Before coinage was introduced, most commerce was based on the exchange of goods for quantities of metals. Those were weighed on scales, mostly against stone weights. Even after the appearance of coinage, weights continued to be used for evaluating different goods, as well as verifying the quality of metals and the value of the coins themselves – as made evident by the information below.
Scale weights were used for commerce as early as the Early Bronze Age in the third millennium BCE. The first weights, known from Mesopotamia, were made of stone and known simply as ‘abnu‘, meaning stone. The primary unit of measurement used in the ancient Near East was the ‘shekel’ , originally weighing 8.4 gram. Its derivatives appeared in multiples such as 1 shekel, 2 shekels, 4 shekels etc. These multiples are based on a Sexagesimal (base 60) count system. 60 shekel weights and their multiples were equivalent to one ‘maneh’.
The ubiquitous ‘shekel‘ weight system was common throughout the ancient Near East during the Bronze and Iron Ages. However, despite the similar terminology, in reality the actual weight units varied from kingdom to kingdom and even from city to city. Throughout antiquity, dominant central governments would often dictate the use of uniform weight systems within their territory, and at times powerful rulers attempted to conduct reformations enforcing a unified weight system. Varying weight systems appearing in regions of close proximity to each-other may therefore indicate a weak central government, although they may also occur in regions of lesser importance to the ruling power.
According to the written sources available to us, the primary means of exchange used in antiquity consisted of fragments of cut silver known as hacksilber. These were weighed against stone weights on a scale and given in exchange for goods or services. Although silver was the most commonly used means of exchange, ancient texts mention other materials as well, such as copper, bronze, tin and even dyed or plain wool which was likewise weighed as a means of exchange.
Dome-shaped limestone weights appeared throughout the Kingdom of Judah from the late 8th through the early 6th centuries BCE. The Judahite weights are based on a shekel unit of about 11.33 grams. Especially common are weights weighing 1, 2, 4 and 8 ‘shekels‘, while weights of 16 and even 40 shekels are known as well. Many of the weights are marked with a ɣ mark interpreted as a sign designating the shekel, along with a number mark indicating the particular shekel multiple. Nearly all transactions recorded in the Bible depict the use of silver or gold shekels.
“And Abraham weighed the silver for Ephron which he had named in the audience of the sons of Heth: four hundred shekels of silver, current money with the merchant” (Genesis 23:16). The most commonly used weight unit smaller than the shekel, was the beka: “A bekah for every man, that is, half a shekel, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, for every one who went to be numbered” (Exodus 38: 26). The netzef and pym were used as well, and the three are often easily identified by an etched inscription indicating their weight. The gera was utilized as a unit allowing divisions smaller than half a shekel, the shekel being 24 gera. Biblical descriptions of the ‘shekel of the sanctuary’ weighing 20 gera, have not been fully substantiated by archaeological finds.
In the Bible (in the original Hebrew) weights are known simply as ‘stones’ and were carried in a ‘pocket’ which was likely a sack of sorts that was attached to a belt: “You shall not have in your pocket two kinds of stones, large and small. You shall not have in your house two kinds of measures, large and small” (Deuteronomy 25:13-14); “Honest balances and scales are the Lord’s; all the stones in the pocket are His work” (Proverbs 16:11). These verses, as well as others, emphasize the important role scale weights played in commerce, and accordingly, the need for accurate and reliable weights. Similarly, the Hebrew Bible uses the word for hacksilver – betza for describing greed, bribery and corruption: “Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain (original Hebrew- betza); they took bribes and perverted justice” (1 Samuel 8:3).
While the shekel ceased being used during the Second Temple Period, the maneh, (a unit of measurement known in the Greek world as well) continued in use, including smaller fractions of a half, a quarter and an eighth of a maneh. The maneh continued to be used until the end of the Second Temple Period together with the Roman Libra which was introduced into the region. Flat cylindrical limestone weights, used mostly by the Jewish population, appeared along with lead weights which were occasionally inscribed with the name of the ‘agoranomos’, the magistrate in-charge of the economy and markets. Similar lead weights continued to be used sporadically until and including the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE). The value of the mane was not necessarily uniform throughout the Second Temple Period, but often varied slightly in weight from city to city.
During the late Persian Period, the first coins were minted in the Land of Israel. While these coins were made strictly of silver, gold and bronze coins subsequently appeared as well. Coins were generally valued according to their weight and coins of precious metals were valued according to their purity as well. In order to appraise their value, coins were often weighed on a scale against stone weights, despite being of a given value which was often marked on the coin itself. At times, either due to the decline of the central government or a shortage of available currency, fragments of gold, silver and even bronze coins were used in commerce. Indeed, in such cases coins did not represent their original weight and had to be weighed to determine their proper value.
Bronze Numisma weights were common during the Late Roman and Byzantine Periods, these were intended for weighing Numisma coins (1/72 Libra), although smaller divisions such as the Kerátion (1/24 Numisma, English: carat; Latin: siliqua) were known as well. Many of the weights are marked with the Latin letter N (Numisma). Occasionally, weights were marked with Greek letters denoting a numerical value such as: A for 1, B for 2, S for 6, H for 8 and IB for 12.
Other types of weights begin to appear during the Roman-Byzantine period, such as ‘barrel-shaped’ weights or square weights with tapered edges. These became widespread during the subsequent Islamic periods and were used for weighing silver dirhams and gold dinars. Many bear the “birds eye” marking consisting of a circle with a dot in its center, while others bear a single word inscription.
Glass weights were also common. These first appeared during the Byzantine Period and became widespread from the Fatimid through the Mamluk Periods. During Islamic periods, glass weights were used for weighing gold dinars and similar coins. The name of the ruler, the value of the weight and the year of issue generally appeared on the weight.
Towards the end of the Ottoman Period, weight measurement units varied by region. Separate systems existed for northern cities such as Acre, Haifa and the Galilee, for southern cities such as Jerusalem, Nablus, Jaffa and Samaria and for the city of Hebron, which had its own unique weight system. Although the terminology remained the same (rutl, okka and kantar), actual weight values differed, causing great confusion in local markets. The Jewish population was particularly burdened by these discrepancies as many of them were recent immigrants from European countries where a uniform metric system was in place. Upon establishing their mandate in the early 20th century, the British attempted to enforce a single system of weight and measures, however, this proved ill-fated due to the difficulty in controlling the widely dispersed peasant population. It was only after the establishment of the State of Israel that the metric system was properly instituted.