Ancient Egyptian units of measurement

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The ancient Egyptian units of measurement are those used by the dynasties of ancient Egypt prior to its incorporation in the Roman Empire and general adoption of Roman, Greek, and Byzantine units of measurement. The units of length seem to have originally been anthropic, based on various parts of the human body, although these were standardized using cubit rods, strands of rope, and official measures maintained at some temples.

Following Alexander the Great's conquest of Persia and subsequent death, his bodyguard and successor Ptolemy assumed control in Egypt, partially reforming its measurements, introducing some new units and hellenized names for others.

Length[edit]

Egyptian Circle Egyptian units of length are attested from the Early Dynastic Period, when the Palermo stone recorded the level of the Nile River. During the reign of Pharaoh Djer, the height of the Nile[clarification needed] was recorded as 6 cubits and 1 palm (about 3.217 m or 10 ft 6.7 in).[1] A 3rd-dynasty diagram shows how to construct an elliptical vault using simple measures along an arc, the ostracon depicting this diagram was found near the Step Pyramid of Saqqara. A curve is divided into five sections and the height of the curve is given in cubits, palms, and digits in each of the sections.[2] [3]

At some point, lengths were standardized by cubit rods. Examples have been found in the tombs of officials, noting lengths up to remen. Royal cubits were used for land measures such as roads and fields. Fourteen rods, including one double-cubit rod, were described and compared by Lepsius.[4] Two examples are known from the Saqqara tomb of Maya, the treasurer of Tutankhamun. Another was found in the tomb of Kha (TT8) in Thebes, these cubits are about 52.5 cm (20.7 in) long and are divided into palms and hands: each palm is divided into four fingers from left to right and the fingers are further subdivided into ro from right to left. The rules are also divided into hands[5] so that for example one foot is given as three hands and fifteen fingers and also as four palms and sixteen fingers.[1][3][6][7][8][5]

Cubit rod from the Turin Museum.

Surveying and itinerant measurement were undertaken using rods, poles, and knotted cords of rope. A scene in the tomb of Menna in Thebes shows surveyors measuring a plot of land using rope with knots tied at regular intervals. Similar scenes can be found in the tombs of Amenhotep-Sesi, Khaemhat and Djeserkareseneb, the balls of rope are also shown in New Kingdom statues of officials such as Senenmut, Amenemhet-Surer, and Penanhor.[2]

Units of Length[1][2]
Names Equivalents
English Egyptian Coptic Palms Digits Metric[9]
Digit[10]
Finger[11]
Fingerbreadth[10]
Tebā[12]
D50
[a]
ḏb ⲧⲏⲏⲃⲉ[14][15] tēēbe ¼ 1    1.875 cm
Palm[10]
Hand[16]
Shesep[17]
D48
[b]
šsp ϣⲟⲡ[18][15]
ϣⲟⲟⲡ[18]
ϣⲱⲡ[18]
ϣⲁⲡ[18]
shop
shoop
shōp
shap
1    4    7.5 cm
Hand[19]
Handsbreadth[17]
D46
[c]
ḏrt ϩⲱϩϥ[20][21] hōhf 5    9.38 cm
Fist[17]
D49
[d]
ḫf[17]
ꜣmm[13]
ϭⲁϫⲙⲏ[22]
ϫⲁⲙⲏ[22]
qajmē
jamē
6    11.25 cm
Double Handbreadth[13]
D48
D48
[e]
šspwy 2    8    15 cm[13]
Small Span[17]
Pedj-Sheser
Shat Nedjes[17]
Little Shat[11]
H7 G37
p šsr
šꜣt nḏs[17]
ⲣⲧⲱ[23][21]
ⲉⲣⲧⲱ[24]
rtō
ertō
3    12    22.5 cm
Great Span[17]
Half-Cubit[13]
Pedj-Aa
Shat Aa[17]
Great Shat[11]
H7 O29
[f]
pḏ [17][13]
šꜣt [17]
14    26 cm
Foot
Djeser[17]
Ser[12]
Bent Arm[17]
D45
ḏsr 4    16    30 cm
Shoulder
Remen[17]
Upper Arm[17]
D41
rmn 5    20    37.5 cm
Small Cubit[19]
Short Cubit[17]
Meh Nedjes[17]
D42 G37
m nḏs
m šsr
ⲙⲁϩⲉ[25][15]
ⲙⲉϩⲓ[26]
mahe
mehi
6    24    45 cm
Cubit
Royal Cubit[17]
Sacred Cubit[16]
Meh Nesut[10]
Meh Nisut[17]
Mahi
Ell[25]
D42
[g]
m 7    28    52.3 cm[10]
52.5 cm[16]
Pole
Nebiu[27]
N35
D58
M17 V1 T19
nbiw 8    32    60 cm
Rod
Rod of Cord
Stick of Rope[19]
Khet[10]
Schoinion[28]
W24 G43 V28
[h]
ḫt ϩⲱⲧⲉ[30]
ϩⲱϯ[30]
hōte
hōti
100 cubits[10] 52.5 m[28]
Schoenus[13]
River-Measure
League[13]
Ater[10]
Iter[19] or Iteru[13]
M17 X1
D21
G43 N35B N36
N21 Z1
[i]
i͗trw ϣϥⲱ[31]
ϣⲃⲱ[31]
shfō
shvō
20,000 cubits[10] 10.5 km[10]

