nbj hieroglyph of nebj

In ancient Egypt, a unit the nature of which has been controversial. The meaning of nbj has been sought mainly by reading ostraka, messages written on potshards. The ostraka bearing the word nbj are like payslips, or reports from job sites. The word hardly ever occurs in the Egyptian literature.

In 1913 Thompson identified the nbj as a measure of volume, a cube 2 meh niswt (royal cubits) on a side, that is, 8 cubic meh niswt, or about 1.16 cubic meters. See source 1, below. Most parties agree that the nbj is indeed the ancestor of the demotic nb and the naubion, measures of volume in dike-digging operations in Ptolemaic times.

But in 1942 W. C. Hayes suggested the nbj was a unit of length. He based his conclusion on readings of ostraka connected with construction of an actual surviving doorway.

In the early 1990's, Elke Roik proposed that the nbj was a unit of length of about 65 centimeters, and was progressively halved to define units of length that were used to measure almost everything.²

The idea that the nbj was a lineal measure was effectively challenged by John Legon, beginning with a refutation of Hayes paper.³ Roik and Legon subsequently debated the matter.⁴

Current thinking is that almost always, the nbj is a unit of volume, a cube 2 royal cubits on a side, used by, for example, stone masons to describe the amount of material excavated from living rock. However, it is also, rarely, associated with rods about 65 cm long.

1. W. C. Hayes.
Ostraka and Name Stones from the Tomb of Sen-mut (no. 71) at Thebes.
Publications of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Egyptian Expedition, vol. 15.
New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1942.
Reprinted by the Arno Press in 1973.

Pages 36-37.

2. Elke Roik.
Das Nbj- Maßsystem ein bisher unerforschtes altägyptisches Längenmaßsystem.
Göttinger Mizellen, vol. 119, pages 91-99 (1990).
Das Längenmaßsystem im Alten Ägypten.
Hamburg: Christian-Rosenkreutz-Verlag, 1993.

Roik's claims were quite sweeping (page 87):

3. Verbreitung

Das Maßsystem war das Längenmaßsystem für ganz Ägypten. Wieweit seine Ausbreitung nach Süden in den nubischen Raum nachzuweisen ist, müssen weitere Untersuchungen ergeben.


Das Maßsystem wurde in allen Bereichen ägyptischen Schaffens angewandt: Architektur, Grabdekoration, Stelen, Sarkophage, Statuen und bei Erdarbeiten, wie z.B. Grabenarbeiten. Da es in den antiken Sprachgebrauch übernommen wurde, kann es als bekanntes alltägliches Mass betrachtet werden.

3. Distribution

The system of units was the linear measurement system for all of Egypt. The extent of its expansion to Sudan in the Nubian region, further studies must establish.

4. Scope of application

The measurement system was employed in every area of Egyptian creative work: architecture, grave decoration, steles, sarcophagi, statues and sculptures in earthworks, e.g. grave work. Since it is was accepted in the ancient linguistic usage, it can be regarded as a familiar everyday measure.

3. John A. R. Legon.
Measurement in Ancient Egypt.
Discussions in Egyptology, vol. 30, pages 87-100 (1994).

A review of Roik's book.
Available online http://www.legon.demon.co.uk/metrorev.htm this link goes to a new page

NBJ-Rod Measures in the Tomb of Senenmut.
Göttinger Mizellen, vol. 143, pages 97-104 (1994).

A detailed refutation of Hayes (1926), and a fuller history of the subject than is given on this webpage, with references to other scholars.
A version of the article is available online at http://www.legon.demon.co.uk/nbj.htm this link goes to a new page (Rechecked 21 Sept 2017).

4. Elke Roik.
Auf der Suche nach dem “True nbj Measure”.
Discussions in Egyptology, vol. 34, pages 91-115 (1996).

A response to Legon's review of her book.

John Legon.
The Quest for the True nbj Measure.
Discussions in Egyptology, vol. 36, pages 69-78 (1996).



