Published by EH.NET (November 2004)

James P. Allen, The Heqanakht Papyri. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, distributed by Yale University Press, 2002. xvii + 297 pp. + 57 Plates + CD. $50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-300-10318-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Morris Silver, Professor Emeritus, Department of Economics, City College of the City University of New York

I. Introduction The economic historian Karl Polanyi argued that markets became important only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of the present era. Instead of market-determined prices, the ruler (as representative of the gods) declared simple quantitative equivalencies to allow grain, oil, wine, and wool to be substituted for each other. A few main staples were received and given out at the palace gate (Polanyi 1981: 61, 134). Polanyi continues to enjoy major support. His influence becomes obvious in discussions of the economic mentality of ancient man, of the use of money/coinage and, especially, in the assertion that antiquity lacked markets for land and labor power.

When subjected to challenge, the validity of one or another of Polanyi’s positions is often shifted to times and places for which data are typically scarce and ambiguous, above all to Pharaonic Egypt. The latter is allegedly the epitome of a redistributional society. According to the Egyptologist Jacob J. Janssen (1982: 253) this means that “the surplus of peasant households was collected by the authorities, state and temple, in order to be redistributed among particular sections of society: officials, priests, the army, necropolis workmen, and so on.” However, Janssen (1975: 131, 185) maintains that the evidence is so scanty that “for the present, a study of the redistributional system in all its aspects seems the only possibility.”

The great value of the Heqanakht papyri is that they open a window to the kind of world with which economic historians are familiar. Private property, “economic man,” money and coinage and markets for land and labor-power become visible, however dimly. For these glimpses, economic historians are greatly indebted to Egyptologist James P. Allen and his predecessors for their monumental efforts. After a brief review of the background of the Heqanakht papyri attention is turned to the main economic features of the papyri as revealed in Allen’s translations (in Part I “The Texts”) and his Chapter 8 “Economics” (in Part II “Commentary”). These features are placed in the context of prevailing perspectives and additional relevant evidence is cited when necessary. Technical matters primarily of interest to Egyptologists are not discussed in this review.[1]

II. Background of the Heqanakht Papyri The Heqanakht papyri, part of the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are currently on display in its Egyptian galleries. They consist of five complete letters, four complete accounts, and four or five fragments. The papyri were discovered on the Museum’s Theban expedition of 1921-22 in the tomb of one Meseh. Each of the complete documents was found folded; two were tied with string and sealed with a lump of clay impressed with the same stamp. The papyri are dated to the early Middle Kingdom — i.e. to about 2000 B.C.

Allen improved on the previous readings of the text by means of examinations under various lighting conditions, with the aid of a microscope and by the application of computer technology.

III Economics 1. “Economic Man” According to Polanyi, “economic solipsism” is an outstanding feature of the market mentality. This is the view that commercial activity is “natural” to men and that markets would thus come into being unless prohibited by the government or other external forces (Polanyi 1981: 14-15). Polanyi’s main thrust anticipates classical scholars such as Moses Finley (1973, 1985) and Paul Millett (1991: especially 165-71), who maintain that, unlike modern economic man, ancient man was motivated primarily by considerations of status and communal solidarity. The postulate of wealth-maximizing used by contemporary economists is said to be utterly inappropriate to the “irrational,” that is, nonutilitarian, ancients.

It is not easy to find historical evidence casting direct light on motives, whether of status or profit. However, as Allen (142) points out, the Heqanakht letters deal almost entirely with economic matters and therefore “they offer unparalleled insights into the economic life of a moderately well-to-do Egyptian family at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom.” Despite obscurities in meaning, it is clear that Heqanakht does not possess the antimarket mentality alleged by Polanyi and Finley. He calculates and makes plans concerning the amount and types of land (watered vs. unwatered) to put under cultivation; crop rotations (flax vs. barley vs. emmer); how to pay for rented land; how much to pay out in salaries; and he keeps and consults accounts of his enterprise. It is abundantly obvious that Heqanakht was very much concerned (obsessed?) with running his enterprise in a manner that would make a profit and augment his wealth. There is little or no reason to believe, moreover, that his objective in this endeavor was to increase his own or his family’s consumption of goods and services (cf. Baer 1963: 16-17)

Heqanakht, like the merchants (sheweteyew) of Papyrus Lansing (dating to the second half of the second millennium) who busied themselves in “supplying him who has not,” possessed the “marketing mind,” said by Polanyi (1981: 5) to be “peculiar to conditions of life under the type of economy the nineteenth century created in all industrial societies.” Let us also mention the warnings of Ankhsheshonqi (Papyrus British Museum 10508) that “the shewetey will charge for the water one drinks in his house” (16.5) and that “he disregards friendship to get his share” (28.4) (Allam 1998: 152).[2]

