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Ancient weights and measures

From Academic Kids

Contents

Introduction

Many systems of weights and measures have existed throughout history in different civilisations. The definitions of some of these units are often regarded as vague and inaccurate. True enough, although the roots of many of the units were the same, the actual value of a unit differed from civilization to civilization, or epoch to epoch. That fact should not lead to a conclusion that historical units of measure were inaccurate in general. Many units were defined to a high precision, and standards of measurement and tracking were in many cases excellent. As a case in point, the Great Pyramid of Giza was built to a precision of 0.015 m over sides that are 235 meters, over four and a half thousand years ago.

Mesopotamian system

Mesopotamia includes a number of cultures. The Sumerian number system uses a base 60 positional notation, and is the origin for the division of 60 for hours and angles.

Length

Cubit (Sumerian). Akkadian ammatu. The copper bar cubit of Nippur, the first known standard bar, defines the Sumerian cubit as about 518.5 mm, widely used in third millennium BC. It was split in 30 digits. The Babylonian (or Salamis) cubit was around 484 mm.
foot
Defined as 264.6 mm by Sumerian ruler Gudea of Lagash around 2575 BC, this is the oldest preserved standard of length.
digit
1/16 foot or 1/30 cubit
stadion
148.5 m
parasang
Babylonian league is 5.6 km

Area

sar
Garden plot (Sumerian)
iku
"Plot of land enclosed by a boundary dike/canal", 100 sar. Probably 120 · 120 cubit²

Volume

log
0.54 l
homer
720 log

Weight and monetary

shekal
8.36 g, introduced around 3000 BC
mina
60 shekal

Time

year
The Sumerians used a 360 day year by 2100 BC.
week
The Babylonians introduced the seven day week, due to the belief that seven brought bad luck, so they did not want to work the seventh day.
hour
The 12 hour day and 12 hour night originates from Mesopotamia. The length of these hours changed through the year, being equally spaced over the time of light and dark, respectively.

Persian system

Length

finger
¼ palm
palm
¼ foot
zereth
Foot, ½ cubit
arsani
Cubit, 52.0 up to 64.0 cm
cane
2 paces, 6 cubits
chebel
40 cubits
parasang
The distance a horse would walk for one hour, 250 chebel, approx. 6 km. (6.23 km in mid 19th century. In today's Iran as well as Turkey, a metric farsang of 10 km is commonly used. Forerunner for league.
mansion
Equivalent to stathmos, 4 parsang

Volume

chenica
1.32 l, probably derived from the Greek cheonix

Egyptian system

Much of the Egyptian system of measurement is based on the Mesopotamian. The Egyptian system in its turn formed the basis of the later Greek system. The Egyptians based their measurements on the Royal cubit, for which the pharaoh devised a standard (master) cut in granite. From these standards, it is clear that accuracies in measurements of at least 1/16 yeba (1 mm) were possible. The Egyptian system was also noteworthy in having units for volume derived from the standard for length. While the Royal cubit is a very well defined unit, uncertainty is connected to the units for land measurement, especially when the Greek stadion and schoinos units came in use.

Length

meh nesut
Royal cubit, 52.3 cm, varied by less than 0.5 cm through the times.
shesep
Width of palm, alt. shep, 1/7 Royal cubit. It is speculated that the fraction of 1/7 may have been so that a reasonable pi could be made of 22 shesep over 1 cubit.
yeba
Digit, also zebo, ¼ palm, logically enough
thumb
4/3 yeba, or 2.49 cm. Basis for the Roman uncia and later, the inch.
meh scherer
Forearm, basically 6 / 7 Royal cubit. Also known as the common cubit, used by commons and not as precise.
double remen
Approx. 72.3 cm, the length of the diagonal of a Royal cubit square. (Because the hypotenuse of a square is the side × the square root of 2 (an irrational number), an exact decimal value for the remen in terms of Royal cubits cannot be given.)
remen
½ double remen
remen digit
1/20 remen
khet, also jet, hayt
Senus, 100 Royal cubit
stadion
400 Royal cubits, 209.2 m
parasang
10000 Royal cubits
schoinos
Presumably the "common atur", 12000 Royal kubits or 6.3 km.
iter, also atur or ater
Royal river measure (pl. iteru or itrw). 20000 Royal cubits, or 10.46 km. The units parasang, schoinos and ater seems to be often interchanged. The book of Herodotus clearly states the Egyptian mile as twice a Persian parasang, i.e. 20000 Royal cubits.

