History of Accounting - Ancient Egypt

History of Accounting > Accounting in Ancient Egypt

The valley of the Nile boasts of a civilisation only less ancient than that of Mesopotamia. According to Manetho, who wrote in the days of Ptolemy Philadelphus, the dynasties of the Egyptian kings go back to 5004 B.c. The pictures on the walls of Memphite tombs of the fourth and fifth dynasties show large square-sailed barks floating on the Nile ” employed in a commerce which everything proves to have been most extensive.”3

Tn Egypt, accounts were kept on papyrus. We find here very careful record of the revenues and disbursements of the state. Taxes were usually payable in kind, necessitating the building of granaries and depositaries of various kinds for the storing of the receipts—treasure houses, as it were. The tax payer bringing his grain was stopped at the first entrance to give a record of his payment, and again at the point where formal delivery was made, where a second record of the amount was written down. This method of auditing by means of duplicate but distinct records cannot in some instances be improved upon even today.
Concerning the methods of record-keeping by the Persians, Phoenicians, and Carthaginians, we know little definitely. Trading both by land and by water was active and some method of account-keeping was presumably employed.

In ancient Egypt, as elsewhere in early times, the use of money was unknown, and the fiscal receipts and payments of Pharaoh were in kind. ” If the tax were received in oxen, they were led to pasturage, or at times, when a murrain threatened to destroy them, to the slaughter-house and the currier; if it were in corn, it was bolted, ground to flour, and made into bread and pastry; if it were in stuffs, it was washed, ironed, and folded to be retailed as garments or in the piece. The royal treasury partook of the character of the farm, the warehouse, and the manufactory.” * This system necessitated a large number of storehouses, every class of goods having one or more allotted to it,—and for the security and management of these, troops of porters, accountants, directors, &c., were employed. In addition to the staff of officials in the royal city, similar officials administered affairs in the provinces, forwarding the least perishable part of the provincial dues to the central treasury, and using the remainder on the spot in paying workmen’s wages, and for the needs of the Administration. The scribe, as in Babylonia, was the mainspring of the administrative machinery. His qualifications consisted in a knowledge of reading, writing, arithmetic, and elementary book-keeping, and some proficiency in wording the administrative formulas. Beginning in one of the lowest offices of the administration, he might, and often did, work his way to the top, exercising a kind of vice-regency over half of Egypt.2

The “house of silver of the treasury,” or central finance department, employed numerous officials, the ” superintendent,” ” deputy-superintendent,” and the ” scribes of the house of silver,” all under the control of a lord high treasurer, ” the governor of all that exists, or that does not exist,” under whom there was also a ” treasurer of the God.”3 The nome, or district, was a diminutive copy of the state, having its treasury and storehouses, with similar officials. The territory belonging to each town and district was frequently surveyed. The surveyors recorded in their books the name of each estate, the name of the proprietor, those of the owners of adjoining lands, and the area and nature of the ground. This information enabled the scribes to regulate the assessment of the land tax.1

1 ” Dawn of Civilisation,” Maspero. * Ibid.

3 ” Life in Ancient Egypt,” Erman.

The Egyptian scribe prepared his accounts on papyrus with a calamus. ” Numerous documents,” says Erman, ” have come down to us, showing how the accounts were kept in the department of the ‘ house of silver,’ and in similar departments ; the translation of these is however extremely difficult, owing to the number of unknown words and the abbreviations they contain. These documents show exactly how much was received, from whom and when it came in, and the details of how it was used. This minute care is not only taken in the case of large amounts, but even the smallest quantities of corn or dates are conscientiously entered.”2 The pictures in the old tombs testify that the scribes were present on all occasions —whether the corn is measured out, or the cattle are led past. ” They squat on the ground, with the deed box or the case for the papyrus rolls by them, a pen in reserve behind the ear, and the strip of papyrus on which they are writing in their hands.” *

Nothing was given out of the treasury without a written order. Peculation on the part of the workmen was provided against by the records of one official checking those of another. When the corn was brought to the storehouses each sack was filled in the sight of the overseer and noted down, and when the sacks were carried to the roof of the storehouse and emptied through the receiving opening the scribe stationed there recorded the number received.4 The system in operation is shown in the accompanying illustration, which is taken from the pictures in the tomb of Chnemhotep, and which the publishers of ” Life in Ancient Egypt” have kindly allowed us to reproduce.

1 ” Dawn of Civilisation,” Maspero. 2 ” Life in Ancient Egypt,” Erman, 112.

» Ibid. « Ibid. 95.

Some interesting accounts belonging to the end of the second or to the early part of the first century before Christ have quite recently been found in a strange resting-place—the mummies of crocodiles.1 From the editors of these accounts we learn that in one of them the receipts for each day are given, then follow the payments, which are subtracted from the receipts, the balance being carried to the next day. The payments are of a very varied description, including payments for food of all kinds, and other personal expenses, such as baths, writing - material, doctors’ and barbers’ fees, &c. Another account deals with the rents of a farm during three successive years, and throws light on the system of rotation of crops; while a third is the account of a diningclub, giving the cost per head exclusive of wine, which is reckoned separately, as are also bread and garlands. These accounts are in Greek. There are numerous mistakes in arithmetic, which is not

1 See the ” Tebtunis Papyri.” Edited by Grenfell, Hunt, and Smyly. The crocodile-mummy as a source of manuscripts was accidentally discovered by the editors of this collection of Papyri in 1900 at Cfmm el Baragat (the ancient Tebtunis) in the south of the Fayum. When excavating in the large Ptolemaic necropolis adjoining the town one of the workmen employed, disgusted at finding a row of crocodiles where he expected sarcophagi, broke one of them in pieces and disclosed the surprising fact that the creature was wrapped in sheets of papyrus. The ordinary process employed in the mummification was to stuff the mummy with reeds and sticks, which were covered with layers of cloth. When papyrus was used, sheets of this material were wrapped once or several times round the mummy inside the cloth, and a roll or two would frequently be inserted in the throat or other cavities.

surprising in view of the notation. A summation is shown thus: Ipve (i.e. 185).1

Other ancient peoples among whom, though history gives us little information on the subject, it may safely be assumed that methods of accounting were more or less developed, were the Persians, whose provincial tribute was collected by satraps, accounting to the monarch ; the Phoenicians, including the Carthaginians, with their extensive commerce and their colonies; and the Rhodians, with their navigation laws, which were adopted by the Romans. In the case of the Israelites, the Bible furnishes us with a number of references to matters of accounting;2 but after the Egyptian the next nation of whose methods of accounting we have any real information is the Grecian.

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