Tacitean Ethnography

28 October, 2013

Today On the Reading Rest I have a book which is interesting because it is so full of arguments and argued passages.

Writing and empireDylan Sailor. 2008.  Writing and Empire in Tacitus. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Some reviewers of Dylan Sailor’s (DS’s) book Writing and Empire in Tacitus (WAIET) have already referred to concepts such as ‘interpretation’ and one of its methodologies ‘close reading’ trying to sort the book into a convenient genre, but I prefer to read the arguments partly because I am convinced by them, partly because I read the book as a backdrop for something that isn’t central to the author, i.e. ethnography and Germania, which happens not to ‘form part of that arc of narrative works that imagine themselves as a sequence: Agricola by its promise of a future … … ‘ WAEIT p. 5.

DS is right because he writes about Tacitus as history, historiography and the historian situated in society as well as in his own life. None the less, perhaps because DS is so fond of arguments and very good at reading Tacitus, he does touch upon ethnography in passing e.g. on pp. 86-7.

True Tacitean ethnographyThe point in ethnography is the past in the present: go see for yourself a living past characterized by a series of stable habits and institutions in a system that may either prevail infinitely reproducing the present or disappear in the toils of interaction with others. Future bothers ethnography only because constant ethnographical presence or resilience in static, cyclic or looped systemic models may be dissolved in future’s unfriendly solution despite their stability. The point in history on the other hand is change and transformation – ‘the narrative arc’ – which in Tacitus case comes to an unsettled end when Annals breaks off by circumstance, intention or design in the middle of a period: ‘as the slowness of his [Thrasea’s]death was bringing terrible suffering, turning to Demetrium … ‘[the Cynic philosopher] (WAEIT:315, Ann. 16.35.2). The quest for understanding change is the reason why history is about a series of events shaping a future, and about a present as a stage that has to change, and about a past that produced a heritage in the process of consuming itself.

In his conclusion DS argues, again convincingly, that Ronald Syme in Tacitus (1958) read Tacitus not just as ‘the subject matter of his book’, but also as a role model for the historian by referring to the parallel character of totalitarian states in the 20th century and Domitian’s principate, and the way Tacitus and the modern historian alike should relate to times such as these (WAEIT:319-20). Syme’s affinities with Tacitus as Latin heritage, writing about him with a clear eye to modern totalitarian states, would seem to accompany Curtius’ contemporary model way of looking at the literary heritage of Latin literature as a uniting European heritage above the nationalism that devastated Europe in the 20th c. (cf. On the Reading Rest 19 Aug, 2013).

Since the Enlightenment, the relation between systemic and historic culture or civilization has been a central theme in the analysis of the European and we may trace this thematic relation in many different texts, but I chose a passage by Kant from his letter, printed in Berlinische Monatsschrift. Dezember-Heft 1784. S. 481-494,  Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?:

On the other hand, the private use of reason may frequently be narrowly restricted without especially hindering the progress of enlightenment. By “public use of one’s reason” I mean that use which a man, as scholar, makes of it before the reading public. I call “private use” that use which a man makes of his reason in a civic post that has been entrusted to him. In some affairs affecting the interest of the community a certain [governmental] mechanism is necessary in which some members of the community remain passive. This creates an artificial unanimity which will serve the fulfillment of public objectives, or at least keep these objectives from being destroyed. Here arguing is not permitted: one must obey. Insofar as a part of this machine considers himself at the same time a member of a universal community – a world society of citizens – (let us say that he thinks of himself as a scholar rationally addressing his public through his writings) he may indeed argue, and the affairs with which he is associated in part as a passive member will not suffer. Thus it would be very unfortunate if an officer on duty and under orders from his superiors should want to criticize the appropriateness or utility of his orders. He must obey. But as a scholar he could not rightfully be prevented from taking notice of the mistakes in the military service and from submitting his views to his public for its judgment. The citizen cannot refuse to pay the taxes levied upon him; indeed, impertinent censure of such taxes could be punished as a scandal that might cause general disobedience. Nevertheless, this man does not violate the duties of a citizen if, as a scholar, he publicly expresses his objections to the impropriety or possible injustice of such levies. A pastor, too, is bound to preach to his congregation in accord with the doctrines of the church which he serves, for he was ordained on that condition. But as a scholar he has full freedom, indeed the obligation, to communicate to his public all his carefully examined and constructive thoughts concerning errors in that doctrine and his proposals concerning improvement of religious dogma and church institutions.

