Seminar für Ur- und Frühgeschichte

About the projekt "Weight and Value"


Weight and Value

Weights and measures, weight metrology, value, origin of money, Bronze Age, Europe, West Asia, South Asia

ERC Consolidator project
The project explores the economical and societal transformations provoked by weights and measures during the Bronze Age in Western Eurasia. A systematic analysis of the early dissemination of weights and weighing systems will conducted on archaeological evidence from the Bronze Age in Europe, as well as that from West and South Asia.
The project will begin by identifying and documenting hitherto unacknowledged balance weights and mass-related objects on account of archaeological indications and through the rigorous application of various statistical methods, but will subsequently develop and test models of exchange and the transfer of innovations in ancient Eurasia.

  • More about the Projekt

  • ERC Logo The project has been awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant of 1.9 million Euro.

    WEIGHT AND VALUE is a large-scale investigation of what can be deduced from weights on the Bronze Age social and economic realities. It will explore:

    • to what degree the economy in Bronze Age Europe, West and South Asia was based on precise assessments of value and to what extent it was weight-related.
    • the practical ramifications of the introduction and subsequent dissemination of weights and weighing systems.
    • its relationship to other innovations of that period, such as seal use or extensive metal use, which had important socio-economic consequences.
    • the societal and economic transformations which might be connected to the use of weights.
    • the mathematical conceptions implied by weight metrology in regard to number systems and the basic arithmetic used in prehistoric and ancient societies.
    • and reassess the beginning, but also the extent, of the worlds earliest trade economies and their impact on social formations and civilization.

    Research background and aims

    During the transition from the Copper to the Bronze Age the use of weights and measures emerged; this use developed significantly and precise value regimes were established. How did this affect the conduct of trade, its integration and the dynamics of local economies? What social consequences did this bring about?

    Such questions have never been investigated from the wide perspective of European, West and South Asian archaeology, anthropology and economic and social history. This project will do so in a comparative, but meticulous and methodologically novel way. Through an integrated approach using archaeological data, 3D scanning and statistics we intend to reach a new level of understanding of the scale of dissemination and use of weights in the Bronze Age world.

    So far, finds of potential weights are generally not identified, or are either ignored or insufficiently published. Often the material seems to be regarded as too difficult to extract data from. Therefore, weights and measures do not yet play any significant role in major syntheses on various cultures and regions of Bronze Age Western Eurasia. Their potential use for a direct evaluation of Bronze Age economics is most often missed.

    However, from evidence gathered in recent years it has become evident that weights and accurate value assessment were much more ubiquitous during the Bronze Age all over Western Eurasia than it was previously assumed – if this was considered at all.

    Primary aims
    The following objectives of the project are of primary importance:

    • To identify and publish new sources of weight metrology with a rigorous methodology.
    • To gain new results on exchange and technological transfer during the Bronze Age.
    • To ascertain and conceptualize the extensive consequences of the introduction and dissemination of weight metrology, a current blind spot in ancient studies.
    • To develop new economic and social interpretations and models of the Bronze Age.
    • To produce key scholarly texts and an interactive website which will become a major tool to document and analyse weights in the future.

    From the East Mediterranean to Northwest India weights were shaped in a specific way in stone or other material, and became canonical weights in these regions in the third millennium BC:

    • in the Aegean spool-shaped weights
    • in Egypt rectangular weights,
    • in Mesopotamia iron oxide stone weights, best known in their sling-bullet (sphendonoid) or duck-shape, and
    • in the Indus valley mainly cubical weights.

    In other regions of the "Greater Near East" nearly no weights are known, at least so far. Given the rather similar dating of the earliest weights in these regions it is likely that we should take only one origin of the initial idea into account.

    Taken the flimsy data origin(s) into account it seems to be Mesopotamia and Egypt. It is, however, important to note, that this innovation was disseminated in only a few centuries over a substantial geographical sphere from the Aegean in the west to the Indus Valley in the east.

    The rapid spread of weighing and the clear relation between the metrologies used across the Aegean and Indus in the earlier third millennium and later during the second millennium also in Europe are new results which open up important new research questions.

