Cubit

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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 tip of the middle finger to the bottom of the elbow. 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]

Etymology[edit]

The English word "cubit" comes from the Latin noun cubitus "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 the 18th dynasty pharaoh 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 523.5 to 529.2 mm (20.61 to 20.83 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]

Ancient Mesopotamian units of measurement[edit]

Ancient Mesopotamian units of measurement originated in the loosely organized city-states of Early Dynastic Sumer. Each city, kingdom and trade guild had its own standards until the formation of the Akkadian Empire when Sargon of Akkad issued a common standard. This standard was improved by Naram-Sin, but fell into disuse after the Akkadian Empire dissolved. The standard of Naram-Sin was readopted in the Ur III period by the Nanše Hymn which reduced a plethora of multiple standards to a few agreed upon common groupings. Successors to Sumerian civilization including the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Persians continued to use these groupings.

The Classical Mesopotamian system formed the basis for Elamite, Hebrew, Urartian, Hurrian, Hittite, Ugaritic, Phoenician, Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian, Arabic, and Islamic metrologies.[8] The Classical Mesopotamian System also has a proportional relationship, by virtue of standardized commerce, to Bronze Age Harappan and Egyptian metrologies.

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).[9]

Biblical cubit[edit]

The Near Eastern or Biblical cubit is usually estimated as approximately 457.2 mm (18 in).[10][11][not in citation given] Epiphanius of Salamis, in his treatise On Weights and Measures, describes how it was customary, in his day, to take the measurement of the biblical cubit: "The cubit is a measure, but it is taken from the measure of the forearm. For the part from the elbow to the wrist and the palm of the hand is called the cubit, the middle finger of the cubit measure being also extended at the same time and there being added below (it) the span, that is, of the hand, taken all together."[12]

Ancient Greece[edit]

In ancient Greek units of measurement, the standard forearm cubit (Greek: πῆχυς pēkhys) measured approximately 0.46 m (18 in). The short forearm cubit (πυγμή pygmē, lit. "fist"), from the wrist to the elbow, measured approximately 0.34 m (13 in).[13]

Ancient Rome[edit]

In ancient Rome, according to Vitruvius, a cubit was equal to 1 12 Roman feet or 6 palm widths (approximately 444 mm or 17.5 in).[14]

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 Telugu "(Moora)" (మూర), 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.[15] 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]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Hart, Sarah. "The Green Man". Shropshire Hedgelaying. Oliver Liebscher. Retrieved 18 May 2017. On the roadside the finish is clean and neat, a living fence of intertwined branches between stakes placed an old cubit (the length of a man's forearm or roughly 18 inches) apart. 
  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. ^ Conder 1908, p. 87.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ W. Gunther Plaut, Bernard J. Bamberger, William W. Hallo (eds.) (1981). The Torah. New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations. ISBN 9780807400555
  11. ^ See also footnote to Genesis 6:16 in New International Version and text of The Expanded Bible
  12. ^ Epiphanius' Treatise on Weights and Measures - the Syriac Version (ed. James Elmer Dean, The University of Chicago Press: Chicago 1935, p. 69
  13. ^ Vörös, Gyozo (2015), "Anastylosis at Machaerus", Biblical Archeology Review, vol. 41 no. 1, Jan/Feb 2015, p. 56 
  14. ^ H. Arthur Klein (1974). The Science of Measurement: A Historical Survey. New York: Dover. ISBN 9780486258393. p. 68.
  15. ^ 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. 

Bibliography[edit]

  • 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