Although Tacitus might well have been suspicious of benevolent despotism, Kant’s enlightened society, whose front man must not necessarily be Frederick the Great, would seem to possess some of the qualities that Tacitus (and perhaps even Kant) would have recognized in the Republic. To support this opinion we may refer to DS, who concludes – having has read the preface to Histories and quoted the passage about the Saturnalia: ‘I do not at all mean that Tacitus presents his work [i.e. Histories] as a revel, only that the preface parallels a basic Roman model for constructing a brief period of time when the ordinary rules of servitude that suppress speech do not apply’ (WAEIT:176-77).

Saturnalia, Enlightenment or the Republic will not come back, but ethnography or any of its modern varieties such as systemic resilience in cultures will occur again and must be analyzed and understood within a historical analysis of society and civilization, even if ethnography is alien to history. Alien or not there is little hope of writing a history of change in civilization without taking into account ethnography and the institutions of the primitive, which it points out. Primordial and primitive ethnographic institutions become a backdrop for historical change and one may argue that ‘the Roman’ in Tacitus’ narrative of complex change must be reflected in’ the non-historic’. This becomes all the more important because ‘the ethnographic’ highlights the predicament that arises from the need of the Kantian ‘scholar’ or the Tacitean ‘historian’ to be loyal as well as disloyal to social institutions. In short: DS argues his case so convincingly that one ought to fit Tacitus ethnography into the arc of his historical project. I would argue therefore that ethnography in Tacitus is there to make sure that the reader understands that Tacitus’ history is concerned also with civilization.

There are three examples of ethnography in Tacitus work Agricola (Chap 10-13), Germania (all of it) and Histories (Book 5.2-8). This means that when his historical project reaches Histories and Annals most of the ethnographic scene has been covered because the greater part of the Roman civilization project concerns northern Europe. In the eastern part of the Empire wars are political. A modern reader would probably have been interested in an ethnography of the Parthian society in connection with Tacitus description of the Parthian was 58-63 CE, but Tacitus sees no need for this because the reason for the wars were political and strategic with no bearing on civilizing the Parthians. Only in Histories was it necessary to comment from an ethnographic point of view since without such as comment Jews cannot be understood.

Writing about ethnography makes it possible for Tacitus to stand aside describing and judging the primitive as an institution and a backdrop for Roman civilization pointing to the negative and positive sides of the stable primitive institutions – to shortcomings and strengths. His ethnographies point to the peoples, their customs and their characteristic as well as to the partly alien topographies and geographies of their habitats. His texts imply that the peoples are smitten by their environment. Tacitus does so with a view to defending the success of the Roman civilization project.

Civilization 01The Britons are model because they are a mixed population characterized by immigration. This has led to a situation in which what was once in a distant past a generic kingdom has been split up in small chiefdoms easy to subdue. Given this social pattern and their inability to unite, as well as their mixed geographical conditions – humid but not horrid – they are happy to accept Roman civilization and taxes on one condition, whose significance the reader will have guessed:

The Britons themselves bear cheerfully the conscription, the taxes, and the other burdens imposed on them by the Empire, if there be no oppression. Of this they are impatient; they are reduced to subjection, not as yet to slavery. (Agr. 13)

This means that their traditional autonomy – that is, a certain measure of freedom in the small societies once situated within chiefdoms – is an ideal that may be transformed into Romanization, thus bringing the Britons out of ethnography.

Civilization 02When readers of Tacitus, who began by reading Agricola, read Germania they found out that Tacitus’ descriptions of Britain and Britons was designed in advance to contrast his description of Germany and Germans. Nevertheless he purposefully he added a small element of German immigrants in the Britons:

Their physical characteristics are various, and from these conclusions may be drawn. The red hair and large limbs of the inhabitants of Caledonia point clearly to a German origin. (Agr. 13)

Since the Romans knew that Germans resisted the Roman civilization project, successfully (in effect stupidly) defending their liberty not least because they could unite, albeit only in imminent danger of being suppressed, they are different from the Britons. Tacitus, therefore, points to a significant difference between Britons and Germans, and Britain and Germany, when he tells us that Germans, contrary to Britons, are indigenous and unmixed because honestly who would consider living in that part of the world:

The Germans themselves appear to be indigenous and rarely mixed with other people either immigrants or guests. For, in former times, it was not by land, but by sea that those arrived, who sought to move their residence; and that immense, if I may say so, ultra-hostile ocean is rarely navigated by ships from our world. And, in addition to the danger of a horrid and unknown sea, who would leave Asia, or Africa, or Italy trying to reach Germany, its shapeless land, its cruel skies, cheerless to its beholder and cultivator, unless it were his homeland? (Germ. 2)

Cunningly Tacitus allows his readers to draw the conclusion that a little German in a mixed people like the Britons, in humid albeit not horrid Britain, may be a virtue, while being outright German in Germany is a gloomy aspect inasmuch as Germans are the uncivilized slaves of an ethnography forever checked by race, environment and, as Germania goes on to show, by its institutions. Germans, nevertheless, are genuine and loyal to these institutions, while Britons are transformed and cheerful taxpayers. Civilization as it happens comes with a price and so does indigenousness.

