These are a key feature of the commercial, market economy. The ancient Egyptian economy, based on redistribution and reciprocity, set prices in units of value that referred directly to commodities, rather than to the abstract concept of money. For the purpose of exchange and trade, the Egyptians first calculated the value of goods and services in units that were directly related to the necessities of life and, later, they calculated in terms of the weights of metals. Yet the Egyptians never fully abstracted the idea of money—goods and services, as well as metals, were valued concretely for what they were.
Sources for the study of prices and payments do not survive from all periods of Egyptian history. Information about wages and rations are best known from documents of the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, while commodity prices are best preserved from the Ramessid period. Wage payments in the Old Kingdom are known from the Abusir Papyri. For the Middle Kingdom, there are temple documents, biographies, and archaeological data. New Kingdom wages are known from Deir el-Medina and from documents pertaining to shipping. All the sources indicate that wage payments were made in rations of bread, beer, grain, meat, and cloth, which were the daily necessities of life.
Rations were expressed most frequently in units of bread and beer, the two staples of an Egyptian diet. Most likely, the lowest salaries, which were close to subsistence level, were actually paid in bread and beer. Just as modern coins are guaranteed to contain standard amounts of metal, each loaf of bread was baked from a standard recipe, using equal amounts of ingredients, and had a standard nutritional value. Uniformity was assured through a system called pfs, translated as “baking value.” pfs could also be used by the employer to ensure that a predictable number of loaves would be baked from a known amount of grain. The baking value was based on the number of loaves or beer jars produced from a set measure of grain; the higher the value, the smaller would be the loaves, the weaker the beer, or the smaller the jars. Most wage lists assumed that a standard pfs was used in baking and brewing.
Uniformity was also assured through the use of tokens or tallies. During the Middle Kingdom at Uronarti, ceramic tallies have been discovered in the shape of a standard loaf of bread. Presumably that tally could be used to check whether a worker's wages in bread loaves were all the same size. Beer jars were also of a roughly standard size. The standard basic wage was ten loaves of bread and one-third to two full jugs of beer per day (Egyptian beer was much less alcoholic than modern brews and higher in calorie content). That was the ration of the lowest paid staff members. Others were paid in multiples of the standard wage, varying from twice to fifty times the standard wage for highly paid people. Various methods could be used for apportioning wages. For example, documentation exists for a particular ship's crew in which the captain and other officials received twice the ration of the ordinary sailors. In another case, the highest paid official received thirty-eight one-third loaves while the lowest paid worker received one and one-third loaves.
In an example from the Middle Kingdom the staff of a temple received a commission on all the goods that came to the temple. One inscription describes the way the staff was paid in “temple days”:
"As for a temple day, it is 1/360 part of a year. Now, you shall divide everything which enters this temple—bread, beer, and meat—by way of the daily rate. That is, it is going to be 1/360 of the bread, the beer, and of everything which enters this temple for [any] one of these temple days which I have given you."
In that temple, the regular staff received 2/360 of the total revenue of the temple, while the chief priest received 4/360.
In another case from the Middle Kingdom, an expedition leader received five hundred loaves a day as his “ration.” Large sums like that were probably not paid out in actual loaves of bread or jars of beer. It is unlikely that an expedition leader could take his ever-increasing number of loaves of bread—fifteen thousand loaves after a month—with him on an extended trip into the desert or that he could eat that much, even with a large family and servants to support. Thus it seems possible that five hundred loaves of bread was actually a unit for measuring out commodities, approximating the modern idea of a unit of money, a practice that allowed the ancient Egyptians to save and also to draw against an account of bread and beer.
Because the standard measures for bread loaves and beer jars vary from place to place and time to time, it is difficult to calculate how much people had to eat and to determine how well people lived. The caloric value of the soldier's ration at Uronarti was about one-third kilo (0.5 pound) of barley per day. Baked into bread, this is the equivalent of 1,458 calories from bread each day. If these soldiers did any physical work, they must have received at least an additional fifteen hundred calories from beer and/or vegetables just to maintain their weight.
The New Kingdom craftsmen at Deir el-Medina received all the necessities of life from their employer: their houses were owned by the state, food and clothing rations were given to them, as well as most of the other necessities, including water, fuel for their ovens, and the tools they needed to perform their duties. Yet the robust trade that they conducted among themselves indicates that those workers required additional goods and services that the state had not provided.
