Measuring weight in Ancient Egypt
Old and Middle Kingdom (about 2025-1700 BC) inscribed weights attest
to units of around 12-14 grams, and 27 grams
These units seem to have been called dbn (vocalised
in Egyptology as ‘deben’) meaning ‘ring’: this is the main name for the standard
unit of weight in any period. Compare the perfect rings shown in formal Egyptian
art, and the twisted and irregular rings and lengths of metal in the archaeological
record (e.g. silver twisted lengths in the treasure found in the temple of Mont
A late Middle Kingdom account (Papyrus Boulaq
18) refers to ‘small’ and ‘large’ deben
|weight of the treasurer Herfu, early 13th Dynasty
|weight of king Khety Nebkawre (First Intermediate Period)
In the New Kingdom (about 1550-1069 BC) the system
changes, with 1 deben of 91 grams divided into 10 qdt (vocalised in Egyptology
as qedet or kite) – each qedet is then around 9 grams.
Throughout Egyptian history it is to be expected
that the weight systems of trading partners operated alongside the Egyptian.
In the Near East 8g and multiples are prominent.
With ancient margins of error, it is difficult
to determine whether a weight belongs to the 9g Egyptian system, or an 8g Near
Weight of metal was used to determine value of
commodities, and there may have been a gold standard at certain periods
NOTE: the Egyptians distinguished concrete weight
from abstract value, using different vocabulary for each
From the Old Kingdom to some point in the New
Kingdom, the unit of value was Sna (vocalised as shena), perhaps written in
Dynasty 19 as sniw. This timespan is the same as that for the gold/copper deben
system of 12-14g and 27g, and presumably there was some correlation between
the two systems, the one for weight, the other for value.
In the longest surviving mathematical manual (Rhind
Mathematical Papyrus, about 1550 BC), Problem 62 deals with calculations of
value for equal quantities of gold, silver and lead in one bag: the workings
for the Problem have been taken to indicate that 1 deben equal 12 shena.
Oleg Berlev made the important observation that,
whatever weight or metal may have been taken as the calculating base, the shena
was exclusively a unit for calculating value, and was not considered as a unit
of weight itself. The word shena is never found as the name of a weight, either
inscribed on a weight, or in recorded calculations of weight. It is a crucial
unit for value in an economy without
In later New Kingdom calculations of value of
miscellaneous commodities, the deben is used as the unit of value for exchange,
calculating value directly from the weight of gold for items of higher value,
and from the weight of copper for less valuable items.
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