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Understanding Weights And Measures In Archaeology

By: Grahame Johnston - Updated: 12 Jan 2019 | comments*Discuss
Archaeology Weights And Measures

Metrology is the official name given to the exacting science of standardising weights and measurements. Such a system needs to be legally established and enforced by penalties for breaches of the system and especially for dishonest use.

Ancient societies were usually very severe on those who attempted to cheat their customers with unbalanced scales or shortened measures.

Reconstructing Ancient Weights And Measures Standards

For many years archaeology has been trying to reconstruct the national standards of ancient societies to help in the interpretation of writings that include weights and measures. For example an ancient archaeology text might speak about a building being 100 cubits long. But this knowledge is of no consequence if the researcher has no fixed idea of the length of a cubit. If the actual building that is referred to in the text can be located, then by dividing its length into one hundred equal parts will give the length of one cubit.

Locating ruined sites and taking measurements from the remnant structure is only one way that archaeology can help us to understand ancient measurement. Many storage vessels, such as amphora or pitcher jugs, have been excavated at archaeology sites. Often these have a labelled or known capacity inscribed on them. The vessel can be filled and its contents equated to a modern equivalent to give the measure. Also, experts at decipherment can unlock the meanings hidden within ancient icons and inscriptions. From this type of archaeological analysis has grown a healthy and reliable metrology dossier of information regarding the increments of weights and measures from ancient times.

History of Weights And Measures

Unitising measurement standards, by use of some form of crafted object, is one of humanity's oldest tools. Even the most primitive of societies understood the requirement for measuring weight, volume, and length with a standard rule. The first tools made for this task were understandably rudimentary in nature and only sought to facilitate the immediate weights and measures needs of the people in shelter (building homes etc), raw materials (weighing metals etc), and in bartering or exchanging food items.

Mesopotamia is thought to be the centre of the first uniform weights and measures systems, developed around the 4th to 3rd millennia BC. However, it was the incredible accuracy of the measurement systems of the people of the Indus Valley that has astonished modern metrology experts. The Bronze Age Indus people created extremely precise systems due mainly to the very small increments that they employed: As small as 1.7mm for lineal measures.

Body Parts and Heavenly Hosts In Metrology

Less sophisticated methods used parts of the body such as finger, hand, or arm for measures of length while time was measured by the only constants they had: the sun, moon, and planets.

The most ancient weights were stones fashioned into shapes, some in the form of animals, and usually with a flat base so as to stand without movement. Archaeology has discovered many ancient lithic weights identifiable by inscriptions of their weight according to the standard that was followed. Weights discovered have ranged in size from tiny stone pebbles that could be carried in a pouch so that the owner could quickly check on the accuracy of purchases, especially spices or other expensive commodities, to large stones so big that they needed to be bored with a hole so that they could be tied to a balance or gently handled in transit.

The Master Set Of Weights And Measures

It was pointless having a set of weights and measures if they were not certified as accurate. Therefore, nearly every authority had a 'master set' for each weight and measurement system. Most were kept securely guarded and satellite sets would be routinely brought in for comparison to the master.

Today, master sets of weights and measures are always housed in climate-controlled environments and duplicate sets are calibrated to the master under those conditions, as metrologists know that temperature changes can alter the precise tolerance of a measurement device.

A Theory about the Pyramids And Weights And Measures

There has never been any archaeological evidence to support the claim that the Great Pyramids were giant stone coffins for pharaohs. One other explanation is that the chambers were made as controlled containers to house master sets of weights and measures tools. The pyramid's deep stone structure would store these tools at a perfectly regulated temperature thus avoiding the warping and inaccuracies caused by the intense heat of the Egyptian climate.

Some Ancient Measurements of Length

  • Inch: Although still used commonly today it is a very ancient measure. The English word arrives via the Latin term for 'one twelfth part' or in the specific case of the inch it was one twelfth of one foot (that is a standard human foot). In some systems it was the measure of the width of the thumb or the length of three corns of barley.

  • Palm: This was the width of a man's palm not including the thumb. It was equal to three inches.

  • Hand: A hand width was usually four thumbs or four inches and is still in use today especially in the measurement of the height of horses from the ground to the shoulders.

  • Span: This is the measure of one hand span or the width of a man's spread hand. It is approximately nine inches.

  • Cubit: This was the length from a man's elbow to the tip of his finger. It equalled two spans or 28 inches.

  • Rod or Perch: This is an Anglo-Saxon term for a distance equalling 20 natural foot lengths of a man.

  • Furlong: Also once called a 'furrow long' as it was the distance that an ox would plough the field in one direction in mediaeval times. Approximately 40 rods.

Big People Got More

As is quite obvious from the above list, using human body parts as measurement units is hardly a true and accurate standard. A person with large hands or feet would calculate out a much longer measurement than a smaller built person. Ancient shopping was probably best done in pairs: a small person measuring if you were selling and a big person measuring if you were buying.

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Ancient grave sites have length markers, but no #s or legend. British grave markers, if red/white is 1 ft, the bodies are over 7ft. Did I miss something?
Willy - 12-Jan-19 @ 5:15 PM
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