Information about the prices of commodities was derived from Deir el-Medina. Prices were recorded on a few papyri and on numerous ostraca that date to a 150-year period during the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties. Many problems with the interpretation of those texts must be overcome, however, before commodity prices can be determined. The ostraca were written in the cursive Hieratic script by nonprofessional scribes who did not write as legibly as did professional scribes. The ostraca were often broken in antiquity and ink has faded during storage in museums. Moreover, the texts were never intended for others to read, but were personal notes, so that many details that would have been known to the original reader were not recorded. Among the details that were often excluded was the date of when it was written. Such omission often makes it difficult to compare prices, although scholars have determined which ostraca are roughly contemporary by comparing the people named in them. This process has its own difficulties, because the small number of families living in the village drew on a limited stock of personal names, making it difficult, for example, to pinpoint the generation of a particular Pentaweret. Another difficulty in determining prices was the lack of description of the goods that were priced. Clearly, some variation in the price of two chairs was based on the quality of the workmanship, although the variation is almost never described in the ostraca. Finally, the precise meanings of words used to describe the commodities is often not understood. Sometimes, only the general category of the good can be determined from the writing. In spite of these difficulties, scholars have isolated four units of value that were used to price commodities: the deben (dbn), the senyu (snjw, originally called šʿtj [shaty]), the hin (hnw), and the khar (ẖʒr).
The deben is a measure of weight used for gold, silver, and, most commonly, copper. One deben of copper weighs ninety-one grams. It was divided into ten kite. Copper weights seem never to be lower than five kite or one-half deben, while the more precious metals are found with weights of less than five kite. It is sometimes difficult to determine whether the actual weight of the metal is being described or its value in deben—or, indeed, whether the Egyptians made such a distinction. In the Cairo Ostracon 25242 verso, for example, twenty deben of copper was added to four deben as the value of a basket, demonstrating that the actual weight was difficult to separate from the idea of its value. Deben of copper and bronze were not distinguished by the Egyptians. Both were valued as one kite of silver. Silver deben were rarely mentioned in the ostraca, but are more common in the papyri. Papyrus, of course, was used to record official and thus more expensive transactions, while the ostraca were used by the villagers to record private, smaller transactions. This practice ensures that gold deben are never mentioned in the ostraca but appear occasionally in the papyri; it must be assumed that when the word deben is used alone on ostraca, copper deben should be understood.
The senyu (“piece”?) is the second unit of value used by the Egyptians. It is a weight in silver equal to 1/12 deben or 7.6 grams. Its value is calculated as five deben, but that calculation does not always hold true (see below). The senyu is found as a weight or value only in the nineteenth dynasty and early twentieth dynasty up to the first half of the reign of Ramesses III. The senyu could be used to express a value in the same column of figures with deben. The Berlin Ostracon 1268 states the value of objects in senyu but the total of the column in deben of copper. The Varille Ostracon 25 totals a razor valued at one deben, with a donkey valued at seven senyu.
The hin, a third unit of value, is a measure of volume equal to 0.48 liters (about one-half quart). Its value is 1/6 senyu, but other calculations show that it was also equal to one copper deben. The value of the hin is probably based on the value of one hin of sesame oil, said to be equal to one copper deben. Mrḥt-oil and ʿd-fat were also measured in hin, but their values seem to vary in relation to deben, both more and less than one deben. Thus the value of one hin equal to one deben is based on sesame oil.
The khar is a measure of the volume of grain, either emmer or barley, equal to 76.88 liters (about 80 quarts), which is divided into four oipe. The khar is translated as “sack” and was valued at two deben. Deben, senyu, and khar are all found together in documents ranging from the time of Ramesses II (Hieratic Ostraca 65) through Ramesses V (Hieratic Ostraca 28). The khar is most commonly found as a unit of value for baskets, both because the volume of a basket was equal to its value and because baskets are relatively inexpensive. The same principle is at work in the Cairo Ostracon 25242, in which a bed is valued in deben while its legs are valued in oipe. Ostracon Deir el-Medina 21 also differentiates between expensive items in deben and cheaper items in oipe.
