5. Weights, Measures & Balancing Scales

by Denise Rhyne

Gold is like no other commodity:  It is not consumed; it does not corrode; it is portable; it is rare; and it is always easy to trade.  Gold is natural money.  

Histories of all great civilizations record the use of gold and silver to facilitate trade.  However, ancient money was not in coin form. According to archaeology, there were no coins or denominations of monetary value for thousands of years.

MONEY was the WEIGHT of silver or gold
moneta (Latin) mná (Greek) maneh (Hebrew)   

Early on, specific monetary values were not assigned to units of silver and gold.  Instead, monetary units were measurements of weight.  The weight of the gold or silver was what mattered in commerce.

Harappan gold discs – Indus Valley c. 2000 BC

Money was the metal itself – kept in jewelry, ingots, rings, and bars.  An ancient trader usually did not count the money in a business transaction.  The only reason to add up money was to make a rough estimate of the weight.  (Objects below from Thrace)

In antiquity, nations and tribes measured the value of un-coined silver and gold by placing the metal on one side of a balance and offsetting it with standardized weights.  Everyone measured the value of gold and silver in that way.  The oldest civilizations carried on seamless trade by using equivalent units of mass to measure gold and silver money. 

The weight system for measuring the value of money was internationally integrated and unbelievably precise.

Hematite weights from Mesopotamia c. 1700 B.C.   (A different
weight system was used for weighing non-gold and non-silver things.)

Originally, the gerah, maneh, shekel, and talent were weights - rather than stamped pieces of money.  The shekel was an international unit of weight long before it became a Hebrew coin.  Until civilizations declined, weights such as the shekel, maneh, and talent were standardized and interchangeable:

1 talent = 60 maneh (minae)
1 talent (kikkar) = 3,000 shekels

3,000 Phoenician shekels, 3,000 Persian staters,
3,000 Hebrew shekels, 3,000 Assyrian shekels

were equal to

1 Egyptian talent, 1 Babylonian talent,
1 Phoenician talent, 1 Greek talent

The Sumerians calculated the value of precious metals by using the same weights as the Hebrews and Greeks used.  Convertible systems of weights were used in Babylon, Persia, Nineveh, and throughout the ancient world – with astonishing consistency.

Between 1,792 to 1,750 B.C., the King of Babylon measured money by the shekel (Code of Hammurabi).  Phoenicia used the same shekel 1,000 years later.  King Sennacherib used the shekel to weigh money in Assyria around 700 B.C.

Herodotus’ table of monetary weights (484 to 425 B.C.) divided 1 Greek talent into 60 Greek minae.  More than 1,000 years earlier, the Babylonians also divided 1 talent into 60 maneh.

Seeds and grains were once used as standardized weights for weighing money on precision scales.  Ancient jewelers and traders used barley grains and the uniform seeds of the carob tree as units of weight to determine mass.

One grain taken from the middle of an ear of barley was used as a weight called a gerah:  

1 gerah = 1 grain

The pod or seed of the carob tree has a consistent weight of four grains.  A carob seed was used as a weight called carat (via Arabic qirat):

4 gerah = 4 grains = 1 carat.

The carat system measures mass.

Carat (abbreviated ct.) is the spelling used in North America when referring to the weight of gemstones (diamonds/rubies).

With today’s technology, the calculation is extremely precise:
1 carat = 0.2053 grams
1 carat = 3.17 grains Troy weight
120 carats = 1 Troy ounce.

The carat system also
measures the purity of gold alloys.

Pure gold is 24k.  Karat (abbreviated k or kt.) is the spelling used in North America when referring to the purity of gold jewelry.  

To find the percentage of gold purity,
divide the number stamped on your jewelry by 24.
14k ÷ 24  =    58½%       .585      585/1,000

18k ÷ 24  =      75  %       .750     750/1,000
22k÷ 24   =   91.67%     .9167    916/1,000 (repetend 6)

All 24k gold is bright yellow.

Metal mixed with the gold changes the color

to pink, blue, orange, purple, green, white.

Different geographical regions have various karat standards for gold jewelry:

  • India – 22k
  • United States – was 10k, now 14k or 18k
  • Far East – 24k, Canton – Chuk Kam – min. 99% pure
  • Russia 9k
  • United Kingdom 9k
  • Mediterranean Europe – 18k

The system of millesimal fineness for precious metal is a high-tech version of the carat system of weights.  The Latin word for thousand is mille.  Millesimal fineness denotes parts per thousand of pure metal in a metal alloy – the purity of the metal.