The digit was also subdivided into smaller fractions of ½, ⅓, ¼, and 116.[32] Minor units include the Middle Kingdom reed of 2 royal cubits,[j] the Ptolemaic xylon (Greek: ξύλον, lit. "timber") of three royal cubits,[33][34] the Ptolemaic fathom (Greek: ὀργυιά, orgyiá; Egyptian: ḥpt; Coptic: ϩⲡⲟⲧ, hpot) of four lesser cubits,[35] and the kalamos of six royal cubits.[16]

Area[edit]

Records of land area also date to the Early Dynastic Period, the Palermo stone records grants of land expressed in terms of kha and setat. Mathematical papyri also include units of land area in their problems, for example, several problems in the Moscow Mathematical Papyrus give the area of rectangular plots of land in terms of setat and the ratio of the sides and then require the scribe to solve for their exact lengths.[1]

The setat was the basic unit of land measure and may originally have varied in size across Egypt's nomes.[19] Later, it was equal to one square khet, where a khet measured 100 cubits, the setat could be divided into strips one khet long and ten cubit wide (a kha).[2][1][36]

During the Old Kingdom:

Units of Area
Names Equivalents[37]
English Egyptian Coptic Setat Square
Cubits
Metric
Sa[19]
Eighth
G39
z 1800 12½ 3.4456 
Heseb
Fourth
Account Unit[19]
Z9
ḥsb 1400 25   6.8913 
Remen
Half
Shoulder[19]
D41
rmn 1200 50   13.783 
Ta
Khet[37]
Cubit[38]
Cubit of Land[38]
Land Cubit[13]
Ground Cubit[38]
Cubit Strip[38]
Land Unit[19]
N17
[k]
t
ḫt
m
m itn
ϫⲓⲥⲉ[39][21] jise 1100 100[37] 27.565 
Kha
Thousand[19]
M12
110 1000   275.65 
Setat[37]
Setjat[37]
Aroura[37]
Square Khet[37]
s t F29 t
Z4
[l]
s[28]
sꜣt[37]
ⲥⲱⲧ[40][21]
ⲥⲧⲉⲓⲱϩⲉ[41][21]
sōt
steiōhe
1    10,000 2756.5 

During the Middle and New Kingdom, the "eighth", "fourth", "half", and "thousand" units were taken to refer to the setat rather than the cubit strip:

Sa
Eighth
G39
[m]
s ⅛  1250   345 
Heseb
Fourth
Z9
[n]
hsb
r-fdw
¼  2500   689 
Gs
Remen
Half
Aa13
[o]
gs ⲣⲉⲣⲙⲏ[21] rermē ½  5000   1378 
Kha
Thousand
M12
[p]

t
10    100,000   2.76 ha

During the Ptolemaic period, the cubit strip square was surveyed using a length of 96 cubits rather than 100, although the aroura was still figured to compose 2756.25 m².[16] A 36 sq. cubit area was known as a kalamos and a 144 sq. cubit area as a hamma.[16] The uncommon bikos may have been 1½ hammata or another name for the cubit strip.[16] The Coptic shipa (ϣⲓⲡⲁ) was a land unit of uncertain value, possibly derived from Nubia.[42]

Volume[edit]

A bronze capacity measure inscribed with the cartouches of the birth and throne names of Amenhotep III of the 18th Dynasty

Units of volume appear in the mathematical papyri, for example, computing the volume of a circular granary in RMP 42 involves cubic cubits, khar, heqats, and quadruple heqats.[1][8] RMP 80 divides heqats of grain into smaller henu.

Problem 80 on the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus: As for vessels (debeh) used in measuring grain by the functionaries of the granary: done into henu, 1 hekat makes 10; 1/2 makes 5; 1/4 makes 2½; etc.[1][8]
Units of Volume[1][2]
Names Equivalents
English Egyptian Heqats Ro Metric
Ro
r
r 1320 1 0.015 L
Dja dja 116 20[43] 0.30 L
Jar
Hinu
h n
W24 V1
W22
hnw 110 32 0.48 L
Barrel
Heqat
Hekat
U9
hqt 1 320 4.8 L
Double Barrel
Double Heqat
Double Hekat
hqty 2 640 9.6 L
Quadruple Heqat (MK)[44]
Oipe[45] (NK)[44]
T14 U9

i p
t
U9
hqt-fdw
jpt[19]
ipt[44]
4 1280 19.2 L
Sack
Khar
Aa1
r
khar 20 (MK)
16 (NK)[46]
6400 (MK)
5120 (NK)
96.5 L (MK)
76.8 L (NK)[46]
Deny
Cubic cubit
deny 30 9600 144 L

The oipe was also formerly romanized as the apet.[47]

Weight[edit]

Green glazed faience weight discovered at Abydos, inscribed for the high steward Aabeni during the late Middle Kingdom
Serpentine weight of 10 daric, inscribed for Taharqa during the 25th Dynasty

Weights were measured in terms of deben, this unit would have been equivalent to 13.6 grams in the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom. During the New Kingdom however it was equivalent to 91 grams. For smaller amounts the qedet (1/10 of a deben) and the shematy (1/12 of a deben) were used.[2][8]

Units of Weight[2]
Names Equivalents
English Egyptian Debens Metric
Piece
Shematy
shȝts 112
Qedet
Kedet
Kite
Aa28 X1
S106
qdt 110
Deben
D46 D58 N35
F46
dbn 1 13.6 g (OK & MK)
91 g (NK)

The qedet or kedet is also often known as the kite, from the Coptic form of the same name (ⲕⲓⲧⲉ or ⲕⲓϯ).[48] In 19th-century sources, the deben and qedet are often mistakenly transliterated as the uten and kat respectively, although this was corrected by the 20th century.[49]

Time[edit]

The former annual flooding of the Nile organized prehistoric and ancient Egypt into three seasons: Akhet ("Flood"), Peret ("Growth"), and Shemu or Shomu ("Low Water" or "Harvest").[50][51][52]

The Egyptian civil calendar in place by Dynasty V[53] followed regnal eras resetting with the ascension of each new pharaoh.[54] It was based on the solar year and apparently initiated during a heliacal rising of Sirius following a recognition of its rough correlation with the onset of the Nile flood.[55] It followed none of these consistently, however, its year was divided into 3 seasons, 12 months, 36 decans, or 360 days with another 5 epagomenal days[56]—celebrated as the birthdays of five major gods[57] but feared for their ill luck[58]—added "upon the year". The Egyptian months were originally simply numbered within each season[59] but, in later sources, they acquired names from the year's major festivals[60] and the three decans of each one were distinguished as "first", "middle", and "last".[61] It has been suggested that during the Nineteenth Dynasty and the Twentieth Dynasty the last two days of each decan were usually treated as a kind of weekend for the royal craftsmen, with royal artisans free from work,[62] this scheme lacked any provision for leap year intercalation until the introduction of the Alexandrian calendar by Augustus in the 20s BC, causing it to slowly move through the Sothic cycle against the solar, Sothic, and Julian years.[1][3][63] Dates were typically given in a YMD format.[54]

