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The upper body and head of a figure hanging on a hook

A figure whose upper body ends in a bell-like shape, wearing fabric draped across their shoulders and with their hands held before them, as if holding the cloth together at their chest. They have a round face and a pointed chin, with facial features indicated by simple carved lines. Their hair is chin-length and they wear a hat which consists of several square flaps that connect to an S-hook which is linked to a sharp silver hook. The figure and S-hook are light green and polished.

Gallery Text

Steelyards were used to weigh commodities in the ancient marketplace. The beam, with units of measurement inscribed on three faces, is calibrated for three different scales: one weighed objects up to 13 pounds, another up to 34, and the third up to 85 pounds. The steelyard would be suspended by the short hook (two of the original three remain) appropriate to the scale desired, with the commodity suspended from the hooks on the two long chains. The bust weight was moved along the bar until it balanced. The stylized image, with a simple diadem to indicate rank, does not depict a particular empress. Bust weights often represented gods, heroes, and emperors or empresses. Such imagery evoked imperial authority over weights and measures, guaranteeing fair transactions with a scale calibrated to official standards. The empress’s gestures (holding her cloak and grasping a scroll) indicate her erudition and imperial wisdom.

Identification and Creation

Object Number
Empress Bust Weight, Steelyard, and Collar with Chains
Measuring Devices
Work Type
5th-7th century
Creation Place: Ancient & Byzantine World
Byzantine period, Early
Persistent Link


Level 3, Room 3700, Ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Art, Roman Art
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Physical Descriptions

Mixed copper alloy; lead and iron fill in bust
Cast and hammered
A. weight: 13.6 x 6 x 4.7 cm (5 3/8 x 2 3/8 x 1 7/8 in.)
1441 g
B. chains and hooks: 44 x 5.7 cm (17 5/16 x 2 1/4 in.)
C. crossbeam with hooks: 39.2 x 1 cm (15 7/16 x 3/8 in.)
Technical Details

Chemical Composition: 2007.104.3.A
XRF data from Tracer
Alloy: Mixed Copper Alloy
Alloying Elements: copper, tin, lead, zinc
Other Elements: iron, silver, antimony

XRF data from Tracer
Alloy: Brass
Alloying Elements: copper, zinc
Other Elements: lead, iron, silver

Fill of bust
XRF data from Tracer
Materials: lead, iron

Chain links
XRF data from Tracer
Alloy: Mixed Copper Alloy
Alloying Elements: copper, tin, zinc
Other Elements: lead, iron, silver, antimony

Hooks and loops connecting chains
XRF data from Tracer
Alloy: Mixed Copper Alloy
Alloying Elements: copper, tin, lead, zinc
Other Elements: iron, silver, antimony

Bar and hooks
XRF data from Tracer
Alloy: Mixed Copper Alloy
Alloying Elements: copper, tin, lead, zinc
Other Elements: iron, silver, antimony

K. Eremin, January 2014

Technical Observations: The patina of all three components is green to gray-green, with varying amounts of smaller dark green areas and small spots of brown burial accretions. The green is very compact and preserves surface detail. The empress weight is slightly grayer in tone, and this slight difference could be important in relating the three components. On the other hand, variations in the choice of alloy for the figural cast weight could easily have caused this difference. The dissimilarity between the color of the mixed copper alloy weight and the very dark brass hook connected to the single chain link at the crown stands out, and the hook could have been added at a later date or come from another object.

Most of the weight-bearing surfaces show a similar (and significant) degree of ancient wear. The retaining pin and ring for the third hook, now missing from the crossbeam, are made of iron rather than copper alloy, as in the other two, intact hooks. Perhaps this was a replacement (using a tougher, longer-lasting metal, although one more prone to corrosion) after the original copper alloy pin and ring failed. As suggested above, the flat profile hook attached to the weight, with its different patina, could also be a replacement, although possibly an ancient one. Its flat profile and sharp bearing edge are appropriate for precise measurement, and it would have seen the most aggressive and abrasive use of all the components, explaining the need to replace it during the original period of use. The lead and corroded iron inside the empress weight are intact and appear to be antique. The weight exhibits the dents and wear that would be expected from use.

The weight was cast, but areas of surface relief appear to have been enhanced with a file after casting. The chains were cold worked from a bronze rod, and the hooks and the crossbeam were probably cast as general shapes and then cold worked to receive their final shape and surface detail. Punches were used to make the scale markings on the crossbeam.

Henry Lie (submitted 2006)


Recorded Ownership History
[Elie Borowski, Basel, 1969], sold; to Joseph Ternback collection, New York, NY, (1969-1987), sold; [through Sotheby's, New York, NY, November 24, 1987] to; Harvard University Department of the Classics, Cambridge, (1987-2007), transfer; to Harvard University Art Museums, 2007.

Acquisition and Rights

Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Transfer from the Alice Corinne McDaniel Collection, Department of the Classics, Harvard University
Accession Year
Object Number
Asian and Mediterranean Art

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Published Catalogue Text: Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Bronzes at the Harvard Art Museums
This fifth- to seventh-century steelyard weight in the shape of an empress represents the most common type of weight used with early Byzantine steelyard scales (1). Earlier scholarship proposed that each weight represented a specific Byzantine empress, but that theory has been overturned in favor of an interpretation of the crowned women as a generic imperial type, perhaps linked to the symbolism of official personifications. The crude outline of the bulky crown is similar to headgear worn by early Byzantine empresses depicted on consular diptychs and marble statuary. She wears a tunic covered by a heavy cloak with deeply grooved folds. Her right hand rests on the edge of the cloak, while her left hand clutches an object variously identified as a scroll or a mappa.