The stamp on a bar is its hallmark of purity.  A Standard Bar of silver weighs approximately 1,000 Troy oz, and has a minimum fineness of .999 (999 parts of pure silver per 1,000).  A Standard Bar of gold weighs approximately 400 Troy oz -or- 12.5 kilograms [ 12.5 x 32.151 = 401.8875 Troy oz), and has a minimum fineness of .995 (995 parts of pure gold per 1,000).

The current minimal acceptable fineness for a London Good Delivery Bar [LGD] is 995/1000 gold.  A London Good Delivery Bar weighs between 350 and 430 Troy ounces of 99.5% pure gold. Former standards of purity varied from current standards by one decimal point.  Current world standards for millesimal fineness of precious metals:

  • Gold .995 to .9999
  • Platinum .995 to .999
  • Palladium .995 to .999
  • Silver .999

England’s pound (£) was once a monetary unit of
weight.  Pound (abbreviated lb) is a Latin word that means weight.  A pondus was a weight used on a balance. A libra was a Latin balancing scale and a Roman coin. The British pound’s symbol -£- is the first letter of the word libra.

In 1829, Sir Isaac Newton adopted the gold standard for Britain, fixing the price at £3 17 s. 10½ p. per oz.  The British gold pound (£) is called the Sovereign; the gold content of the quarter ounce coin is .2354 Troy oz.

Back in the day, when the British gold (£) pound
was used as legal tender, silver and gold coins had standard relationships.  The gold pound was equivalent to 20 shillings or 240 pence (the sterling silver penny). Below:  silver penny from the reign of King Alfred (Ælfred, A.D. 871-899).

The penny was Great Britain’s primary unit of coinage—
beginning with the Anglo-Saxon sceat in the (A.D.) 700s until 1946. The sterling silver penny’s weight became a universal unit of weight—the pennyweight.  The penny’s symbol is -d- after the Roman penny, denarius.  Pennyweight is abbreviated dwt.

The universal definition of sterling silver is silver that is 92.5% pure (925/1,000 or .925).  In 1158, Henry II of England ordained the original sterling coin.  The “sterling” was a sterling silver penny that weighed 1/240th of a Troy pound.  In other words, 240 pennies weighed one Troy pound of sterling silver — the Pound Sterling.

The Pound Sterling was the world’s standard for legal
money and the world’s reserve currency until 1944.

Troy weight -first used in Troyes, France- is a system of weights for gold and silver based on one Troy pound containing 5,760 grains / 12 Troy ounces.

Troy weight system:
1 Troy pound = 12 Troy oz = 240 dwt = 5,760 grains
1/12 Troy pound = 1 Troy oz = 20 dwt = 480 grains
1/240 Troy pound = 1/20 Troy oz = 1 dwt = 24 grains

1 grain = 0.0648 grams
1 Troy ounce   = 31.1035 grams (31.1034768 grams)

32.151 (approx. 32.1507) Troy ounces = 1 kilo bar
32,151 Troy ounces = 1,000 kilos = 1 metric tonne

Dollar is the name for monetary units all over the world. The definition of the word dollar is weight.  The term dollar is from the Greek word taler referring to the weight of gold or silver.  The dollar came to America from Bohemia.  The Bohemian thaler contained 451 Troy grains of silver.

The U.S. Constitution requires legal money:  No State shall… make any thing but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts….” Article I, Section 10.  In 1792, America fixed the price of gold at $20.67 per oz.  The United States 1792 Coinage Act defined a legal dollar:

$1  =  .7734  Troy ounces of silver
$1  =  .04375 Troy ounces of gold


During one Golden Century (1834-1933), the U.S. dollar and the British pound had a standard exchange relationship (a true gold standard).  Paper dollars, paper pounds, and gold coins were interchangeable currencies – for everyone.  Except during times of war, bank deposits and notes -in dollars or pounds- could be converted into gold at $20.67 per ounce; $4.86 could be exchanged for the British gold pound.   

From 1834 to 1933, £1 (coin above) = $4.86 

 Gold and silver coins are usually 90% pure alloys.  The mixture strengthens coins for circulation.  For example, the new American Gold Eagle contains 1 Troy oz of pure gold, but it weights 1.1 Troy ounces.

The U. S. Dollar replaced the British Pound
Sterling as the world’s reserve currency in 1944.

TAEL - Chinese unit of weight (God’s weight)
1 tael = 1.20337 Troy ounces = 37.4290 grams of gold

100 taels (120.337 Troy oz) = Hong Kong trade unit
Hong Kong tael bar nominal fineness is .99 (KIM-THANH)
Taiwanese 5 and 10 tael bars can be 999.9 fine.

