Accounting for Private Estates and the Household in the Twentieth-Century BC Middle Kingdom, Ancient Egypt

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Abstract

This article examines the role of accounting in running the household economy and private estates in ancient Egypt. Drawing on translations of original accounts and business letters dating back to the Middle Kingdom, a number of diverse accounting roles are isolated. Firstly, the accounts and business letters shed interesting light on the determination of rations for individual members of the owner’s household during a period of hardship caused by high Nile inundation. Accounting calculations were an instrument of both planning the economy of the household and underpinning a specific pecking order of the relative standing of individual members of the household. Secondly, the accounts and business letters were used as a means of facilitating the ‘management at a distance’ of the affairs of the private estate, while the owner was absent having entrusted its day-to-day running to his agents. Not only were targets of performance set for the expected crop from the cultivation of the land owned, but also of land to be rented for cultivation. Finally, calculations were made to account for the manufacture of textiles from flax. The quantification produced by accounting calculations rendered the activities of human agents visible to the owner acting at a distance. Moreover, even when dealing with concrete, visible commodities, such as grain, the intervention of accounting sharpened this visibility by converting the concrete into an abstract theoretical value via the use of ‘monies of account’ to attain a measure of economic and social reciprocity.

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