Germans and Britons illustrate inclusion and exclusion in the historical and geographical perspective of an expanding civilization. Tacitus, true to his understanding of himself as a historian, is forced to point out the success as well as the limits of civilization. He uses ethnography to illustrate his point.

Civilization 03Tacitus’ readers knew that Jews, despite the fall of Jerusalem, continued to exist even though in principle they ‘accepted conscription, taxes, and other burdens imposed on them by the Empire’. Contrary to Germans, they were integrated into the Roman society, but evidently not like Britons. None the less the reason he writes about the Jews – i.e. the end of a historical phenomenon similar to the end of the free Britons, parallels what he has already pointed out:

The geography and inhabitants of Britain, [… …] I will speak of [… ….] because the country was then for the first time thoroughly subdued. (Agr. 10)

As I am about to relate the last days of a famous city, it seems appropriate to throw some light on its origin. (Hist. 5.2)

And that turns out to be the Jews. As I read Tacitus book 5.2-8 he is as usual critical to backward ethnographical cultures, but from an analytical point of view he gives us an example of a society which is decidedly diasporic,

Some say that the Jews were fugitives from the island of Crete [… …]. Others assert that in the reign of Isis the overflowing population of Egypt [… …]. Many, again, say that they were a race of Ethiopian origin [… …]. Others describe them as an Assyrian horde [… …]. Others, again, assign a very distinguished origin to the Jews, alleging that they were the Solymi, a nation celebrated in the poems of Homer [… … ]. Most writers, however, agree [… …] that once a disease [… …] broke out over Egypt; that king Bocchoris, seeking a remedy, consulted the oracle of Hammon, and was bidden to cleanse his realm, and to convey into some foreign land this race detested by the gods. (Hist. 5.2)

Prone or forced to diaspora, coming from all kinds of directions, their seemingly appalling institutions and customs (difficult to explain) has none the less been successful granting them strong networks and resilience:

This worship, however introduced, is upheld by its antiquity; all their other customs, which are at once perverse and disgusting, owe their strength to their very badness. The most degraded out of other races, scorning their national beliefs, brought to them their contributions and presents. This augmented the wealth of the Jews, as also did the fact, that among themselves they are inflexibly honest and ever ready to shew compassion, though they regard the rest of mankind with all the hatred of enemies. (Hist. 5.5)

Although the land of the Jews is in many ways similar to Roman lands there are also oddities on par with the people:

[… …] of the Jordan. This river does not discharge itself into the sea, but flow entire through two lakes, and is lost in the third. This is a lake of vast circumference; it resembles the sea, but is more nauseous in taste; it breeds pestilence among those who live near by its noisome odour; it cannot be moved by the wind, and it affords no home either to fish or water-birds. These strange waters [… ….] (Hist. 5.6)


When the civilized society meets the primitive ethnographic society, this meeting highlights the value of stubbornly defended stable institutions and casts a shadow on progress and intellectual freedom. Tacitean Jews and Germans cannot be bend to civilization. Nevertheless, Tacitus demonstrates that ethnographic societies are primitive and his methods when characterizing them are based on (1) the mixed/unmixed character of a people. (2) Its inability/ability to unite itself around its institutions, even in diaspora, i.e. its systemic resilience, and (3) the degree to which primitive culture is a reflection of its environment.

An ethnographic culture may survive or be subdued. It aims at surviving, i.e. conservation, and although it is most often unsuccessful it may nevertheless succeed by means of forceful resistance defending itself and fending off civilization at its geographical borders. The goal being isolation and the preservation of its institutions, the ethnographic society may also succeed because it creates a society that evades civilization by diaspora or inner exile.

There is little doubt that Tacitus describes the ethnographic society airing his ‘colonial’ views. But he wouldn’t be Tacitus if these views were not accompanied (thereby tacitly becoming prejudice) by his model of civilization: the Republic, i.e. a society whose institutions are well worth defending against the corruption and terror of the Principate to which, strangely enough, it gave way. Why, his readers ask themselves, must the enlightened, model, best-of-all-possible-worlds, liberal Republic, be defended against the dark primitivity of the Principate by methods comparable to those of the ethnographic societies? Why, if not because elements of the ethnographic and the civilized society alike are bilateral rather than oppositional? Tacitus himself thrived during the Principate, and survived Domitian, because he kept a low profile.

