Egyptian Copper Standard

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A weight of copper was the unit of account in ancient Egypt before the invasion of Persia and Alexander. Various writers refer to this unit of account as either the uten, or utnu, or deben, or tabnu. Smaller denominations were called the kit, chat, or kedet.

Apparently, copper was hard to come by in ancient Egypt. In the fourteenth century b.c., the king of Cypress wrote to the king of Egypt, informing him that “a present to my brother I have sent as copper (or bronze) is not common in thy midst.”

In ancient languages copper and bronze often share the same word, rendering precise translation difficult. According to the Papyrus Anastasi, around 1200 b.c. a garrison of soldiers in the town of Pa-Ramses in lower Egypt received 100 uten of copper to celebrate the visit of King Minephtah.

Only scanty evidence points to the actual use of copper as a medium of exchange. The one surviving tax record omits any mention of copper on a list that includes gold and silver, hides, apes, chest of linen, staves of cedar wood, and many other commodities. There is some evidence that coiled copper wire served as money in an early period of Egyptian development. An ideograph of a bent wire is the hieroglyphic representation for money. Also the term deben meant “circular,” or “encircling.” Wall paintings depict people weighing metal rings and trading metal rings for goods, but do not identify the rings as copper.

Archeological evidence clearly shows that prices were frequently expressed in copper. An ox brought 119 uten (or deben), and temple workmen earned 5 deben per month and a grain ration. Three deben bought a knife, and 2 deben bought a tanned hide. Although the Egyptians quoted prices in copper, gold may have been popular as a medium of exchange.