Bronze opium weight "Toe"


Rangoon, Burma (Myanmar), early 19th century, private collection from Denmark.

The bronze opium weights were used not only as units of opium measurement, but used in everyday transactions where items were traded by weight, including food and precious commodities such as gold, silver, rubies, coral, pearls, spices, camphor, musk, and costly medicines. Certainly the mountain tribes of the Golden Triangle (Burma, Laos and Thailand) used the smallest ones for weighting opium. Items were measured by a beam hung with two baskets or trays. The weights were produced in a range of different designs, primarily based on animals or creatures from local religion and mythology. The royal animal weights were cast by the lost wax (cire perdue) method, which could have reached Burma through Bengal or Yunnan. A small figure is formed in wax and is surrounded by very fine charcoal/clay layers. More clay is added forming a casting which has to dry up. By heating the wax flows out through a small channel and will be replaced by molten bronze. After the bronze has cooled down the casting is smashed to pieces and an unique bronze object will appear. In this way no two absolutely identical objects have been produced. Opium weights have two parts, an animal or bird and a base, which is about the same weight. The base may be hexagonal, rectangular, octagonal or circular. The bases are small platforms on which the animal or bird stands. Most of the weights have been covered by a black coating possibly a protection against corrosion which has largely disappeared by wear and tear in course of time.

Most common opium weights are in the form of a Hintha bird or Brahmani duck, also called a hamsa. It was the emblem of the Mon kingdom, which once ruled Lower Burma. A duck’s beak and feet and a flamboyant, crested comb, with 3 to 4 layers of ruffles down the back of the neck is common. The beak is often holding foliage, worm or a pearl. The eye is usually outlined. The head is crowned by a two or three-point curling crest. The bird usually has a round, protruding breast and wings close to the body are often decorated with curved lines to indicate the main feathers. The wings and tail usually curl gracefully upwards. The tail may be short and stumpy. Back and tail feathers may have parallel curved lines. The feet may not be visible and the bird appears to be sitting on the base. Metal under the tail may add support. Head and feathers may be emphasised by incising. The hamsa symbolises the material prosperity and spirituality of the reign of 15th century Queen Shinsawbu.

Another popular animal is the Toe (called also To), a mythical feline beast which inhabits the Himalayan forest. It is often wrongly referred to as the Chinthe or Burmese lion. The Toe is a stylized combination of the parts of four animals: the Asian lion (head and torso), the bull or East Asian muntjac (horns), the ancient Yunnanese horse (tail and hooves). The earliest ones found date to the 17th and 18th centuries. There are different species of Toe in Burmese folklore such as the Toe naya which resembles a lion, and the Toe-aung which is like a bull. The Toe myin has certain characteristics pertaining to the horse. Other animals such as the elephant (Chang), chicken, crane (Karaweik), horse, tortoise, spider and fish are extremely rare.

The Burmese mass unit is the kyat or tical, a term known to be in use in Pegu since 1515AD. The Burmese tical mass varied with time from 10.4grams (15th C) to 16.3 grams (1830). One hundred tical is referred to as a viss, equal to approximately 1,6kg. The opium weights were produced in series from very small weights to much larger sizes. A full set of weights normal consists of 10 pieces from very small sizes up the largest size (100, 50, 20, 10, 5, 2, 1, 1/2, 1/4, and 1/8 tical). Although the units of measurement do not correspond neatly to western scales of measurement, there is a proportional relationship, between the various sizes in a series. The weights and measures system in Burma was carefully controlled and weights checked for accuracy. They were legalised by a stamp or seal, usually difficult to read through use, given by the king or his officials in each town. When the British occupied Burma in 1885, they introduced round and flat iron weights and from that time officially no more bronze weights were cast.

Beautiful Toe style bronze weight. Four sided base. Lovely example of a real market weight. Two lines around the top of the base. Verification mark of 4 rayed star at the front of the base (almost disappeared). Good condition. Intact. Age-related wear and signs of heavy use. Intense deep dark patina, oxidiation and traces of black coating. Dirt, dust and soot. Size approx. 3,9cm x 2,8cm x 2,1cm. Weight c. 52g.

References, sources and citations:

A Model Chronology of the Animal Weights of Burma (Myanmar), Hartmut Mollat, Anthropos 104/2009, pp. 533-542, Published By: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, 2009.

Earth to Heaven: The Royal Animal‐Shaped Weights of the Burmese Empires, Donald Gear & Joan Gear, London: Twinstar, 1992.

Animal Weights from Burma and Beyond, R.J. Willis & G. Herman, River Books, 2019.

Analysis of historical Burmese opium weights and lead coins - metal origin, alloys and surface coating, Robert Lehmann, Hartmut Mollat, Ingo Horn, Ekkehard Döhring & Carla Vogt.

Burmese Opium Weights, Sylvia Fraser‐Lu, Arts of Asia 1, pp. 73–81, 1982.

Opium Weights, Rolfe Braun & Ilse Braun, London: Braun, 1983.