Area

setat, also aura
100 × 100 Royal cubit²
jata
100 setat, is said to be used to this day.
remen
½ setat
hebes
½ remen
sa
½ hebes

Volume

hekat
1/30 Royal cubit³, 4.8 l, used for grain. Was divided into fractions of ½, ¼, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32 and 1/64 by an "Eye of Horus" rule.
oipe, also ipet
4 hekat
jar
5 oipe
hinu
1/10 hekat, used for perfume as well as grain.
ro
1/32 hinu
des
For liquids, approx. 0.5 l
secha
For beer
hebenet
For wine

Weight

deben
91 g, normally of copper, but also silver, gold and probably lead. Also used as money.
qedety
1/10 deben

Time

year
The 365 day year was introduced by 2773 BC

Miscellaneous

seked
Unit of inclination, also seqt. Indicates horizontal dimension measured in palms (and digits fractions as necessary) per vertical Royal cubit rise. E.g. 5 seked is 54.46°, 5¼ seked is 53.13°, 5½ seked is 51.84°.
shaty
1/6 silver deben or 1/3 lead deben

Indus Valley system

The people of the Indus Civilization (ca. 2600 BC) achieved great accuracy in measuring length, mass, and time. They were among the first to develop a system of uniform weights and measures. Their measurements were extremely precise. Their smallest division, which is marked on an ivory scale found in Lothal, was approximately 1.704mm, the smallest division ever recorded on a scale of the Bronze Age. The decimal system was used. Harappan engineers followed the decimal division of measurement for all practical purposes, including the measurement of mass as revealed by their hexahedron weights. Weights were based on units of 0.05, 0.1, 0.2, 0.5, 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500, with each unit weighing approximately 28 grams, similar to the English ounce or Greek uncia, and smaller objects were weighed in similar ratios with the units of 0.871.

Greek system

The Greek system was built mainly upon the Egyptian, and formed the basis of the later Roman system.

Length

pous
Foot (pl. podes), 31.6 cm, said to be 3/5 Egyptian Royal cubit. There are variations, from an Ionic foot is 29.6 cm to a Doric foot that is 32.6 cm
daktulos
Digit (pl. daktuloi), 1 / 16 pous
condulos
1/8 pous
palaiste
Palm, ¼ pous
dikhas
½ pous
spithame
Span, ¾ pous
pugon
Homeric cubit, 1¼ pous
pechua
Cubit, 1½ podes, 47.4 cm
bema
Pace, 2½ podes
khulon
podes
orguia
Fathom, 6 podes
akaina
10 podes
plethron
Cord measure, (pl. plethra), 100 podes
stadion
(pl. stadia), 6 plethra, i.e. 600 podes. Usually stated as 185.4 m. For reference, the stadion at Olympus measures 192.3 m. With a widespread use throughout antiquity, there were many variants of a stadion, from as low as 157 m up to 211 m.
diaulos
(pl. diauloi), 2 stadia. Only used for the Olympic footrace introduced in 724 BC.
dolikhos
6 or 12 diauloi. Only used for the Olympic footrace introduced in 720 BC.
parasanges
Persian measure, 30 stadia, 5.5 km. Used by Xenophon, for instance.
skhoinos
Lit. "reefs" (pl. skhoinoi), based on Egyptian river measure iter or atur. Usually defined as 60 stadia or 11.1 km. There are variants, see Egyptian atur.
stathmos
One days journey, roughly 25 km. May have been variable, dependent on terrain.

Volume

kotule
Liquid measure, (pl. kotulai), ¼ kheonix
kheonix, alsp khoinix
(pl khoenikes), approx. 1.1 l. Initially used for wheat.
modios
Bushel, 8 kheonikes
medimnos
48 kheonikes
kotule
Dry measure, 6 kuathoi
khous
Dry measure, 12 kotulai
metretes
Dry measure, 12 choes, approx. 34 l

Weight and monetary

Medimnos
~25 kg
Talent
60 minae
Mina
100 drachmae
Decadrachm
Coin only, 10 drachmae
Tetradrachm
Coin only, 4 drachmae
Stater
Coin only, also didrachmon, 2 drachmae
Drachma
Weight of silver coin, 4.5 to 6 g
Diobolus
(two oboloi) 1/3 drachmae
Obolus
1/6 drachma, silver
Chalkos
1/8 obolus, copper

Miscellaneous

muriade
10.000

Roman system

The Roman system of measurement was built on the Greek system with Egyptian influences. The Roman units were generally accurate and well documented.

Length

Roman unit Latin name Roman Feet Metric Equivalence Imperial Equivalence
one digit digitus 1/16 18.525 mm 0.72933 in
one palm palmus ¼ 7.41 cm 2.92 in
one foot pes 1 29.64 cm 11.67 in
one cubit cubitus 44.46 cm 17.50 in
one step gradus 0.741 m 2 ft 5 in
one pace passus 5 1.482 m 4 ft 10.3 in
one perch pertica 10 2.964 m 9 ft 8.7 in
one arpent actus 120 35.568 m 116 ft 8 in
one stadion stadium 625 185.25 m 607 ft 9 in
one mile milliarium 5000 1.482 km 0.9209 mi
one league leuga 7500 2.223 km 1.381 mi

In Antiquity the Roman foot was not divided into inches, i.e. twelve shares.

Area

Roman unit Latin name Acres Equivalence
one square foot pes quatratus 1/14 400 ~ 875 cm²
one square perch scripulum 1/144 ~ 8.75 m²
one aune of furrows actus minimus 1/30 ~ 42 m²
one rood clima ¼ ~ 315 m²
one acre actus quadratus 1 ~ 1260 m²
one yoke iugerum 2 ~ 2520 m²
one morn heredium 4 ~ 5040 m²
one centurie centuria 400 ~ 50.4 ha
one "quadruplex" saltus 1600 ~ 201.6 ha

The Roman acre is the squared Roman arpent. This equals 14 400 square feet or about 0.126 hectares, more exactly almost 1264.673 square metres.

Volume

Liquid measures
Roman unit Latin name Sesters Equivalence
one spoonfull ligula 1/48 ~ 11.2 mL
one dose cyathus 1/12 ~ 45 mL
one sixth-sester sextans 1/6 ~ 90 mL
one third-sester triens 1/3 ~ 180 mL
one half-sester hemina ½ ~ 270 mL
one double third-sester cheonix 2/3 ~ 360 mL
one sester sextarius 1 ~ 540 mL
one congius congius 6 ~ 3.25 L
one urn urna 24 ~ 13 L
one jar amphora 48 ~ 26 L
one hose culleus 960 ~ 520 L

The Roman jar, so-called "amphora quadrantal" is the cubic foot. The congius is half-a-foot cube. The Roman sester is the sixth of a congius.

Dry measures
Roman unit Latin name Pecks Equivalence
one drawing-spoon acetabulum 1/128 ~ 67.5 mL
one quarter-sester quartarius 1/64 ~ 135 mL
one half-sester hemina 1/32 ~ 270 mL
one sester sextarius 1/16 ~ 540 mL
one gallon semodius ½ ~ 4.67; L
one peck modius 1 ~ 8.67 L
one bushel quadrantal 3 ~ 26 L

Like the jar, the Roman bushel or "quadrantal" is one cubic foot. It's almost 26.027 liters. The third part of this quadrantal is the Roman peck.

Weight

The roman units of weight varied significantly throughout the times, since most of the standards were obtained from the weight of particular coins. The values listed are based on the gold aureus of Augustus which were in use from 27 BC to AD 296. The earliest bronze coins of Rome 338 BC to 268 BC were 0.273 kg.

Roman unit Latin name Drachms Equivalence
one chalcus chalcus 1/48 0.071 g
one siliqua siliqua 1/18 0.189 g
one obolus obolus 1/6 0.57 g
one scruple scrupulum 1/3 1.14 g
one drachm drachma 1 3.4 g
one shekel sicilicus 2 6.8 g
one ounce uncia 8 27.25 g
one pound libra 96 327 g
one mine mina 128 436 g

All the multiples of the Roman ounce have their proper names.

  1. uncia
  2. sextans
  3. quadrans
  4. trians
  5. quincunx
  6. semis
  7. septunx
  8. bes
  9. dodrans
  10. dextans
  11. deunx
  12. as

One and a half ounce was called by Romans sescuncia.

Time

year
The Julian calendar 365¼ day year was introduced in 45 BC.

Vedic system

Vedic measures were first used by the Indian Vedic civilization, and are still in use today – primarily for religious purposes in Hinduism and Jainism.

See also: Vedic units of time

Chinese system

The traditional units used in Imperial China (市制 Pinyin: Shìzhì, "city standard") are used to this day, albeit now rounded and bound to SI units, and changed to a divisor of 10 instead of the traditional 16.

See also: Chinese units

Arabic system

The Arabic system is based on the Persian system.

Length

assbaa
Finger, ¼ palm
cabda
Palm, ¼ foot
foot
Base unit, 0.32 m
arsh
Cubit, traditionally 2 feet, new definition 1½ feet
orgye
Pace, 6 feet
qasab
Cane, 12 feet
seir
Stadion, 600 feet
ghalva
720 feet
farasakh
League, from parasang, 18000 feet, 5.76 km.
barid
4 farasakh
marhala
8 farasakh

Hebrew

See Hebrew weights

See also

References

  • Measure for Measure, Richard Young and Thomas Glover, ISBN 1-889796-00-X.
  • Masse und Gewichte, Marvin A. Powell
  • The Civilisation of Ancient Egypt, Paul Johnson

External links

Mesopotamia

Egypt

Greece

General

pl:Miary rzymskie sl:stare uteži in mere

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