Prices of Commodities
Prices of Commodities
Lack of Money. The best information about prices of commodities is preserved from the village of Deir el Medina. The Egyptians did not have money; instead, prices were expressed by metal weights. The weights themselves were not exchanged. In a barter arrangement, the two parties calculated the values in units of the weights of the objects that they wished to exchange. Then each party grouped several objects together until each group was worth an equal amount of weights.
Problems in Interpretation. Prices are recorded on a few papyri and many ostraca—broken pieces of pottery and limestone basically used as “scratch paper” by the Egyptians. These prices all date to Dynasties 19 (circa 1292-1190 b.c.e.) and 20 (circa 1190-1075 b.c.e.), a period of about 150 years. Problems in interpreting this data include poor handwriting, faded ink, broken texts, and omitted information. The ostraca were written in the cursive hieratic script rather than hieroglyphic. Because professional scribes did not write them the handwriting is poor and difficult to read. The ostraca were often broken in antiquity, and ink is faded from storage in museums. Moreover, the texts were never intended for strangers to read, but were personal notes. Thus, many details that would have been known to the original reader were not recorded. The date is among the most important of these omitted details. Lack of dates often makes it difficult to compare prices with each other over time. Yet, scholars have overcome this problem by comparing the people named in these texts. This process entails other difficulties because the limited number of families living in the village drew on a limited stock of personal names. For example, it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint the identity of a particular “Pentaweret” because there was at least one in every generation for 150 years. Another difficulty in comparing prices is the lack of description of the goods that are priced. Some variation in the price of two chairs must have been in the quality of the workmanship. This variation in quality is almost never described in the ostraca. Finally, the precise meanings of words used to describe the commodities is often not understood. Often only the general category of the good can be determined from the writing. In spite of these difficulties, scholars have isolated four different units of value, which were used to price commodities. They include two units of weight—the deben and the senyu (originally called shaty)—and two units of volume (the bin and the khar).
Measures of Weight. The deben was a measure of weight used for gold, silver, and most commonly, copper. One deben of copper weighed 91 grams. It was divided into ten kite. It is rare to find a copper weight less than one-half deben (five kite) in the records. Only precious metals were usually available in amounts smaller than one-half deben.When applied to metal it is sometimes difficult to determine whether the actual weight or the value of the metal was being described. Perhaps the Egyptians made no such distinction. In Ostracon Cairo 25242 verso, for example, twenty deben of copper is 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 were not distinguished from bronze deben in Egyptian. Both were valued as one kite of silver (9.1 grams). Silver deben are rarely mentioned in the ostraca, but are more common in the papyri. The Egyptians used papyrus to record official and thus more expensive transactions while villagers used ostraca to record private, smaller transactions. Thus, gold deben are never found in the ostraca but appear occasionally in the papyri. It must be assumed, then, that when the word deben is used alone on ostraca, copper deben are understood.
Senyu. The senyu was the second unit of weight used by the Egyptians. The word might mean “piece.” It was a weight in silver equal to one-twelfth deben or 7.6 grams. Its value was equal to five copper deben, but this calculation does not always hold true. The senyu was used as a weight or value only in Dynasty 19 and early Dynasty 20 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. Ostracon Berlin 1268 states the value of objects in senyu but the total of the column is in deben of copper. Ostracon Varille 25 totals a razor valued at one deben with a donkey valued at seven senyu.
Measures of Volume. The bin is a measure of volume equal to 0.48 liters. Its value is one-sixteenth senyu, but other calculations show that it was also equal to one copper deben. The value of the bin is probably based on the value of one bin of sesame oil, said to be equal to one copper deben. Merhet-oil and adj-fat, two commodity names that are not understood, were also measured in bin, but their values seem to vary in relation to deben, both more and less than one deben. Thus the economic historian J. J. Janssen believes that the value one bin is equal to one deben is based on one bin of sesame oil.
Grain. The khar is a measure of the volume of grain, either emmer wheat or barley, equal to 76.88 liters. It is divided into four oipe. The khar is translated as “sack” and was valued at two deben of copper. Deben, senyu, and khar are all found together in documents ranging from the time of Ramesses II through Ramesses V. 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 were relatively inexpensive. The same principle is at work in Ostracon Cairo 25242 where a bed is valued in copper deben while its legs are valued in oipe of grain. Another text also differentiates between expensive items in deben and cheaper items in oipe.
A BARTER ARRANGEMENT
As recorded in the Papyrus Cairo 65739, a woman named Erenofre described her purchase of a slave girl to the court of magistrates in the following words.
