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The Ancient Egyptian Economy 3000–30 BCE

July 2017 (121.3)

Book Review

The Ancient Egyptian Economy 3000–30 BCE

By Brian Muhs. Pp. x + 394. Cambridge University Press, New York 2016. $99.99. ISBN 978-1-107-11336-7 (cloth).

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The book is organized in seven chronologically ordered chapters sandwiched between introduction and conclusion; endnotes follow the text, before the bibliography and indices. Each chapter is built around a series of translations of text passages that offer opportunities to discuss various questions. This brief review can only touch on the central issues of what is presented and how it is dealt with, centering on “economic” issues.

The author says that social, legal, and economic changes move in parallel, and he links these to “the development of writing and money” (1). After fleetingly dismissing all other approaches to understanding of the Egyptian economy and noting that the New Institutional approach is now popular, the author states that he “will therefore employ” that approach (2). Yet his documentation and unconscious argument converge in stressing that taxation is the historical constant of the Egyptian economy; under the Ptolemies the state still aimed to increase revenues: that is, the state was adapting money and writing to skim yet more wealth from the economy (in contrast to economic and social change depending on the development of money and writing). Failing to understand what he wrote and allowing “state taxation and redistribution” (6) to figure prominently (rather than, e.g., “transaction costs”), he has contradicted himself on both assertions.

One very curious conclusion he presents is that taxation of individuals did not begin until the Middle Kingdom (253–54). Concerning the Old Kingdom, we learn: “The indirect evidence for tax collection in the Old Kingdom ... suggests that responsibility may have been assigned collectively to estates and towns, rather than to individuals and their fields as in later periods” (30). Significantly, however, the state recorded income and/or wealth in detail from the beginning, for which the author quotes the same text twice (16, 29), with the same source mentioning private property in the third millennium B.C.E. and the taxation “of gold and fields” (16). Cattle were likewise clearly taxed—and not via institutions or groups. In drawing his tentative conclusion, the author neglects that in the Early Dynastic period, he finds evidence that “argues that counts [concerning individual fields] were fiscal” (16) and fails to grasp his own discourse. We read that “the Middle Kingdom evidence suggests” the situation differed from that “suggested by the Old Kingdom evidence” (62, stronger on 99). Thus this late introduction of individual taxation is the author’s unthinking invention, transformed into fact and conclusion.

This tendency to repeat exactly the same text is routine; of interest is that the author neglects to quote excerpts from the inscriptions of Metjen (choosing merely passing references [36, 44, 46]). These Fourth Dynasty texts demonstrate archive-like qualities that may reflect administrative records documenting the private purchase of property and would strengthen the author’s insistence on continuity of private ownership and state registration. Instead, he suggests that, early on, interest in private property was discouraged (45). Yet the abundance of private tombs in Egypt seems to demonstrate the opposite: the author simply chooses not to quote a single example of the transactions whereby workers and craftsmen were paid for their work on private tombs already in the Old Kingdom (conveniently translated by N. Strudwick, Texts from the Pyramid Age [Leiden 2005] 251–60). Since the author also cites evidence implying forced labor (28), it is clear that we have not only private property but also different categories of labor. Aside from forced labor, and that performed for institutions in rotation, there were also private craftsmen rewarded for their work in the private sector. The latter were clearly paid out of private funds from private property. However, none of this comes to the fore as the author follows judicial practices, presumably to argue his case about the importance of the institutions—though his discussions are based on inferences and circular logic rather than economic evidence.

Characteristic of the book is that bits of the stele d’apenage are discussed on at least four different occasions (149–51, 154–55, 160, 166–67), under “field surveys,” “property transfer,” “media of exchange,” and “land.” However, “land” and “property transfer” are the same, and “media of exchange” is logically connected to these; beyond that, the major occurence is under “field surveys,” and this is misplaced as the text is not a survey.

One of the most appalling problems with the book is the discussion of “redistribution.” In economics, “redistribution” refers to a policy of “altering the existing distribution” (The MIT Dictionary of Modern Economics. 4th ed. [Cambridge, Mass. 1992]). For Polanyi, redistribution was a diffuse concept of turning the production of the society over to the people. What Muhs understands as redistribution includes “materials for further processing and transportation,” “rations and wages,” palace “consumption,” “dockyards,” “military and police” (38, 115, 117). None of these is redistribution in any sense, but rather they are the very economic aspects (particularly labor) that the author should have sought had he wanted to write about economics. His inability to do so is revealed in a statement that money serves “a variety of purposes, and can take a variety of forms” (37). A transaction has a purpose; money has a role or function (rather than a purpose). Another similar case is that of the Semna dispatches, alluded to as a source of information about military organization (80–1) but utterly forgotten when dealing with ports of trade (86), though the Semna dispatches provide precise information about the fortresses to which Nubians were sent and reveal that the version of Sesostris III was not the whole story.

It would be encouraging if one could at least recognize a competence in law in the discussions. Unfortunately, the civil suit that eventually confirmed Mose in his inheritance of lands awarded to an ancestor is described as “the trial of Mose” (105), yet Mose is the “plaintiff” and only in a peripheral way could one view Khay (rather than Mose) as the “defendant.” In this civil suit, no one is tried for forgery, perjury, and the other crimes, and certainly not Mose, for he took the case to court.

In sum, this book consists of digressions with bad analysis, wrongly applied concepts, misunderstandings, and unfounded circular logic; in addition, the choice of texts and their treatment is rather dubious. The troubling problem, however, is not so much the author’s incompetence as the tolerance such scholarship enjoys in archaeological discourse on economics.

David Warburton
Topoi: The Formation and Transformation of Space and Knowledge in Ancient Civilisations
Free University of Berlin

Book Review of The Ancient Egyptian Economy 3000–30 BCE, by Brian Muhs

Reviewed by David Warburton

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 3 (July 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1213.Warburton

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