Metal detectorists come across many unusual items from bygone ways of life on their expeditions. Spindle whorls are common, as are shoe buckles. One of the most interesting items, though, are coin weights.
Coin weights were used for centuries to ensure the quality of precious metal coinage, almost always for the larger denominations of coins. They were one of the first technological developments to prevent coin clipping and counterfeiting. Generally made to match the lowest possible weight at which a certain coin could be considered legal tender, they were made of lower-quality metal like iron or bronze.
Weights are first found in the Ptolemaic and Byzantine Empires, as well as in ancient China. Islamic civilizations also used coin weights, eventually preferring glass weights, as they were thought to be unalterable. Islamic weights are the first to appear in Britain, having been introduced by the Vikings, who traded extensively with both civilizations. Many weights bear the names of rulers and other important individuals, making them valuable to historians and other researchers. By the time they were introduced to the Carolingian Empire, weights had begun to be stamped with the same dies as coins, to ensure that the weight could be clearly matched to the right coin.
There are hundreds of different kinds of coin weights, from many countries and eras. In England, all coin weights were made for gold coins until Charles I in the 17th century. English-origin weights frequently have a design only on the obverse, until Henry VIII, when the shilling and pence values of the coin were added to the reverse in Roman numerals.
In the 1500s, sets of weights complete with scales were brought into production. An order to the warden of the Mint in 1587 dictates the creation of “true” weights with the symbol of a crown E (Elizabeth I being Queen at the time). The order states that no other weights may be used, and that every city, town, and borough must have a set of the balances and weights. The punishment for using any other weight was imprisonment. Another order the following year provided for the manufacture of special cases for the weights and balances. “The descriptions of five cases are given – the first of wood with 14 coin-weights, a balance, a suite of weights marked from 1 to 5 dwts (pennyweights) and a suite of up to 5 grain weights, the whole to cost 4s 6d. The cheapest set was to cost 3s 1d. […] The evidence is that the proclamation did not have the desired effect for in 1589 a Richard Martin complained to the Lord Treasurer that he had expended above £600 in providing scales and weights marked with an ‘E’ crowned, the far greater part of which still remained upon his hands.”
Square weights were specifically banned by Parliament in 1632: ‘many of them, which were in common use were too heavy , and others too light, so that men bought and received by one weight, and sold and delivered by another’. The round weights from after this edict are some of the most commonly found.
After 1775, all coin weights were required to undergo testing; those that were accurate were stamped with a mark certifying their accuracy. A ewer mark indicated testing at the Founders Company of London; an Imperial crown indicated the Royal Mint; a lion passant indicated London; and an anchor for Birmingham. In 1891, Parliament passed the Coinage Act: this gave a governmental guarantee for all new coins, bringing the need for coin weights to an end.
In addition to the official weights, homemade weights were occasionally used. “In some coinweight boxes from the late-17th century onwards are found a small nest of cup-weights similar to those used for other commodities since late-Medieval times. These however are intended for weighing silver coin and are marked VS (for the crown), 2S 6D, IS and ½S or 6D. These were probably used during transactions for weighing quantities of worn clipped coins or even scrap up to an actual coin value and are not strictly therefore coinweights.” Apothecary weights may also sometimes be mistaken for coin weights, as the systems are similar.
Coin weights have been used almost everywhere that coins have circulated, and have been one of the longest-lasting technologies used to counteract bad currency. Though there are now many modern technologies that help prevent widespread coin devaluing, weight is still one of the most reliable ways to check a coin. To this day, many collectors keep a precise scale on hand to weigh prospective purchases and ensure that they are getting the coin that’s been advertised.