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Burmese opium weights: a history and what to look for

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As you will see I sell Burmese opium weights in auctions and through my shop quite regularly. Many buyers I suspect could do with more information on the history of the opium weight and what to look for when biddng or buying one on Ebay.

Below is an edited version of an article by Sylvia Fraser-Lu from the Jan/Feb, 1982 edition of Arts of Asia magazine which should help those wanting to buy these pieces and importantly know what to look for to get the dating right for pieces and avoid over paying for fake or misdated pieces, of which we've seen plenty for sale on Ebay.

Widely seen in curio shops and stalls in both Burma and Thailand are delightful, boldly modelled bronze figures of birds and animals of varying sizes on solid round or rectangular bases. They are referred to as "opium" weights.The term "opium" weight for these measures was probably coined by a foreigner. While it's true that some of the smaller weights could have been used for measuring this drug, "opium" weights served a much wider, more useful and mundane purpose: they were used to gauge the weight of the daily items in the Burmese market place. All types of food, raw materials and metals, were sold in quantities determined by these weights.These weights have long attracted the attention of travellers to Burma. Early adventurers to the court of Pegu in the sixtenth century noted that silver bullion was weighed with these "curious animal" weights. Yule, an emissary of Queen Victoria, illustrated one in his book, A Narrative of the Mission Sent by the Governor General of India to the Court of Ava in 1855.

It is not known exactly when these weights came into existence. Two small metal figures resembling a lion and hintha bird were uncovered during the 1956 archaelogical excavations at Beikthano in Central Burma, a Pyu site thought to date from AD 100-400. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to confirm that they were actually used as weights. There are references to weights and measures in the inscriptions of Bagan, (AD 1044-1287) but to date, no actual examples have been found that can be ascribed to that period with certainty U Thaw Bita, a scholar monk, has made a survey of the chronicles and other written records from the 11th to 19th centuries. He has uncovered many references to weights and the occassions on which they were used.

An exciting find was made by U Maung Maung Tin of the Burma Historical Commission who recently uncovered a Burmese palm leaf manuscript written by Mandabahu, an administator in the time Alaungpaya (1752-1760), one of Burma's kings. It contains a list of weights and their dates of usage, beginning with the Pinya-Ava perdiod (13th to 14th century AD) and continuing to his time of writing in the 18th century.Broadly speaking, weights may be divided into two groups: birds and quadrupeds. Within these two groups there is at times a problem of differntiating between the different birds and animals because they are fairy stylised. Constant use and handling over the years have also blurred many of the distinguishing details.Not all the creatures listed above have been positively identified in existing weights. It is quite possible that many of the earlier weights were melted down and re-moulded into the prevalent styles of the day. On the other hand, a number have been uncovered which are not included in Nandabahu's list, such, as the tortoise and spider weights. Unusual weights such as these could have been made according to the whim of the craftsman, rather than following a directive from the king. Opium weights come in various sizes and up to the 19th century a complete set consisted often unites. The largest was a viss this was followed by the 50,20,10,5,2 and 1 tical, ending with the 1/2, 1/4 and 1/8 ticals. For easier lifting, many of the one viss, 50 and 20 tical weights came with a handle attached to the head and tail of the weight. These handles blend in well with the animal and give the larger weights a certain elegance which is lacking in the smaller ones. During the 19th century larger weights such as the 10,5 and 2-1/2 viss became more popular.They were sometimes cast in brass rather than bronze. The larger weights, from 10 ticals to 1 viss, were usually carefully modelled with greater attention to detail. The small weights were generally not so carefully formed, and with those of less than one tical it is often difficult to discern the creature being represented.An opium weight consists of two parts, an animal figure and a base which are nearly of the same weight. The base may be circular, rectangualr, hexagonal or octogonal. Most bases taper upwards to form a small plaform on which the animal stands; many are incised with horizontal lines and short, hatchstroke designs. In addition to this decoration, many weights have marks stamped on the side or underneath the base.

The weights and measures system was subject to scrutiny by the king who, at the beginning of his reign, had  a master set of weights made in the form of an animal of his choosing. These weights were kept in the Hluttaw or parliament and people were expected to make sure that the weights they used conformed in heaviness to the standard weights. As far as is known, they were not required to alter the forms of the weights they used with each accession; the weights of previous reigns could still be used, provided they conformed in heaviness to the Hluttaw weight.The earliest type of seal seen on an opium weight, probably dating from the 16th or 17th centuries, is a small round embossed replica of the animal represented on the upper portion of the weight. This was pressed into the front of the pumpkin-shaped base on which the animal is mounted. In later seals, (circa 18th century), the shape of the animal is merely outlined in a small niche in the front of a plain round base.

