05 October 2010

Money Matters: No Use for Money in Ancient Egypt

By Jean Adams

For the most part, the ancient Egyptians had no conception of the use of money, which can make things challenging for writers of that period.

During most of ancient Egypt's pharaonic history, there was no money as such, at least in the form of coins. Not until the middle of the first millennium BC were any coins used in Egypt. At first, they were of foreign extraction.

The ancient Egyptian economy was based on redistribution and reciprocity, set prices in units of value that referred directly to commodities. For the purposes of trade and exchange, at first the Egyptians calculated the value of goods and services in units that were related to the necessities of life. Later, the calculation was made in terms of the weights of metals, such as copper or silver, their weight being used as a reference for value.

During the New Kingdom, information comes from Dier el Medina and from documents relating to shipping. All these sources are evidence that payments were made in the form of bread, beer, grain, meat and cloth, the necessities of life. These rations were expressed in units of bread and beer, the most basic Egyptian diet. It is likely that the lowest wages, close to subsistence levels, were paid in bread and beer.

We know that the standard basic wage consisted of ten loaves and one-third to two full jugs of beer per day. The Egyptian beer was much less alcoholic than modern beer, and higher in calorie content. This was usually the rations of the lowest paid staff members, and consisted of little more then enough to keep one alive. Others were paid in multiples of the standard wage, varying from twice to fifty times that of the standard wage. The highest paid official would receive thirty-eight and one-third loaves while the lowest paid worker received one and one-third loaves.

During the New Kingdom, the craftsmen at Dier el Medina received all the necessities of life from their employer. They were not only provided with food, but also cooking fuel, clothing, the houses where they lived, and the tools of their trade. Yet, the robust trade that amongst themselves indicates that those workers required additional goods and services that the state did not provide.

The deben is a measure of weight that was used for gold, silver, and copper. One deben of copper weighs between 90 and 91 grams. It was divided into ten kite.

We are able to give some approximate values of various commodities, particularly during the New Kingdom.

sack of wheat (c.58 kg): 1 to 2 deben
1 litre of oil: 1 deben
1 loaf of bread: 0.1 deben
1 litre of beer: ½ deben
1 cake: 0.2 deben
1 litre of wine: 1 deben
1 bundle of vegetables: ½ deben
50 fish: 2 deben
1 bronze cup: 5 deben
1 leather bucket: 3 deben
1 basket: 4 deben
1 shirt: 2½ deben
1 pair of sandals: 2 deben
1 razor: 1 deben
1 mirror: 6 deben
1 fly-swat: 1 deben
1 bed: 12-20 deben
1 chair: 20 deben
1 table: 15 deben
1 sleeping mat: 2 deben
1 goat: 2½ deben
1 donkey: 25 deben
1 cow: up to 140 deben
1 bull: 120 deben
1 ox: 60 deben
1 slave girl: 4 deben of silver
1 ordinary male slave: 3 deben of silver

Prices were set by the strength of each trader's desire to conclude an exchange and each individual's skill at arriving at a good price. For example, if there were a shortage of baskets, and one really needed a basket, the price could go up. And of course, if there was a shortage of grain, it could become more valuable. Hence, use was probably more important than abstract value and the value of goods grew according to the need for them. Furthermore, ancient customs and not monetary advantage dictated many prices.

There is evidence for inflation and price fluctuation. During the reign of Ramses II, one deben of silver was valued as one-hundred deben of copper. By the reign of Ramses IX, one deben of silver was valued at sixty deben of copper. It is unlikely that the government would have intervened in setting prices. The Egyptian state regulated the standard measures of length and volume so the basic ratio of one sack of grain to one deben of copper seems not to have varied.

The Egyptians were able to create a relatively complex economy and conduct business in a way that met their needs without ever fully coming up with the concept of money. And we must remember that it worked for almost three thousand years.

Jean Adams' latest contemporary romance, YESTERDAY'S DREAMS, is due out soon from The Wild Rose Press. It is the first in a two-book series set in the New Zealand seaside town of Patiki Bay. Her trilogy set in ancient Egypt is a work in progress, but her time travel Egyptian romance, ETERNAL HEARTS, is available now in print from Highland Press.


Blythe Gifford said...

Fascinating. Bread and beer, truly life's basics. I'll be posting later this month on how Scotland survived without currency in the 17th century. Hard to imagine now!

Pamala Knight said...

So interesting! It's amazing how currency evolved and particularly in a culture such as Egypt's. Thanks for the excellent post.