2. Private Landed Property The Egyptologist Menu (2001: 424) states that “The soil of Egypt is the exclusive property of the king.” This assertion is, however, the product of a “model,” not of evidence. Indeed, Menu (2001: 425) mentions fields termed nemehew “privately owned.” Further, when, in the fourteenth century BC, Akhenaten constructed the city of Amarna, the ruler did not claim (in his “Earlier Proclamation”) that the land, like the rest in Egypt, was his “exclusive property.” Instead, Akhenaten justified his claim by noting simply that the territory was not the property of a deity or ruler and “not the property of any people to do business of theirs with it.” In short, the land was unused and Akhenaten had found it “widowed”/”abandoned” (Murnane and van Siclen 1993: 37-8).

The evidence provided by Heqanakht is not voluminous but it is to the point. Not only does Heqanakht refer three times to “my land,” (149) but the entire tenor of his communications reveals his unquestioned power over the land he cultivates. The only reference to the state is that Heqanakht budgets some grain for the payment of taxes which were assessed on his livestock.[3]

3. Grain Market Heqanakht’s letters attest to grain sales. Heqanakht (1.4-5) anticipates using cash proceeds from the sale of emmer for renting land. If this amount is not sufficient, he instructs his family, to use proceeds from the sale of cloth (1.6).

The papyri also signal the making of grain loans in Heqanakht’s mention of “what is to be collected from the things (debts) which are in Perhaa” (1.vo. 17) and tjabet “grain loan” in Fragment A.4). The tjabet was probably a loan of grain by Heqanakht rather than a loan of grain to him. Allen (163 with n. 125) suggests that a tjabet-loan does not bear interest. The evidence for this interpretation is not entirely conclusive. In any event, the Heqanakht letters mention neither interest nor charity. However, the entire spirit of the letters makes it seem unlikely that he would give loans of grain as a charitable act. As Baer (1963: 17) notes: “And however much one would like to suppose that Heqanakht used some of his resources to succour the poor and starving among his neighbors, charity is not likely to have been a significant element in the personality of a man who was capable of putting his family on short rations for profit.”

Van De Mieroop (2002: 60-2) maintains that “Egyptian material prior to the ninth century is limited, but the available evidence suggests that the concept of lending with the expectation of an increased future return did not exist. People gave one another credit in an atmosphere of reciprocity and mutual aid.” This may be an idyllic vision. However, it is not what the “available evidence suggests.” First, there is a reference to at en mes “interest-grain” in Gurob Fragment L that dates to the second half of the second millennium. Second, Papyrus Turin 1881, also of the second half of the second millennium, contains, Jasnow (2003: 339) reports, “a loan of grain made at the very high interest of some 100 percent yearly”(cf. Baer 1962: 45, n. 115).

4. Markets for Labor-Power and Land Polanyi believes that the French Physiocrats conceived the idea of the economy concurrently with the emergence of the market as a supply-demand-price mechanism. The innovation of markets for goods was eventually followed by the revolutionary innovation of price-making markets for labor and land (Polanyi 1981: 6-7).

a. Land Market Baer (1962: 25-26) notes that “private individuals could own farm land at all periods of ancient Egyptian history,” and the “acquisition of fields for private purposes is … mentioned, from the earliest periods.” In the mid-third millennium, the mother of the entrepreneur/official Metjen conveyed her estate by means of an amat-per “house document.” Metjen himself purchased arable land that was (k)her “under:” numerous persons termed neseweteyew “king’s people” or, better, “citizens, subjects” (see Eyre 1999: 41). Somewhat later in the third millennium, we encounter such testimonies as “I ‘sealed’ a field of 23 arouras,” and “I bought twenty head of people and the ‘sealing’ of a large field” (Fischer 1961: 49). The “sealing” refers, of course, to a deed. Baer (1962) explains that a term nemehew-na-land means “privately owned.”(cf. Menu 2001: 425).

There are no land sales in the Heqanakht papyri but rental contracts are clearly attested. In Letter 2, Heqanankt pays (in advance) a fixed rent to lease (kedeb) fields (154-58). Heqanakht also leases land to others (159) More generally, there is evidence of an active rental market for fields. There are inquiries and negotiations concerning the availability of plots and several qualities of land are available. Thus, Heqanakht instructs his family: “Don’t farm the land everyone else farms. You should ask from Hau Jr. If you don’t find (any) from him, you will have to go before Herunefer. He is the one who can put you on watered land of Khepshyt” (1. 7-9).

b. Labor Market Heqanakht specifies the (barley) wage (akew) to be paid to hired workers and household members in return for work — “only as long as they are working” (Letter 2.29-30) The evidence (Account 7) indicates that he also paid salary plus commission to the woman Sitnesbsekhtu for producing linen from his flax (173-75). Indeed, the evidence of in-kind payments to Egyptian craftsmen is ample for the second half of the third and second millennia. During the earlier period, these payments were often called asew, and there are references to asewew-people, who may be wageworkers or possibly craftsmen.

