It is easy to assume that ancient Egyptian money was in common circulation for thousands of years before the Common Era. Actually, the idea of exchanging coins for goods and services appeared very late in Dynastic Egypt and was slow to gain popularity. Still, Egypt’s barter systems were recognized throughout Asia Minor and all the ancient civilizations around the Mediterranean Sea.
If you want to learn more about ancient Egyptian money and the ways ancient Egyptians used to barter before using coins, keep on reading!
Early Dynastic Egypt and the Barter System: Using Cows as Currency
Like other early civilizations, Egyptians simply traded with their neighbors for what they needed. As the cities grew, they began to set aside space for public trading. The term “marketplace” likely came from the Egyptian word “mryt”, which means “riverbank”. Indeed, the government often allocated market space beside the river.
On specific days, those with excess goods could all gather in one place to make multiple trades for the things they needed. Larger cities held market events, while smaller towns had seasonal schedules. They often held special market events in conjunction with religious festivals, so they could trade with people who lived farther away and had access to different types of goods.
To the ancient Egyptians currency usually meant livestock, grain, and crafted items. Men who were skilled in making farming tools, for example, could exchange them for a portion of the crops the tools helped to harvest. Women also participated in the marketplace; they often traded household goods, such as textiles, bread, and beer.
People traded small goods at any time, in the marketplaces or in private. However, expensive items were always exchanged in public. The merchants would swear in front of witnesses that the goods were in good condition and had not been owned by someone else. This practice evolved over time into written statements, and it still occurs today in the form of written contracts.
What Was Ancient Egyptian Money? Was the First Coin a Loaf of Bread?
In short, yes. Most people in today’s society would balk at the idea of working for food. However, to the Egyptians coins would have seemed nonsensical. If laborers received coins as payment, they would use those coins to barter for food. Being paid in food simply removed one step from the process.
Equal Pay in Bread and Beer for All
Bread and beer were standard daily wages for all sorts of workers, from servants to skilled artisans. The city governments wanted a system to ensure that all workers received fair pay.
They developed a standard loaf pan for bread to ensure that each loaf was the same size and nutritional value, using the same amount of raw ingredients in each loaf.
Similarly, brewers produced beer using a standard measure of grain, and jars for beer conformed to a uniform size and shape. This system was known as “pefes”, meaning “baking value.”
Ancient Egyptian Money: Payment in Terms of Skill
For a day’s work, an unskilled laborer received a certain number of loaves and jars of beer. A more advanced worker might have received twice that sum; they might also have traded some of their loaves and beer for other goods.
The highest-paid employees received far more food than they could consume, so they often accepted raw, storable grain as payment. Since the loaves and beer contained a predictable amount of grain, calculating these wages was also easy.
First Signs of Banks and Receipts: “Grain Banks” and “Grain Receipts”
Still, storing a large amount of grain was impractical for most Egyptians, so the state created centralized storage facilities, or “grain banks.” Anyone with surplus grain could deposit it at the grain bank for safekeeping and withdraw it to pay taxes or barter for other goods.
Since everyone kept their grain at the grain bank, they often exchanged written grain receipts instead of handling the grain itself. In a way, these grain receipts were a form of paper money, and they predated any ancient Egyptian gold coins.
The Deben: A Significant Step Toward Using Metal as Money
The monetary system centered around the deben was in widespread use for around a thousand years, from the 14th Century to the 4th Century BCE. However, its origins date back as far as the Old Kingdom.
The deben, while not a “coin” as we understand it now, predated many of the old forms of currency used in ancient cultures.
With their emphasis on uniformity and predictable distribution, the Egyptians needed a way to ensure fair value for all goods sold. They weighed goods against standardized stones to assign a value.
Eventually, they began using lumps of metal for weights instead of stones, and they often fashioned them into rings for ease of use and transport. These weights were called dbn, or deben, and they are considered the first true form of old Egyptian money.