Civilization 04

I think that this sketch of the role of ‘the ethnographic’ in Tacitus is in line with DS analysis of how Tacitus the historian, true to history, his scholarship and historiography must incorporate ethnography into his history making it the base of that arc of narrative works that imagine themselves as a sequence. In my view, this sequence consists of Agricola/Germania, Histories and Annals. Ethnography is an important foundation for Tacitus’ history project because civilization is important. And if you don’t believe that he set a standard you can read a book on how the West – i.e. the West that beat the Rest – is now losing it. Or, if you are into analysis, you may employ Tacitean ethnography to analyze the Republican Party.

A Fit of Formalism

14 October, 2013

Today On the Reading Rest I have a report in Swedish on excavations south of Uppsala in the Campus of the Swedish Agricultural University at Ultuna.

Ultuna fig 00Huldt, Helena. 2013. Att återvända. Arkeologi I olika skeden från Södra Gärdet I Ultuna. SAU rapport 2013: 6. Societas Archaeologica Upsaliensis. (Returning. Archaeology in different phases from Södra Gärdet in Ultuna).

This site area is interesting for two reasons. (1) Once it was one of the manors established in the nucleus of the Uppsala kingdom in the 6th century. (2) In modern times it has been the playground of the government authorities establishing and subsequently expanding the agricultural university. In this process, The Heritage Conservation Act didn’t bother the executive authorities until the County Administrative Board (CAB), and not least one of its antiquaries, came up with the novel idea of asking the agricultural university to follow the law. The Ultuna heritage experience has made excavations difficult, fragmenting the monuments, and one of the great achievements of the present report and others from later years is the competent way in which they show how archaeologists have manage to bring some order into a rural context destroyed by 160 years of campus building.

As always when archaeologists investigate an area they come across something unexpected in addition to the expected. This time in Ultuna it was a long row of hearths from the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age. (LBA & EIA) These hearths were situated in an open terrain parallel to the southern shore of a once small peninsula.

Ultuna fig 01

Seventeen of the 45 hearths are 14C-dated, but since they belong to the transition from the LB to the EIA, the plateau in the calibration curve make most of them look contemporary (1). Two dates are contaminations hundreds of years older and younger than the 15 central values.

Ultuna fig 02

Among the fifteen dates there is an early outlier date suggesting a start c. 650 BCE, and there seems to be a gap in the central probability values c. 550-490 BCE.  On average in each end of the row the dates are younger than the bulk of dates in the centre. The average before present 14C-year in the centre is bp 2446 and in the margins it is bp 2404. This difference defines the time gap in the 6th c. BCE and we may suggest that activities in each end of the row were begun and brought to an end later than the similar activities in the centre. This means that the row was formed during more that two centuries when the hearths reused. Despite their long use and period(s?) of construction and maintenance, it meets the eye that they are so regularly spaced that one may wonder whether this impression is the result of chance or intention.

Now and again in Scandinavian prehistory there are times when material expressions of formalism seem to become important. A case in point is the 4th-5th c. CE when widely different phenomena such as written poetic metre and measurements in buildings were formalized. It may be argued that formalizing architecture, standardizing the foot, was rational — in addition giving architecture an aesthetic quality — but the metre was clearly an aesthetic way of writing and talking standardizing sound and prosody in a distinctly non-Latin way. Germanic rather than Latin, defining an epic and a lyrical metre was nevertheless an adaption of Latin poetic diction – a Germanic echo of Latin verse.

Employing formalism as guidance rather than simply reproducing functional structures, is a powerful mode of thinking, closely related to mathematics, often striking humans as linked to divine order despite its human form and origin as a description of the world. That is why we tend to consider formalism to be related to progress and rationality as well as linked to the ascendency of a civilization. But we are also afraid of overdoing it because undue formalism will obstruct rationality. Although formalism may inspire arts as well as making art commonplace it stands out as a prerogative for an outstanding civilisation and for that reason we look for it also in the past. Showing formalism to be recurrent rather than progressive is part of the archaeologist’s critique of simplistic history.

Chance, function, intention or formalism – what’s behind the Ultuna row pattern of hearths?

Chance, i.e. randomness, can easily be ruled out, inasmuch as following a shore line is not random behavior. But aleatoric chance, i.e. randomness among a limited number of outcomes such as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 when throwing a dice (L. alea) – a function of its structure – could still be imagined. However, looking closer into the hearth pattern it becomes apparent that the row is sometimes broken, and if we count the number of hearths between the breaks, it becomes evident that the sections consist of four hearths or a multiple of four. In addition, there may be a few pairs, rather than quadruples, in each end of the row. This part of the pattern points to function i.e. structure and intention.