As is typical of weights from this time, the bronze is crudely modeled with no modeling on the reverse. This figure was hollow cast with its surface roughly modeled in wax, and then its interior was filled with lead. An iron pin is visible in the base.

The steelyard still has two copper alloy chains terminating in large hooks. These hooks extend from a loop with a swiveling mechanism that slides over the steelyard’s crossbeam. The crossbeam has three incised scales and three suspension points (two of which still have hooks). The three sides would have corresponded to three distinct ranges of measurement. The scale corresponding to the innermost suspension point is subdivided into 12 sections, each between 1.8 and 2 cm long and inscribed with three dots. The middle scale is more or less regularly subdivided into 25 sections, each between 0.7 cm and 1 cm long. Most of these sections (or sometimes a larger, double section) are inscribed with three dots. The border between the eleventh and twelfth section is marked by the letter K; the border between the twenty-first and twenty-second by V or Λ (Greek upsilon or lambda). The letters represented Greek numerals. The scale corresponding to the outermost suspension point consists of irregular incisions at the border (c. 0.3 cm distance from each other), with the following Greek letters inscribed with punched dots: Λ E M E N E Χ E O E P̣ E (the epsilons are inscribed in reverse; the reading of the penultimate letter is uncertain). The punched dot style of inscription is used on weight crossbeams even in the Roman period (2). It is unusual to have a weight preserved with its crossbeam, if in fact this group belonged together in antiquity; the crossbeam’s markings are exceptionally well preserved.

Steelyards were commonly used throughout the ancient Mediterranean. These crossbeams would have a weight, usually in the form of a person or deity, that slid along the bar of the scale to measure bulk goods (3). Not surprisingly, many of the Late Roman and Byzantine examples with known findspots have been found along a coast or in shipwrecks, reflecting their commercial utility. The standard term in English, “steelyard,” is a bit misleading, deriving from the use of similar scales in the area on the north bank of the Thames, London, where steel merchants clustered until 1597. In the Roman period, a wide range of figures was represented on the weights, reflecting the diversity of forms of Roman small bronzes in general. By the fourth to fifth century CE, this multiplicity had narrowed and almost all steelyards used weights represented a generic empress type (like this example) or the goddess Athena (Minerva) (4). Although many late examples have been dated generally to the Late Roman period, the most firmly dated example is from the seventh-century shipwreck of Yassi Ada, off the coast of modern Turkey (5). The holdings of the Harvard Art Museums represent the lively eclecticism of this category of bronze, including busts of an empress type, a Minerva, an emperor and an ambiguous nude.

The basic shape of the bust weights was probably created from the lost-wax process, with later refinements added as the materials cooled. The hollow core was filled with lead to achieve the required weight, and a thin bronze sheet on the bottom capped the lead filling. Variations appear in the manufacture of different categories of the weights. The upper loop, with which the figure would be attached to the upper scale, was aligned in two different directions: the loop on the empress bust weights ran front-to-back, while the Minerva bust weights, in contrast, had a top loop that presents its circular face to the viewer. Furthermore, the Minerva weights possess rectangular socles, and the empress weights have oval socles.


1. For a fuller discussion of Byzantine steelyard dating, see A. L. McClanan, Representations of Early Byzantine Empresses: Image and Empire (New York, 2002) 47-48.

2. A similar style of punched dot inscription can be seen on a Roman steelyard crossbeam published in J. Petit, Bronzes antiques de la collection Dutuit (Paris, 1980) 174-75, no. 93.

3. For steelyards and bust weights in general, see N. Franken, Aequipondia: Figürliche Laufgewichte römischer und frühbyzantinischer Schnellwaagen (Alfter, 1994).

4. See 1995.1131 for an earlier example.

5. G. Kenneth Sams, “The Weighing Implements,” in Yassi Ada: A Seventh-Century Byzantine Shipwreck, eds. G. F. Bass and F. H. Van Doorninck, Jr. (College Station, TX, 1982) 202-30, esp. 224.

Anne L. McClanan

Publication History

  • Rivka Merhav, A Glimpse into the Past: The Joseph Ternbach Collection, exh. cat., Israel Museum (Jerusalem, Israel, 1981), p. 223-24, no. 178.
  • Norbert Franken, Aequipondia: figürliche Laufgewichte römischer und frühbyzantinischer Schnellwaagen, VDG Verlag und Datenbank für Geisteswissenschaften (Alfter, Germany, 1994), p. 174, no. CA 25, pl. 88.
  • Ioli Kalavrezou, Byzantine Women and Their World, exh. cat., Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 2003), p. 52, no. 10 (as TL31096.A-C).
  • Stephan Wolohojian, ed., Harvard Art Museum/Handbook (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2008)
  • Thomas W. Lentz, ed., Harvard University Art Museums Annual Report 2006-7, Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge, 2008), p. 14.

Exhibition History

  • A Glimpse into the Past: The Joseph Ternbach Collection, Israel Museum, 01/01/1981 - 12/31/1982
  • Re-View: S422 Ancient & Byzantine Art & Numismatics, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 04/12/2008 - 06/18/2011
  • 32Q: 3700 Roman, Harvard Art Museums, 11/16/2014 - 01/01/2050

Subjects and Contexts

  • Collection Highlights
  • Google Art Project
  • Ancient Bronzes

Related Works

Verification Level

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