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For other uses, see Cubit (disambiguation).
Egyptian cubit rod in the Liverpool World Museum
Cubit rod of Maya, 1336-1327 BC (Eighteenth Dynasty)

The cubit is an ancient unit based on the forearm length from the middle finger tip to the elbow bottom. Lengths ranged between 38 to 51.8 cm (15.0 to 20.4 in) during the ancient Egyptian to Roman empires. 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.[1]


The English word "cubit" comes from the Latin noun cubitum "elbow", from the verb cubo, cubare, cubui, cubitum "to lie down",[2] from which also comes the adjective "recumbent".[3]

Ancient Egyptian royal cubit[edit]

The Ancient Egyptian royal cubit (meh niswt) is the earliest attested standard measure. Cubit rods were used for the measurement of length. A number of these rods 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.[4] These cubit rods 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.[5][4][6]

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Hieroglyph of the royal cubit, meh niswt

Cubit rod from the Turin Museum.

Early evidence for the use of this 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.[5] 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 BC.[7]

The Sumerian or Nippur cubit[edit]

The Nippur cubit-rod in the Archeological Museum of Istanbul, Turkey

In 1916, during the last years of the Ottoman Empire and in the middle of World War I, the German assyriologist Eckhard Unger found a copper-alloy bar while excavating at Nippur. The bar dates from c. 2650 BC 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 (20.42 in).[8]

Biblical cubit[edit]

The Near Eastern or Biblical cubit is usually estimated as approximately 46 cm (18 in).[9][10] In Deuteronomy 3:11 it is referred to as the 'standard cubit' in the New King James Version and the 'common cubit' in the Revised Standard Version. The King James Version refers here to the 'cubit of a man'.

Ancient Greece[edit]

The ancient Greek cubit, called a pēchys (πῆχυς), measured approximately 462.4 mm (18.20 in). The short forearm cubit from the wrist to the elbow, called the pygmē (πυγμή), measured approximately 345.4 mm (13.60 in).[11]

Ancient Rome[edit]

In ancient Rome, according to Vitruvius, a cubit was equal to 1 1/2 Roman feet or 6 palm width -which is 443.8 mm (17.47 in).[12]

Other systems[edit]

Other measurements based on the length of the forearm include some lengths of ell, the Chinese chi, the Japanese shaku, the Indian hasta, the Thai sok, the Tamil "(Mulzham)", the unit of measurement and the Khmer hat.

Cubit arm in heraldry[edit]

A heraldic cubit arm, dexter, vested and erect

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.[13] It is most often used erect as a crest, for example by the families of Poyntz of Iron Acton, Rolle of Stevenstone and Turton.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hart, Sarah. "The Green Man". Oliver Liebscher. Retrieved 29 October 2014. 
  2. ^ Cassell's Latin Dictionary
  3. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition, 1989; online version September 2011. s.v. "cubit"
  4. ^ a b Richard Lepsius (1865). Die altaegyptische Elle und ihre Eintheilung (in German). Berlin: Dümmler. p. 14–18.
  5. ^ a b 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.
  6. ^ Arnold Dieter (1991). Building in Egypt: pharaonic stone masonry. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-506350-9. p.251.
  7. ^ 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
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ W. Gunther Plaut, Bernard J. Bamberger, William W. Hallo (eds.) (1981). The Torah. New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations. ISBN 9780807400555.
  10. ^ Footnote to Genesis 6:16 in NIV: "That is, about 18 inches or about 45 centimeters"
  11. ^ Anastylosis at Machaerus, Biblical Archeology Review,Jan/Feb 2015, Vol. 41, No. 1, p. 56.
  12. ^ H. Arthur Klein (1974). The Science of Measurement: A Historical Survey. New York: Dover. ISBN 9780486258393. p. 68.
  13. ^ Allcock, Hubert (2003). Heraldic design : its origins, ancient forms, and modern usage, with over 500 illustrations. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications. p. 24. ISBN 048642975X. 


  • Arnold, Dieter (2003). The Encyclopaedia of Ancient Egyptian Architecture. Taurus. ISBN 1-86064-465-1. 
  • Petrie, Sir Flinders (1881). Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh.
  • Stone, Mark H., "The Cubit: A History and Measurement Commentary", Journal of Anthropology doi:10.1155/2014/489757, 2014

External links[edit]

  • Media related to Cubit arms at Wikimedia Commons
  • The dictionary definition of cubit at Wiktionary