The cubit is an ancient unit of length that had several definitions according to each of the various different cultures that used the unit. These definitions typically ranged between 444 and 529.2 mm (17.48 and 20.83 in), with an ancient Roman cubit being as long as 120 cm (47 in). The shorter unit - common cubit - was based on the forearm length from the tip of the middle finger to the bottom of the elbow and was divided as 6 palms x 4 fingers = 24 digits[1]. Royal cubits added a palm for 7 palms x 4 fingers = 28 digits.[2].

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 hedgelaying, the length of the forearm being frequently used to determine the interval between stakes placed within the hedge.[3]


The English word "cubit" comes from the Latin noun cubitus "elbow", from the verb cubo, cubare, cubui, cubitum "to lie down",[4] from which also comes the adjective "recumbent".[5]

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 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.[6] 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.[7][6][8]

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.[7] 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 2700 BC.[9]

Ancient Mesopotamian units of measurement

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.[10] The Classical Mesopotamian System also has a proportional relationship, by virtue of standardized commerce, to Bronze Age Harappan and Egyptian metrologies.

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).[11]

Biblical cubit

The standard of the cubit in different countries and in different ages has varied. This realization has led the rabbis of the 2nd-century CE to clarify the length of their cubit, saying that the measure of the cubit of which they have spoken "applies to the cubit of middle-size."[12] In this case, the requirement is to make-use of a standard 6 handbreadths to each cubit,[13] and which handbreadth was not to be confused with an outstretched palm, but rather one that was clinched and which handbreadth has the standard width of 4 fingerbreadths (each fingerbreadth being equivalent to the width of a thumb, ca. 2.25 cm).[14][15] This puts the handbreadth at roughly 9 centimetres (3.5 in), and six handbreadths (1 cubit) at 54 centimetres (21 in). 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."[16]

Rabbi Avraham Chaim Naeh put the linear measurement of a cubit at 48 centimetres (19 in).[17] Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz (the "Chazon Ish"), dissenting, put the length of a cubit at 57.6 centimetres (22.7 in).[18]

Rabbi and philosopher Maimonides, following the Talmud, makes a distinction between the cubit of 6 handbreadths used in ordinary measurements, and the cubit of 5 handbreadths used in measuring the Golden Altar, the base of the altar of burnt offerings, its circuit and the horns of the altar.[12]

Ancient Greece

In ancient Greek units of measurement, the standard forearm cubit (Greek: πῆχυς, translit. 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).[19]

Ancient Rome

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).[20] A 120-centimeter cubit (approximately four feet long), called the Roman ulna, was common in the Roman empire, which cubit was measured from the fingers of the outstretched arm opposite the man's hip.[21]; also, [22]with[23]

Other systems

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

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.[24] 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


  1. Vitruvian Man
  2. Stephen Skinner, Sacred Geometry - Deciphering The Code (Sterling, 2009) & many other sources
  3. 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.
  4. Cassell's Latin Dictionary
  5. Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition, 1989; online version September 2011. s.v. "cubit"
  6. Richard Lepsius (1865). Die altaegyptische Elle und ihre Eintheilung (in German). Berlin: Dümmler. p. 14–18.
  7. 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.
  8. Arnold Dieter (1991). Building in Egypt: pharaonic stone masonry. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-506350-9. p.251.
  9. 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
  10. Conder 1908, p. 87.
  11. 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.
  12. Mishnah with Maimonides' Commentary (ed. Yosef Qafih), vol. 3, Mossad Harav Kook: Jerusalem 1967, Middot 3:1 [p. 291] (Hebrew)
  13. Mishnah (Kelim 17:9–10, pp. 629, note 14 – 630). In the Tosefta (Kelim Baba-Metsia 6:12–13), however, it brings down a second opinion, namely, that of Rabbi Meir, who distinguishes between a medium-sized cubit of 5 handbreadths, used principally for rabbinic measurements in measuring the bare and untilled ground near a vineyard and where there is a prohibition to grow therein seed plants under the laws of Diverse Kinds, and a larger cubit of 6 handbreadths used to measure therewith the altar. Cf. Saul Lieberman, Tosefet Rishonim (part 3), Jerusalem 1939, p. 54, s.v. איזו היא אמה בינונית, where he brings down a variant reading of the same Tosefta and where it has 6 handbreadths, instead of 5 handbreadths, for the medium size cubit.
  14. Tosefta (Kelim Baba-Metsia 6:12–13)
  15. Mishnah with Maimonides' Commentary (ed. Yosef Qafih), vol. 1, Mossad Harav Kook: Jerusalem 1963, Kila'im 6:6 [p. 127] (Hebrew)
  16. Epiphanius' Treatise on Weights and Measures - the Syriac Version (ed. James Elmer Dean, The University of Chicago Press: Chicago 1935, p. 69
  17. Abraham Haim Noe, Sefer Ḳuntres ha-Shiʻurim (Abridged edition from Shiʻurei Torah), Jerusalem 1943, p. 17 (section 20)
  18. Chazon Ish, Orach Chaim 39:14
  19. Vörös, Gyozo (2015), "Anastylosis at Machaerus", Biblical Archaeology Review, vol. 41 no. 1, Jan/Feb 2015, p. 56
  20. H. Arthur Klein (1974). The Science of Measurement: A Historical Survey. New York: Dover. ISBN 9780486258393. p. 68.
  21. Stone, Mark H. (30 January 2014). "The Cubit: A History and Measurement Commentary (Review Article)". Journal of Anthropology. 2014: 489757 [4]. Retrieved 1 January 2018Academic Editor: Kaushik Bose
  22. Grant, James (1814). Thoughts on the Origin and Descent of the Gael: With an Account of the Picts, Caledonians, and Scots; and Observations Relative to the Authenticity of the Poems of Ossian. Edinburgh: For A. Constable and Company. p. 137. Retrieved 1 January 2018. Solinus, cap. 45, uses ulna for cubitus, where Pliny speaks of a crocodile of 22 cubits long. Solinus expresses it by so many ulnae, and Julius Pollux uses both words for the same... they call a cubitus an ulna.
  23. Ozdural, Alpay (1998). Necipoğlu, Gülru (ed.). "Sinan's Arsin: A Survey of Ottoman Architectural Metrology". Muqarnas: An Annual on the Visual Culture of the Islamic World. Leiden, The Netherlands. 15: 109. ISSN 0732-2992. ... Roman ulna of four feet...
  24. 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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