Accounting and Redistribution: The Palace and Mortuary Cult in the Middle Kingdom, Ancient Egypt

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper examines detailed historical material drawn from primary sources to explore the role of accounting practices in the functioning of several key stages of the redistributive economy of the Middle Kingdom, ancient Egypt. First, the paper attends to the role of accounting in securing a regular flow of commodities to the state, in the form of taxation in kind. The historical material suggests clearly that accounting practices played a crucial role in levying and collecting precise tax liabilities, and in monitoring the storing of commodities in state granaries and storehouses. The second level of analysis is concerned with the role of accounting in coordinating the outflow of commodities to consumption units focusing on two examples. The first relates to the role of accounting in the distribution of food provisions to members of the Royal family and palace dependents while on a journey; the second examines the role of accounting in the writing and execution of a series of contracts to promote the mortuary cult of a dead individual. In both cases, the paper argues that the accounting practices were linked strongly to the social, political and economic contexts within which these accounting practices functioned.


This paper is part of a larger project that seeks to contextualize the emergence and functioning of accounting practices in ancient Egypt. Earlier work by the author has focused upon the development of the scribal occupation [Ezzamel, 1994], the use of ancient systems of human accountability in bakeries [Ezzamel, 1997], the assessment and collection of taxes [Ezzamel, 2002a], the relationship between accounting and the development of monies of account [Ezzamel and Hoskin, 2002], and accounting for private estates and the household [Ezzamel, 2002b]. Work in progress extends this analysis to the domain of royal (funerary) and divine (memorial) temples [Ezzamel, 2002c, 2002d]. In contrast, this paper seeks to examine the relationship between accounting practices and the functioning of some important sectors of the state-controlled economy in Middle Kingdom ancient Egypt.' My focus here will be upon the economic activities of the palace which, by the New Kingdom, became the most dominant sector in the economy. I restrict my analysis to those activities that could be conveniently grouped under the term "redistributive economy" thereby focusing upon the relationship between accounting and the economic activities of the state in antiquity. While this paper has some minimal overlap with an earlier study [Ezzamel, 2002a] there are a number of crucial differences. First, the current study charts accounting practices during the Middle Kingdom whereas the earlier study is concerned with the much later, and more contextually different, New Kingdom. Secondly, the paper contains interesting details on tax estimation/planning not contained in the earlier study. Thirdly, this contribution focuses on the redistribution of commodities to palace and temple dependents, an issue not covered in the earlier study.

Minted coins were not known in ancient Egypt until after the conquest by Alexander [Lloyd, 1983], and before then grain was one of the standard measures of value (money of account) for different commodities [Ezzamel and Hoskin, 2002].2 Hence, the economy of ancient Egypt has been systematically described as a "grain economy". Indeed, as long ago as 1896, Weber [English translation 1976, p. 41] recognized the crucial importance of grain to ancient Egypt "the `store-house' policies of absolute states, even that of Russia (where they were most developed) were hardly comparable in importance to those of the Babylonian and Egyptian grain storage systems". In broad terms, the palace-based grain economy entailed crop collection [Ezzamel, 2002a] and its subsequent redistribution. In ancient Egypt, redistribution covered several activities. First, providing for the immediate needs of the palace and its dependants. …


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