Spherical Jugs Reveal International Standardization in Ancient Measurements and Trade Systems

Ancient mathematics established norms across international trade networks


Recent research suggests that ancient measurements were standardized across centuries of Eastern Mediterranean trade. This jug would have contained one half hekat of liquid, and ancient mathematics used to determine the contents of similar ancient jugs were spread across multicultural trade systems. Image courtesy of Tel Aviv University.

Ancient measurements such as the hekat (volume) or the cubit (length) are well known to archaeologists. Recent interdisciplinary research on spherical jugs suggests that across the Eastern Mediterranean, ancient trading systems were much more uniform than previously believed. The jugs were used to store and transport valuable commodities including wine and olive oil, and new evidence suggests that buyers and sellers had precise measurements of their goods. Moreover, the comprehension of ancient mathematics and the usage of these ancient measurements were spread across national boundaries, giving archaeologists an idea of extranational community and standardization across ancient trading systems.

Geography professor Itzahk Benenson and archaeology professor (and BAR author) Israel Finkelstein recognized that ancient trading systems relied on calculations between circumference and volume after mathematician Elana Zapassky constructed 3D models of hundreds of vessels from Canaanite levels at Megiddo. After noticing patterning in circumferences, the researchers dropped their reliance on metric units, switching to ancient measurements. The spherical ancient jugs had a circumference of one royal Egyptian cubit, and volumes of exactly one half hekat (equivalent to 2.54 quarts).

Standardized trade systems and ancient measurements are the predecessors of the modern, globalized world. Explore connections between antiquity and the present in the BAS DVD Antiquity and the Modern World. Top scholars discuss themes ranging from ancient environmentalism to the modern use of technology to interpret artifacts.

Mycenaean artifact

A Mycenaean-style ceramic from Tel Dan reminds archaeologists of the interconnected Mediterranean world in the late Bronze Age.

More interestingly, the standardization of ancient measurements crosses cultural and chronological boundaries. The TAU report states that “the tall round ‘torpedo’ jugs packed into Phoenician ships in the 8th century BCE were found to contain whole units of hekats. Dr. [Yuval] Gadot believes that the Egyptian system of measurement gradually disappeared when the Assyrians took over the region, bringing their own methods of measurement with them.”

The research suggests that the ancient trading systems adopted a measurements “developed by the ancient Egyptians and used in the Eastern Mediterranean from about 1,500 to 700 B.C.E.” The new data not only sheds light on ancient mathematics and Eastern Mediterranean trade systems, but also teaches about hegemony in the region. Professor Israel Finkelstein suggests that standardization in the ancient world implies power structures devised around extensive bureaucratic influence. He explains “the use of the Egyptian method is a strong indicator of Egyptian power in this region during a specific period of time.”

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