    The appearance of new formats to assess value can therefore be connected with the Metal Ages. It is, however, not in the Copper Age but in the Bronze Age – with its more advanced metallurgy (e.g. controlled alloys and extensive use of precious metals), large-scale textile industries and long distance trade in semi-precious stones – that scales and weight can be observed.


    Consequently, the following hypotheses will be tested in the project:

    • The appearance of highly differentiated crafts and the systematic use of secondary products, like wool, and especially the extensive trade in raw material were the primary factors that fuelled the introduction and use of weights.
    • The introduction of weights was always connected to the introduction of a stable measure of value based on metal (e.g. silver) and therefore defines a pivotal moment in the history of money.
    • Weights were a key component of the world´s earliest trade economies and therefore had a key role in the formation of early civilizations.

    Theoretical background

    The beginning of the Bronze Age marks a turning point in the history of humankind. While the Old World was also connected in earlier times, the need and desire for certain commodities like metals (copper, tin, silver, gold), precious stones (e.g. lapis lazuli, carnelian, amber), as well as textiles and other goods reached a new level during this period.

    A fundamental problem relates to the question of how value was estimated in early times in regard to physical things. These can be termed commodities, when they are defined as objects of economic value. One hypothesis is that value is created through exchange.

    Value is embodied in commodities that are exchanged, it is shaped by society. Hence value cannot be inherent in things but is a culturally constructed property. In consequence the thing may not be a constant commodity, but may lose or regain this status in context-dependent situations ("a social life of things").

    There is a second possible hypothesis on early value assessment: relative values between commodities were rather stable as they were established over long periods of time. Such a hypothesis is supported by classical economic theory. In these theories every physical thing has a certain inherent value per se or the value represents the result of labor or the amount of circulation and utility of a thing.

    Such ratios would therefore be conventional, being the result of processes of understanding all possible uses of things and their specific qualities, and would therefore reflect accumulated cultural experience. The written sources of Ancient Mesopotamia document the preservation of very stable conventional relations of commodities like silver, copper, wool or barley.

    We are, therefore, faced with two rather contradictory hypotheses on value: the one defines it as context-dependent and the other as based on convention. Both, however, consider exchange as the key to assess precise value of commodities. Hence it is of primary importance to understand how exchange was conducted.

    In a society where a common measure of value, which we could call money, was absent, an exchange as imagined above is barter – with its limitations: the required "double coincidence of wants" and the indivisibility of certain goods (such as living animals).

    However, it is possible that there was always some common measure of value in early societies, as it is ethnographically observed that shells or furs could assume such functions.

    Metals brought about considerable change, appearing as new materials in some amount with the Copper Age in the fifth and fourth millennium BC in Western Eurasia. Their low volume and portability, their storability and preservability (with no maintenance costs) and their fissility (in liquid or solid state) made them excellent candidates for a measure of value.

    However, metal needed new formats for its value to be assessed, because it cannot be counted easily since it is amorphous in its physical state. In addition, being a new material it had no traditionally established relations of value to the other goods in use up till then. One possibility to observe ratios of value are:

    (1) Standardized ingots of metal, which can be called aes formatum from the terminology used in later Roman archaeology. Aes formatum acquires its value not by its weight but by its form and number.

    It may have appeared during the Copper Age with possible standardized ingots, such as for example the gold and electrum rings found at the Nahal Qanah Cave, Israel, from a context of the second half of 5th millennium BC and it appears to be attested in Central Europe in the Early Bronze Age with copper ring ingots.

    Similar form can result in similar weight, but this correlation can only be achieved rather imprecisely. Precision required a notion which apparently was not worked out previously: the notion of weight. Weight as a category had to be apprehended through physical experience.

    While this seems obvious to us, it was a revolutionary step in human development, to attempt to assess the weight ratios of things to each other.

    The other possibility, the new devices enabled were:

    Scales and weights enabled us to express the principle of equilibrium (equal-arm balance) and multiples or fractions of a mass-unit (balance weights). Scales and weights can first be traced with certainty to around 3000 BC or the early third millennium BC in Egypt and Syro-Mesopotamia with the beginning of the Bronze Age in Western Asia or the emergence of a societal organization which we call civilization.