Opium weights were cast by the cire perdue or lost wax process. Since they were to be used as standard measure, great care was taken in weighing the amount of molten metal needed in casting. Extreme caution was also taken in measuring the amount of wax needed when making a mould. For one viss of bronze, ten tical of wax were used. The proportion of wax would vary slightly depending on the composition of the alloy. Made of lead, the animal mould would be amde in two half pieces, while the base mould consisted of only one piece. During casting, the molten metal was poured in through an opening in the base. Occassionally a weight might be found with a very small base. This was due to the mould being a little too large for the amount of metal used. The further addition of metal would alter the weight, so the base was left incomplete. The basic metal used was bronze, an alloy of copper, tin and zinc. The earliest weights found dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries are reddish in colour due to a higher proportion of copper being used in the alloy. During the late 17th and 18th centuries, tin became more dominant in the alloy, ranging from 10 to 40 per cent, thus giving the weights a slightly silvery-whitish hue. Weights made during the late 18th and 19th centuries display the typical light yellowish colour associated with bronze. Late 19th and 20th century weights, being made from brass, assume a deep yellowish colour. Weights in Upper Burma were made by craftsmen either in Ava or Tampawaddi district, half way between Manadalay and Amarapura. In Lower Burma , during the 17th and 18th centuries, weights were made in the Pegu district.Just as the composition of the alloy varied at different times, so did the animals styles represented on the weights. Studies of the animals depicted in the 16th and 19th century frescos and in the diagrams on Buddha's Footprints over the same period of time made independently by U Thaw Bita and U Win Maung, have led to a broad dating of some of the opium weights found. Much work needs to be done in this field, however, before findings can be considered conclusive. With further research it might even be possible in future to assign weghts to various reigns with a fair degree of certainty.

Let us take three of the most common animals depicted on opium weights, the hintha bird, the karaweik and the toe, and look at some of their different forms as a possible guide to tentative dating.The most common weights is in the form of a hintha bird of Brahmanu duck which is sometimes also referred to as a hamsa. The emblem of the Mon kingdom which once ruled over lower Burma, it has a duck's beak and feet and a crested comb. There are usually three to four layers of ruffles down the back of the neck. The beak often has an object suspended from it which may resemble a worm, a sprig of foliage or a pearl. The breast if generally rounded and protruding; its wings are set close to the body and may be decorated with curved lines to indicate the main feathers. The tail usually turns upwards like that of a drake, although occassionally it may be short and stumpy. back and tail feathers may be indicated by a series of parallel curved lines. The feet, which are not usually very clearly moulded, support the front of the body, while a prop of metal under the tail adds extra support to the back. Details of the head and feathers may be emphasised by incising.The earliest hintha weights found are thought to date from around the 16th and 17th centuries. They are set on a pumpkin-shaped base. The head is large and crested, while the neck is usually plain. Sometimes an object may dangle from the mouth. The breast is quite small and the wings large. The upturned tail resembles a sprig of curling foliage. The feet are barely discernible and the bird appears to be sitting on the base. A small circular replica of the hintha may be embossed on the front of the base. Some of the loveliest hintha weights uncovered date from the 18th century. They are generally supported on a smaller round base, a few of them tend towards the octagonal. The beak closely resembles a duck's bill. The larger weights often have an object suspended from the mouth, touching the centre of an ample breast. The eye is usually outlined and the head is crowned by a two or three-point curling crest, which is echoed in the four or five layers of feathers lying flat against the nape of the neck. The wings and tail curl gracefully upwards. The larger weights, too, are equipped with a plain hook-shaped handle attached to the back of the neck and the base of the tail feathers. The feet show a little more sculpturing than in previous examples. Some weights have a small niche at the front of the base in which an outline hintha has been imprinted. During the 18th and 19th centuries,  a hintha weight closely resembling a traditional duck form also came to be used. The shovel-shaped beak is set right against the breast as if in a sleeping position. The neck, wings and tails are very simply moulded with lttle attention to detail. The bird is mounted on an octagonal base with sloping sides.During the 19th century, the hintha weight became more flamboyant. Set on a larger hexagonal or octagonal base, some weights at first glance appear to resemble a cock rather than a duck. The crest and neck feathers curve outwards. The wings are concave unlike the earlier examples which are convex. The eye is very prominent. Less attention has been paid to the tail feathers than in earlier examples. The feet are very large and there is a prop of metal supporting the tail. The handles on the larger weights have become quite elaborate. Some bear the mark of a star flower on the side or under the base.One bird often confused with the hintha in the karaweik, or Burmese crane. Its is second in popularity as far as the birds weights are concerned. Some early karaweik weights set on a pumpkin base have been found, usually reddish black in colour due to the high amount of copper present in the alloy. The bird is characterised by a long, blunt, slightly drooping bill, prominent eyes, a large fluffy crest and ornate tail. The legs are in a crouched position. The form of the bird quite closely resembles those painted in the 16th and 17th century frescoes. Late 18th and 19th century weights have a sharply pointed beak. The body is longer and slightly more steamlined than that of a hintha, which looks rather plump by comparison. The crest is similar to that of a hintha, while the neck feathers look like upturned frills. The back feathers are often emphasised by bands of horizontal hatch strokes. Tail feathers upwards to be almost level with the head in many cases. A star flower mark may be discernible on the sloping octagonal base.

