Ancient Estimating

Ancient Estimating


In our modern world, estimating uses powerful software and intricate spreadsheets to determine the pricing of anything from renovating a house to constructing a multi-billion dollar dam.

But when did this skillset first come into use? It’s a lot older than you might think. Back in Neolithic times humans started drawing perfect circles by placing a stick in the ground and tracing in the dirt around it with a second stick tied to the first with a rope or line. This shape allowed them to build more regular shelters because the same size circle could be used over and over, thus allowing them to predict the materials required each time.

The next advancement came with the invention of mud bricks around 8,000 BC in Mesopotamia. This was revolutionary because it created a standard system of measurement with the creation of regular size brick moulds. With this, the following things became known:

  • the size of the bricks that would come out of the mould,
  • the number of moulds in use,
  • the average time it would take one labourer to fill and dry bricks in the mould,
  • the cost of paying/feeding one labourer for a certain amount of time,
  • the number of labourers.

One could then determine how many bricks could be produced in a certain time and therefore at a certain cost. They could thus estimate the cost of constructing a building from mud bricks.

This would have been used to great effect in the many large buildings that sprang up in Mesopotamia, with variances for different quality materials (straw and mud vs just mud bricks) used for different parts of the building in order to save on time and cost.

Around 3,000 BC cuneiform writing emerged and allowed people to actually calculate estimates in writing. Tiny to-scale floorplans on stone tablets have been discovered for ancient temples and palaces, the likes of which would have been passed around from architects, to engineers, to site foremen and supervisors.

Building is just one example of estimating in the ancient world. The skill was crucial for any kind of military operation. Generals need to be able to calculate how to move a large body of people, supply them with food, transport, weapons, shelter and animals for a predicted amount of time in order to maximise their chance of success.

Travel for royal households would have been another instance of needing to calculate resources for a large group of people, whether those resources were taken with (for example clothes, furniture, animals) or obtained along the way (food, shelter, even entertainment).

So is it clear that the practise of estimating has been in use for thousands of years. It is only in the last hundred though, that it has become a formalised discipline in its own right, and uses modern technology to calculate larger and more complex projects with increased accuracy.

The basic principles, however, remain the same, and it is a proud history to have.