Review: Ancient Scale Weights and Pre-Coinage Currency of the Near East

Ancient Scale Weights and Pre-Coinage Currency of the Near East

David Hendin. Ancient Scale Weights and Pre-Coinage Currency of the Near East. New York: Amphora, 2007. 237pp., b/w illus. throughout. ISBN 978-0-9654029-4-1. $65.00.

David Hendin’s longstanding interest in ancient weights is well known—indeed, it is one of the most poorly kept secrets in popular ancient numismatics. This is partly because every time he issues a new edition of his Guide to Biblical Coins (currently in its fourth edition, with a fifth under way), the section on weights and “a time before coinage” expands, and more space is devoted to their illustration in the plates. His interest in things metrological is obvious, especially when we consider that virtually no other popular handbook of ancient coinage includes weights. Thus the only thing surprising about the arrival of Hendin’s new book, Ancient Scale Weights and Pre-Coinage Currency of the Near East, is that it took until now to appear.

In the author’s usual style, the work begins with a lively anecdotal account of his first introduction to ancient weights in the markets of Israel in the 1970s and the interest this early exposure spawned. This is followed by a good general introduction to the use of scales and weights in the Near East from the third millennium BC to the twelfth century AD, with special attention paid to the development of weight systems used by Judah and neighboring states during the First Temple period. Weight tables are appended to most sections to show the various weight denominations, their probable official mass in grams, and to illustrate their relationship to one another.

While the tables for most of the weights are very helpful, those for the “Phoenician standard” of the third century BC to the third century AD and the “light standard” of the first century BC, which are drawn from Shraga Qedar’s introduction to Gewichte aus drei Jahrtausend IV (Münz Zentrum Auktion 49, 1983), give pause. Their monolithic nature makes them questionable, since it can be clearly demonstrated from the evidence of inscribed weights that standards in the Hellenistic and even the early Roman period could vary by city and region as well as over time (e.g., for the long survival of local standards at Gaza and Ascalon, see A. Kushnir-Stein, “The City-Goddess on the Weights of Ascalon,” Israel Numismatic Research 1 [2006]: 120-121), a feature that Hendin notes for the First Temple period. There is also very little reason to believe that native inhabitants of the Hellenistic and early Roman Near East used the vast majority of the denominational names given. Terms like “sicilicius,” “sextula,” and “scripulum” are all Latin and therefore are unlikely to have been regularly used until the Roman standard was widely adopted in the late second and third centuries AD. Instead, the inscribed weights of the Hellenistic and early Roman periods normally refer to the mina or the litra (e.g., no. 279) and their fractions (e.g., nos. 288-289, 296). The foreign nature of some denominations is well illustrated by weight no. 303 in the collection, which specifies its value as that of an “Italian uncia.” Because the somewhat dubious standards and terms used by Qedar are also applied throughout the catalogue of Hellenistic and Early Roman weights, readers are advised to draw their own conclusions regarding the validity of the denominational standards. Hendin himself describes the weight denominations given in the catalogue as only “suggested.”

The fully illustrated catalogue of 460 weights and precoinage currency is a trove of interesting material and is worthy of more detailed study. Indeed, the author has been generous in sharing the material in his collection with scholars and therefore a number of pieces have already received discussion in academic articles, most recently including a weight of Ascalon (no. 290; Kushnir-Stein 2006, no. 4). Other specimens in the collection serve to expand the data furnished by earlier published studies, such as a new Macedonian shield weight of Marisa (no. 293), which adds to the specimens presented by Gérald Finkielsztejn (“Evidence on John Hyrcanus I’s Conquests: Lead Weights and Rhodian Amphora Stamps,” Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society 16 [1998]: 33-63), and a remarkable Iron Age bronze cupcake weight inscribed “shekel of Hamat” in Phoenician script (no. 182), which brings the number of known and published Hamat shekel weights up to four.

The seven examples of precoinage currency (nos. 1-7) that open the catalogue include bronze “tongue” and bracelet ingots as well as silver and gold earrings, but the most important is no. 5, an apparently complete Hacksilber hoard from the environs of Jericho. Hendin rightly laments that the terracotta jug in which the hoard was hidden was discarded by the original finders rather than kept together with its contents.