    In Europe, outside the Aegean, secure evidence for the use of weights can be demonstrated only for the second half of the second millennium BC.

    The state-of-the-art reveals a number of weak points:

    • Numerous blind spots. Despite 200 years of research on ancient metrology, both data and the publication of weighing equipment (both weights and scales) are still highly unsatisfactory. Current distributions of weights merely reflect the insufficient state of research and the lack of acquaintance with such material in the scholarly world.
    • No common methodology has been developed, the various approaches are sometimes speculative and many researchers ignore the potential of statistical tests.
    • Similar units of weights used in different regions point to intensive trade relations, but the basis for such assumptions most often rests on very slim and controversial sets of data.
    • No conceptualization and integration in a synthesis. The economic and social impact of weights and measures on the economical organization and trade, the establishment of value regimes and on early potential money conceptions is so far only minimally assessed in the scientific literature.

    With its focus on the crucial emergence on weights and measures in the various regions of Western Eurasia the project fuels the long and intensive debate on the origin of money. How metal may have been measured with weights and how weight-related metal objects, cut or in finished shape, were used in the Bronze Age societies will be studied in depth.


    To address the specific research objectives, the research and scientific approach of the project is divided under the following research headings:

    1. Sourcing data
    The scientific literature needs to be closely scrutinized to discover further unrecognized potential weights. While special attention will be given in the project to uncanonical weights, the study of the more easily identifiable canonical weights shall be pursued.

    Additional local museums and collections need to be checked. Much material has moreover already been published, but without sufficient information for metrological studies (state of preservation, mass). All this data will be gathered in a database which allows for comparative analyses, e.g. on the typology of the weights or the potential range of mass-units and weighing systems.

    2. Identifying potential weights
    Potential weights, especially when found in concentrations in graves, hoards or settlements, need to be studied and their data gathered. This means in most cases that first of all their mass has to be recorded. There are three kinds of indications:

    • Archaeological indicators: The weights could form a uniform group of artefacts by their material, their shape, surface treatment, etc. However, this needs not always be the case, as shown in the examples mentioned above. An important contextual indication can be their appearance in groups indicating their use in sets. Finally, a strong sign is the existence of physical or pictorial evidence of scales.
    • Sequential indicators: Any weighing system must be verified through the archaeological evidence of balance weights. Subsequently the potential underlying system of weight can be investigated. The weighing system must be intuitively understandable and should be based on a logical sequence of multiples of the assumed mass-unit (or in statistical terms: quantum), like for example 2, 4, 8, 16, etc. or 2, 3, 4, 5, 10, 12 and 60. If it is not intuitively understandable, it would not have been practical for the ancient users.
    • Statistical indicators: It is necessary (especially in larger samples) to test the hypothesis of the quantum with appropriate statistical methods, such as cosine quantogram analysis with the so-called Kendall-formula.

    3. Statistical methods
    It is simple to test an assumed mass-unit on a sample of weights with its multiples and fractions by measures of central tendency like the mean, median and the standard deviation. But these probability distributions build on the correctness of the identification of the mass unit, which might be an incorrect assumption.

    Hence, an approach which does not use an a priori assumption concerning the size of the quantum is of primary importance. The basic method was worked out by D. G. Kendall: the cosine quantogram analysis. In order to check the statistical validity of the quantum hypothesis, the results shall be tested with computer simulations against random sets of artificial data created from non-quantal distributions.

    4. 3D scanning
    3D laser contributes to a fast and therefore economical complete documentation of the objects. In addition, weights are frequently fragmented; because of this effect the potential database for metrological calculations is significantly reduced.

    However, it is possible to make reconstructions of the original shape, especially when it is symmetrical. This will be achieved through 3D reconstructions with a hand-held portable 3D laser; scanning using triangulation which will be of primary importance to calculate the missing part(s).

    The computer will convert the triangulated mesh data with a Computer-Aided Design (CAD) model into a 3D image of the object. The reconstructed part has to be added to this by 3D in order to calculate its volume.

    The specific density of the material of the object (calculated beforehand) is then multiplied with the volume of the fragmented weight and the reconstructed missing part in order to calculate the precise mass of the formerly complete object.

