Artifact of the Month: Measuring Matters

Wednesday, November 1, 2017
Artifact of the Month
Dr. Linda Carnes-McNaughton, Guest Contributor

Several sets of brass weights were recovered from underwater excavation of the Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck. Some were flat or disc weights in round and square shapes. Some were marked and others not. One set of nifty weights are what are known as nested weights, a series of graduated cup-like weights that fit one into the other as a stack, typically held together with a hinged lid. These weights were used by apothecaries and surgeons to measure ingredients used in medical compounds and by assayers and merchants to measure precious metals. Certainly pirates were interested in the weight of gold and other precious metals. Because of their compact nature, they could be easily stored and were also popular on ships where space was limited. Elements of two sets of nested weights are represented by various cups, two lids, hinges and fasteners.

One complete set was carefully separated by conservators in the lab and consisted of one large “master cup” which held all the smaller cups and would have been equipped with a hinged lid. The weight of the master cup was also equal to the sum of all the smaller cups, and the weight of the second-largest cup was equal to the sum of those it contained, and so on, until the smallest single piece was not a cup but a simple disc representing the lightest weight.

From this complete set of seven cups, the four largest ones also exhibit fleur-de-lis marks on their interior base and corresponding numbers 1, 2, 4, and 8 related to their graduated size. The fleur-de-lis has long been recognized as the nationalistic symbol of France, since the 13th century. Nested weight sets were produced in Germany, specifically the town of Nuremburg, and are sometime known generically as Nuremburg weights. The largest or master cup of this set, however, also exhibits a maker’s mark on the interior base which consisted of a rectangular cartouche (scroll) with initials N and C separated by small dot. References tell us this mark represents the town of Montpelier, France, the source of these weights. A complete set of nested weights (eight cups) similar to the QAR set was found on the 1629 wreck of Batavia, implying minimal changes in their use and design had taken place.

-Deegan, Kathleen. Artifacts of Spanish Colonies of Florida and the Caribbean, 1500-1800. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987.
-Green, Jeremy N. The Loss of the Verenigde Compagnie retourschip Batavia, Western Australia 1629. Western Australia Maritime Museum, BAR International Series 489, 1989.
-Kisch, Bruno. Scales and Weights: A Historical Outline. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1965.

-Nesting weight set from Queen Anne's Revenge site, courtesy NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
-Size marks on nesting weights from Queen Anne's Revenge site, courtesy NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resouces.
-City mark on  nesting weights from Queen Anne's Revenge site, courtesy NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.