Have a drink with: your friendly ancient Egyptian donkey rental clerk
Wheeler-dealer, manure shoveler, debt collector

Ask him about: whether you want that rental insurance after all


Deir el-Medina was a village on the west bank of the Nile in Thebes, populated largely by the work crews who built the famous royal tombs and monuments.  The great monuments tell us about the theology and government of Egypt, the foundation and iteration of pharaonic society.  Deir el-Medina is more modest, but no less interesting: the site is a village of 120 some-odd houses intended for workers and their families (in that regard, not dissimilar to the “model villages” of Victorian England, or Eli Whitney’s Whitneyville development).  We know some of the residents by name thanks to written records, we can tell that some if not many of the villagers were literate, and can piece together their participation in a robust everyday construction economy.

In Deir el-Medina as elsewhere in the region, donkeys were what author Brian Fagan calls “the pickup trucks of history,” carrying merchant loads, provisions, caravan cargo and more.  They carried water and wood, drew plow equipment, carried food or goods for sale.  Donkeys were ideal: unfussy, strong, good over tough terrain and long distances.

In short, if you needed to carry something, you got a donkey.  But what if you didn’t own one?

Well, you went to the ancient Egyptian rent-a-donkey joint and you borrowed one for a while.  And just like the airport Hertz counter today, the Egyptian rental agencies put paperwork in front of their clients, and didn’t like it if you dinged the fenders.  Plenty of surviving documents, in the forms of papyrus fragments or ostraca (singular “ostracon;” stone fragments used as little notepads, basically), give us a window into the rental economy.

Not only is this historically tons of fun, it makes my lawyer brain very happy – and here’s why.  It’s proof that economics and dispute mechanics haven’t changed a whole lot in a few thousand years, motivationally and structurally speaking.  Most people will tell you that modern property law usually looks back to folks like John Locke for its foundational social, legal and philosophical backstopping, and while structurally they’re right, practically speaking it’s fascinating to see that the administrative powers of human society have been trying to pull the same two fighting cats apart for thousands of years.

In the end, contractual nuts and bolts all come down to: who’s paying for this stuff, what happens if they don’t, how do we go our own ways if we want to, and who owns the spoils?  That’s true if you’re talking about donkeys or hedge funds.

Ownership is not a single all or nothing right but rather a case-specific combination of many available privileges, which lawyers usually explain by analogy to a bundle of sticks. Why sticks, we can’t necessarily say; just keep in mind that lawyers are people who are fond of teaching complex business transactions in terms of component “widgets” and who make up dubious Latin phrases in an effort to make mundane court filings seem more exciting than they in fact are. (“Forum non conveniens.” Look into it.)

You only receive those sticks that you’ve legitimately acquired; and you cannot give, transfer or claim anything additional, thanks to the catchy legal maxim “nemo dat quod non habet” – no one can give that which he does not have. When you buy the donkey outright, you get all the sticks. If you’re renting, you get a few of them for the week – and you have obligations and restrictions to deal with as a result.

Which means, thanks to the folks minding the donkey counter, we get to hear about disputes like these:

Late Fees May Apply: “B swore an oath that, if he let it become the New Year’s feast before he had paid for the donkey of A, he would be liable to 100 blows and it would be double against him.  -Before witnesses.”

It’s For A Friend?: A had to pay for B’s donkey (it may have died while with him). Instead of making B whole out of his own stock, A wrote up a false order and used it to take someone else’s donkey in satisfaction of the debt.  The ostracon records a court order to return the donkey to its owner.

I Want My Money: “B took my she-ass with her foal, and they died with him. I have reported him to the court four times, and he was condemned in my favor the four times to pay for the she-ass and the foal, but he has not given me anything.”

It Was There A Minute Ago: “…my donkey was handed over to my wife and I went up to the Valley of the Kings for 3 days. When I came back in the evening, she said to me: ‘I have left the donkey [still outside].’ And when I went to lock it up in the evening, I found it loaded with emmer [grain] with B. I said to him: ‘Who gave you the donkey?’ He said to me: ‘I found it wandering around and I took it to bring the grain I was charged with to the Enclosure.’”

You Rented Me A Bum Donkey: “What does it mean that you tell me falsely things about the donkeys, namely that they are of no use to you? You said about the she-ass that she was ill from the stick, when I said to you: ‘Did her illness begin in the [last rental]?'”

There are written records of money exchanges, price disputes, bartering, arguments over liability for unexpected donkey death, late returns, changes of plans and more.

Really, though, this is all an elaborate explanation designed to lead us to the real point: scholars dig into this stuff earnestly and with incredible depth and precision, all in an effort to make the work of history about more than simply the study of an elevated class.  The work of social history, and historians’ attention to all ages and stages in a given era, is an invaluable way to understand human experience more fully.

But sometimes it’s just grounds to make up a term of art with a totally straight face:



Fun facts:

In the Third Intermediate Period, donkeys were on the brain: if you wanted to curse someone out, one of the popular lines was “may a donkey copulate with him.”

That John Locke bit is from the Two Treatises of Government and is usually called labor theory. I call it the Salsa Theory of property ownership: I double-dipped, therefore the bowl is now mine:

“Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.”  -Second Treatise, §27

So, who rented donkeys? Water carriers and woodcutters appear quite often, but there are also records of workmen, scribes and police. Scholars suppose that someone like a water carrier or woodcutter was pressed for cash and not likely able to afford owning a donkey, and therefore would rent when they needed transport, and to keep their own work going (necessity making it a profitable business for the donkey folks).  We don’t know enough about wages or other availability of beasts of burden to say for sure, but it’s a reasonable suggestion.

When you type “ostraca” repeatedly, most computers assume you mean “ostrich.”


Additional reading:

Basic explanation of the site at Deir el-Medina, courtesy of the British Museum.

Deir el-Medina database, via University of Leiden

Janssen, Donkeys at Deir el-Medina (quoted ostraca from this source)

Kasia Szpakowska, Daily Life in Ancient Egypt

Brian Fagan, The Intimate Bond: How Animals Shaped Human History