    The sub-projects

    There are five sub-projects conducted by team members and the Principal Investigator (PI). In its analytical part all projects intend to identify new sources which have gone unnoticed so far, even if there have been indications of them for a long time: the uncanonical weights.

    These can have the simple shape of pestles or even pebbles – yet sometimes have markings or are found in concentrations, sometimes together with scales. Pebble weights in particular indicate the hidden potential of the material as well as the inherent potential of the project to finally disclose the level of economic permeation of devices for value assessment during this period.

    The retrieval of new data from all the sub-projects and its meticulously detailed analysis are fundamental to a proper characterization of the Bronze Age. Beyond the concrete material evidence and the results of all sub-projects, various hypotheses on trade and the societal development during the Bronze Age will be tested. By doing so the project will contribute to fill various gaps in our knowledge of early societies by:

    • Qualifying trade and quantifying exchange in raw materials
    • Understanding the dissemination and the role/status of merchants
    • Observing innovation-connections and the emergence of the concept of stable private property
    • Assessing abstract and mathematical knowledge
    • Comparing the global impact of weight metrology

    Pebble, lenticular and metal weights in Central and Western Europe

    In Europe outside the Aegean our knowledge of the first weights derives from the Middle to Late Bronze Age. However, the general picture we currently have can only be described as highly imprecise. There are many blind spots in our knowledge concerning the distribution and use of weights in the economy.

    This is especially apparent for regions like Western France or Southern England where we have attestations of scale beams, but so far (nearly) non of weights. The project will attempt to detect further samples of pebble weights, similar to those groups of objects known from Migennes in France or Bordjos in Serbia.

    In addition, the project will document for the first time lenticular weights in Central Europe. Also some artefacts from the Early Bronze Age and the Final Neolithic shall be tested. Finally, the metal weights known so far from Central and Western Europe shall be restudied and precisely contextualized. The researchers will work also focus on the as yet not well known Bronze Age weights from the Iberian Peninsula.

    Pear-shaped weights, ring weights and metal ingots in Western Asia
    Pebble, ring, and other potential metrological weights in Western Asia have received little attention so far. Several examples of heavy pear-shaped weights with perforations, in rare cases inscribed, have been excavated in Bronze Age sites in Syria and Mesopotamia. Such objects have been considered as simple counter weights, loom weights or net sinkers, and were not published with the mass given.

    Similarly, ring stones have in rare instances been considered as metrological weights. This material evidence shall be systematically investigated for the first time.

    In addition, coils and rings of silver are known from several hoards of the third and second millennium BC in Syro-Mesopotamia. Some are finished objects, others are scraps. In many cases the scrap silver, fragments of ingots or lumps are only briefly mentioned in published reports. They are assumed to have been used as a pre-coinage currency building mainly on textual references and very limited data from the objects.

    Hence these hoards are literally treasures of information enabling us to both expand and nuance our understanding of the Near Eastern and Eastern Mediterranean economy in regard to pre-coinage currencies and the origin of money.

    The material is available in various museums and excavations storerooms in countries in the eastern Mediterranean/Near East, Europe and Northern America.

    Uncanonical weights and metal ingots from the Aegean
    This study will focus on pebble and other uncanonical weights mainly from Middle and Late Bronze Age sites. But again potential weight related artefacts will be investigated.

    Like in the Near East, coils made of gold and silver are known from various graves and hoards in the Early Bronze Age Aegean. These are called neckpieces, torques, or needles. However, they are often irregularly twisted, which makes their current interpretation as adornment rather unrealistic. Preliminary data indicate that they could correspond to multiples of a certain mass-unit, but more data is needed.

    Disc weights from Anatolia
    In this small scale project carried out by the PI lead disks and other potential or definite weights from third and second millennium sites in Turkey shall be sampled. Discs and other potential or definite weights from third and second millennium sites in Turkey shall be sampled.

    Canonical and potential weights from the Harappan culture
    While the Indus civilisation is well known for its cubical weights there are also other types of (potential) weights. There are, for example, a few possible pebble weights from Mojenho-daro and Chanhu-daro, but this aspect has never been tested on a larger sample. Similarly perforated weights are typical for the Indus and Central Asia – a potential metrological function has never been investigated.