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Ancient Egypt: Old Kingdom market scenes
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Egyptian merchants in the Old Kingdom

Market scene, tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankh-khnum, 5th dynasty

-     In this 5th dynasty scene from the tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankh-khnum the artist has tried to give a vivid depiction of a market with accompanying hieroglyphic comments. Various kinds of merchandise are on display: vegetables, fish, sycamore figs, drinking cups, beverages and cloth. The merchants generally crouch by their wares which are laid out in baskets. The clients, who are mostly men, carry a pouch slung around the shoulder. A woman looks at figs, grasping a childs hand. She holds a bowl in her outstretched hand, either as payment or in order to be filled with fruit. The vendor: "Give what you have brought for very sweet sycamore figs." And the woman asks the child: "Do you want to go home?"
    At the centre of the top and bottom registers people offer a vessel or its contents in exchange for some fish and vegetables. At the bottom left a man exchanges a fan for a drinking cup. On the right a length of cloth is spread out and the vendor proposes: "... cubits of cloth as counter-value of six shat." (The number of cubits has been lost). It seems that the six shat are an abstract value to be matched by wares. The buyer who doesn't seem to be carrying anything he could exchange, is being quoted a price.
    In the top register on the left a baboon tries to get at some merchandise while its handler is holding it back, on the right a monkey holds onto the leg of a fleeing man suspected of thieving.
    This was a barter economy. There was no coinage until the latter half of the first millennium BCE, but people may have used pieces of metal of given weights as a kind of proto-currency, though no such standardized metal pieces have been found. Maspero and others thought it possible that the three people in the picture below who apparently did not have any goods to exchange may well have been carrying metal in the little caskets they were holding [1]. On the other hand these containers may have been Heqat measures used for carrying or measuring grain [2].
Market scene- R. Lepsius, Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien, Abth. II, Bl.96
According to Maspero the originals of the images on the left had been destroyed by the time he described them in his article Sur une représentation de bazar égyptien remontant à l'Ancien-Empire. Even Lepsius a generation earlier had found that they had been damaged quite badly. The top register of which little remained has been dropped here.
Top left:The woman on the left is showing two white vessels containing some liquid to the crouching man.
Woman: "This is nemsit (nmsT) essence to please you."
Man: "msx.t (?)"
Top center: The discourse between the woman standing in front of the fishmonger who is gutting a fish, is unintelligible.
Top right: The buyer (on the left) wants to exchange a pair of red sandals for a vessel full of some liquid. A second client is holding a little casket.
Vendor: "Here's sweet sat beverage for you."
Buyer: "Here's a pair of sturdy sandals for you."
Bottom left: The woman is holding a small casket in her hand. The man is selling unidentified objects which he keeps in a basket.
Bottom center: The man on the left is holding three fish hooks in his right and some unidentified object in his left hand. The empty handed man on the right says: "Give ...". The rest of the conversation is lost.
Bottom right: A seller of vegetables is in converation with a buyer. A second buyer is holding a fan in his hand.
Buyer: "Here's a bracelet for you, excellent for your arm. Here's what's your due (?)."
Greengrocer: "Let's see! Give the equivalent."
Second buyer: "Here's a fan for you. Fan yourself (?) ...."

Adolf Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt, Courier Dover, 1972
T.G.H.James, Pharaos Volk
Hermann Junker, Zu einigen Reden und Rufen auf Grabbildern des alten Reiches, 1943
R. Lepsius, Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien, Abth. II
Gaston Maspero, Études de mythologie et d'archéologie, Tome VIII, 1900, Paris: E. Leroux, , pp.253-257
George A. Reisner, The Household Furniture of Queen Hetep-heres I, BMFA [4] 27, No. 164, December 1929, pp. 83-90
[1] Among the possessions of Queen Hetepheres I there was a little casket bearing the inscription: Box containing deben rings, cf. Domestic Trade.
[2] cf. Junker 1943, p.52

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