Value of Deben: Copper, Gold, and Silver
Value was expressed in copper deben or gold deben. Copper and bronze were considered equal, but the gold deben had a different value since the metal was more precious yet it weighed half as much as the copper.
Copper or bronze deben were the most commonly used weights in the public marketplaces. The standard copper deben weighed about three ounces.
Silver was scarce during the Old Kingdom period, but it was available enough during the late Middle Kingdom that it was used as a deben as well, with its own set of values. More often, the ancient Egyptians fashioned silver into flat discs, called senyu, which were used to calculate intrinsic value rather than weight.
For example, a decorated clay pot might receive a deben value for its weight plus an additional value in senyu for its usefulness and artistic appeal. Eventually, silver’s use in the barter system was so prevalent that hedj, the Egyptian word for silver, was adopted as the term for money.
Was the Deben Exchanged for Goods?
One key factor in the deben system is that the deben was not exchanged for goods. Deben and senyu were used strictly to determine the value of other goods for trade.
However, other countries may have observed the deben system and made the logical leap to exchanging metal discs or rings themselves to obtain goods. Being paid in ”coins” meant one could exchange those coins for items from different merchants or save them for use later.
Egypt Finally Gets a Real Gold Coin, Thanks to the Pharaoh Teos
As Egypt began to interact more with other countries, the need to use coins for trade became obvious. Greece, Rome, and Persia already used currency-based economies.
Alexandria and other port-cities became home to many soldiers and merchants from other nations, and they expected to exchange their own coins for the local goods they needed. Also, foreign workers were not as keen to be paid in bread and beer.
How the First Ancient Egyptian Coin Came to Be
At first, the only coins circulating in Egypt were foreign. However, it was soon apparent that Egypt needed to create its own currency.
During the 30th Dynasty, around 360 BCE, Egypt finally minted its first official gold coin, called a stater.
It was initially commissioned by the pharaoh Teos so that he could pay the Greek mercenaries and other foreign employees of the state.
Features of the First Proper Ancient Egyptian Money
Like the coins of other realms, Teos’s gold stater featured symbols. Teos, however, wasn’t very inventive.
He borrowed the owl symbol from the Persian coin called a daric, and he added a papyrus plant to symbolize Egypt. He did also inscribe “Pharaoh Teos” in Demotic on one side.
Features of the Second Ancient Egyptian Coins
Teos’s son, Nectanebo II, continued the practice and minted his own stater. His coin featured a horse on the front and a necklace above a heart and a windpipe on the back.
The horse symbolized the majesty of kingship, the necklace was the symbol for gold itself, and the heart and windpipe represented vitality, translated into the word for “good.” Seen together, the symbols could read as “the King’s good gold.”
What Happened to Ancient Egyptian Money After Alexander the Great?
After Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and left Ptolemy in charge, coin production in Egypt increased significantly. By the time Ptolemy became king in 306 BCE, there were many types of coins, using similar denominations to the coins we have today. On a local level, the deben method of bartering for goods continued for a few more centuries before being absorbed by the systems of coin exchange.
The early Egyptians didn’t embrace the concept of money as we understand it today. However, their methods of standardization likely influenced the development of money systems in other countries.
Here are some interesting facts to remember.
- Early Egyptian cities set aside places for citizens to gather and trade goods
- Expensive trades were always conducted in public to ensure fairness
- Hired workers often received their wages in bread and beer
- Pefes, or baking value, was the system that ensured fair wages by standardizing the size of bread loaves and beer jars
- The cities managed centralized warehouses for grain that worked much like a modern bank
- The deben became a way of measuring the value of items by weight
- The senyu became a way of assigning value for usefulness or craftsmanship
- Merchants never exchanged deben or senyu as payment but used them only to assign value to other items
- Greece, Rome, and Persia brought the first tradeable coins to Egypt and prompted a shift to a currency-based economy
- Around 360 BCE, the pharaoh Teos minted Egypt’s first official gold coin, called a stater
Though Egypt was reluctant to adopt a monetary system like their neighbor countries, their standardized economic system marked them as one of the most prosperous countries in the ancient world.