Ultuna fig 03

There is not much in the hearths themselves that points to their function other than controlling the fires that were burning on them and it is thus impossible positively to say whether they burnt for light or cooking or heating or a combination of functions. Their construction nevertheless is relatively standardized given later disturbances by the plough. They are constructed as shallow pits lined with stores and quite often the lining end in a ring of kerbstones marking the hearth on the ground and making it manifest.

Ultuna Fig 04Many hearths show signs of having been used repeatedly as well as maintained and it would have taken many more 14C dates to understand the time depth of each hearth and of the system as such. That would have been interesting to know, but as always in contract archaeology, science and research are completely dependent on the benevolence of the CAB when autocratically it sets the economic — in effect scientific — standard of the excavation project. Seventeen 14C dates are many, but given the given the problematic calibration curve probably a hundred would have been necessary.

Despite the time depth of the hearths it seems that use and maintenance didn’t change their form or their centre. If this kind of pattern survives for hundreds of years one would expect that knowledge of the position of hearths was kept alive. This need not be a great problem if, e.g., the hearths were used regularly. But the fact that they kept their centre and circular form suggests strict regulation supported by a habit of marking out and maintaining the hearth periphery e.g. with kerbstones. All in all, it stands out as reasonable to ask whether all this long-term structure was combined with measured formalism rather than just structural presence.

It is difficult to measure the distance between the individual hearths because we cannot know exactly where their centers were, but if we measure the extremes of the sections and calculate the average distance we may succeed. There are five sections consisting of 4 + 8 + (12 = 11+1 empty space) +12 + 4 hearths. In addition there are some pairs in the east end of the row.

Ultuna Fig 05 and 06

From the ‘hole’ in the third section, i.e. a missing hearth, t can be seen that one of the 12 hearths provided for was never constrructed. From the anomaly in the fourth section – a forgotten hearth module – it is obvious that owing a miscalculation two hearths had to be fitted into the space of one in order to obtain twelve hearths. It can be seen that befittingly this is done by dividing the available space into three rather than two. Thus we should expect only 11 modules in this section and we understand that the mistake in measurement was made when defining the position of the extreme hearths suggesting that the space of a section was defined before the hearths were filled in. The fault was detected, but impossible to correct because the surrounding hearths were already in place.

Ultuna fig 07

Ultuna fig 07A

Ultuna Fig 07BCalculating the module, weighted in relation to the length of the sections, suggests a length of c. 3.8m and that is the same as 12 foot or indeed a measure that much later was called a stång, i.e. a rod or pole. A rod divided into 12 parts seems also to have come in handy when the mistake in section 4 was corrected. The two hearths were evenly distributed within two modules – 8 feet apart. The anomalies in sections three and four suggest that the hearths in each quartet were set up from the East to the West. It seem particularly significant that for some formal reason no hearth east of the easternmost hearths in section Four could be established. The identity of that hearth and the four next to it could in other words not be changed. One might say that it was already defined as the First and the ones next to it as the Second, Third and Fourth.

Ultuna fig 08

The layout of the evenly distributed hearths in the row at Ultuna is clearly governed by formalism. In principle irreparable mistakes were made because a hearth can be dug down into the natural subsoil only once. In practice repairing at least one mistake was done with reference to formal measurement and we may therefore ask ourselves why it was important to make four hearths formally spaced in a row and why it was important to return to them and keep track of their precise position?

A definite answer is difficult to come by, but that has never stopped archaeologists from speculating and why should it? Theory after all is the speculative way of pointing out an understanding that may later on be supported or refuted by the contextuality of that which is observed on the basis of theory.

Since returning to the hearths was a habit we may suggest that the space between them represented time as well as module. One hearths could therefore be the first in the row followed by the others all together representing a series such as solstice – equinox – solstice – equinox. In due time when there is a tendency for the hearths to form pairs they may be solstice – solstice or equinox – equinox. What happens in the row is a representation of the cyclic in the linear.

If a community needs to emphasize a time period, such as the year, in this way, why must there be a series of hearths quartets and not just four? And why are there small hearths rather than the remains of large bonfires?

If the point is to gather around the fire in some sort of community the scale of the hearth quartets fits a situation in which each farm or family – constituting a (family) line in history – would gather around its hearth in half circle, i.e. at a seasonal station, e.g. facing south.

Ultuna Fig 09

Since the Late Bronze Age LBA coast at Ultuna is a south coast we can imagine a 12 or 6 o’clock fire in late December, March, June and September. The hearth represents the family’s source of warmth and light and the seven original row quartets seven families on the LBA peninsula. The additional quartets and pairs represent the changing system and changing family structures.

This kind of reconstruction is obviously speculative — a fit of formalism — and far from the practicalities of constructing the row. As any theoretical construction it nevertheless serves as a model for further investigations of other rows of hearths.


