Bartering in Ancient Egypt

Isis receives offerings, a deified barter for the ancient Egyptians.
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"The bushel is the eye of Re, it abhors him who trims." With a dichotomy linking trade to the gods, the Egyptian philosopher Amenemope reflects on the need for honesty and fair dealings in trade, still a necessary staple for any economy. Bartering in ancient Egypt was not only expected to be scrupulously honest but also, depending on the location and social classes of the traders, extremely profitable.

1 Barter at the Simplest Level

The simplest agrarian Egyptian had the means of barter within his reach. The farming population not only subsisted on the grains and oils they produced but traded them for other necessities. According to the Reshafim website, barter continued to be the method of economic exchange even after the introduction of coinage. In fact, if a harvester had the means to store his crop, he could advance his stature as a landowner. In times of famine, many farmers bartered stored corn with wealthier, but less foresighted, neighbors in exchange for new land.

2 More and Better Barter

More advanced barter developed along ancient trade routes. In an article in, Professor Leonard Lesko, chairman of the Department of Egyptology at Brown University, notes that southern Kush was a popular locale where Egyptians bartered gold, papyrus sheets and grains to obtain exotic items such as ivory, animal skins, livestock and spices. The barter system expanded and became a source of astonishing wealth for Egypt. Egyptians of the New Kingdom, according to the British Museum's website, traded precious stones, herbs, oils, horses and chariots to Africa and Asia in exchange for exotic animals, skins and minerals. As with the agrarian Egyptians, barter outdid coinage.

3 Bartering with the Gods

Adolph Erman's "Life in Ancient Egypt" depicts a fascinating barter between the ancient gods and Prince Hepd’efae from the Middle Kingdom province of Asyut. To his priests giving perpetual offerings for his ka, or soul, this worthy ceded temple "first fruits," the provisions left for the priests, for the officiants to do as they liked, including bartering them for bread and beer. Thus Hepd’efae pacified both the gods and the priests and associates who got gifts of food, in a contract system remarkably like the arrangement for priestly offerings in Leviticus.

4 Bartering Measurements

Several hieroglyphs on the tomb of Khaemhat, Egypt's granary overseer buried at Luxor, depict merchants arguing over trade. The source of friction may have been Egypt's unusual measurement system, which called fixed weights of heavy materials a deben, and a one-twelfth weight a shat. The system also interchanged the weights of grain, animals and property with obscure measurements such as qites, sacks and even pots of honey. The bartering arguments probably did not end until the introduction of coinage.

Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.