The rough equivalent values among deben, senyu, hin, and khar, as given above, reveal the difficulty of calculating precise values for commodities, as well as fixed ratios among the four different units of value. One document values a basket at one-quarter senyu for a volume of one-half khar. Since one khar is equal in value to two deben, the logical conclusion would be that one senyu equals four copper deben in value. Yet another example shows that one senyu of mss-garments is equal to five copper deben. Finally, another document values one hin of oil at 1/6 senyu. Since one hin is equal to one deben, the logical conclusion is that one senyu is equal to six deben. Clearly modern ideas about money and prices were not at work in ancient Egypt. Modern conceptions of money would not allow one senyu to be equal to either four, five, or six deben, yet this was the actual state of affairs in Deir el-Medina.
Perhaps the real difficulty in interpreting prices and payments is that modern scholars are attempting to systematize a procedure which was actually determined on a case by case basis. All of the prices discussed above were derived from specific barter agreements. Barter prices were much more fluid than the fixed prices in present-day western markets. Barter prices were set by the strength of each individual's desire to conclude an exchange and each individual's skill at arriving at a good price, in addition to some abstract idea of value based on weight or volume. Use value was probably more important than abstract value and all the commodities exchanged at Deir el-Medina were valued according to actual use: grain was for eating; silver was a raw material for making an object. The value of a good grew according to the need for it.
Because the prices were set by barter, prices tended to cluster in amounts that are multiples of five, especially for amounts over ten deben. Numbers, then, were usually rounded to the nearest five. J. J. Janssen (1988) illustrated that principle by the following example. The Ostracon Deir el-Medina 72 verso described the purchase of a coffin in the following way:
"Given to him in exchange for the coffin: eight and one-half deben of copper; again five deben of copper; one pig made five deben; one goat made two deben; two logs of sycamore wood made two deben. Total: twenty-five and one-half deben."
There, the value of the coffin was first agreed to be approximately twenty-five deben. Then values were established for the individual items brought to the exchange. The coffinmaker would decide how much use he could make of the two lots of copper, the animals, and the wood before determining the value he would assign to them. It is unlikely that those goods were accepted for resale at a profit, since that concept seems to be unknown to the Egyptians. The actual desire to own these items becomes much more important than the abstract value assigned to them in deben.
There is evidence for inflation and price fluctuation during the course of the Ramessid period. During the reign of Ramesses II, one deben of silver was valued as one-hundred deben of copper. By the reign of Ramesses IX, one deben of silver was valued at sixty deben of copper. Janssen(1988) believed this change occurred by the reign of Ramesses III, when a typical mss-garment was valued at five deben or one senyu. Thus the silver-to-copper ratio would be 1:60. It seems unlikely, though not impossible, that the government would have intervened in setting prices of this sort. Clearly, the Egyptian state regulated the standard measures of length and volume so that the basic ratio of one sack of grain to one deben of copper seems not to have varied.
The best source for our knowledge of loans is also Deir el-Medina. There are two kinds of loans attested from the village: one type is made with a fixed date for repayment and a penalty if that date is missed; a second type appears not to have a repayment date and is more likely to reflect an obligation for reciprocity between the lender and debtor. There is limited evidence that loans with fixed repayment dates were made from people of higher social status to those of lower social status, while reciprocal loans were made between people of more equal status.
In sum, the Egyptians were able to conduct business in a way that met their needs without ever fully abstracting the concept of money from their units of exchange value. An often robust economy ran smoothly, using various means of valuing labor and commodities without either money or true markets.
- Bleiberg, Edward. “Debt, Credit, and Social Solidarity at Deir el-Medina.” In Deir el-Medina in the Third Millennium AD. Leiden (forthcoming). Attempts to explain the two different methods of lending found in the village.
- Janssen, J. J. Commodity Prices from the Ramessid Period: An Economic Study of the Village of Necropolis Workmen at Thebes. Leiden, 1975. Groundbreaking study of the Deir el-Medina ostraca, which established the values for most commodities in ancient Egypt.
- Janssen, J. J. “On Prices and Wages in Ancient Egypt.” Altorientalische Forschungen 15 (1988), 10–23. An important essay on the Egyptian concept of value.
- Janssen, J. J. “Debts and Credit in the New Kingdom.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 80 (1994), 129–136. A consideration of reciprocal loans.
- Kemp, Barry. “The Birth of Economic Man.” In Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization, pp. 232–260. London, 1989. An account of the economy that gives less weight to redistribution and reciprocity.
- Menu, Bernadette. “Le prêt en droit égyptien ancien.” In Recherches sur l'histoire juridique, economique, et sociale de l'ancienne Egypte, pp. 230–272. Versailles, 1982.