Another most popular animal form expressed in Burmese weights is the toe, often erroneously referred to as the clinthe, due to is resemblance to the
Burmese lion which guards the entrance to temples throughout Burma. The toe is a fabulous animal supposed to inhabit the Himalayan forest. It has the face of a lion, horms, and the hooves and tail of a hose. There are different species of toes in Burmese folklore suck as the toe naya which resembles a lion, and the toe oung which is like a bull. The toe myin has certain characteristics pertaining to the horse, while the toe nwa is not unlike a cow. Semblances of these different types of toe have been seen in opium weights and probably refer to such names as Tibetan bull, crested horse, crested bull and toes naya metioned in Nadabahu's lost of weights. Some of the earliest toe found which date back to the 17th and 18th centuries stand on a low octagonal base. They are thought to resemble the toe oungor Tibetan bull. The face with its bared teeth and flaring nostrils resembles a lion, while the round plump body, long tail and round hooves are more like a horse. The head is crowned with a pair of horse, below which are
small pointed ears. Some are decorated with sprigs of foliage curling from a grinning mouth. Many have curvilinear mouldings over the chest and face.
Like other 19th century weights, the later toe becomes much more flamboyant. The face is still that of a lion with the body of a horse and could well be a toe myin rather than a tow oung. The head, in addition to ears and horns, now bears one or two extra curling protuberances, as do the mane and tail. These are also repeated on the handle. Instead of a sprig of foliage suspended from the mouth, many have looks like a beard issuing from the chin and curling up slightly on the chest. The base in most cases is rectangular with sloping sides incised with horizontal decoration. Some bases have a round mark at the back, while others have the star flower. Some of the transitional types, while like the toe myin in form, retain a circular base and sprig issuing from the mouth.

Because of their popularity with tourists, fakes and reproductions of opium weights abound. Weights in bronze ceased to be made shortly after the British took over Burma completely in 1885, and there were gradually replaced by the familiar round iron weights widely used in many countries today.In checking the authenticity and possible age of a weight, it is neccessary to take into account a number of factors. The style of the animal depicted is important, for it varies at different periods. A comparison with dated examples seen in Burmese painting is a fairly reliable guide. These have been published in a number of art books and scholarly publications. A knowledge of the animals used on weights is helpful, for some of the animals currently being produced on new ones, such as the peacock, were never previously depicted on weights. It is not sufficient to date on style alone, though for moulds continued to be used for many years through various reigns. It is neccessary to check the alloy composition, which can be done by scratching the base with a sharp object. Seals and marks on the base can also serve as an aid for dating, for various seals were used at different times. A word of warning here, for these are relatively easy to fake, as they were usually added later, rather than at the time of casting. Another guide to the authenticity of the weights is to check the base. If the underside of the base is completely smooth, it is probably new. The bases of genuine opium weights are usually pitted and scarred due to constant use and rought handling. Many Ebay sellers claim to have pieces of 400 years plus old but are selling these for around $20. Obviously they are mis selling these pieces as items of that age are extremely expensive.

When collecting weight, it is advisable to select seperate examples rather than purchasing them in a set, for fakes are commonly included in some sets. It is relatively easy to purchase some of the larger and medium weights, but it takes a little more persistence and pateince to rummage around antique shops to acquire smaller units. This is part of the fun for most collectors. We hope you found this information useful when making decisions about buying these pieces.


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