The most exact data he was able to collect is on the ration of fish available to necropolis workmen in Deir el-Medina. At a certain period a workman was allowed to receive for himself and his family 92 deben (18.5 pounds) of fish every month. Janssen further notes: "There are also references to a similar quantity of vegetables, but since they are throughout measured in 'bundles' of an unknown size, and it is never stated what kind of vegetables are meant, the implications of the figures are uncertain" (166). For other periods or regions, the materials available may be even less.
Not only the amount but also the kind of food given to workers in wages reflected the receivers' social status. While some workers were paid in fish, others were paid in oil, and they could also be paid in bread, beer, and various fruits and vegetables. Members of higher social statuses could receive wages in wine and meat products. Sometimes, the types of food given as wages could be based on receivers' nationality. For example, workers in a Fayum agricultural estate in the third century BCE received their wages in wheat, while a group of Syrians working for the same estate received their wages in barley, which was, as noted earlier, a product normally given to animals (Crawford). In other words, food in the form of wages was a marker of not only economic and social but also cultural relations.
Indeed, as Samuel (1999) explains, "The central role which food plays in all human societies means that food impinges on many aspects of culture" (122). Samuel studied food preparation and distribution in Amarna workmen's village in Egypt, dating around 1350 BCE. He notes the importance of preparation stage for understanding social and cultural relations since those who prepared food were also engaged in market and labor relations. They could influence market prices, wages, negotiate relations with members of higher or lower social classes, and they could influence the manner in which members of other nationalities were fed. Samuel focused on free workmen's preparation of bread, but when we consider that slaves and servants also participated in preparation stages sometimes, the whole process becomes interesting enough to warrant further investigation. That is, even slaves, depending on the occupations they held, could influence economic, social, and cultural relations in ancient Egypt.
Egypt under the rule of Pharaohs was a sophisticated society. It was highly stratified, dividing the population along class, race, gender, economics, and religion, but it would be a mistake to generalize about any of those relations. As discussed in the paper, there were slaves in Egypt and the master-slave relationship was a complex process, allowing some slaves to gain status through hard and intelligent work, while others were destined to tailor in mines forever. Peasants were freemen but they could sometimes be worse off than slaves because they were also tied to master landowners. Kings and rich Egyptians had access to luxury goods and exquisite culinary food but the poor, including slaves, could manipulate or negotiate through social barriers and be able to consume food normally accessible to the rich.
Nevertheless, it is possible to speak of intrinsic differences among members of different social classes among ancient Egyptians and define their characteristics. For example, members of nobility were subject to a different legal status than were craftsmen or soldiers. Similarly, slaves had fewer rights than poor peasants. Men and women had different roles in the society. One way of understanding these social differences -- master-slave relationship, social hierarchy among freemen, different manners of revering the deceased, etc. -- is to examine the role of food. The way food was prepared, distributed, traded, and consumed can give us valuable information on social relations in ancient Egypt.
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Janssen, Jac, J. "Prolegomena to the Study of Egypt's Economic History during the New Kingdom." Studien zur Altagyptischen Kultur, Bd. 3 (1975): 127-185. JSTOR. Web. 9. Oct. 2011.
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