The cubit is an ancient unit based on the forearm length from the middle finger tip to the elbow bottom. Lengths ranged between 51.8 to 38 cm (20.4 to 15.0 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.
Ancient Egyptian royal cubit
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. 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.
Hieroglyph of the royal cubit, meh niswt
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. 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.
The Sumerian or Nippur cubit
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).
The Near Eastern or Biblical cubit is usually estimated as approximately 46 cm (18 in).
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).
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).
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
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 Egyptian units of measurement
- Ancient Mesopotamian units of measurement
- Biblical and Talmudic units of measurement
- History of measurement
- List of obsolete units of measurement
- System of measurement
- Units of measurement
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- Cassell's Latin Dictionary
- Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition, 1989; online version September 2011. s.v. "cubit"
- Richard Lepsius (1865). Die altaegyptische Elle und ihre Eintheilung (in German). Berlin: Dümmler. p. 14–18.
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- H. Arthur Klein (1974). The Science of Measurement: A Historical Survey. New York: Dover. ISBN 9780486258393. p. 68.
- 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.
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- Stone, Mark H., "The Cubit: A History and Measurement Commentary", Journal of Anthropology doi:10.1155/2014/489757, 2014