Monetary practices In ancient Egypt  Share

Ancient Egypt is certainly one of the most fascinating civilisations. Its economy is no exception and deserves a bit of attention; that’s why it has been chosen as the theme for this latest Object of the month. So how were monetary practices organised in this civilisation which had no knowlege of money itself?

It has often been said that the Egyptian economy was based on barter, on the one hand because there was no currency (i.e. combining the functions of unit of account, means of payment and store of value), and on the other hand because certain painted scenes showed goods being exchanged in markets. For example, vegetables can be seen being acquired in return for a fan. However, a good many researchers agree that this kind of scene is hardly representative of the whole commercial system, because barter alone would not make it possible. These scenes should therefore be interpreted as isolated situations taking place on a local scale.

Barter scenes, reproduction by Lepsius of paintings from the mastabah of Fetekti, Ve dynasty, Abusir Necropolis.

Barter scenes, reproduction by Lepsius of paintings from the mastabah of Fetekti, Ve dynasty, Abusir Necropolis.

In reality, Egyptian society was based on large-scale production, as was the case with cereal growing, grain being one of the country’s main sources of wealth (even earning it the nickname “Rome’s breadbasket” after the conquest by the Romans). Moreover, Egypt was organised under a central administration to which not only the Pharaoh, but also the public institutions (harems, local administrations) and religious places (temples)? It was these institutions’ job to remove any surplus produce harvested, store it in a granary network throughout the country and then redistribute it among the population of craftsmen and workers on major public works projects, in the form of a wage-ration (in grain for example, as can be seen in the exhibit in the showcase in room 4).

Grain threshing scene, tomb of Menna (TT69), circa 1422-1411 BC, Valley of the Nobles, Luxor.

Grain threshing scene, tomb of Menna (TT69), circa 1422-1411 BC, Valley of the Nobles, Luxor.

So, there is evidently some decentralisation of storage and redistribution of goods, decentralisation rendered essential by the vast expanse of the country which would have made the existence of a single central granary absolutely impossible. And where there is decentralisation of goods, there is also inevitably a unit of account.

There are signs of the key function of the unit of account in the accounting documents in our possession. They effectively reveal that the units used are accounting counterparts establishing different values between goods. A text dating from around the year 2600 BC recounts grounds for a judgement, giving us more information about these accounting units, pointing notably to the existence of a currency standard as early as the Ancient Empire (2750-2150 BC), the shat: “I acquired this house against payment from scribe Chenti. I paid ten shat for it, namely fabric (worth) three shat; a bed (worth) four shat; material (worth) three shat”. To which the defendant declared: “You made the payments (of ten shat) completely by “conversion” through items representing these values” (1) . Thus, it appears that objects of a quite different nature were put on the same footing as a result of their proportional value against the shat.

Many Egyptologists have looked into the question of what this “shat” could have been. For a long time, it was believed that it was a gold ring of a fixed weight, which would effectively had made it commodity money, but none of these rings were ever found by archeologists. While that certainly does not rule out the actual existence of these rings, why not contemplate a more abstract form of currency instead? After all, what is at stake in the above-mentioned text of grounds for judgement is more of a “monetary barter” system than the existence of any (real) commodity money. So, the shat was above all a unit of account.

The shat was linked to the value of gold; one shat was equivalent to 7.5 grams of gold. However, the Egyptians expressed large sums of money in debens, with one deben worth 12 shat and corresponding to 90 grams. So, the shat was worth one-twelfth of a deben. This mechanism could have led the Egyptians directly towards setting up a genuine currency based on gold, but it is interesting to note that from the reign of Ramesses II (Pharaoh from the XIXth dynasty, 1279-1212 BC) onwards, the shat disappeared altogether from accounting texts, which no longer referred to anything other than the deben.

General Horemheb receiving the

General Horemheb receiving the “gold reward”, © Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden.

Furthermore, it can also be seen that, from then on, the gold standard was replaced by the silver standard. In order to understand this phenomenon, it is necessary to consider the huge symbolic importance that gold had for the ancient Egyptians. It was considered as the skin or flesh of the gods, and, moreover, the most zealous servants and warriors received gold chains from the king himself, regarded as a veritable god on Earth, at ceremonies called the “gold reward”. Since it was mainly during the 18th and 19th dynasties that this almost metaphysical interpretation developed, this explains why the gold-based currency could never materialize. The administration could not actually afford to associate gold, so rich in divine symbolism as it was, with an object as common as money, which could be handled by ordinary mortals.

As for silver, being the material from which the bones of the gods were made, it, too, was hugely symbolic, although to a much lesser extent than gold. So, the Egyptians could have used it for monetary purposes. However, silver was an extremely rare commodity and it could only be obtained through import, making its use as a currency impossible. Therefore, it was largely symbolic and metaphysical reasons that prevented the Egyptians from adopting the use of money.

It was not until the Greeks and the Ptolemaic sovereigns arrived on Egyptian territory that any real currency was adopted, modelled along the lines of Greek money, at a time when the Egyptians had distanced themselves more from their religious beliefs.

Charlotte Vantieghem
Museum Guide

(1) GENTET Didier and MAUCOURANT Jérôme, “La question de la monnaie en Egypte ancienne”, in Revue du Mauss, October 1991,13, p.157.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

DAUMAS François, “Le problème de la monnaie dans l’Egypte antique avant Alexandre”, in Mélanges de l’Ecole Française de Rome, 1977, vol. 89, n°89-2, p.425-442.

GENTET Didier and MAUCOURANT Jérôme, “Une étude critique de la hausse des prix à l’ère ramesside”, in Dialogues d’histoire ancienne, 1991, vol.17, n°17-1, p.13-31.

GENTET Didier and MAUCOURANT Jérôme, “La question de la monnaie en Egypte ancienne”, in Revue du Mauss, October 1991, 13, p.155-164.