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Census of cattle in Ancient Egypt

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Egyptology refers to a state-controlled event in Ancient Egypt of enormous economic and cultic importance as the census of livestock. It served to collect taxes.

Inspection

Census of cattle according to a relief in Mastaba G75 at Giza.

Model of a cattle census from the tomb of Meketre, Egyptian Museum Cairo (JE 46724)

As the name of the event suggests, all livestock (including cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and donkeys) were rounded up and counted at regular intervals. The exact number was meticulously noted down by scribes and inspectors and then the corresponding amount of tax was calculated. The census of livestock took place in all Egyptian provinces and districts. Tax fraud was severely punished. The cattle census took place since the 2nd dynasty at the same time in the context of the so-called Horusgeleits (Egypt. Shemsu Hor). During this event, which was partly politically and partly religiously and cultically motivated, the king travelled through the country every two years in a magnificent barque and visited the most important administrative centres along the Nile to hold court and collect taxes.

Backgrounds

In Egyptology, the question of how often the cattle census was held is debated. The reason for this is to determine actual reign years of individual kings. From the Predynastic period until the late Old Kingdom, the cattle census was apparently held every two years. After that it took place every year.

Evidence for this is provided by the Annal Stone of the 5th Dynasty, which was created under king Neferirkare and lists the most important annual ceremonies, creations of statues of gods and kings and Horus escorts for each Egyptian ruler from king Narmer (1st Dynasty) to Neferirkare. The cattle count is given for every other year in direct connection with the Horus escort. Therefore, it is generally assumed that the cattle census was carried out every two years. The first king under whom the introduction of an annual cattle count is securely attested is king Pepi I (6th dynasty). Pepi I. ordered that the cattle census had to take place every year, because his empire was in economic and therefore also financial distress.

In modern research, however, the question had repeatedly been raised whether kings before Pepi I might not already have ordered an annual census of livestock, since later historical sources give contradictory information on the duration of the reign of individual rulers. A well-known dispute over the correct length of reign is that of the famous 4th Dynasty king Cheops. The highest number of cattle counts is found in the form of workers’ graffiti in the relief chambers of the Pyramid of Khufu, which mention a “17th time of cattle counting”. Since the cattle count according to the Palermo Stone took place only every two years at that time, a reign of at least 34 years would be attested for Cheops. However, this calculation is met with doubt and suspicion by some researchers, since the famous royal papyrus of Turin attests only 23 years for Cheops, and the Greek historian Herodotus claims that Cheops reigned for 50 years, but this is considered an exaggeration or misreading. Meanwhile, Egyptologists such as Thomas Schneider assume that Cheops either actually reigned a little more than 34 years, or that the author of the royal papyrus Turin had not taken into account the circumstance of the 2-year cycle and in fact describes 23 cattle counts and thus certifies 46 years.

Literature

  • Hermann A. Schlögl: Das Alte Ägypten (= Beck’sche Reihe. Vol. 2305). 3. Ausgab, Beck, Hamburg 2011, ISBN 3406623107, p. 41.
  • Thomas Schneider: Lexikon der Pharaonen. Albatros, Düsseldorf 2002, ISBN 3-491-96053-3, pp. 100-102.
  • Siegfried Schott: Altägyptische Festdaten (= Academy of Sciences and Literature. Abhandlungen der Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaftlichen Klasse. Vol. 10, 1950, ISSN 0002-2977). Verlag der Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, Mainz et al. 1950.
  • Richard A. Parker: The calendars of ancient Egypt (= Studies in ancient Oriental Civilization. Vol. 26, ISSN 0081-7554). University of Chicago Press, Chicago IL 1950.