The real costs of making money 2. Where did the silver used to buy Josef come from?
Many economists still seem to believe that money is a kind of ’emergent market phenomenon’: barter gradually gave way to monetary trade, as some of the stuff which was bartered slowly evolved into money, which enabled a more efficient kind of trade.
But that’s not what happened.
Before the advent of money, barter was a side-show at best and the history of money is, in many ways, intimately and crucially intertwined with the history of states. Which becomes clear when you ask the questions: ‘where did the money come from?’ and ‘what were the production costs of this money’? The story of Josef is a good example. According to the bible he was sold by his brothers for 20 shekels of silver, probably a kind of proto-coins (not proto-money, virtual money already existed at this stage).
‘So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.’
At this time the ‘shekel’ still was an official weight which related to a fixed amount of barley (i.e. a grain standard, see p. 10 of this study by Jon Bosak!) and even ‘a shekel of silver’ was not yet a real coin.
Picture 1. Complete metrological table for capacity or volume system ranging from 1 shekel of barley (1/60 litre) to 2.603 Gur (129.600.000 litres)
It would take another 1.000 years before a smart king started to make coins in this area which already bore his sign, a rising sun. And the sting in the tail of the Josef story: it seems that the regular price for a slave in this period was thirty shekel of silver… Josef was sold more or less as a piece of trash! However, back to the economics: where did this silver come from? Who mined it? At which costs?
According to this site, it came from, among other regions, the Sinai and the deserts of Egypt, it was mined by convicted criminals and prisoners of war and mining happened at appalling human costs. And oh, the Egyptian state organized this:
Even early on, but less frequently than in later times, the miners were according to Ptahhotep seemingly slaves –
Good words are more difficult to find than the emerald, for it is by slaves that that is discovered among the rocks of pegmatite.From the Precepts of Ptah-hotep, 5th dynasty
– convicted criminals and prisoners of war according to Diodorus Siculus, as few people chose to work under the often appalling conditions which were prevalent in the mining regions of Sinai and the deserts of Egypt. Output quota were set by officials, who, like the treasurer of the god Amenemhet, were sent by the government to Serabit el Khadim:
I came to the mine of Ka (seemingly the supervisor of the mine); I exacted the impost, I attended to the levying of the impost of malachite, being […] for [every] 5 men every day correctly [… … …].