The remainder of the catalogue is devoted entirely to weights produced and used from the Late Bronze Age to the early Islamic period. Of the early material, the Hendin collection provides an excellent sampling of all the primary weight forms, including Syrian and Babylonian sphendonoid weights (nos. 8-52), Mesopotamian ducks (nos. 53-81) and other zoomorphic weights (nos. 82-95, 142-181), and a wide selection of other Syro-Phoenician and “Canaanite” weights (nos. 96-123). Ten of the sphendonoid specimens (listed together in appendix B) are especially notable, because they were found hoarded together with Middle Bronze Age pottery. Readers are referred to an appendix C with respect to many of the other weights of this series, but in actuality, this appendix deals with inscribed Phoenician cubical weights. The missing appendix originally reported the weights of a group of more than one hundred sphendonoid weights that appeared together in 1980 and to which group many of the other Hendin pieces belong (this information is now available in an addenda/errata sheet from the author). Even those who are not of a particularly metrological bent will appreciate many of the early weights simply for their artistic quality. For example, several of the hematite ducks (nos. 66, 69-74) are exquisite in the simplification of their forms and the smoothness of their lines, while a naturalistic 1-shekel bronze frog (no. 166) looks as if it might leap right out of the scale’s pan!

As we might expect, the collection of Judaean stone and bronze dome weights (nos. 188-227) is extensive, covering almost all of the known denominations and including examples of the rare 40-, 24-, 12-, and 5-shekel (nos. 188-190, 193) as well as the 10- and 2-gerah (nos. 205, 215) denominations. However, only the 10-gerah is inscribed with its value. The astragalos (nos. 229-231), shell (nos. 332-334, 271-276), and cubical weights (nos. 235-270) of Judaea’s northern coastal neighbor Phoenicia are also very well represented here. The Hendin collection contains examples (in most cases multiple) of every denomination known to Josette and A. G. Elayi (Recherches sur les poids phéniciens [Paris, 1997], nos. 19-121).

Notable among the Hellenistic and early Roman material (nos. 277-316), which primarily comes from the regions of ancient Phoenicia and Coele Syria, are the weights of Marisa and Ascalon mentioned above, two weights of Gaza (nos. 288, 295), and a group of four weights of Tyre (nos. 286-287, 294, 302). Of these, only nos. 286 and 294 are clearly identified as Tyrian in the descriptive text. This identification is assured by the use of the Tanit symbol on the former and the city’s monogram on the latter. However, nos. 287 and 302 are also clearly linked to these two by their use of the same egg-and-dart border. They are further linked by their reported Lebanese provenances and their appearance on the London market in 1988. Their maritime types of a ship’s prow (cp. Elayi and Elayi 1997, no. 396) and the pilei of the Dioscuri further support a Tyrian attribution. It is tempting to think that these weights may have been found together originally, just like the group of sphendonoid weights in appendix B. Nos. 286 and 287, with masses of 114.8 g and 106.8 g, respectively, may represent 1/4 minae, whereas no. 294 (53.86 g) may be a 1/8 mina and no. 302 (27.57 g) a 1/16 mina.

Two weights in the collection come from cities in the territory of Syria proper. No. 281 is from Antioch on the Orontes and no. 289 is from Laodicea by the Sea. The first is a remarkable Seleucid-period weight with a dynastic anchor type and an abbreviated city ethnic. This piece is particularly interesting because it has a second anchor engraved into the right field, which might suggest a form of revalidation similar to that known for some Seleucid bronze coinages (see A. Houghton and C. Lorber, Coins of the Seleucid Empire [New York/Lancaster, 2002], part 1, vol. 2, pp. 37, 45). As no. 281 has a mass of 265.6 g and employs an identical typology to a 2-mina weight of the third century BC published by Henri Seyrig (“Poids antiques de la Syrie et de la Phénice sous la domination grecque et romain,” Bulletin du Musée de Beyrouth 8 [1949]: 40), it is somewhat unclear why this weight is thought to be based upon a light Roman standard of the first century BC. No. 289 is identifiable as a Laodicean weight by its characteristic triangular shape (cp. Seyrig 1949, 53-54). The legend, which is poorly preserved and misinterpreted in the text, reads EKK(ai)DEKATON, thereby assuring us that we are dealing with a 1/16 mina. The central letters AI date the weight to year 11 of the city’s “Caesarean” era (38/7 BC).

The question of dating eras also comes up with respect to nos. 248 and 292, which bear Greek alphabetic numerals prefixed by the sign L, normally understood to signal a date. However, in the case of the former, marked only L Vp (96), the number V(6) is taken to represent the value of 6 uncia and p (90) alone is understood as the date. This interpretation seems somewhat unlikely, since Greek weights of the Hellenistic and Roman periods are most commonly denominated in terms of fractions rather than multiples and the L-sign has been thought to derive from a corruption of the initial E of e[toi (“year”). It seems more likely that the weight in question was produced in a year 96 (perhaps c. AD 32-37, based on one of the “Pompeian” eras, or c. AD 47-50, based on one of the “Caesarean” eras).