(1) On the platau in the calibration curve, see Fig 3 in the text at:  http://www.lcm.rug.nl/lcm/teksten/teksten_uk/a_high_chronology_uk.htm.

It was a truth universally acknowledged, that a simple fact in conformity with Roman ways must not be written down. In itself a simple fact in conformity with Roman ways this truth was never written down because it mustn’t necessarily be point it out. However, when it comes to studying Roman ways, the quote and the simple statement highlights the difference between disciplines such as Archaeology and History. Moreover, suspending 19th c. humanities between paraphrasing Jane Austin and quoting something perhaps Oscar Wilde seems fair.

Consider the following example: some Roman times it was important to know the weight of one’s silver ware – the weight of a pair of cups or a plate – and to demonstrate importance by writing it down on the items themselves. Why not make it simple and write ‘1 lb, 3 oz and 5 dr’ – one pound, three ounces and five dram – on the bottom of the object if that was its weight? Often the inscriptions seem to mean just that, but when checked, the expected simplicity is not there. Seemingly something wrong is there instead.

In the original inscription by the silversmith on the Achilles plate from Kaiseraugst is says that the weight is 15 pounds. Later when the weight was checked, the plate weighed 17 pounds, 4 ounces and 15 scripulae. In grams its weight is 4642.9. Although the plate is not well-preserved we cannot accept a loss of that would once have made it weigh 15 pounds. Irrespective of the weighers referring to the light calculation pound, the logarike litra, (ll.) or the heavy canonical libra (cl.) fifteen pound, c. 4834 or 4912 grams, is too much. There you are: if the plate doesn’t weigh fifteen pounds how come it weighs more than seventeen? The conformity with Roman ways is obvious: the silversmith tells us the weight of the object and someone checks it, but the simplicity of the definition, the simple fact, is not there. Instead something is the matter with the plate, the Romans, the text, the reader, or any possible combination of these four entities.

To the conventional historian this is the end of the inscriptions on the Achilles plate – his scissors will clip out the text but there’s nowhere paste its contradiction into his history of the Roman world except to ridicule the Romans and being conventional rather than a member of the flying circus he wouldn’t do that. There are no more weight definitions to read and no logic, based solely on the expressions, will make them compatible. Archaeologists, nevertheless, may view things differently. Literally they look at ‘things’ as contexts, and find that important, because studying material culture they believe that things being contexts carry meaning. This is to say that primarily, the objects mirror a meaningful series of action. The actual weight definitions, whatever their purpose, are principally speaking secondary. Looking at three pairs of silver cups, already discussed on the reading rest, will illustrate this point. https://floasche.wordpress.com/2012/06/11/accipe-me-sitiens-forte-placebo-tibi-looking-for-the-missing-warren-cup/

On the silver cups from Hoby there are two kinds of inscriptions one dotted and four graffiti. The dotted one resembles the writing style adopted by the silversmith when he signed the cups. Dotted inscriptions are his statements. The four graffiti make up two pairs one on each cup. On one cup there is a weight description and the name SILIUS. On the other SILIUS overwrites the weight description. Silius is considered to be the owner of the cups. The weight descriptions are identical.

The dotted description says:  II . P V S ==-  SU ==- One cups weighs 975,46 gr. The other has lost a handle, but since we know the weight of the three other ones we can estimate its original weight as c. 956,7 gr. Since the logarike litra. weighs 322.32gr and the canonical libra. 327.45 gr, the total weight is somewhere between five and six pounds. II therefore means ‘Two cups’. The dot [.] means ’together’, i.e. ’The pair is’. Then follows the weight description: P V means ’five pounds’; S is ‘one semis’; ==– is ‘five units of which six make up a semis’; SU is ‘one semuncia’ and the last ==– means ‘five units of which six make up a semuncia’. This doesn’t mean that the pair weighs something definite. Instead it means that the pair weighs less than six pounds and more than 5 pounds, namely: one semis (i.e. half a pound), five unciae (i.e. 5 ounces), one semuncia (i.e. half an ounce) and five demida sextulae (ds.). The inscription mirrors an additive weighing procedure that didn’t go further than the ds. If the silversmith had wanted to he could have written ds. DCCCLXIII since 5+(11×6)+72+(144×5) = 863. He could not have written 864 ds. since that would have been six pounds and he didn’t think the pair weighed that much. This then is the additive weight description, the silversmith’s statement, which ought to be controlled. Fair enough.

Things get confused when we see that the two graffiti inscriptions, the controller’s statement, are almost identical. Both cups belong(ed) to Silius and one description says I NVII S ==–  and the other NVII S==– . The I is simple enough. It means ‘one cup’, and we may wonder why NVII S ==–  is either 975 or 956 gr. The inscription nevertheless is easy to read – it says: Seven nonus, one half nonus and five of those units of which six make up half a nonus.

