Prices, Wages and Payments in Ancient Egypt

Prices, Wages and Payments in Ancient Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

During most of ancient Egypt's pharaonic history, there was no money as such, at least in the form of coinage (and paper bills were far in the future). Not until the middle of the first millennium BC were any coins used in Egypt, and at first, they were usually of foreign mint. In fact, most of the information related to wages, pricing and payments are more related to weights and measures.

Making bread in ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptian economy, based on redistribution and reciprocity, set prices in units of value that referred directly to commodities. At first, for the purposes of exchange and trade, the Egyptians calculated the value of goods and services in units that were directly related to the necessities of life. Later, the calculation was made in terms of the weights of metals, such as copper or silver, though rarely did these metals ever change hands. Rather, their weight was used as a reference for value. For the most part, the ancient Egyptians never conceptualized the use of money.

Regrettably, sources for the study of prices and payments have not survived from all periods of Egyptian history. Data concerning wages and rations are best known from documents of the Old, Middle and New Kingdom, while commodity prices are best preserved from the Ramessid period. The Abusir Papyrus relates information about wage payments during the Old Kingdom, while temple documents, biographies and other archaeological data provide information from the Middle Kingdom. During the New Kingdom, our information comes principally from Deir el-Medina and from documents pertaining to shipping. All of these sources evidence that payments were made in the form of bread, beer, grain, meat and cloth rations, which were the necessities of life.

Most frequently, these rations were actually expressed in units of bread and beer, which were most basic to the Egyptian diet. It is probable that the lowest wages, which were close to subsistence levels, were actually paid in bread and beer. In fact, 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." From the employer's standpoint, pfs could also be used to ensure that a predictable number of loaves would be baked from a known amount of grain. A study of this and other systems employed by the Egyptians provides some insight, perhaps, into many barter practices in the ancient world.

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. However, 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 unearthed 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.

A beer jar from the Middle Kingdom

During this period, we know that the standard basic wage consisted of ten loaves of bread and one-third to two full jugs of beer per day, though this seems to have varied considerably. One must understand that 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 than 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. However, in one case, we know that the highest paid official received thirty-eight and one-third loaves while the lowest paid worker received one and one-third loaves. Sometimes, these wages were very large. In one example from the Middle Kingdom, an expedition leader received five hundred loaves of bread a day as his ration. However, large sums such as these were probably not paid out in actual loaves of bread or jars of beer. This would undoubtedly be far too much for the expedition leaders personal consumption. It seems more probable that this sum of bread was actually a unit for measuring 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 of bread loaves and beer jars varied from place to place and from time to time, it is difficult to determine how much people had to eat and how well they lived. The caloric value of the soldier's ration at Uronarti was about one-third kilo of barley per day. Baked into bread, this is the equivalent of about 1,500 calories from bread each day, which would not have been enough to maintain his weight if the soldier performed any physically demanding work. He would have probably received an additional calorie intake from beer and perhaps vegetables.

At Deir el-Medina during the New Kingdom, the craftsmen there received all the necessities of life from their employer. They were not only provided with foodstuff, but also the cooking fuel, clothing, the houses where they lived and the tools of their trade. Yet, the robust trade that they conducted among themselves indicates that those workers required additional goods and services that the state did not provide.

Weight of King Khety Nebkawre from the First Intermediate Period

Prices were recorded on some papyri and on numerous ostraca that date to a 150 year period during the 19th and 20th Dynasties. However, there are many problems associated with interpreting these documents. Many of these texts were never meant to be read by anyone other than their owner, and they were frequently not the work of professional scribes. However, from them scholars have isolated four units of value that were used to price commodities, consisting of the deben (dbn), the senyu (snjw, sna, originally called shaty, shena), the hin (hnw) and the khar.

The deben is a measure of weight that was used for gold, silver and, most commonly, copper. One deben of copper weighs between 90 and 91 grams. It was divided into ten kite (qedet or qdt). 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 then five kite.

What is difficult to determine is whether the actual weight of the metal was being described, or its value in deben, or for that matter, whether the Egyptians made such a distinction. For example, in the Cairo Ostracon 25242 verso, 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.

A deben of copper was not distinguished by the Egyptians from one of bronze. In general, both were valued as one kite of silver (though this measurement varied somewhat, particularly over time). silver debens were only rarely mentioned on ostraca, but are more common in 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. Thus, when the word deben is used alone on ostraca, copper should be assumed.

A senyu (seniu), perhaps meaning "piece), is a weight in sliver equal to about 7.6 grams. However, unlike the other weights mentioned here, the senyu was exclusively a unit for calculating value, and was not considered as a real unit of weight itself. Its value is calculated as five deben of copper (or sometimes six and as much as eight during the New Kingdom). 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 is in copper deben. The Varille Ostracon 25 shows the value of a razor at one deben, while a donkey was valued at seven senyu.

A third unit of value was the hin, a measure of volume equal to .48 liters. Its value was calculated as 1/6 senyu, but other calculations show that it was also equal to one copper deben. We believe that the value of the hin was probably based on that of one hin of sesame oil, said to be equal to one copper deben. Though other oils were also measured in hin, their values seem to vary in relation to the deben.

The khar is a measure of the volume of grain, either emmer or barley, equal to 76.88 liters. It could be divided into four oipe. The term khar can probably be translated as "sack" and was valued at two deben of copper. The khar was most commonly found as a unit of value for baskets, both because the volume of the basket was equal to its value and because baskets are relatively inexpensive.

It should be noted that both the hin and the khar seem to have been more of weights and measures rather than units of value.

Throughout Egyptian history, all of these measures do not seem to exist at the same time, with the exception of the period between Ramesses II through Ramesses V. During this period a bed, for example, might be valued in deben while its legs were valued in oipe.

The rough equivalent values among deben, senyu, hin and khar, as provided above, reveal the difficulty of calculating precise values for commodities, as well as fixed ratios among the four different units. According to various documents, for example, a senyu could be equal to either four, five or six deben.

However, we can give some approximate values of various commodities, particularly during the New Kingdom:

1 sack of wheat (c.58 kg) 1 to 2 deben During the latter part of the 20th dynasty, grain prices rose to between 8 and 12 deben, falling to 2 after the end of the New Kingdom. Only corn prices fluctuated thus strongly.
1 sack of barley 2 deben
1 litre of oil 1 deben Deir el Medina
1 jug of olive oil 1

Last Updated: June 13th, 2011