Login *:
Password *:


5-09-2015, 12:25

Mesopotamian Money and Weights

Based on archaeological finds and texts, money was used in the third millennium. In form it consisted mainly of weights of precious metal, semi-precious metal, and barley. Early examples show a wide variety in heaviness and form of the weights, but reforms attributed to the Old Akkadian period (2334-2194 bce) imposed a far-reaching and long-lasting standardization. The oldest unit, and the one that remained constant throughout the history of ancient Mesopotamia and beyond, was the talent, or load, of about 30 kilograms or 66 pounds, the conventional amount that could be carried by a single worker. This large weight was divided into 60 minas, each about 500 grams, which in turn was divided into 60 shekels of about 8.3 grams each. The shekel was further divided into ‘‘little minas’’ (a shekel), ‘‘little shekels’’ (1/60 shekel), and ‘‘grains’’ or ‘‘barleycorns’’ (1/180 shekel) for the purpose of weighing small amounts of precious metals that were highly valuable and thus often measured in small quantities.

Though the evidence is not consistently robust after the Old Babylonian period, the Old Akkadian-Old Babylonian system apparently changed little over time, at least in the talent and mina (Powell 1990a). The shekel, on the other hand, was more dynamic, with local systems emerging in different areas. By the Late Bronze Age (1500-1000 bce), and probably before, three major systems had developed with regionally distinct shekels. Southern Mesopotamia had a mina of 60 shekels; Syro-Palestinians were using slightly larger shekels that counted 50 to a mina; and merchants of the Hittite empire used even larger ones, with only 40 per mina. At Emar around 1300 bce these three distinct weight systems were in use at one time, an unsurprising fact when one considers Emar’s situation in a frontier zone between competing empires. Later the Neo-Assyrians used three different weight standards for silver, the king’s, the merchants’, and the Carchemish standard, named after a north Syrian city. In Neo-Babylonian times, after 612 bce and later, the shekel underwent further subdivisions.

Stone weights have been found in many archaeological sites, including some 550 at Ugarit. But the most important single assemblage comes from the Late Bronze Age shipwreck found at Uluburun, Turkey. At least nine different sets of weights, each consisting of stones carved to fit a local weight system, were on board (Pulak 1997). With these weights the ill-fated merchants could have transacted payments in metal or other commodities with Aegeans, Hittites, Syro-Palestinians, Assyrians, or Egyptians. The weights are illustrative of the interpretive complexities in discussing money and trade. Even in the case of royal gift exchange, which is how most would interpret the Uluburun shipwreck, traders needed to be conversant with the major weight systems of the day.

Currency came in many forms, from the everyday and transitory to the exotic and permanent. Grain was probably the earliest standardized indicator of the value of goods, as it signified basic subsistence. Barley was adequate for local trading, since its value as food would not have lessened in transactions conducted over short distances and periods of time. For long-distance trade, however, something more concentrated and durable was required. Shiny metals were highly desired, perhaps because of their malleability and potential for ostentatious display as vessels and other household items. They were also relatively sturdy and low in bulk, making them ideal for longdistance trade. Prices in Mesopotamia and Egypt were sometimes stated in gold or copper, but silver was the most common measure for most of the Bronze and Iron Ages. In Mesopotamia, for most of its history, barley, lead, copper or bronze, tin, silver, and gold (in order of increasing value) functioned as money. These may be divided into monies that were cheap (barley, lead, and copper and its alloys), midrange (tin), and high-range (silver and gold) monies (Powell 1996). It is interesting that the most utilitarian metals, copper and tin, which when alloyed into bronze constituted the bulk of tools and weaponry, remained less valuable than metals with little utility. The relative value of tin is especially notable considering its rarity in the core areas of civilization. Weighed coils and smaller broken-off pieces of silver, copper, gold, and bronze were used as currency in Ur III to Old Babylonian times (2112-1595 bce); metal rings may also have been the basis for the Egyptian weight system. In the Late Bronze Age (1500-1200 bce) gold gained on silver due to an influx of Egyptian gold into the interregional exchange network, but throughout Mesopotamian history value was most commonly stated in weights of silver or barley. During the Neo-Assyrian period (883-627 bce) there was a shift to copper being the dominant metal money and then back to silver, perhaps as the result of huge amounts of metals imported by conquering armies.

Money and trade met in the figure of the moneyman, an individual with lots of currency who sought to increase it by local trading, foreign trading, or lending silver or barley with interest. We can lump the trader and creditor together in the class of moneymen (which included women) while recognizing that there were various sorts of moneymen who increased their capital through different means. They were all entrepreneurs in the sense that they accumulated wealth not primarily by producing, but by providing access to goods or services generated by others. They were experts in the knowledge of what was available, where, and for how much.

One of the more interesting indicators of merchant success was the suspicion that the consumer and producer sectors of society cast upon the merchant. The Mesopotamian hymn to Samas was unusually explicit regarding the conduct of merchants and their weighing practices:

He who [commits] fra[ud as he holds the ba]lances Who switches weights, who lowers the [ ],

(His) profits are illusory, and he lo[ses the capital].

The one who is honest in holding the balance, [ ] plenty of [ ],

Whatever (he weighs) will be given to him in plenty [ ]...

(Foster 1993a: 540, lines 107-11)

The honest merchant who pays loans by the [ex]tra(?) standard, thereby to make extra virtue,

Is pleasing to Slamas, he will grant him extra life,

He will make (his) family numerous, he will acquire wealth, [His] seed will be perpetual as the waters of a perpetual spring.

(Foster 1993a: 541, lines 118-21)

This can be compared to texts from Egypt, like the Instructions of Amenemope, perhaps from around 1200 bce in which the student was admonished not ‘‘to move the scales nor alter the weights,’’ since Thoth, the god of writing, magic, and wisdom, would know of it in the end (Lichtheim 1976: 156-7). This was a matter for the entire cosmos; the gods were invoked to oversee the weighing process and guarantee the honesty of merchants. Proverbs 11:1 and Psalm 62: 9-12 (Hebrew: 10-11) in the Bible also suggest that a higher power supervised economic activity.