The word nbe is not a new one, though its reading and meaning have not hitherto been fully recognized. The ostraca here published furnish fresh evidence on these points. It occurs on four demotic ostraca, D 37, D 52, D 69, D 117, and on one bilingual, G 222 (unpublished), and doubtfully on a second, G 427. From these, especially G 222, there is no doubt that the reading is nbe [hieroglyph] The word occurs on two published papyri in the Louvre (below), but only on one published ostracon, a bilingual at Berlin, no. 1113. The latter was published by Revillout and Wilcken in the Revue Égyptologique, vi, p. 11, and the Greek text again by Wilcken in. his Griechische Ostraka under no. 1025, and it explains one meaning of nbe for us. The Greek text is

Lκβ απειργασται

εις το διακομμα  αν λ ερμοφιλος

'Year 22 work done on the breach in the dyke, 30 naubia, Hermophilus.'

διακομμα is clearly a breach in a dyke (χωμα, περίχωμα), or rather in the bank of a canal which is raised above the surrounding fields (διωρυξ, Pap. Tebtunis, no. 13 and notes). See Mahaffy-Smyly, Petrie Papyri, iii, nos. 37 a. ii. 19, b. iii. 9, and 45. (2). 5. The two lines of demotic underneath the Greek read, so far as one can be sure from the hand-copy,

sh Hr . . . . s Hry a nbe 30

sh . . . . s S-wsr nb 30

' Written by Hor .... son of Erieus for 30 nbe ; signed by ... . son of Senwosre for 30 nb.'

Wilcken, Griech. Ostr. i. 259-60 discusses the question whether the Egyptian nbt (as Revillout read it) can be the same as the Greek word ναύβιον, of which it is here clearly the equivalent, and leaves it unsettled. This is settled for us not only by the material published here, but also by over thirty unpublished demotic ostraca known to me, the large majority of which come from Dendera and belong to Mr. J. G. Milne. The Greek word which is unknown to classical literature and has long been a subject of discussion since its appearance in the papyri and ostraca, is now known to be a cubic measure of soil equal to a cube whose side is a royal double cubit (Pap. Lille, i, p. 15), No reasonable etymology has, I believe, been suggested for it; if so, there is the more reason for regarding it as a graecized Egyptian word, if we can find an origin for nbe. Now there is an old word [hieroglyph] (Brugsch, Wtb. 327-8, 749, Suppl., 662) meaning a stake which was employed in staking out the ground in the representations of temple foundation scenes. It is not difficult to see that such a stake should be, or become, of a recognized length and form the origin of a measure for excavating earth generally.

The above bilingual accounts for the number of naubia of earth removed. Thirty naubia seem to have been the amount of forced labour on dykes which the government could demand (Mahaffy-Smyly, u.s. p. 344), and probably represents the five days' work which constituted the corvée (Wilcken, u.s. p. 338). In two papyri in the Louvre of the 36th year of Amasis (535 B.C.) this corvée is mentioned as p nbe n hte 'the compulsory nbe' (Corpus Papyrorum, Louvre, no. 14, pi. XV, 11. 14, 15, and no. 15, pi. xvi, I. 7), a tax on land the payment of which has to be specifically provided for in agreements relating to the transfer of land. Even at that early date it would seem that the corvee could be commuted for a money payment. It was certainly so in Ptolemaic and Roman times, when the tax in money form was known in Greek as χωματικόν (Wilcken, u.s. p. 338), and in demotic it is the tax we have here, in D 37, as nbe. That these are the same is evident from the amount of the tax, which for the χωματικόν was the peculiar sum of 6 dr. 4 obols annually (Wilcken, u.s. p. 334, Pap. Brit. Mus. ii, p. 107, iii, p. 55, Pap. Tebtunis, ii, p. 188), thus distinguishing this tax from all others. In our ostracon (D 37) the payment, it is true, is only 5 dr. 4 obols, but in D 52 and in D 69 the payments, though paid by instalments, in each case amount together to 6 dr. 4 obols. Conclusive evidence, however, is furnished by Mr. Milne's Dendera ostraca, since out of twenty-nine nbe-ostraca (unpublished) twenty-four are for precisely 6 dr. 4 obols and three of the remainder are for exactly half the amount.

H. Thompson in
A. H. Gardiner, H. Thompson and J. G. Milne.
Theban Ostraca.
University of Toronto Library. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1913.
Page 26ff, note 3.
Online at https://archive.org/details/cu31924026873889.

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