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The names and uses of opium weights and opium scales

The expression opium weights has only recently been coined but has been very quickly accepted.

Richard Temple who travelled through Burma at the end of the 19th century and even lived there for some time, refers to the weights in his notes, as the Burmese standard weights (in June 1898). Nor does Annandale use the term opium weights in his publication of 1917.

Rochesnard calls the weights poids d’Asie, Asian weights. It is not known who first called these handsome sculptures representing animals and fabulous creatures by this misleading and somewhat underserved name.

Certainly the mountain tribes of the Golden Triangle (Burma, Laos and Thailand) used the smallest ones for weighting opium, although they were actually made for everyday use, including all sorts of commerce. They were used on scales to weigh all sort of foods, raw materials and metals.

The smaller opium weights were carried in cloth bags drawn by a string with reinforced bottoms.

When not in use, the scales and weights were generally kept in skilfully carved wooden caskets, especially made for this purpose, see the pictures below:

As for handling the balances, Annandale points out: “In use scales of this type are not held in the hand, but suspended either from the horizontal twig of a bamboo stuck upright in the ground, or very commonly, from a paddle either fixed vertically in a slanting position, or tied across other paddles to form the framework of a temporary bazaar-stall of the mats. As most of the people come to the markets by boat, paddles are much used for purposes of this kind.”

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