Redefining Measurement

Journal Thread #1 / Prompt 1 - Analyzing Artifacts

Step into the shoes of an archaeologist and interpret the possible significance and use of an artifact.

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Title of Activity:

Journal Thread #1 / Prompt 1 - Analyzing Artifacts

Curriculum Collection:

NIST Universal Constants, Introduction


Using a historical analogy, students reflect on use of artifacts for measurement.

Target Grade Level:

Grades 8-12

Discipline or Course:

Physical Science

Time Frame:

30 minutes

Suggested Grouping:


Key Vocabulary:

  • Artifact
  • Standard

Teacher Prep:

This journal prompt could be approached in at least 3 different ways by students. Students should demonstrate that they can ask solid questions (that could be investigated) and argue from evidence.

Potential questions:

  • First, the prompt does not include any indication of time. The Egyptians built pyramids over many centuries. There is no reason to assert that the cubit artifact and the pyramid were contemporaneous. A researcher might date the artifact and the pyramid to get more evidence.
  • Second, the artifact might have changed over time. Erosion of the artifact or the pyramid might explain the difference (about 13 mm per meter).
  • Third, the hieroglyph “diary” itself might be wrong. It could have been written by a third party or someone who was not really familiar with precise measurements. The researchers might look for inconsistencies or other documentation.

The rubric can be modified for student, whole class, or teacher use.

Possible Rubric





Generating questions

No trial explanations

One trial explanation

Two or more trial explanations

Understanding of measurement process

No evidence that the student understands the process or use of the cubit artifact

Partial evidence that the student understands the process or use of the cubit artifact

Solid evidence that the student understands the process or use of the cubit artifact

Identification of arguments based on evidence

No suggestions of new evidence that might support explanations, or contradictory evidence

Inconsistent connections between proposed new evidence and one or more explanations

Clear connections between proposed new evidence and one or more explanations



What is an artifact? Watch the video.

The Last Artifact - Meet the Artifact

One of the most exciting artifacts an anthropologist might find is a diary or journal — a first-person report of events, questions, and ideas. A diary is often a form of measurement too. It can show the growth of our understanding.

As you go along, you will build understanding of measurements in two ways: You’ll think about the methods (practices) and goals of metrologists, and you will explore the constants themselves and how they are used in measurement.

Begin here. And remember, you’ll be measuring your own growth so it’s fine to speculate, hypothesize, and even revise what you’ve written before. One key skill, though, is arguing from evidence. So explain: “I believe this…” or “I predict this…” because...

An Egyptologist finds a relic of ancient measurement, a stone cubit at the site of an ancient village.

 At another site, there is a small pyramid. Inside it there are hieroglyphs that specify the dimensions of the pyramid’s base. But the measurements do not match exactly. If the stone cubit had been used to build the pyramid, the base would have been about 3 percent larger.

Describe how a cubit stone like this might have been used. Then think about explanations for the difference. What could have caused it? What further evidence might help support or refute your proposed explanations?