Tempest Over a “Cheater’s Weight”

By David Hendin for CoinWeek …..
 

A scientist need not be chastised for every error. Neither should every archaeologist, numismatist, or historian. But when the error leads to lots of publicity and an internationally noticed erroneous report, it at least needs to be corrected. This is the case regarding a Judahite First Temple Period limestone scale weight discovered in Jerusalem but completely misunderstood by the authors who reported it.

The first reference to this incident that I have found was the September 2 Jerusalem Post, which reported:

Archaeologists have uncovered a weight used for trading in ancient Jerusalem that scholars believe was used to defraud traders. Found in the northern part of the City of David in Jerusalem’s Old City and dating back to 2,700 years ago during the First Temple period, the weight in question is just 14 mm in diameter and 12 mm in height, and is only the second one of its kind to have been found in Israel. Made of hard limestone, it contained engravings indicating it has a weight of two gerah, which equals 0.944 grams.

Despite this, however, the weight does not weigh two gerah. Rather the researchers found that it weighted at least 3.61 grams, over three times as much.

While this may seem odd, Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Eli Shukron and Hagai Cohen Kolonimus say that the likely explanation is that whoever used this weight in commerce was using it to cheat people.

The professors concluded that because the weight in question had two parallel lines || that it represented the denomination of two gerahs, but fraudulently created to be MUCH heavier.

Indeed, it all makes a nice story, especially for release just before the Jewish New Year holiday. The authors and the media all cite the Old Testament, whose authors frequently rail against dishonesty in commerce, especially when weighting, a critical issue at the time:

“Do not have in thy bag diverse weights, a great and a small…” Deuteronomy 25:13.

And:

“Just balances, just weights, a just epah [a measure of about 1.1 bushels], and a just hin [a measure of about 1.5 gallons] shall ye have.” Leviticus 19:36.

It was not difficult to rub away a bit of an ancient weight, or to make one’s own that was just too light or too heavy. Thus, the Prophets had a dim view of dishonest weighing that often went along with buying and selling. The Prophet Amos condemns the people who cannot wait for the Sabbath to end so they can get back to making their dishonest profits because they “Make the epah small, and the shekel great, and falsify the balances of deceit.” Amos 8:5.

It was a good and upbeat message for the new year, be good, be honest. The story was so compelling that it was picked up quickly by LOTS of other outlets, including the Jewish Press, Times of Israel, Israel Today, Bignewsnetwork.com, World Israel News, and even Xinhuanet.com, a Chinese news service.

Unfortunately, the “fraudulently” marked weight at the center of the story was not fraudulently marked at all.

Egyptian hieratic numbers were used to identify ancient Judahite weights from the Iron Age. These numbers were usually engraved on the top of the dome-shaped, limestone weights, but many unmarked weights exist and there is evidence they originally had numbers painted on them.

The hieratic number for 2 is indeed shown by two vertical lines. And this is the symbol that would be used to identify a two-gerah weight. Apparently, when the Israeli archaeologists saw the || they jumped to the conclusion that it stood for “two”. However, specialists in Judahite weights are also familiar with the hieratic number for 8, which is represented by two horizontal lines, sometimes, but not always, with small edges on one end to help distinguish it from the number 2.

The average two-gerah weight weighs either 0.96 or 1.14 grams (depending on if you adhere to 20 or 24 gerahs to the shekel, either is possible, and scholars of Judahite weights generally prefer 24). The average eight-gerah weight weighs either 3.84 or 4.56 grams.

The weight in question from the City of David excavation is reported to weigh at least 3.61 grams. Since, as the Jerusalem Post article points out, this is nearly four times the weight of two gerahs that is attributed to it, it MUST be a larger denomination weight. Multiplication shows us that the weight is in the neighborhood of six to eight gerahs. Since there are no known seven-gerah weights, one who understands these weights can assume that the weight was meant to be six or eight gerahs, but certainly NOT two gerahs.

What was interesting to me was that the researchers obviously referred to Dr. Raz Kletter’s groundbreaking book on the subject: Economic Keystones: The Weight System of the Kingdom of Judah (1998), because the Post noted that as a two-gerah weight, theirs was only the “second of its kind” found in an excavation in Israel.

Yet they did not check the same reference for any other small denomination weights with masses similar to the weight in question.

I asked Dr. Robert Deutsch about this misidentification since he holds a Ph.D. in archaeology from Tel Aviv University and is also a published expert in ancient weights and inscriptions.

“This is not the first time that unskilled excavators are publishing epigraphic materials with severe errors,” Deutsch said. He referred specifically to a similar error in reading a fiscal bulla, a seal impression also from the First Temple Period and also found in the same area of the City of David excavations, which was published incorrectly and later corrected by both Deutsch and Dr. Gaby Barkay.

Deutsch believes that some archaeologists continue to stubbornly “refuse to consult unprovenanced material” even it if would be helpful to them. Large numbers of unprovenanced ancient objects are located in public, private, state, and university collections, and have often been published in more accessible formats than objects found in excavations.

To me, the most fascinating part of this whole story is that if an expert in Judahite scale weights had been consulted regarding the 3.61-gram scale weight marked ||, then she or he would very likely have rotated it by 90 degrees and said: “This is more likely an eight-gerah weight because of its mass and inscription.”

Since most published eight-gerah weights are, however around 10-20 % heavier than this particular weight, we should consider the possibility that the weight was used fraudulently in the marketplace.

