Three Steelyard Scales, Scole

drawing of three steelyard scales

Three sets of steelyard scales were discovered at the Roman Small Town of Scole on the Suffolk/Norfolk border.

During the Roman period, steelyards were used to measure and weigh items through a balance mechanism. The diagram below shows a simple steelyard balance. The goods being weighed were placed in a container strung from the hook at one end of the scale. The weight would then be slid up and down the fulcrum (horizontal balance beam) of the scale until the arm became level, a reading would then have been taken of the fulcrum and recorded.

black and white illustration of steelyard scale
Diagram showing how a steelyard scale works. Image from:

Of the three sets of steelyard scales were discovered, two of the steelyards were excavated from the Oakley area of the site (OKY 005) and the third from the Norfolk area (SCL 10009). Scales may not appear to be particularly interesting but these examples are in remarkable condition and were found in situ giving an insight into zones of commercial activity within the town.

Oakley Steelyards (Site excavation Area 8)

Amazingly, one of the steelyards from the Oakley area of the site was complete, even its weight was still in situ. The complete steelyard measures 148mm in length and was cast from copper alloy. Along the fulcrum are six main calibration grooves and five minor ones. The lead weight weighs 221g (approximately eight Roman ounces).

The second steelyard, also copper alloy, was incomplete but has an interesting calibration system. One edge had nine calibration marks and an incised X and / (possibly an incomplete V). The calibration system on the other edge consisted of 21 dots (unicae) representing ounces divided by two transverse grooves (librae) representing pounds. This steelyard measured 86mm in length.

Norfolk Steelyard (Site excavation Area 1-7)

The steelyard from Norfolk was cast in copper alloy and was incomplete, with only the long balance arm still surviving. Like the incomplete example from Oakley it was also inscribed with two calibration scales, although both the scales on this steelyard use Roman numerals opposed to dots and grooves. The first set of numerals read: IV (presumably six), V (5) and IIII (4), the second row of numerals read: V (35), XXX (30), V (25) X[X] (20).

What can the steelyards tell us?

Although steelyards can be used within a domestic context, when considered alongside the other finds from the site they are more likely to have had a commercial use. The large numbers of weights and the presence of finds associated with writing and literacy suggest that market activities were important to the people who lived at and around Scole during the Roman period. It is thought that the focus of this activity would have been around the major road junction in the centre of the town and that the excavations have only revealed the edges of the market/commercial zone.

Further information
Ashwin, T. and Tester, A. 2014. A Romano-British Settlement in the Waveney Valley: Excavations at Scole 1993-4. East Anglian Archaeology Report Number 152.

The ‘From the Vaults’ series is written by the County Council’s Archaeological Archives Officer

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