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Materiality and Performance in the Use of Standardized Measures

Robert Schon

One way to trace the emergence and development of markets in the ancient world is through the adoption of standardized measures. The archaeological record of the ancient Mediterranean is replete with evidence of standardized measures ranging from the measuring devices themselves to artifacts that reveal the use of standards in their design and documents that list commodities being measured. Identifying such measures is straightforward, but determining how they were incorporated into a given economy is a more challenging task. Although researchers have made great strides in identifying the standards that were in use in ancient states, little work has been done to establish the relationship of those standardized measures to their political economies.

The goal of this paper is to show how certain physical characteristics of measuring devices, such as their form, regional distribution, and degree of state level regulation, can provide insights into how they were used and how measurement, more broadly, functioned in the ancient economy. To illustrate this point, I examine two cases: one from the Bronze Age Aegean where centralized intervention is indiscernible and the other from Classical Greece where it is unambiguous. The paper treats measurement as a performance, focusing on three of its aspects: the context in which measurement takes place, the materiality of the measuring instrument, and the act of measurement itself. Context determines what kind of measuring instrument is appropriate. Characteristics of the instrument, along with the manner in which measuring is performed, can reveal information about the relationship of the participants. Take for instance, the weighing of commodities for the purpose of exchange. In reciprocal exchange, transactions are generally carried out by parties who know each other well and have a history of mutual trust. In such circumstances, commodities may be exchanged without any formal measurement at all. On the other hand, in market based exchange, where transactional partners may not be acquainted, commodities are more often measured using instruments that are standardized, accurate, and possibly guaranteed by the state. Thus, the materiality of measuring devices and the performance of measurement are connected to the economic contexts in which they occur. Moreover, applying Butler’s concept of performativity (as Callon has done for markets writ-large), I argue that materiality and performance in turn define the transactions in which they are employed. The mass of a commodity, for example, is economically meaningless unless it can be measured.

                  The case studies presented here illustrate how archaeologists can assess the performance capabilities and appropriate uses of measuring instruments and thereby infer their economic roles. The first consists of a series of lead discoid weight sets used throughout the Aegean during the Bronze Age. I argue that their standardized form, similar degrees of accuracy, and depositional range reveal a koine of the practice of measurement that emerged without any state intervention. The second case study focuses on the Athenian Agora and examines how the institutionalization of measurement as a public and transparent act became an essential pillar of the Athenian polis. Here, standardized measures were labeled as belonging to the demos. This public display of an official prototype was a strategic move by state officials that served multiple functions. On one hand, it materialized the state’s claim of possessing the authority to set the standard in the first place. On the other, it reduced transaction costs, thereby providing a public good that furthered the viability of private enterprise in the marketplace. These are but two examples of how the materiality and performance of standardized measurement can provide further insights into the functioning of ancient economies.

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Standardization and the State

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