The Weights and Measures of Ancient Egypt

The Weights and Measures of Ancient Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

A fragment of a schist cubit-rod from the New Kingdom used for measurement

A fragment of a schist cubit-rod from the New Kingdom used for measurement

An examination of the Great Pyramids of Egypt and other buildings makes it clear that the Egyptians at a very early stage incorporated a measurement system, though really their system of weights and measures was fundamental to all sorts of functions and essential for the smooth running of their bureaucracy. In a system that operated using barter, frequently in bulk commodities, there was certainly a need for standardization. Early tomb scenes record scribes measuring grain, and from the Book of the Dead, scales are clearly depicted, though there the focus of weight is on the heart for the judgment of the dead.

The principal unit of measurement in ancient Egypt was the royal cubit, a length we know to have been 52.4 cm, approximating the length of a man's forearm. The royal cubit comprised seven palm widths each of four digits of thumb width, so that it could be divided into a total of 28 digits. However, prior to the end of the Third Intermediate Period, artists generally used a short cubit for laying out the grid of their drawings. A short cubit was equal to six palms (44.9 cm) which was roughly the length from the elbow to the thumb tip. After the Saite Period, however, the royal cubit was used by artists. During the Persian occupation, however, the royal Persian cubit of 64.2 cm was sometimes used, although a reference cubit for this measure discovered at Abydos is actually 63.85 cm in length.

Wooden rod used for measurement

Wooden rod used for measurement

Land and other larger measurements took several forms. The length of the double remen was equal to that of the diagonal of a square with each side measuring one royal cubit. This measure therefore was 74.07 cm, and could be divided into forty smaller units of 1.85 cm each. Another measure for land was the cord measure known as ta (or meh-ta) of 100 royal cubits and an area could be measured by setjat, which was 100 cubits square. This was later called the aroura.

An even longer measurement is the so called river-unit (itrw). An early source for this unit is the White Chapel of Senusret I at Karnak. It appears that this measurement was equal to 20,000 cubits, or about 10.5 kilometers.

Wooden rod used for measurement

Wooden rod used for measurement

We are well aware of the Egyptian measurement systems because a number of measuring rods of different materials used by craftsmen and surveyors have survived. However, our knowledge of measurements does not so much come from ordinary measuring devices, which could actually vary considerably but from ceremonial cubit-rods cut in stone and deposited in temples, or sometimes buried with officials. Other useful information was sometimes recorded on these devices, such as the inundation levels of the Nile River or references to nomes (provinces) of ancient Egypt.

Some rods found in New Kingdom (about 1550-1069 BC) burials include other divisions: These include:

Small cubit = 6 palms

Shoulder (Egyptian rmn) = 5 palms

Dsr = 4 palms

Large span (pD aA) = 3 palms

Small span (pD Sri) = 3 palms

These special divisions have not been found in accounts, and they may never have been used in practical measuring work. A rare unit of measurement is the pole (Egyptian nbi), apparently used by craftsmen and corresponding to about 65 cm.

For land, a knotted rope rather than a measuring stick was used for surveying. Once measured, the boundaries of land could then be marked with stones, as portrayed in the tomb of Menna (TT69) at on the West Bank at Thebes (modern Luxor).

Weight of King Khety Nebkawre from the First Intermediate Period

At first, weights were traditionally made in units known as debens, a standard weight of 93.3 grams, though some weights from the Old and Middle Kingdom appear to have been in unites of around 12 to 14 grams and sometimes 27 grams. Prior to the New Kingdom, there appears to have been less standardization than afterwards. After the 12th Dynasty, a smaller unit known as a kite (qedet) with a weight of 9 to 10 grams was used and the deben itself was increased to ten kite. In reality, while the deben was a general measure of copper, silver and gold, the kite was only used for measuring silver and gold, but mostly only silver. These weights in precious metals were used to describe the equivalent value of a wide variety of non-metallic goods, thus forming a rudimentary price system during the non-monetary economy of the Pharaonic period.

From the Old Kingdom to some point in the New Kingdom, the unit of value was Sna (vocalized as shena), perhaps written in the 19th Dynasty as sniw. This time span is the same as that for the gold/copper deben system of 12-14g and 27g, and presumably there was some correlation between the two systems, the one for weight, the other for value. However, it should be noted that the shena, though a measurement, was actually a value. The word shena was never found as the name of a weight. According the the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, apparently one deben equaled 12 shena.

Weight of the Treasurer Herfu from the early 13th Dynasty

We have a considerable number of weights that have survived from ancient times, made of stone, pottery and bronze. The earliest of these date to the Predynastic Period and were excavated at Naqada. Many of the weights from the Dynastic period are inscribed, while others take the form of bull's heads, cattle or other animals.

The ancient Egypt's also had measurements for capacity. These included the "jar" (hin), measuring about .47 liters, the "barrel" (hekat, heqat) which was ten hinw or 4.77 liters, and the "sack" (khar), which was 160 hinw or 75.2 liters. The hin could also be divided into units as mall as 1/32, as well as into thirds. Middle Kingdom accounts refer to single and double hekat measures. Early New Kingdom (about 1550-1400 BC) sources indicate a mixed system of single, double and quadruple hekat.

Late New Kingdom sources indicate that official usage preferred the quadruple hekat, named ipt (in Egyptology cited as oipe), and four of these (sixteen single hekat) now corresponded to one khar (sack). The later measurement was known as a khay.

Beside the predominant official systems, other measuring units evidently existed, even in the official domain: the decree of Horemheb refers to a house-ipt corresponding to 5 hekat or 50 hin.

Scribes measuring the grain capacities are recorded in the tomb of Menna. Besides grain, these measurements were also used to measure items such as honey, resin and gold-dust.






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