Standard Weights and Measures

The Controllers of Measures (Metronomoi) have also left us many samples of their work. One set of bronze weights (34), inscribed as standard weights of the Athenians, are surmounted by molded symbols which serve as a visual key to the particular unit or fraction. The large unit (stater), weighing nearly two pounds, is designated by a knucklebone, the quarter by a shield, and the sixth by a turtle. These weights, found near the Tholos, probably belonged to one of the official sets that, as an extant decree provides, were deposited for public comparison on the Acropolis, in the Tholos, at Eleusis, and at Piraeus.

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34. Set of official standard bronze weights, ca. 500 B.C.
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35. Countermarked lead weight, fourth century B.C.

A lead weight (35), with an amphora symbol and a legend marking it as one-third of the stater, belongs to a somewhat later period. This weight, which may have been used in a shop, has been stamped by the Controllers of Measures with their official seal, depicting the seated statue of a god.

Standard measures, marked as official and stamped with coin-like representations of Athena’s head and the double-bodied owl, were also found near the Tholos. Only the small unit of the liquid measures is preserved; this little jug (36) holds one kotyle (about half a pint). The dry measures are cylindrical vessels well adapted both for emptying and leveling off; one (37) holds about 1½ quarts; the other (38) about ¼ pint.

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36. Official liquid measure, fifth century B.C.
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37. Official dry measure, with validating stamp and painted inscription reading DEMOSION (public property), fourth century B.C.
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38. Official dry measure of bronze, late fifth century B.C.
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39. Official nut measure, late second century B.C.

The somewhat different shape of a second-century measure (39) seems especially designed to fill a function outlined by a contemporary law: “Sellers of Persian nuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, chestnuts, Egyptian beans, dates and any other dried fruits normally sold with these, also lupines, olives, and pine kernels shall use a measure of the capacity of three half-choinikes (about 1½ quarts) of grain leveled off, selling them heaped up in this choinix which shall be five fingers deep and have a lip one finger wide. . . . If anyone sells in a smaller container, the appropriate authority shall immediately sell the contents by auction, pay the money to the public bank and destroy the container.” The lead seal fixed in the side of this vessel shows the same seated statue of a god which appears on the stamped lead weight.

A standard of a completely different sort (40) gives further indication of the many activities over which it seemed best to the People to have some control. The tile standard was set up outside a late addition to the civic offices in the Agora, where it must often have been the meeting place of irate buyers and makers of roof tiles so that an offending product could be compared with the standard. That the same standard had been in use for centuries is witnessed by the fact that fifth century tiles have the same dimensions.

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40. Marble standard for terracotta roof tiles, first century B.C.
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Excavations in the Athenian Agora are conducted by the American School of Classical Studies.
Primary funding is provided by the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI).