnemonic texts’ (Palaima 2005, 274, n. 15), do not contain information on long-distance trade, as the only – indirect – evidence are some references to ship construction and manning of ships or some records of foreign names of commodities or ‘ethnic’ names of individuals or groups (Palaima 1991). In Malcolm Wiener’s view, texts related to long distance expeditions would have been written on materials other than clay, more suitable for surviving storage over the longer period needed for such expeditions (Wiener 1999).

In all Near Eastern cultures and in the Aegean, the ‘old load’ – traditionally the maximum weight a man could carry (appr. 28.8 kg) – gave the highest unit of the talent. The weight of the Talent, which varied over time depending on the culture, from 30 to 23 kilos, was used as the standard rule for copper circulating in the form of the so-called ox-hide ingots (fig. 21 ). On a well-known Linear B tablet (fig. 22 ) from the palace of Knossos, the ox-hide ingots, 60 in number, are followed by the sign for the balance that functioned as a metrogram for the Talent unit. We may recall here that the Greek word talanton actually means the pan of the balance. Thus, the Linear B pictogram of the balance (fig. 22 , 25 ) is the metrogram L for the Talent, the largest unit of weight, of approximately 30 kilos.

The Linear A pictogram of the balance is a dubious case. There are no metrograms in Linear A script (fig. 23 ), but the fractions of measuring (fig. 24 ) are evidence, and were the ones later replaced in Linear B by the special metrograms (fig. 25 ) denoting units of weight and conventionally named by the scholars as L, M, N, P etc (Petruso 1992).

Only in Linear B is there a specific sign denoting the number of ten thousand, a fact which suggests that Mycenaean bureaucrats needed to record greater volumes than the Minoans. This may be one of the reasons why the Minoan unit, of 61-65.5 grams, although incorporated as a value in certain Mycenaean samples and accounts (Aravantinos 1995, Petruso 2003), and in Chadwick’s view actually concealed behind the recorded quantity P 3 (Chadwick 1976, 104), it is in fact replaced by a higher recording unit, of ca. 1000 grams. This is the conventionally named M-unit and it responds to the double mina, a value frequently employed in Anatolia and the Near East as well.


What is important to keep in mind when consulting a map with sites where balance weights are found, is the knowledge that the contemporary use of different standards at the same site and in the same context becomes a common feature in the Late Bronze Age period. It is not a rare instance for weights of one culture to be found in the sites of another. The question is why were weights taken abroad? Do they represent evidence of the actual presence of their owners – whether merchants or immigrants –, or do they merely indicate the existence of certain commercial networks of the site? The weighing of goods abroad with one’s home weights may be linked more with imports than with exports, because it was in the home country that a merchant was accountable. But traders also needed to be familiar with the major weight systems of the day, therefore there is no problem in finding a variety of balance weights in commercial places, such as in Akrotiri (fig. 1, 10 , 11 , 12 ) on the Cycladic island of Thera (Michailidou 2008).

We are still in the middle of a very interesting discussion on interrelations among different metric systems of weight. Many scholars have compiled tables on ‘numismatic’ equivalences among various systems of weight, particularly those of the more developed belonging to the Late Bronze Age (Alberti & Parise 2005, tav. XIII). It is obvious that more than one metric systems of weight were in function at important trade posts, as, for instance, the dependence of Ugarit on foreign trade is indicated by the dominance of the West Syrian mina of 470 grams (as opposed to the Mesopotamian mina of 504 grams). Nicola Parise divides the Syrian mina into 40 Hittite shekels of 11.75 grams, or 50 Syrian shekels of 9.4 grams, or 60 Karkemish shekels of 7.83 grams (Parise 1981). Thus, this mina formed the ‘meeting point’ for three metric systems, and the differences appear only at the level of its division in shekels. Few weights of the Minoan unit have also been identified in Ugarit (Courtois 1992, 120).

Dealing in particular with the diffusion of the Minoan/Aegean system, the routes of traders are perhaps indicated by the ‘travelling’ of their measuring tools (fig. 26 ), and occasionally further emphasized by the ‘journey’ of the Minoan script (Palaima 1982, Niemeier 2013, 178). However, Minoan or Mycenaean merchants and their itineraries are not described in texts of the period, therefore no secure lines of direct access should be drawn among the sites where the so-named Minoan/Aegean lead discoid balance weights are found, although they have the advantage of a distinguished material and shape. Interesting attempts on trade routes based on additional material evidence are published (e.g. Niemeier 2013, abb. 6, 7). What we may emphasize is the expansion of the lead discoid weights as north as the island of Samothrace, as well as the presence of a stone discoid weight with six circles engraved on it in Miletus (fig. 20 ), pointing to a sixth multiple of the Minoan unit.

This pilot program is the product of a database still in progress. The limits so far are the following:

1.It includes as yet published information deriving only from a specific sample of bibliographical references (e.g. from Petruso 1992, Michailidou 2008, Alberti, Ascalone & Peyronel 2006). In order for the program to be further developed in the future, it has been decided for technical reasons that the number of sites shown on the map should be enriched even with sites without information from the database.

2.The special maps with the diffusion of the various units, refer only to the material presence of each particular unit whenever this is specifically identified by the author dealing with the specific site.

3.It remains an experimental work because there are many contradictions among researchers/authors on the selected metric systems.

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Research directed by: Anna Michailidou, Vassilis Petrakis. Collaborator: Dimitra Theodoridou. GIS Chartography: Panagiotis Stratakis