TOLA – Indian unit of weight
1 tola = .375 Troy oz = 11.6638 grams.
10 tola = 3.75 Troy oz = 116.64 grams.


“Just balances, just weights, shall you have.”  Moses

Money is one of the main topics in the Bible.  When Sarah died (about 1,860 B.C.), Abraham purchased a family sepulcher in Hebron for his wife’s burial. There in the land of Canaan, the Hittites used the same shekel Abraham used as a standardized weight to measure the value of silver. (He was originally from Mesopotamia.)  

“…and Abraham weighed to Ephron the silver…400 shekels of silver, current money with the merchant.”  Genesis 23: 16

Later, Abraham sent his oldest servant back to Mesopotamia to search for a bride for his son, Isaac. When the servant found Rebekah at the well, he gave the bride-to-be gifts from the bridegroom.

“And…the man took a golden earring of
half a shekel weight, and two bracelets for her hands of ten shekels weight of gold”  Genesis 24: 22

It was customary for the Hebrews to have scales attached to their girdles for weighing silver and gold.  Rabbis estimated the weight of monetary metals according to the number of grains of barley (gerah) to which the jewelry or pieces of metal were equivalent.

“And I bought the field, and weighed him the money in the balances.”  Jeremiah

KIKKAR or TALENT (circle, sum, a round number) was the largest weight, weighing about 125 lbs.  The talent was a weight used to measure gold and silver in several Biblical accounts.  Talent is from the Greek taler (weight).  A talanton was a scale.  The English word tally means to weigh or to measure.

MANEH (number, part, portion) means to measure out, to weigh. The maneh was a weight that was translated in the English Bible as the word pound.

SHEK EL (God’s weight) was a common weight used for silver.  In the Bible, a piece of silver was about a shekel’s weight; the shekel weighed about 1/2 ounce.  The shekel of the sanctuary was double the profane shekel.

BEKAH (to break, to divide) was a fractional weight.

GERAH (grain, kernel, bean) was the smallest weight.

“A false balance is not good.”  Solomon

The table for gold and silver was different from the table used for non-monetary commodities:

  • 1 bekah = ½ shekel = 10 gerahs
  • 20 gerahs = 1 shekel
  • 50 shekels = 1 maneh = 100 bekahs = 1,000 gerahs
  • 60 manehs = 1 kikkar (talent) = 3,000 shekels

The weight of 1 talent of gold = 3,000 shekels of silver

“Ye shall have just balances.”  Ezekiel

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COINS WITH SPECIFIED VALUES ARE RELATIVELY NEW.  The Greeks (and people influenced by the Greeks in Asia Minor) started using coins as early as the eighth century B.C.; Persia began using coinage about 500 B.C.; Tyre, Carthage, and Sidon started using coins sometime between 425 to 400 B.C.

Aegina Stater, 12.23 grams silver, c. 445 B.C.

According to Herodotus, Aegina (Αἰγινήτης) was the site of the first European mint.  He said the Lydians were the first to strike gold and silver coins.  The Aeginan mint used Babylonian and Phoenician weights as standards.

Nations put likenesses of rulers and 
gods on coins.
oins did not specify monetary values until much later.

National coins with specific monetary values became the norm with the advent of the Roman Empire.  The Israelites were required to pay a Roman tax with Roman coins; they offered only Hebrew coins in the Temple.

Click for a larger photo
Roman Republic Denarii, circa 211-41 B.C. 

The shekel became a coin denomination -rather than a weight- during the Second Temple period.  The Maccabees and the Hasmonean Dynasty produced coins impressed with stamps that indicated weight and fineness of the metals beginning sometime between 141 to 110 B.C. (the coins rarely had dates).

The value of gold is always compared to the value of silver because gold and silver are monetary metals.  The Hebrew Bible provides an historical record of the natural relationship of gold to silver.  The Biblical gold-to-silver ratio was 15 to 1.  The value of one shekel of silver was usually 1/15th of the value of one shekel of gold.  (The shekel was a weight.)  

For thousands of years, the ratio stayed near 15 to 1; gold was not more than fifteen times more valuable than silver.  (Some say the ratio was 12 to 1 when David was King, and 10 to 1 at the time of Hezekiah.)

Alexander the Great set the relationship of gold to silver at 10 to 1; the ratio was 12 or 12½ to 1 in the Roman Republic; Napoleon set the ratio at 15½ to 1; and, in 1792, the United States Congress under George Washington fixed the ratio at 15 to 1.  The ratio came close to historical norms in 1980— touching 16 to 1.




















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