Published Catalogue Text: Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Bronzes at the Harvard Art Museums
The identity of this figure is ambiguous; suggestions include Attis, Mercury (Hermes), Venus (Aphrodite), and an anonymous female figure. The Mercury attribution is indicated by the helmet, Venus by the nudity, while the anonymous female label was given by default. Mercury, with his vaunted connections to commerce, was a popular choice for Roman steelyard weights, yet the small but pronounced breasts on this object make this interpretation less likely.
The face has a masculine aspect, with heavy modeling. Two strands of hair trail across the top of the forehead. The eyes seem particularly lumpy, and the brow ridge does not correspond with the location of the eyes, which are themselves not symmetrical. The ambiguities and rough form of the weight suggest that the model may have been reshaped; perhaps a Mercury weight model was reconfigured to depict a woman. The main contours of the piece were coarsely rendered with finer details later incised. The back is hollow and traces of the weight’s lead filling are extant.
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 (1). 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 (e.g., 2007.104.3.A-C) or the goddess Athena (Minerva) (2). 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 (3). 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 steelyards and bust weights in general, see N. Franken, Aequipondia: Figürliche Laufgewichte römischer und frühbyzantinischer Schnellwaagen (Alfter, 1994).
2. See 1995.1131 for an earlier example.
3. 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