From the 15th to the 19th century CE, the Akan used sets of ornate statues as a measurement system for weighing gold dust, but also encoding and reinforcing cultural knowledge at the same time.
Most standard units of measurement that we use today are pretty boring. Kilograms, kilometres, kiloseconds (a little under 17 minutes). Prior to international standardisation, there was a beautiful diversity of measures, some of which I’ve written about previously – the long hundred, obsolete feet, and the Roman lifetime. These are all beautiful concepts, but the system of Akan goldweight measurement is actually physically beautiful.
The area that is today part of Ghana and the Côte D’Ivoire in West Africa was for many centuries one of the best places in the world to mine for gold. As a result, the standard currency was simply gold dust – when making a trade, you weighed out the appropriate amount of gold dust.
The Akan of the 15th through to 19th century CE had a standard set of brass weights to measure this gold dust: on a scale, put the weight in one side and dust on the other until the two were even. These weights were not boring discs or cubes though… the Akan goldweights were beautifully ornate miniatures of people, animals, and symbols, crafted through that lost wax technique I described in the post on Igbo-Ukwu bronzes.
All Akan merchants and traders needed a set of goldweights in order to do business, and indeed they may have been passed down from parents to children as a kind of commercial heirloom. The weights didn’t only fulfil commercial and decorative functions, though: the shapes of the weights connected to stories and proverbs of the Akan. The Met Museum website, for example, connects a weight in the shape of an elephant with this proverb:
Wodi esono akyiri a hasuo nnka woGold Weight
“one who follows the track of the elephant never gets wet from the dew on the bushes.”
The elephant weight is not just a measurement; it also reminds its users to respect the authority of the chief, because they benefit from the chief’s protection, presence, and influence. Each one of these weights carries with it a symbolic meaning, and the collection as a whole would serve as a constant reminder of Akan principles and thought.
I don’t think I’ve seen any other system of measurement that so effectively encodes cultural knowledge within its very form.
I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.