How Egyptian Barter and Commerce Actually Worked

by Miut

Egypt had various bodies controlling the majority of the commerce. There were state-run estates and those run for the gods. They kept strict and detailed accounts of the daily intake of provisions and produce and quantities consumed by the staff. We’d call them closed corporations today. Although their stores were full to bursting, only a small proportion of the population benefited from them. Only when the needs of these communities had been satisfied would the surplus be released to the market. Or, two such estates might exchange their surpluses direct, or even sell to middlemen willing to speculate on a profit when reselling it.

There were also private owners who operated in a variety of ways – breeding cattle or growing grain or fruit. They needed clothes, furniture, luxuries like jewelry, and they could only get them by selling their surpluses. There were the independent craftsmen, making what they could from their workshops, and finally, the merchants who produced nothing, but bought and sold everything in common use all over Egypt. All of these people met in the marketplace. Normally peasants and traders bringing goods for market into towns by road were protected by the police force.

The tomb of Khaemhat has pictures of merchants standing and sitting, their wares spread out on bales and baskets, arguing and gesticulating with each other. This isn’t surprising when you look at the way commerce was conducted. Early on commerce had been simplified by the adoption of a system valuing provisions and goods and services in units called a shat – one twelfth of a deben. This was done as early as the 4th Dynasty where in a document the value of a house is expressed in so many shat. Same in the 18th Dynasty when the services of a slave over a given period are valued in shat. Although businessmen and the public generally knew the value of the weight of gold, silver or copper equal to a shat, no one thought of cutting metal into coins and stamping a value on them. So goods couldn’t be exchanged for money, only for other goods, grain or cattle. Obviously if the items were of the same value this was easy; if not, the difference had to be calculated in the terms of shat and other goods calculated to this value that one party could supply and the other was willing to accept.

The shat existed until at least the New Kingdom, but is not mentioned in the Harris Papyrus (one called in my book, the calendar of Medinet Habu) in which precise quantities are recorded in weight in terms of debens (2.5 oz.) and the qite (.25 oz), without giving their value. In this papyrus, cereals are reckoned by the bushel, fruit by the basket, and other produce by various bags or baskets of varying capacity. Animals and trees are numbered by species. Apparently their value was worked out in terms of a weight of gold, silver or copper of equivalent value. So the price of an ox was between 30-130 deben of copper, a sack of emmer wheat (boti), 1 deben of copper, etc. However this method of settling accounts in precious metals only came in under the later Ramessidism, when the looting of temples and tombs had brought back into circulation large quantities of gold, silver and copper which had until then lain for centuries hidden in vaults or locked up in temples. Details exist of one robber spending 1 deben of silver and 5 qite of gold on a purchase of land, for instance. 5 pots of honey were sold for 5 qite of silver and an ox for 5 qite of gold. However before this anarchic period, buyers who didn’t own the needed metals paid for goods in commodities which the seller was ready to accept, their value being expressed in terms of given weights of gold, silver and copper. The scribe Penanouqit sold an ox valued at 130 debens of copper for a linen tunic worth 60 debens, 10 sacks and 3.5 bushels worth 20 deben, some beads for a necklace worth 30, and 2 more tunics worth 10 deben each. A woman of Thebes, who bought a female slave from a magistrate for 41 deben of silver and recited to him a list of different articles she could offer in exchange – some were pieces of material, other were bronze and copper objects.

Even the State had to use this method. Wenamun, negotiating the purchase of wood from Byblos from King Zekerbaal, obtained 7 baulks of timber and left his ship as security. From Tanis he got some gold jugs and basins, 5 silver jugs, 10 pieces of royal linen, 500 rolls of papyrus, 500 ox hides, 520 bags of lentils and 30 bags of dried fish. Unfortunately history doesn’t record the value of this in terms of gold and silver, but King Zekerbaal was satisfied. He ordered for the trees to be cut down and delivered to the envoy of Amun, but not before Wenamun had made a tremendous fuss over it. Doubtless when the goods were converted by each of them into their own value of weights of gold and silver they were equal, but it involved much arguing between Wenamun and the King of Byblos before the deal was sealed.

This is paraphrased from Everyday Life in Egypt in the Days of Ramesses the Great, by Pierre Montet.
Illustrations of Egyptian market scenes from