Sources for the study of use of money in Egypt consist of temple documents, biographies and other archaeological data. Coinage began to be used by the Egyptians only from the Greco-Roman era. For the most part, the ancient Egyptians never conceptualized the use of money.
The ancient Egyptian economy was characterised by the barter system; commodities were bought and sold. Payments were made in the form of grain, meat and cloth rations. The standard basic wage consisted of ten loaves of bread and one-third to two full jugs of beer per day.
Egypt was basically an agrarian culture; exchange of goods was through grain and primary produce. Later, the calculation was made in terms of the weights of metals, such as copper or silver.
Prices were recorded on some papyri that date to a 150 year period during the 19th and 20th Dynasties. However, there are many problems associated with interpreting these documents.
Many of these texts were never meant to be read by anyone other than their owner, and they were frequently not the work of professional scribes. However, from them scholars have isolated four units of value that were used to price commodities, consisting of the deben, the senyu, the hin and the khar.
The deben is a measure of weight that was used for gold, silver and, most commonly, copper. One deben of copper weighs between 90 and 91 grams. A senyu, perhaps meaning “piece”, is a weight in sliver equal to about 7.6 grams.However, unlike the other weights mentioned here, the senyu was exclusively a unit for calculating value, and was not considered as a real unit of weight itself.
A third unit of value was the hin, a measure of volume equal to .48 litres. The khar is a measure of the volume of grain, either emmer or barley, equal to 76.88 litres. The khar was most commonly found as a unit of value for baskets, both because the volume of the basket was equal to its value and because baskets are relatively inexpensive.
Throughout Egyptian history, all of these measures do not seem to exist at the same time. Before coins started to circulate in ancient Egypt around 500 BC, there was a system of values based on weights of gold, silver and copper. Metal measured in units of weight known as deben (around 90 g) could be used to settle bills and to trade.
Records from the Eighteenth Dynasty show that often the actual metal did not change hands; instead it was used to value goods for exchange. Egypt had no easily accessible source of silver, but the Egyptian word for silver, hedj, came to mean something close to ‘money’.
These ingots and metal rings date from the fourteenth century BC and were found at el-Amarna. They give us rare archaeological evidence for Egypt’s earliest money system. The complete ingots weigh around 3 deben and the rings seem to be fractions of the deben.