Workmen's and women's rations: work for bread and beer in Old Kingdom Egypt



Pharaoh is the first « employer » in Egypt. His agricultural estates and cities, his pyramids and sanctuaries required a huge staff. The social « contract»  is as follows: in exchange for work, the royal administration provides food, drink and clothing. Bread, beer, oil (ointment) and cotton. We know some ration grids[1].

Craftsmen like those living and working in the village of Deir el-Medineh, specialized in the creation, decoration and maintenance of royal tombs, received each month 300 litres of wheat for bread and 110 litres of barley for beer, the foreman and the scribe 4120 of wheat and 150 of barley for beer. In the Ramesside period (20th dynasty, 1188-1069 BC), the average monthly rations per person were[2] :


1 khar ≈ 75 litres

Emmer-wheat (bdt  )

Barley (ìt ) for beer

Grains total

Daily total


5 ½ khar ≈  412 litres

2 khar ≈ 150 litres

≈ 562 l.

≈ 18 ¾ l.


2 ¾ khar ≈ 206 litres

2 ¾ khar ≈ 206 litres

1 khar ≈ 75 litres

1 khar ≈ 75 litres

≈ 562 l.

≈ 18 ¾ l.


≈ 18 workers by team

4 khar ≈ 300 litres

≈ 5.400 litres

1 ½  khar ≈ 112 litres

≈ 2.016 litres

≈ 412 l.

≈ 7.416 l.

≈ 13 ¾ l.

Total for a team

≈ 6.224 l./month

≈ 74.688 l./year

≈ 2.316 l./month

27.792 l./year

≈ 8.540 l./month

≈ 102.480 l./year


Table 1: monthly grains rations (wheat and barley) for one team by social status at Deir el-Medineh (1 sack-khar ≈ 75 l)


These figures hide a social reality. The beneficiary of rations also feeds his relatives. A single person does not eat 13 litres of grain per day. If we compare these rations with those of other times, it is estimated that with 13 litres, a worker feeds a family of almost 10 people each day, including children. The team studied above is made up of about 20 people[3].

Two teams like this one work at Deir el-Medineh. Another series of deliveries of rations to the teams working at the Ramses IV Necropolis indicate a workforce of 60 people, even 120 when 2 villages are mobilised. This should be understood as 60 or 120 households since a nominal ration provided meet the needs of a whole famiy. These craftsmen are chosen for their talent. Their privilege takes the form of days of rest that peasants and workers of the agricultural estates cannot enjoy. The grains rations for Deir el-Medineh workers are not representative of the whole of Egypt.

The system of beer rations introduces another fundamental principle: the number of grains per person is proportional to his social status. The beneficiaries of the allocation system do not form a homogeneous group: between the simple labourer and the foreman, the servant and the specialised craftsman, the quotas vary. All food allocations are calculated in grains. The only way to create a social ladder in the ration system is to decrease or increase the amount of grain provided each month to the beneficiary.

But this does not imply that a foreman can drink 3 times as much beer every day as a servant! Instead of increasing the volume of finished beer, the breweries vary the density of the beer. The invention of brewing ratios in Egypt dates back to the Old Kingdom. Pharaoh and his administration created and managed increasingly important land estates, and all the people working on them. This society within the whole society is governed by strict rules, a hierarchy and an organisation that allows major works in the country. The system of rations distributed in the form of bread and beer reflects this social order

This second technical development is a considerable invention. From now on, each volume of beer produced can be related to the volume of raw grains processed by the brewer. It is not the volume of beer brewed that fluctuates, but the density of the beer itself, and therefore its alcohol content. If we consider that at that time the wort is allowed to ferment completely, which seems to be the case since there are special jars used to store and transport the beer longer.


Raw materials

Volume of beer

Ratio Grain / Beer

Beer grade

60 litres of barley

60 litres



120 litres of barley

60 litres


upper grade

30 litres of barley

60 litres


lower grade

30 litres of barley

+ 30 l. od dates

60 litres


normal grade

Table 2: examples of combinations between volumes of grains used to brew and grades of delivered beer.


Let's take a look at what the bread-beer rations and the brewing ratio system both involve for the production and distribution of beer.

On the basis of the Table 1, 5 teams of 20 people receive about 4000 * 5 = 200 hl barley/year " for beer". Assuming an ordinary beer with a ratio of 1:1 for the workers, this volume of barley corresponds to 200 hl of beer brewed/year/household. A large royal estate employs an average of 2000 to 3000 people of all professions. Such estates can be counted by the dozens in Pharaoh's Egypt. The volume of beer brewed every day for the sole maintenance of the royal workforce is huge. The avarage daily ration of 1 or 2 litres of beer made in one of Pharaoh's large centralised breweries was not distributed to each person each day. Such centralisation did exist, but for the needs of the royal courts, princes and princesses of the dynasty. For the numerous teams of workers, the distribution of rations is monthly.


Each worker or craftsman could, within the family framework, brew for his own account a part of the 110 litres of barley received as part of his monthly ration, exchanging another part for needy goods. Barley and wheat were used as "currency" for these exchanges. Alongside this "home brewing", beer supply accounts tell us that part of the barley rations allocated to the teams is brewed centrally and delivered in ds-jars of beer. These jars have a standardised capacity, so that each beneficiary can know how much beer he receives. Knowing the density of the beer inside the jar (ratio grains ⇔ beer), he can checks the grain equivalent he has received.

Between the domestic beer brewing and the large centralised brewery, an intermediate solution was adopted: local breweries. We do not know the rules governing the choice of such or such organisation and the power of the administrations of each nome (province) in this matter.

A domain administrator organised brewery-workshops both to master the technical cycle of brewing and to regularly supply beer to local work teams of a hundred or more workers. On the spot, foremen controlled the work of the brewery workers, such as a certain Kha-bau-Seker who was entitled "Controller of the brewing women's ". The brewing staff seems to have been equally female and male in Egypt, but not the tasks.

The management of these brewing workshops is described in mastabas (funerary constructions) frescoes built and decorated for royal estate administrators. These mural paintings commissioned by them show how proud these administrators are of their achievements and how much they want this happiness (beer at will) to continue in the other world.

These frescoes provide an invaluable documentary collection. They describe the brewing cycle, the sequence of operations and the brewery staff. The technical variants they present show that the general organisation of the workshops fluctuates according to their size, the frequency of brewing and the type of beer brewed, but also the brewing methods, which are not as standardised as one might think. The standardisation of brewing, the hegemony of the malting technique and its industrialisation are modern western inventions.


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[1] Janssen Jac J. 1997, Village Varia. Ten studies on the history and administration of Deir-el-Medina, pp. 13-35.

[2] Janssen Jac J. 1975, Commodity Prices from the Ramessid Period, p. 460. The sack-khar = 76.8 litres during the New Kingdom, the active period at Deir el-Medineh. The khar in the Old Kingdom is equivalent to 48 litres.

[3] 17 workers, 1 foreman, 1 scribe, 1 guard, 2 young men, one or two slave women, 1 doorkeeper and a "physician" (Janssen 1997, 14).

14/11/2020  Christian Berger