The first point to make is the one that says that the description doesn’t mean eight nonus. And since we already know that the weight is close to three pounds we may draw the conclusion that 8 nonus equals 3 libra. The description tells us that there are 6 units in a half nonus and thus 12 in a nonus, which means that there are 8 x 12 = 96 units in 3 pounds or 32 units in 1 pound.

If we use the ll. the smallest unit in the description is 322,32/32 = 10,0725 gr and a cup thus 10,0725 x 95 = 956.89gr that is very near the reconstructed weight of the ‘light’ cup (c. 956.7 gr). If we use the cl., the calculation results in 327.45/32 = 10.23 x 95 = 972.12 gr and a weight slightly below the actual weight of the cup – 975.46 gr. It is fair to say that the controller’s definitions follow the formula: ‘more than x and less than x+1’.

The second point has to do with the integrity of the controller vis-à-vis the silversmith – the point being that the descriptions must be referred to two different series of analytical action. The controller doesn’t take the silversmith’s procedure for granted, but shows it to be reasonable.

The weight descriptions on the Hoby cups are not simple facts. They require us to follow the procedure of the silversmith and the controller respectively. The former was Greek and from the weight of the three handles we gather that as a craftsman he used a mina system when he divided his silver and created his cups. But he was given 3 + 3 Roman pounds of silver to make them. Tacitly, the dotted description refers to two different pounds and his description of each of the cups would obviously have differed from that of the controller, who was satisfied with a description down to a relatively large weigh unit a little above 10 gr. Rather elegantly, nevertheless, the controller pointed out that the silversmith was given two different pounds of silver and consequently asked to make a heavy and a light cup formally weighing the same. This implies that there is a ‘heavy’ and a ‘light’ scene in the pair.


In the Menander hoard there are two pairs of inscribed cups: Cups M5+6 and M7+8. There are two inscriptions on M7 and one on M8. The inscription on M5 refers to both M5 and M6 and runs:

M5:       II   P    VII    SS )   ’II

This should be read: Two cups. Each or ‘this one’ weighs: 1 pound + 7 uncia + 2 sicilicius +  ‘ (i.e. circa) 2 semisextula. Only the inscription on M5 has been preserved.


M5 weighs 528gr., i.e., close to the original weight. M6 weighs 517 gr., i.e. not the exact original weight. The weighing procedure, based on the ll., starts with a pound and contains four steps ending up in a rest of circa a number of units:
Step One:        the total weight minus 1 Pound:          528.00 – 322.32 = 205.68 gr
Step Two:        the rest minus 7 uncia:                      205.68 – 188.02 =   17.66 gr
Step Three:      the rest minus 2 sicilicius:                    17.66 –  13.43  =   04.23 gr = ’II
Step Four:        the rest which is c. semisextula-
Comment. If the rest had been 2 semisextula then it would have been the same as a Sextula, i.e. 1/6th of an uncia. Together with the two sicilicus the rest above the 7 uncia would have amounted to one semuncia. Then the definition would have been: P VII IV, i.e. 1 Pound (but not 2), 7 uncia (but not 8) and 4 sextula (but not 5). As it happens the definition reads: 1 Pound (but not 2), 7 uncia (but not 8), 2 sicilicius (but not 3) and c. 2 semisextula. The weight 4,23gr is indeed c. 4,476 gr, i.e. 2 semisextula.


M8 weighs 445 gr. Dotted inscription: AUREL . AUGUR[ . . .  . . .]
M7 weighs 445 gr. Dotted inscription: AUREL . AUGUR . II . P . III . )X
The first part  AUREL . AUGUR . II .  reads: ‘By Aurelius Augur-inus, -ans, -ianus, -is or -ius   (i.e. the silvermith). Two cups; each weighing:’ The second part, P . III . )X reads: ‘ one pound, three suscuncia and c. 10 siliqua.’
The weighing procedure has three steps ending up in a rest:
Step One:        the total weight minus 1 pound:                     445,00 – 322,32 = 122,68gr
Step Two:       the rest minus 3 suscuncia:                            122,68 – 120,87=   001,81gr
Step Three:     the rest which c. 10 siliqua, i.e. c. 1,87 gr. And 1.81 gr is indeed c. 1.87 gr.

The reason we may defend this interpretation of the total divided by two rests with the graffiti definition on each of the two cups.