It would have been a very modest fraud, like the butcher slipping his thumb on the scale to add a quarter or half a pound to the price of your order. Similarly, the owner of this scale could have passed off a measly 3.61 grams of silver as eight gerahs (either 3.84 or 4.56 grams).

In fact, if I was writing an article about it, I would have likely quoted The Code of Hammurabi (Section 94), which refers specifically to weighing transactions by merchants (called tamkaru [tamkarum, singular] in Akkadian):

“If the tamkarum tries to practice fraud with weights, he loses everything he has lent.”

Then I would have gone on to quote the Old Testament about cheating during commerce…

Copyright © 2021 by David Hendin

Parts of some CoinWeek articles may be adapted from my previous articles or my Guide to Biblical Coins.

* * *

David Hendin is First Vice President and an Adjunct Curator at the American Numismatic Society (ANS). Send him your questions at [email protected] and he will try to answer questions of general interest in this space in the future.

 

6 COMMENTS

  1. Sadly prof. Hendin did not read the complete article, but only the journalist report over the article (which of course, is far from being comprehensive).
    In the article the claims are modest, and the possibility it is an 8 gera weight is dealt with (and excluded). Also, there is no claim there are only two such fraud weights – the claim is that only one more fraud *gera* weight is known from archeological excavations.
    I guess criticizing other scholars can be done easily today, using what other wrote on their study instead of what they wrote in the actual article.
    Indeed, scientist should be more careful, especially if trying to criticize others.

    • Please provide a link or citation to the complete article you describe. All we have right now is your statement that the claims were modest and the 8 gera weight was dealt with. Thanks.

      • Mike, the article is in Hebrew. If you can read Hebrew, you will find all I said and more.
        I am checking now if I can share the article in Academia.edu or research gate. If not, I can send you it in private Email.
        I see also now a reply below giving you the specific answer for the 8 or 2 gera question.

        I want to add – I am happy for criticism and discussion over the facts and interpretation. They do not have to agree with my interpretation, but they should bring a good argument for the debate. Here Hendin (following Deutsch) falsely accuse us as if we haven’t even thought of the possibility. Then he takes us as an example for poor work. But all this because instead of reading what we wrote, he took his information from the a newspaper! So who do you think did the poor work in this case?
        Now, we have already sent the article to Hendin and Deutsch. They know we addressed this issue in the article and more. They did not apologize for their false claims, they did not send a new message in the Numismatic society to correct their false accusations, and this blog post is still online.
        so and I said: “Indeed, scientist should be more careful, especially if trying to criticize others”.

  2. The article I’ve seen is in Hebrew, it was included as part of a publication compiled for the City of David Megalim Institute’s 22nd Conference that was held a couple weeks ago (Book 16) … I haven’t seen a link for an online version yet, besides the hard copy made available at the event. Nevertheless, the article presents 2 gerah as the best identification, while also mentioning 6 gerah and 8 gerah weights, and describing the hieratic symbol for 8 gerah, citing Barkay and Kletter (Kletter’s 1998 work is cited several times throughout).

  3. I am Happy to see Hendin corrected his article, from falsely accusing us (based on the press report instead of reading the academic article) to (almost only) criticizing us. The article was published in the 22nd conference book of City of David, and so the time of its publication was not correlated to any specific time of the year, other then the conference itself. Though, symbolically, Hendin’s false accusation was written before “Yom Kippur”, a known Jewish day before which one should ask for forgiveness from all those he had offended. Yom Kippur has come and gone, but not only no apology could be seen. Hendin does not even repents of his false accusations. Now, despite proven wrong by just being addressed to the academic article, he probably feels he most hold to his already well celebrated far-fetched interpretation.

    As for the criticism:
    Once we have a well establish corpus of items originating in controlled excavations, the use of unprovenanced items from the antiquity market is not only irrelevant but can also lead to severe mistakes. This is especially true for epigraphic material.
    The entire discussion over the weight was given in our article. Hendin repeats parts of the discussion and uses data from the article, but you still fails to give the proper credit.
    As anyone who ever carved on stones easily learns – carving is not like fast handwriting. two lines with hinges in the end will not become two straight lines. In carving the artist looks carefully at his work and corrects it constantly. Therefore, two very straight lines cannot be seen to resemble two lines with hinges. I think that the different pictures given here in the blog speak for themselves.
    The rest is an interpretation – Hendin puts himself in the mind of ancient people and decides a fraud should be small and cannot exceed an unspecified percentage. Not only this is an anachronistic interpretation, even in modern times similar fraud could have (and did) happen with small weights – the actual difference is less than 3 grams. One should only speak with jewelry merchants in the Old City of Jerusalem to hear the stories.
    Moreover, Hendin disregards another gera weight from Tel Batash, showing similar fraud. The weight, which was mentioned in our article is marked as 5 gera, but weigh twice. This time turning the number around cannot give a different far-fetch interpretation of the number.
    Kletter, in his comprehensive book on Judahite scale weights does not look for far-fetch interpretations – he takes the number as is written on the weight and examine the mass in comparison with the number. Some weights show too high mass, some too low – he leaves all interpretation aside and let the numbers speak.
    So did we. We dealt with the numbers as is, and not under modern anachronistic interpretations. We have dealt with and revoked other possible explanations and gave a full discussion of many additional aspects. Sadly, some scholars prefer to hold tight to they anachronistic paradigms, which were base on unprovenanced material and on irrelevant interpretations.
    As for Hendin’s last remark – dealing with dated archaeological material one should aspire to give relevant historical references. Namely, to use contemporary texts, while avoiding examples from remote regions or from irrelevant time periods.

LEAVE A REPLY

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.