In Letter P? Heqanakht instructs his steward to “collect the copper of those two female slaves” (21). This probably refers to income from the rental of the slaves. The salaries paid by Heqanakht vary from one worker to another and it is not easy to identify the influence of differences in productivity. However, the highest wage is paid to Nakht who undertakes a skilled and responsible mission — Nakht must travel from Sidder Grove to Perhaa and there consult with various individuals about leasing land. Heqanakht has special land in mind — Nakht must not lease “the land everyone else farms.” Nahkt must handle the arrangements for paying the rent (1. 3-9, 14-17).

5. Evidence for Money/Coinage Although they are presently in the minority, some Egyptologists (e.g., Cerny 1954: 910-12) are inclined to believe that Egypt knew a silver coin in the second half of the second millennium. This belief is founded on the expression of prices in terms of the shat/shaty/shenat/seniu, an ideographically written word conventionally translated as “piece.”

There are texts in which the shaty displays a physical nature. The Heqanakht letters show us barter and cash transactions. Thus, in Letter 1 (4-5) we read: “If, however, they will have collected the shat in exchange for that emmer that is (owed me) in Perhaa, they should use it as well” (cf. Letter 2.vo 3). Allen (155) translates shat as “value” but he finds it “evident” that it “may have involved an actual exchange of commodities for some standard medium of ‘value’…. The nature of this medium is not specified, but a text of the early New Kingdom suggests it may have been metal.” In my view it is perfectly clear from the context that the shat took a material form: the emmer has been sold for shat which will be used to pay rent. I find it difficult to follow Bleiberg (2002: 269), an Egyptologist, when he says, “Egyptians living prior to the first millennium did not have a clear idea of the concept of abstract value.”

Allen’s excellent discussion of the economics of the Papyri concludes with a detailed analysis of Heqanaktht’s grain budgets. This section will repay the efforts of economic historians interested in the specifics of an agricultural enterprise in the early second millennium BC.


James P. Allen is Curator, Department of Egyptian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Vice-President of the International Association of Egyptologists. Dr. Allen, a graduate of the University of Chicago, served as epigrapher while on the University’s expedition to Luxor, Egypt. Since 1986 he has held a research appointment at Yale University, and has taught graduate seminars there and at the University of Pennsylvania. Allen’s specialties include ancient Egyptian language, texts and religion. He has written extensively about these subjects, and on the history of the Middle Kingdom and Amarna Period. Allen is the author of Genesis in Egypt, The Philosophy of Ancient Egyptian Creation Accounts, and Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs.

1. The latter include “Epigraphy and Paleography,” “Language,” “People,” “Places,” and “Chronology.”

2. The main manuscript of this Demotic text dates from late in Ptolemaic times. However, based on linguistic analysis the original date should be placed in late Saitic times.

3. Heqanakht’s letters and accounts make no mention of a tax on the grain grown in his fields. Allen (161) suggests that this was “either because the taxes had already been paid when the documents were written or because they had yet to be expended, like the grain needed for seed. The rate of taxation in the Middle Kingdom is unknown, but it may have been about ten percent of the harvest, as was true for crops grown on normal land in later times.”


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Jasnow, Richard. (2003). “Egypt: New Kingdom”. In Raymond Westbrook (ed.). A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, Vol. I. Leiden: Brill, 289-359.

Menu, Bernadette (2001). “Economy: Overview”. In Donald B. Redford (ed.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, Vol. I. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 422-26.

Millett, Paul. (1991). Lending and Borrowing in Ancient Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Murnane, William J. and Charles C. van Siclen III (1993). The Boundary Stelae of Akhenaten. London: Kegan Paul.

Polanyi, Karl (1981). The Livelihood of Man. Harry W. Pearson (ed.). New York: Academic Press.

Van De Mieroop, Marc (2002). “A History of Near Eastern Debt?” In Michael Hudson and Marc Van De Mieroop (eds.), Debt and Economic Renewal in the Ancient Near East. Bethesda, Maryland: CDL Press.59-94.

Morris Silver is Professor Emeritus of Economics in the City College of the City University of New York. His most recent publications about ancient economies are Taking Ancient Mythology Economically (Leiden: Brill, 1992) and Economic Structures of Antiquity (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995). “Modern Ancients” is in press in Rollinger and Ulf (eds.), Commerce and Monetary Systems in the Ancient World, Fifth Annual Melammu Conference 2002. Professor Silver maintains a website on “Ancient Economies” at