I read recently some limited information about Babylon, and it doesn't sound right to me, so I thought I'd ask.

I saw from one source that the wages for one year of unskilled labor may have been about 10 shekels of silver, with one shekel at that time being about 11.5 grams.

I saw from another source that 1 gur of barley (about 300 liters) is one shekel of silver.

And then I heard that 1 shekel of barley is 1 shekel of silver.

So 300 liters of barley is equal to 11.5 grams of barley? That doesn't sound right. And one year of unskilled labor is worth only 115 grams of silver? I must be misunderstanding something here.

I just generally want to know what food prices were like in Babylonian times, as in if I went to the market to pick up grain and spice and salted meat, how much would it cost in their currency?

  • 7
    Your different sources may be pulling data from different periods/places and so the equivalent values may not be directly comparable. Commodity prices are volatile (just look at price changes over the last few years, thanks to Covid and the war in the Ukraine especially). Therefore, taking wage & price snapshots from different locations or different years and expecting them to correlate can give strange results.
    – Steve Bird
    Aug 4, 2023 at 8:42
  • 4
    Please provide the sources you wish us to evaluate. Have you searched our site? There are about a dozen hits on 'shekel'. One answer here gives a primary source placing the value of shekel as rent of a house for a year.
    – justCal
    Aug 4, 2023 at 11:34
  • @justCal Silver seems to have been very valuable in Babylon, then, am I understanding that correctly? To cover $1000/mo rent in today's world, I'd need 1450 Babylonian shekels of silver for 1 year? Aug 4, 2023 at 22:22

1 Answer 1


1 cup of barley provides 651 calories according to the USDA, so 3000 L of barley provides about 412 days' worth of food at 2000 cal/day. An unskilled laborer making ten times this amount in a year would presumably have enough to buy a more rounded diet than just barley along with some of the basics of life. So these two seem consistent with each other.

Is it possible that "1 shekel of barley is 1 shekel of silver" means that one shekel is the same weight, whether measuring barley or silver, rather than stating the price of barley? (Certainly there are many measurement systems, even today, where the unit depends on the thing weighed -- indeed, an ounce of silver is about 31 grams, where an ounce of barley is about 28 grams.)

  • Should 3000L be 300L?
    – MJD
    Aug 4, 2023 at 17:45
  • @MJD No, one shekel of silver buys one ghur=300L of barley and the annual salary is 10 shekels of silver, so the annual salary buys 3000L of barley.
    – quarague
    Aug 4, 2023 at 20:01
  • @quarague but by the numbers given, 300L is 412 days' worth of food. 3000L would be 4120 days' worth. "An unskilled laborer making ten times this amount" means 10 times 1 shekel. The first sentence is talking about 1 shekel's worth.
    – MJD
    Aug 4, 2023 at 22:19
  • 1
    Laborers consume more than 2k calories a day.
    – cmw
    Aug 5, 2023 at 22:10
  • @cmw: True, and should be noted in the answer. It's still (roughly) consistent, though, since an unskilled laborer in a pre-modern society is also likely to spend a lot more than 10% of their wages on staple foods like barley. Aug 7, 2023 at 5:45

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