The civil calendar was apparently preceded by an observational lunar calendar which was eventually made lunisolar[q] and fixed to the civil calendar, probably in 357 BC.[66] The months of these calendars were known as "temple months"[67] and used for liturgical purposes until the closing of Egypt's pagan temples under Theodosius I[68] in the AD 390s and the subsequent suppression of individual worship by his successors.[69]

Smaller units of time were vague approximations for most of Egyptian history. Hours—known by a variant of the word for "stars"[70]—were initially only demarcated at night and varied in length, they were measured using decan stars and by water clocks. Equal 24-part divisions of the day were only introduced in 127 BC. Division of these hours into 60 equal minutes is attested in Ptolemy's 2nd-century works.

Units of Time[1][2]
Name Days
English Egyptian
hour
E34
N35
W24
X1
N14
N5
[r]
wnwt variable
day
S29 S29 S29 Z7 N5
[s]
sw 1   
decan
decade
week
S29 S29 S29 Z7 N5 V20
[t]
"ten-day"
sw mḏ[80]
10   
month
N11
N14
D46
N5
[u]
ꜣbd 30   
season
M17 X1
D21
G43 M6
ı͗trw[v] 120   
year
M4 X1
Z1
[w]
rnpt 365   
365¼

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Alternative representations for the Egyptian digit include
    D50 Z1
    and
    I10 D58 D36 D50
    .[13]
  2. ^ Alternative representations for the Egyptian palm include
    D46
    ,
    N11
    ,
    O42
    and
    O42 Q3
    N11
    .[13]
  3. ^ Alternative representations for the Egyptian hand include
    D46
    X1 F51
    ,
    D46
    X1 Z1
    , and
    U28 X1
    D47
    .[13]
  4. ^ Alternative representations for the Egyptian fist include
    Aa1
    I9
    D36
    D49
    and
    Aa1
    I9
    D36 D49
    Z1
    as ḫf and
    G1 G17 G17 D49
    ,
    G1 G17 G17 X1
    D49
    , and
    M17 G17 D49
    as ꜣmm.[13]
  5. ^ Alternative representations for the Egyptian double handbreadth include
    D48 D48
    .[13]
  6. ^ Alternative representations for the Egyptian half-cubit include
    Z12
    of uncertain pronunciation.[13]
  7. ^ Alternative representations of the Egyptian cubit or royal cubit include
    D36
    ,
    D36
    Y1
    ,
    D36
    Z1
    ,
    V22
    D36
    ,
    V22
    D42
    ,
    V22
    Z1
    D36
    ,[13] all pronounced m,[13] and the explicit "royal" or "sacred cubit"
    M23 t
    n
    D42
    ,[12] pronounced m nswt[13] or n-swt.[17]
  8. ^ Alternative representations of the Egyptian rod include
    M3
    [29] and
    M3
    X1 Z1
    N35 N35
    U19
    W24 G43 V28 V1
    ,
    M3
    X1 Z1
    N35 N35
    U19
    W24
    V28 V1
    , and
    M3
    X1 Z1
    N35 U19 W24 V28
    ,[13] which were pronounced ḫt n nw[10] (Coptic: ϣⲉ ⲛ ⲛⲟϩ, she n noh).[21]
  9. ^ Alternative representations of the Egyptian schoenus include
    M17 X1
    D21
    G43 D54
    ,
    M17 X1
    D21
    G43 D54 Z1
    ,
    M17 X1
    D21
    G43 N36
    ,
    M17 X1
    D21
    N35A D54
    N21 Z1
    ,
    M17 X1 Z7
    D21
    N35A D54
    ,
    M17 X1 Z7
    D21