M7 Graffito: P III £ V and M8 Graffito: P III £ V[I]. This means that when the cups are judged individually, one is considered a trifle heavier than the other. In practice they weigh the same and when we look at them as a pair of two identical cups we are entitled to divide the total by 2. So, the dotted weights are the silversmith’s inscription taking the identical pair for granted because it was indeed what he was ordered to do. The graffiti on the other hand is a control of each of the two cups. In the graffiti definition the rest is 5 units (M8) and 6 units (M7) respectively. This means that the c. 10 units in the dotted definition on M8 equals 5 units in the graffiti definition. This implies that the graffiti units are double-siliqua. In the M7 cup the rest is 6 double-siliqua and that is a semisextula since 24 seliqua equals a sextula. We could of course argue that that 22 seliqua divided by two is 11 seliqua, so why not write so in the dotted definition? On the other hand controlling the weights there is a point in the letting the controlled weights match the original definition and having found that M8 weighs exactly what the silversmith had suggested, M7 must logically speaking weigh a bit more. In the units used by the controller this means 6 instead of 5. Whether the silversmith or the controller were the better weigher is impossible to say. Probably they were both overdoing it, but the controller has understood the silversmith and has made an independent analysis in a small series of analytical steps. It is the procedure and the ‘more than x and less than x+1’ convention that makes it possible to understand the additive weight description. If the weigher is sufficiently diligent the description resembles the Achilles and the Tortoise paradox since from the very beginning we are told that there is a weight we will never reach while at the same time we are supposed to come closer and closer to it. The closer we come to the limit, the smaller the units we employ not to reach it.


The Obvious 00

Let us return to the Achilles plate. Its weight in grams is 4642.9 gr and it has lost some of its original weight. The dotted inscription says ‘Pausylypos in Thessaloniki 15 Pound’ (Λ IE in Greek). This is the silversmith’s inscription. The two dotted silversmith inscriptions discussed above indicated that when an object was produced a certain amount of silver was lost. It is unlikely that such loss of weight would not have occurred when producing the Achilles plate. Moreover, 4642.9/15 = 309,53gr doesn’t fit a known Roman pound. The inscription therefore says: ‘Made by Pausylypos in Thessaloniki from 15 pound’ of silver. If the smith had the logarike litra in mind the loss of weight would have been 4834.8 – 4642.9 = 191,9 gr. This is quite a lot compared to the two other silversmith inscriptions, but their loss on the other hand was exceptionally small. Probably the point in these description was a wish to show how little silver had disappeared in the production of the cups. In Pausylypos case the difference between the actual weight and the 15 pounds may also have included his salary, since he was probably not a slave.

The controller’s description of the weight is additive telling us that the plate weighed 17 pounds and a little more, but not 18 pounds. The graffiti looks like this:

The Obvious 01

Since we know that the plate was made from 15 pounds of silver and thus weighed less than 15, it stands to reason that the pound referred to by the controller was a smaller one of which 18 pounds were the same as 15 pounds.

This would be the libra metrica (lm.), which relates to a normal pound as 5 to 6, and that is why 18 lm. equals 15 ll. Perhaps the extra line in the Λ means that the controller had lm. in mind. An lm. consists of 12 uncia, but since its weight equals only 10 uncia there are only 20 sextula to the ounce of the lm. Five sextula lm. therefore equals one sicilicius, i.e. 1/4th of an ounce, in this case 5 scripula.

The smallest unit in the additive description is in other words a sicilicius, i.e. 1/4th of an uncia or 1/48th of the libra metrica. Expressed in sicilicius, the additive weight description amounts to 816 + 16 + 3 = 835 sicilicius. A sicilicius equals (322.32/6 x 5) / 48 = x 5.60 gr. The total therefore is 5.59583 x 835 = 4672.2 gr.

Compared to the weight of the plate as we know it today, the controller has arrived at a weight c. 30 gr above the weight of the plate. This suggests that he has made a mistake when he added up the weights or that the plate has lost c. 35 gr of its original weight. This loss is less than a percent, but still perhaps unlikely. In the Achilles case therefore, the material context is difficult to grasp and it may have been misjudged by the controller. The text nevertheless has become relatively clear.

The silversmith didn’t aim at an additive description of the weight. The controller did and distanced himself from the silversmith by not using the same pound as the smith. He could just have said 14 logarike libra, 4 uncia and 5 sextula, which would have been correct in relation to the plate’s present weight, but using this description the controller would have continued in the footsteps of the silversmith – i.e. the formula ‘more than 14 pound and less than 15’. Had he started there, his description would have lived up to that of the silversmith’s description and lost its integrity. Introducing the libra metrica, he demonstrated his role as a controller.

And that is the controller’s point – an independent statement analyzing the silversmith as well as the weight through a series of steps. Skill rather than authority, action rather than fact is the controller’s message and with it he proves the obvious – the in a sense the silversmith was right. The silversmith on the other hand demonstrated his status as an artist and a craftsman. So obviously does his cups and plates.

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