The merchant Reia approached me with the Syrian slave (named) Gemnihiamente who was still a girl and he said to me: “I will bring this girl and you will give to me in exchange for her” … and I gave for her:
1 shroud of Upper Egyptian cloth, makes 5 kite of silver,
1 blanket of Upper Egyptian cloth, makes 3 1/3 kite of silver,
1 garment of Upper Egyptian cloth makes 4 kite of silver
1 garment of fine Upper Egyptian cloth makes 5 kite of silver,
1 dress of fine Upper Egyptian cloth makes 5 kite of silver…
1 vessel of bronze makes 18 deben which makes 1 2/3 kite of silver…
10 deben of beaten copper makes 1 kite of silver…
1 vessel of bronze makes 16 deben, makes 11/2 kite of silver,
1 vessel of honey, makes 1 bekat, makes 5 kite of silver,…
1 cauldron of bronze, makes 20 deben, makes 2 kite of siver,
1 vessel of bronze, makes 20 deben, makes 2 kite of silver,
10 shirts of fine Upper Egyptian cloth makes 4 kite of silver.
TOTAL: 4 deben of silver and 1 kite of silver … And I gave it to the merchant Reia and he gave me this girl, and I gave her the name Gemnihiamente.
Translation by Edward Bleiberg
Source: Alan H. Gardiner, “A Lawsuit Arising from the Purchase of Two Slaves, “Journal of Egyptian Archaeology” 21 (1935): 140-146.
Calculating Equivalents. The rough equivalent values among deben, senyu, bin, and kbar given above reveal the difficulty of calculating precise values for commodities as well as
fixed ratios among the four different measures used. One document valued a basket at one-quarter senyu for a volume of one-half khar. Since one khar was equal in value to two deben, the logical conclusion would be that one senyu equaled four copper deben in value. Yet, another example shows that one senyu of meses-garments was equal to five copper deben. Finally, another document valued one bin of oil at one-sixth senyu. Since one bin was equal to one deben, the logical conclusion here is that one senyu was equal to six deben. Clearly, modern ideas about money and prices were not at work here. 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.
Case-by-Case Basis. Perhaps the real difficulty is that modern scholars are attempting to systematize a procedure that was actually determined on a case-by-case basis. All of these prices are derived from specific barter agreements. Barter prices are much more fluid than the fixed prices in modern, Western markets. Barter prices are 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 any abstract value. All of the commodities exchanged at Deir el Medina were valued according to actual use. Grain was for eating and silver was a raw material for making some object. The value grew according to the need.
Multiples of Five. Because the prices were set by barter, prices tended to cluster in amounts that were multiples of five, especially for amounts over ten deben. Numbers were usually rounded to the nearest five. Janssen illustrates this principle by the following example. Ostracon Deir el Medina 73 verso describes the purchase of a coffin in the following way:
Given to him in exchange for the coffin: 81/2 deben of copper; again 5 deben of copper; 1 pig made 5 deben; 1 goat made 3 deben; 1 goat made 2 deben; 2 logs of sycamore wood made 2 deben. Total: 25½ deben.
Here the agreed value of the coffin was twenty-five deben. Then values were established for the individual items brought to the exchange. The coffin maker 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 these goods were accepted for resale at a profit since this concept seems to be unknown to the Egyptians. Thus, the actual desire to own these items becomes much more important than the abstract value assigned to them in deben.
Inflation and Price Fluctuation. There is some evidence for inflation and price fluctuation during the course of the Ramesside Period (circa 1292-1075 b.c.e.). 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 as sixty deben of copper. Janssen believes this change occurred by the reign of Ramesses III when a typical meses-garment was valued at five deben or one senyu. Thus the silver to copper ratio would already be 1:60. It seems unlikely that the government would have intervened in setting prices of this sort, though not impossible. It is certainly clear that the Egyptian state regulated the standard measures of length
and volume. Thus the basic ratio of one sack of grain to one deben of copper seems not to have varied.
Loans and Credit. The best source of evidence for 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.
Edward Bleiberg, “Prices and Payments,” in Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, volume III, edited by Donald B. Redford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 65–68.
Jaroslav Cerný, A Community of Workmen at Thebes in the Ramesside Period (Cairo: Institut Français d’Archeologie Orientale, 1973).
Jac Janssen, Commodity Prices from the Ramessid Period: An Economic Study of the Village of Necropolis Workmen at Thebes (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1975).
Barry J. Kemp, Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization (London & New York: Routledge, 1991).
Alfred Lucas, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries, fourth revised edition (London: E. Arnold, 1962).