Deir el-Medina

Ancient Egypt inevitably occupies a major role in any discussion on ancient economics, simply for the reason that so much survives from Egypt, both in monuments, and, more importantly, in written texts.

Here we look at how economics worked in the New Kingdom, from the 14th to 12th centuries BC, in the workmen’s village at Deir el Medina, where the workmen prepared the tombs for the Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings. They were very literate and left behind enormous quantities of evidence about their everyday life. 

Perhaps the most sophisticated system of exchange in the ancient world is to be found in Egypt, where a system of what might be called quasi-money was developed. By studying this, we can perhaps begin to understand the crucial difference between quasi-money and real money, and the changes that real money brought in its train.

We need to start by looking at Deir el Medina. Deir el Medina was the workmen’s village where the workmen lived who were digging out and preparing the tombs for the Pharaohs of the New Kingdom. These were situated in the Valley of the Kings, situated half way down the Nile at Thebes, modern Luxor. Deir el Medina is situated in the hills to the west of the river Nile, halfway between the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. The village was established in the 18th dynasty, the earliest datable remains belonging to the reign of Thutmosis I (1506 – 1493), the first Pharaoh to be buried in the Valley of the Kings, and it continued in use for three centuries until eventually it was abandoned and the workmen moved to the temple at Medinet Habu due to the danger of marauding desert nomads, probably in the reign of Ramesses X in around 1200 BC.

Deir el Medina was a village of some 68 houses surrounded by a protective wall which was completely excavated by a French expedition under Bernard Bruyère from 1922 – 1951. It is remarkable for two reasons: firstly most of the workers and their wives were literate and in the habit of writing instructions to each other; and secondly it lies high above the flood plain where the dampness destroys the papyri and thus the preservation of materials is good. However, many of the simpler messages, which from the economic point of view are often the most interesting, were written on ostraka: that is sherds of pottery which normally survive very well. In particular there was a great pit just outside the village, probably dug in a vain attempt to form a well, which was later back filled with rubbish, including very large numbers of these ostraka. Thus we have an intimate knowledge of the affairs of the village, knowing many of the inhabitants by name and being able to follow their lives and their purchases.

The tombs of the Pharaohs were not dug out by illiterate slaves but by highly paid workmen, and it is from these workmen that we get our best evidence of how Egypt really worked. It was a sort of half and half system, for the workers were formally employed directly by the state — by the pharaoh whose tomb they were building and we know precisely what the normal ration was. The foreman and the scribe were the most important, and had the highest pay: they each had two sacks of barley a month for making beer, and 5 ½ sacks of emmer wheat for making bread. The ordinary workmen only had 1 ½ sacks of barley for beer, and four sacks of emmer wheat for bread, though it has been calculated that this amount was enough for a family of 10, and since most of them had much smaller families, this means that there would have been a considerable amount left over for use in barter.

But they didn’t just get grain; they also got oil and vegetables fairly regularly, while there are records of the receipt of clothing, honey, fat, olives, and even rolls of papyrus. The workers also had personal servants who were paid by the state. Foremost among these are the three maidservants who ground the grain for the workers, did their laundry and brought up water to the village which lay high above the water level. There was also a doorkeeper, a guardian, and a doctor, though he was paid comparatively little and it looks as if this was an additional payment paid to one of the workers who acted as the doctor.

But if, as far as their employment was concerned, the workmen form a classic example of a primitive ‘redistributive’ society, there is also fascinating evidence that outside work, they operated a very thriving pseudo-market economy. This was based on the deben, which is a weight, normally of copper, a deben being approximately a quarter of a pound (91 grams) of copper. However copper was never actually used in the exchange and when such exchanges took place, the value of the copper had to be worked out on both sides. Andrea McDowell in her fascinating book Village Life in Ancient Egypt, a valuable collection of texts, gives some good examples.

For instance there is the sale of an ox sold by the chief policeman, Neb-Semen to someone called Hay for 120 deben. This was made up of:
2 large vats of fat (each containing 30 litres) 60
5 tunics 25
1 kilt 20
1 hide 25

The diligent reader will note that these in fact add up to 130, whereas the agreed price was 120, but this only goes to show that the prices were only approximate, and in this system it was very difficult to get the prices right.

Sometimes a bill was rendered for work done. Many of the workmen were skilled carpenters and could produce furniture in their spare time. Thus one of the senior deputies, Armen-Nakhte had work done for him as follows:

2 chairs makes 30 deben
1 wooden bed makes 20 deben
1 coffin makes 25 deben
(the excess thereof – meaning of phrase unknown – 48)
1 wooden statue makes 15 deben
1 basket makes 3 deben
Total 93 copper deben

In this case it is not said how the bill was to be paid. (McDowell 50)

Sometimes things had to be sold in a hurry: thus one sherd of pottery contained the brief message:

Please pay attention and seek out for me 1 tunic in exchange for the ring. I will allow you 10 days. (McDowell 46)

And then there is a vast correspondence concerning donkeys, the equivalent perhaps of car hire today, though not perhaps so much car hire as white van hire, for donkeys were the central beast of burden both for work in the tombs and for bringing water to the village.

Sometimes donkeys were purchased outright. Thus the workmen Hor-Em-Wia gave to the policeman in exchange for his donkey:
1 loin cloth of smooth cloth makes 16 copper deben
1 sheet makes 10 copper deben
Makes 26 deben in all.
(The price of a donkey ranges from 20 to 40 deben: this was a comparatively cheap donkey).
In this case a guarantee was added that the donkey was fit for purpose. Thus the policeman took an oath saying “as the God Amen endures, I shall not dispute about this donkey. No-one else will dispute about it. If he does, it will be against me double”. No used car salesman could do better! (McDowell 59)

Sometimes donkeys were rented out, for example:

This day, giving the donkeys for hire to the policeman Amen-Kha: makes 25 copper deben for the month. It spent 42 days with him. (McDowell 56)

Sometimes donkeys were rented out for longer. Thus (McDowell 57).
Giving the donkey of the workman Menna to the water carrier Raiay for hire up to today, 120 days (The donkey was apparently reclaimed half way through the hire period)
The other side of the document gives the payment:
5 jars of salt
40 handfuls of hay
1 donkey load of dung
2 donkey loads of wood
It concludes by noting that the donkey was given back for ploughing.

In this case the amount is not given in deben, but the amount of the hire is specified article by article. It is an interesting example of how exchange can be carried out in a very sophisticated pre-money economy.


This brings to an end our account of Egypt. We now move on to look at a similar but contrasting civilisation of Minoan Crete