In the treatment of no. 292, a wonderful example from a weight series naming a Herod as agoranomos, it is suggested that the reverse inscription LKB represents a denomination of 22 drachms, while LDIS on the obverse gives the date as year 214. Since one would expect the L-sign to indicate a date on both sides of the weight, it would be tempting to think that the weight is actually dated according to two different eras. While relatively rare, double-dating is not unknown on coins of the Roman Near East (e.g., the civic and epidemia dates on Hadrianic issues of Ascalon and Gaza), and a series of weights from Laodicea shows that even triple-dating (by imperial regnal year, “Caesarean,” and Actian eras) was possible (Seyrig 1949, 55-57). On the other hand, double dating seems to be ruled out by the existence of other weights in the series that share the year 214 date but give different numbers on the reverse (18, 36, 42, 72). Nevertheless, these are like very peculiar drachm multiples (most are not easily reduced to an even number of tetradrachms), although the denomination may be supported by the evidence of mass (77.2 g for the LKB specimen). We also have some reservations about the view that the year 214 is based on a “Pompeian” era, which would date the weight to c. AD 149/50-154/5. The well-executed lettering of the inscription, which includes no lunate or cursive forms (cp. the letter forms of no. 290, a weight securely dated to the middle of the second century AD), gives the impression that the weight might be earlier in date. When the date is calculated according to the Seleucid era (counting from autumn of 312 BC), year 214 is equivalent to 99/8 BC, a somewhat more comfortable date from an epigraphic perspective. If this is really a weight of the early first century BC, perhaps the Herod in question is related to the grandfather of Herod the Great, who is variously named Herod and Antipas/Antipater in the primary sources (Jos. AJ 14.10; Eus. Hist. Eccl. 1.7.11) and who became strategos of Idumaea under Alexander Jannaeus (104-76 BC). Clearly, there is room for further study of this series.

The collection is also very strong on the somewhat less enigmatic weights of the late Roman and Byzantine periods (nos. 327-410). Notable examples are a 3-uncia barrel weight (no. 329) inscribed with the name PATRICIV(s), an extremely well-engraved square weight (no. 378) of 3 unciae marked as 6 unciae (perhaps for fraudulent use), and a previously published uncia weight depicting and naming St. Paul of Tarsus (no. 390). Among the numerous square and circular nomisma weights, Hendin also includes an AE 2 coin (no. 357) of Valentinian III (mislabeled as Theodosius I) that has had its edges serrated by its ancient owner, thereby giving it a weight of 3.94 g (roughly that of a nomisma), apparently to convert it into a makeshift nomisma weight. If this was the purpose of the serration, then a serrated AE 3/4 of Constantine weighing 2.25 g should probably be considered a semissis weight (see O. Hoover, “A Reused GLORIA EXERCITUS AE 3/4 of Constantine the Great,” The Celator 18, no. 5 [May 2004]: 38-39, 60, where the serration is considered a mere decorative embellishment).

Although the title of the book only refers to the ancient weights that make up the bulk of the Hendin collection, in the interest of completeness, the medieval period is also touched upon by the inclusion of almost fifty weights of the Islamic period (down to the twelfth century AD). The majority of these are multifaceted, barrel, and square bronze weights that look to the model of Byzantine weights for their forms. A few are stamped with Arabic personal names, including a 2-mitqal weight (no. 432) that may possibly name the Abbasid or (perhaps more likely) the Fatimid caliph Al-Mustansir and a 1/2 dinar weight (no. 437) that may name ‘Ubayd Allah b. al-Habhab, the finance minister of al-Misr (Egypt) from AD 730 to 734. A remarkable 1/3-dinar weight (no. 438) attests to the fullness of its weight “in the name of Allah,” while a 2-dirham weight (no. 445) proclaims the takbir. The collection concludes with three glass weights (nos. 458-460) stamped with a hexagram, which should be attributed to the Mamluk dynasty of Egypt (for similar weights, see inv. nos. 3467.058, 3467.060, 3467.063 in A Complete Catalog [Sylloge] of the Glass Weights, Vessel Stamps & Ring Weights in the Gayer-Anderson Museum, Cairo [Mathaf Bayt al-Kritiliyya], hosted by the American Numismatic Society at​dpubs/islamic/ga/).

Despite our questions regarding the identification of some weight denominations and our alternate readings of several of the inscribed Hellenistic and early Roman weights, there can be no question that by publishing this wonderful collection, David Hendin has served both the layman and the scholar well. For the former, he has provided a liberal taste of the world of metrological objects beyond the realm of the strictly numismatic, and for the latter, he has provided much new material greatly deserving of further research. No doubt many will be pleased that Ancient Scale Weights and Pre-Coinage Currency of the Near East, which has been on the horizon for years, has at last come into port for the benefit of readers.

—Oliver D. Hoover