    N35A N17
    N21 N21
    Z2
    ,
    M17 X1 Z7
    D21
    N35A N36
    N21 Z1
    Z2
    ,
    M17 X1 Z7
    D21
    N35A N36
    N23
    ,
    M17 X1
    D21
    Z7 N37
    Z2
    , and
    M17 D21 D56 D54
    .[13]
  10. ^ The Egyptian reed was written
    N35
    D58 M17
    M3
    or
    N35
    D58
    M17 Z7 T19
    and pronounced nb.[13]
  11. ^ Alternative representations of the 100-sq.-cubit measure include
    D41
    and
    D41
    N16
    , both pronounced m t,[13] and
    V28 G1 X1 N37 M12
    .[citation needed]
  12. ^ Alternative representations of the setat include
    N18
    ,
    O39
    Z1
    ,
    S22
    X1 X1
    ,
    S29 V13
    V2
    X1
    O39
    ,
    V2
    X1 N23
    ,
    V2
    X1 X1
    N23
    Z1
    ,
    V2
    X1 X1
    O39
    ,
    V2
    X1 Z4
    ,
    V2
    X1 Z4
    N23 Z1
    Z1
    , and
    D35
    X1 Z4
    V20
    Z2
    , all pronounced sꜣt.[13]
  13. ^ Alternative representations of the ⅛th-setat include
    Z30
    .[13]
  14. ^ Alternative representations of the ¼th-setat include
    Aa2
    Y1
    .[citation needed]
  15. ^ Alternative representations of the half-setat include
    W11 S29 Aa13
    , pronounced gs,
    D41
    , pronounced rmn,[13] and
    Y5
    N35
    M40
    .[citation needed]
  16. ^ Alternative representations of the thousand-ta measure include
    M12 N16
    N23 Z1
    ,
    M12 N17
    , and
    M12 Z1 N35 N16
    N23 Z1
    .[13]
  17. ^ Parker extensively developed the thesis that the predynastic lunar calendar was already lunisolar, using intercalary months every 2 or 3 years to maintain Sirius's return to the night sky in its twelfth month,[64] but no evidence of such intercalation exists predating the schematic lunisolar calendar developed in 4th century BC.[65]
  18. ^ Variant representations of hour include
    E34
    N35
    D54
    ,[71]
    E34
    N35
    W24
    X1
    N5
    ,
    E34
    N35
    W24 X1
    N14
    ,
    E34
    N35
    W24 G43 X1
    N14
    N5
    Z1
    ,[72]
    E34
    N35
    W24
    X1
    N14 X1
    N5
    Z1
    ,
    E34
    N35
    W24
    X1
    N2 N5 Z1
    ,
    E34
    N35
    W24
    X1
    N2 D6
    (properly
    N46B
    with a star at the end of the line and a second shorter line to its right),[70]
    E34
    N35
    W24
    Z7
    N14 N5
    Z2
    ,[73]
    N5
    Z2
    ,[74]
    N14
    V13
    N5
    ,
    N14
    V13
    N5
    Z2
    ,
    N14
    X1 N5
    ,
    N14
    X1
    N5
    Z2
    ,[75]
    N14
    X1 Z1
    ,[76]
    T14 X1
    N5
    ,[77] and
    E34 N35 W24 X1 N14
    .[citation needed] As nwt, hour also appears as
    N35
    U19
    W24 G43 X1
    N5
    .[78]
  19. ^ Variant representations of day include
    N5
    ,[79]
    S29 S29 S29 G43 N5
    ,[80] and
    S29 S29 Z4 N5
    .[81] In the plural sww, it appears as
    O35 G43 N5
    Z2
    [82]
    S29 G43 N5
    Z2
    [83] and
    S29 S29 S29 N5
    .[80] As hrw ("daytime", "day"), it appears as
    N5 Z1
    ,[79]
    O4 N5
    ,[84]
    Z5
    N5
