The cubit is an archaic unit of length based on the length of the forearm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. Cubits of various lengths were employed in many parts of the world in antiquity, during the Middle Ages and as recently as Early Modern Times. The term is still used in hedge laying, the length of the forearm being frequently used to determine the interval between stakes placed within the hedge.
The Egyptian royal cubit
The earliest attested standard measure is from the Ancient Egypt and was called the royal cubit (meh niswt). Early evidence for the use of the royal cubit comes from the early dynastic period: on the Palermo stone, the flood level of the Nile river during the reign of the Pharaoh Djer is given as measuring 6 cubits and 1 palm. Use of the royal cubit is also known from Old Kingdom architecture, from at least as early as the construction of the Step Pyramid of Djoser in around 2,700 B.C.
In Ancient Egypt, cubit rods were used for the measurement of length. A number of these have survived: two are known from the tomb of Maya, the treasurer of Tutankhamun, in Saqqara; another was found in the tomb of Kha (TT8) in Thebes. Fourteen such rods, including one double cubit rod, were described and compared by Lepsius in 1865. These cubits range from 523 to 529 mm (20.6 to 20.8 in) in length, and are divided into seven palms; each palm is divided into four fingers and the fingers are further subdivided.
The Sumerian or Nippur cubit
In 1916, during the last years of Ottoman Empire and in the middle of WWI, the German assyriologist Eckhard Unger found a copper-alloy bar while excavating at Nippur. The bar dates from c. 2650 BCE and Unger claimed it was used as a measurement standard. This irregularly formed and irregularly marked graduated rule supposedly defined the Sumerian cubit as about 518.6 mm.
Near Eastern or Biblical cubit
Other measurements based on the length of the forearm are the Indian Hasta and Thai sok. A traditional measure in Karnataka commonly used by flower sellers is the mola which is equal to a cubit.
Cubit arm in heraldry
A cubit arm in heraldry may be dexter or sinister. It may be vested (with a sleeve) and may be shown in various positions, most commonly erect, but also fesswise (horizontal), bendwise (diagonal) and is often shown grasping objects. It is most often used erect as a crest, for example by the families of Poyntz of Iron Acton, Rolle of Stevenstone and Turton.
- Ancient Mesopotamian units of measurement
- History of measurement
- System of measurement
- Units of measurement
- Cassell's Latin Dictionary
- Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition, 1989; online version September 2011. s.v. "cubit"
- Marshall Clagett (1999). Ancient Egyptian science, a Source Book. Volume Three: Ancient Egyptian Mathematics. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. ISBN 978-0-87169-232-0. p.
- Jean Philippe Lauer (1931). "Étude sur Quelques Monuments de la IIIe Dynastie (Pyramide à Degrés de Saqqarah)". Annales du Service des Antiquités de L'Egypte IFAO 31:60 p. 59
- Richard Lepsius (1865). Die altaegyptische Elle und ihre Eintheilung (in German). Berlin: Dümmler. p. 14–18.
- Arnold Dieter (1991). Building in Egypt: pharaonic stone masonry. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-506350-9. p.251.
- Acta praehistorica et archaeologica Volumes 7–8. Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte; Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut (Berlin, Germany); Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz. Berlin: Bruno Hessling Verlag, 1976. p. 49.
- W. Gunther Plaut, Bernard J. Bamberger, William W. Hallo (eds.) (1981). The Torah. New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations. ISBN 9780807400555. Footnote to Gen. 6:15: "figuring a cubit to be about 18 inches"
- Arnold, Dieter (2003). The Encyclopaedia of Ancient Egyptian Architecture. Taurus. ISBN 1-86064-465-1.
- Petrie, Sir Flinders (1881). Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh.