


Ancient weights and measures
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

kù – 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
The Persian system had influence on the Greek system. During the Persian occupation of Egypt, the Persian cubit was sometimes used there, too.
The ghalva (stadion) and parasang were much used as a land measure. There are significant uncertainty, though.
Length
 finger – 1 / 4 palm
 palm – 1 / 4 foot
 zereth – Foot, 1 / 2 cubit
 arsani – Cubit, 52.0 up to 64.0 cm
 cane – 2 paces, 6 cubits
 chebel – 40 cubits
 stadion – Forerunner to Greek and Egyptian stadion, presumably around 264 m

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.
 schoinos – Origin of Greek and Egyptian measures
 mansion – Equivalent to "stathmos", 4 parsang
Volume

chenica – 1.32 l, probably basis of 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. Note also the cubit and remen which has a ratio that constitutes an irrational number. 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, 1 / 4 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
 remen – 1 / 2 double remen
 remen digit – 1 / 20 remen
 khet – Senus, 100 Royal cubit, also jet, hayt
 stadion – 400 Royal cubits, 209.2 m
 parasang – 10000 Royal cubits
 schoinos – Presumably the "common atur", 12000 Royal kubits or 6.3 km.

iter – Royal river measure (pl. iteru or itrw), also atur or ater. 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 – 100 · 100 Royal cubit², also aura
 jata – 100 setat, is said to be used to this day.
 remen – 1 / 2 setat
 hebes – 1 / 4 setat
 sa – 1/8 setat
Volume

hekat – 1 / 30 Royal cubit³, 4.8 l, used for grain. Was divided into fractions of 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32 and 1/64 by an "Eye of Horus" rule.
 oipe – Alt. 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°, 5 1/4 seked is 53.13°, 5 1/2 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, 1 / 4 pous
 dikhas – 1 / 2 pous
 spithame – Span, 3 / 4 pous
 pugon – Homeric cubit, 5 / 4 pous
 pechua – Cubit, 3 / 2 podes, 47.4 cm
 bema – Pace, 5 / 2 podes
 khulon – 9 / 2 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), 1 / 4 kheonix

kheonix – Alt. 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 –
 talent – 60 mina
 mina – 100 drachma
 decadrachm – Coin only, 10 drachma
 tetradrachm – Coin only, 4 drachma
 stater – Coin only, also didrachm, 2 drachma

drachma – Weight of silver coin, 4.5 to 6 g
 diobol – 1 / 3 drachma
 obolo – 1 / 6 drachma, silver
 khalkoi – 1 / 8 obolo, copper
Miscellaneous
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 
1 / 4 
7.41 cm 
2.92 in 
one foot 
pes 
1 
29.64 cm 
11.67 in 
one cubit 
cubitus 
1½ 
44.46 cm 
17.50 in 
one step 
gradus 
2½ 
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

1 / 4

~ 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 egal 14 400 squared feet or about 0.126 hektar,
more exactly one, almost: 1264.673 square metres.

Volume
Roman unit

Latin name

Sesters

Equivalence

one spoonfull

ligula

1 / 48

~ 11.2 mL

one dose

cyathus

1 / 12

~ 45 mL

one sixthsester

sextans

1 / 6

~ 90 mL

one thirdsester

triens

1 / 3

~ 180 mL

one halfsester

hemina

1 / 2

~ 270 mL

one double thirdsester

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, socalled "amphora quadrantal" is the cubic foot.
The congius is halfafoot cube. The Roman sester is the sixth of a congius.

Roman unit

Latin name

Pecks

Equivalence

one drawingspoon

acetabulum

1 / 128

~ 67.5 mL

one quartersester

quartarius

1 / 64

~ 135 mL

one halfsester

hemina

1 / 32

~ 270 mL

one sester

sextarius

1 / 16

~ 540 mL

one gallon

semodius

1 / 2

~ 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.
Its 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 ounce

uncia

7 ounces

septunx

2 ounces

sextans

8 ounces

bes

3 ounces

quadrans

9 ounces

dodrans

4 ounces

trians

10 ounces

dextans

5 ounces

quincunx

11 ounces

deunx

6 ounces

semis

12 ounces

as

One and a half ounce was called by Romans : "sescuncia".

Time
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, 1 / 4 palm
 cabda – Palm, 1 / 4 foot
 foot – Base unit, 0.32 m
 arsh – Cubit, traditionally 2 feet, new definition 3 / 2 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 188979600X.
 Masse und Gewichte, Marvin A. Powell
 The Civilisation of Ancient Egypt, Paul Johnson
External links
Mesopotamia
Egypt
Greece
General