    Z1
    ,[85]
    O1
    D21
    N5 Z1
    ,[86]
    O4 G1 D21
    N5 Z1
    ,[87]
    O4 G1 D21
    Z7
    N5 Z1
    ,[88]
    O4 G1 Z7 N5
    Z1
    ,[89]
    O4 G43 N5
    Z1
    ,[90]
    O4 Z1 G43 N5
    ,
    O4 Z5 N5 Z1
    ,[91]
    O4 Z5 X1
    N5
    ,
    O4 Z5 Z5 N5
    ,
    O4 Z5 Z5 Z1
    ,[92] and
    O4
    D21
    G43 N5
    Z1
    .[93] As rꜥ ("sun", "day"), it appears as
    N5
    ,
    N5 Z1
    ,[79] and
    D21
    D36
    N5 Z1
    .[94] As ḏt, day appears as
    I10
    X1 Z1
    D12
    , although properly the loaf and stroke are smaller and fit within the curve of the snake.[95]
  20. ^ Variant representations of decan include
    S29 S29 Z7 N5 V20
    .[81]
  21. ^ Variant representations of month include
    N11
    ,
    N11
    N14
    ,
    N11
    N14
    D46
    ,[96]
    N11
    N14
    D46
    ,[citation needed]
    N11
    N14
    D46
    N5 Z1
    ,
    N11
    N14 D46
    Z7 N5
    ,
    N11
    N14 Z1
    D46
    N5 Z1
    , and
    N11
    N14 Z5 Z5
    N5
    .[97] In the plural ꜣbdtyw, it appears as
    N11
    N14 D46
    G4 Z7
    Z7
    X1
    N5
    .[96] As ꜣbdw, month appears as
    G1 N11
    D46
    G43
    .[98]
  22. ^ In the plural ı͗trw, "seasons" appears as
    M17 V13
    D21
    G43 M5
    (properly
    M5B
    with a triangular leaf),[99]
    M17 X1
    D21
    G43 M4 M4 M4 N5 N5
    N5
    , and
    M17 X1
    D21
    E23 M5 M5 M5
    , although properly the palm branches of the last are reversed.[100] As tr ("time", "period", "season"), it appears as
    M6 N5
    ,[101]
    M17 X1
    D21
    N5
    ,[102]
    X1
    D21
    M6 N5
    ,[103] and
    X1
    D21
    M17 M6 N5
    .[104] In the dual number, this appears as trwy in
    X1
    D21
    G43 M6 N5
    N5
    ,
    X1
    D21
    M6 N5
    N5
    ,[103] and
    X1
    D21
    M17 M6 Z4 G43 N5
    N5
    .[104] In the plural, this appears as trw in
    M17 G43 X1
    D21
    G43 M6 N5
    Z2
    ,[105]
    M17 X1
    D21
    M6 N5
    Z2
    ,[102] and
    X1
    D21
    G43 M4 N5
    Z2
    .[103]
  23. ^ Variant representations of year include
    M5
    ,
    M7 X1
    Z1
    ,[101]
    M4 X1
    and
    M4 X1
    Z1
    G7
    .[106] In the plural rnpwt, it appears as
    D21
    N35
    Q3 Z2
    on the Naucratis Stela[107] and as
    M4 M4 M4
    ,
    M4 M4 M4 X1
    Z1
    Y1
    Z2
    ,
    M4 M4 M4 X1
    Z2
    ,
    M4 X1
    Z1
    Z3A
    ,
    M4 X1
    Z2
    ,[106] and
    M4 Z3
    .[101]

References[edit]

Citations[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Clagett (1999).
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Corinna Rossi, Architecture and Mathematics in Ancient Egypt, Cambridge University Press, 2007
  3. ^ a b c d Englebach, Clarke (1990). Ancient Egyptian Construction and Architecture. New York: Dover. ISBN 0486264858. 
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  68. ^ Theodosian Code 16.10.12
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Bibliography[edit]

External links[edit]