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Assessment and levy in kind

In both the written and the visual record for Ancient Egypt, the economy is visibly based on deliveries in kind; the tomb-chapel of vizier Rekhmira (about 1425 BC) includes a graphic scene of regional levy across southern Upper Egypt, with each local population centre delivering typical products.

Presumably such regional and national levies depended on central assessments of relative wealth, combined with an authority for converting different commodities into a single unit of value for exchange.

The existence of central assessments of wealth is poorly documented, but seems already in force in the Old Kingdom (about 2686-2181 BC) (Palermo Stone fragments).

Since the dominant commodity is cereal, its collection implies a need for efficient transport of goods to storage places.

This in turn involves control of river boats and management of landing stages.

Interpreting the levy: was there tax in Ancient Egypt?

Tax is one of the most problematic issues in current understanding of the Egyptian economy. A modern state raises taxes to pay for a vast array of public services, from national health and education systems to maintaining judiciary, police and armed forces. Little such state expenditure existed in ancient times. It seems that the ancient state raised funds for expenditure on a more project-based model, and therefore it is more accurate to speak of ‘levies’ or ‘dues’ than tax. In order to raise dues efficiently and fairly, the Egyptian state carried out assessments of wealth and labourforce: these were named the cattle-count, reflecting both the prominence of animal husbandry in the economy, and the natural variability with birth and death of animals in herds. The early history of the count is little known, and still for later periods surprisingly little information survives on the operation of the count, or even how often it took place. The most extensive and visually powerful record of the results of assessment is the Rekhmira scene of delivery of dues in kind from each of the southern cities, painted on the walls of the tomb chapel of vizier Rekhmira (about 1425 BC): these deliveries represent proportions of assessed local wealth. It is not known whether local wealth was assessed in kind or abstractly in value units, which were then made up in different ways according to the type of local produce. How does concrete relate to abstract in an economy without coins?



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