Ancient Egyptian Coins

Published: 01st April 2010
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In a society where most of the population made a living from agriculture and surpluses were small, trade was limited. The needs of the farming population were basic: grain for baking bread and brewing beer, dried fish, vegetables, some linen for a simple loincloth and mud bricks for a hut. Food and flax they could grow themselves. Mud was found at the nearby riverbank. Sometimes there was a surplus, which could be exchanged for little luxuries.

Trade was done by barter, a reasonably efficient method when mostly necessities were exchanged. Even after coined money was introduced in the second half of the first millennium BC, barter continued to be widespread among the farming population for centuries.

Grain and oil often served as a kind of coinage. This use of basic storable foodstuffs had both advantages and drawbacks. If all one earned was expended on food anyway and there was practically no choice about the kind of food one could get, then eating one's wages was a system less cumbersome than being remunerated in specie and having to acquire the food afterwards. During famines, which were quite frequent, one did not starve if one had savings; and many a peasant rose on the social ladder by exchanging hoarded corn for land during times of dearth.

On the other hand, storing grain required facilities. Wastage because of groundwater, fire and pests such as rats and insects was high. Stores could not be hidden, neither from robbers nor from tax collectors. Bulky commodities were more difficult to transport than precious metals. If your needs were out of the ordinary, you might have to use intermediaries to get what you wanted. The question of measuring arose as well, as jars were not exactly of standardized size, weights, and scales not easy to come by.

Then, as today, business went smoothly as long as there was goodwill and both parties were honest: "Do not move the scales, do not change the weights and do not diminish the parts of the bushel... Do not create a bushel that contains two, lest you will near the abyss. The bushel is the eye of Re. He loathes him who defrauds." - The teachings of Amenemope

As was usual in many pre-industrialized societies, the exchange of wares was not just an economic activity, but was often also, in the case of luxury goods predominantly, of social significance. The custom of officially exchanging gifts between individuals of unequal status was called inw. It involved, apart from the economic value, the acknowledgment of the social positions and roles of the two parties involved, sentiments of honor and as a display of generosity increased the prestige of the giver. Institutions such as temples were often recipients of gifts and redistributed at least part of them among the needy.

Everybody must have known the value ratios between the most common commodities. However, the difficulty of remembering all possible value combinations brought about the creation of an abstract value system. Certain amounts, a deben, seniu or, since the New Kingdom, a kit of gold, silver and copper were used as units. Generally, no metal seems to have changed hands during these exchanges.

The price for a certain Syrian slave girl was four deben and one kit of silver. The payment included, among many others, the following items: a robe worth 5 kit of silver, 10 deben broken copper worth 1 kit of silver, a bronze kebet-vessel valued at 20 deben of copper worth 2 kit of silver.

At this time (i.e. during the reign of Ramses II) copper was worth 1/100th of its weight in silver and one hekat of barley 4 kit of silver and 84 deben of copper. In Hellenistic times, the ratio between silver and copper seems to have been about 1/350th.

The use of metal rings of a given weight seems to go back to the Old Kingdom. Among the things found in Queen Hetep-heres I's tomb was a jewel box with the inscription "Mother of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Hetep-heres Box containing deben rings."

No archaeological support for the theory that the Egyptians used coined metal during the 2nd millennium BC has been found, while large numbers of coins from the Hellenistic Period have been uncovered. Little metal, precious or otherwise, was available to the populace. Until the Late Period, gold and silver were used almost exclusively for the needs of the pharaohs, dead or alive. Much of the buried treasure came onto the market during the end of the New Kingdom, when graves were robbed of anything that would find a buyer. During the New Kingdom, at least silver (HD - hedj) was a common name for 'means of exchange', similar to the later use of kesef in the Hebrew bible.

In the fifth century BC, foreign coins were introduced. At first, the Egyptians used these imported gold and silver pieces as precious metal of standardized weight rather than true money. From the middle of the 4th century BC onwards, as Mediterranean, traders came to rely more and more on coined metal as means of exchange, and as the Greek mercenaries who had been content until then with being given land for services rendered, demanded payment in specie, the Egyptian mint produced coins similar to Athenian tetradrachms. Under the Ptolemies, coins were struck bearing the effigies of the Hellenist rulers.

The impact, coined money had on the domestic economy and trade, was probably small until Roman times, when European business practices such as the paying of interest became mandatory, and hoarding of wealth became possible.

In addition, granting credit to one another was probably quite widespread. Perhaps one of the parties did not have what the other wanted at the time of the exchange. Maybe the amount of one single transaction was too small and a number of outstanding payments were settled together, or one party put off delivering his wares until it was more convenient - and too late, as it seems to have been in the case of the scribe Amennakht who died without having paid for a coffin.

Apart from personal credits, people could deposit grain in state warehouses and write withdrawal orders, which served as payment. These grain banks, instead of paying interest on the deposit, deducted annually 10% of the total amount, which represented the grain lost through natural wastage.

During the Hellenistic period, this banking system became a countrywide and not just a local phenomenon. Accounts were kept at a central bank at Alexandria and the granaries formed a giro network.

The Instruction of Any Interest on loans could be horrendous. Rates of 100% or more were not unknown; during the Saite Period, they reached 10% per month, more than 200% annually. Such rates compare unfavorably with those of economically more vibrant societies, the Roman empire for instance, where they were normally set at about 12% and exceeded 15% only for high risk ventures. In Egypt the incentive for expanding trade through cheap credit was, perhaps not surprisingly in a command economy, non-existent through much of its history.

Increasingly banks began to deal with money instead of perishable grain. Orders of payment debiting and crediting accounted at the royal bank. Making sure of the identity of a borrower was of some consequence to the bank who recorded his ancestry, age, physical characteristics, and profession.

Under Roman rule, Egypt was integrated into the empire, and commercial usages changed accordingly. When Chairemon, son of Akousilaos, and his wife Thaubastis borrowed 84 drachmas, they undertook to return the money the next year, and pay 12% interest. Chairemon, illiterate like his wife, acted as her guardian in accord with Greek practice.

Moneylenders have always been careful about making sure they did not lose anything by lending. The literary character Ankhsheshonq (about 1st century BC) had some words of advice for a prospective lender: "Do not lend money at interest without obtaining a security." and "Do not be too trusting lest you become poor."

Credit could be had by pledging one's property. Pawnbrokers existed in Egypt at least since the Roman Period. The main items to be pawned were apparently jewelry, but furniture, metal implements and utensils were also pawned.

Quaysides were a preferred spot for setting up market places. The whole of the population of Egypt lived close to the Nile. Ships and boats were the cheapest and fastest means of transport. Farmers' wives would peddle cloth, grain or fowl. Sailors, paid with grain, might exchange some of it in order to supplement their diet.

Small-scale commerce was often in the hands of farmers or their wives. They sold mostly grain, fruit, vegetables, fowl and cattle but also processed products like oil, beer, wine, bread and linen. Sailors and travelers may have taken the opportunity to make a profit from their displacement.

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