If Ben Franklin had been an archaeologist, he might have said that nothing is certain to be found in dig sites except evidence of death and taxes. That was proven in Egypt recently when archaeologists discovered an ancient nilometer – a type of well used by a pharaoh’s tax department for determining how much to extract from the citizens in the coming year.
During the time of the pharaohs, the nilometer was used to compute the levy of taxes, and this was also likely the case during the Hellenistic period. If the water level indicated there would be a strong harvest, taxes would be higher.
According to Robert Littman, archaeologist at the University of Hawaii, nilometers were wells used to collect Nile floodwaters. The simple design consisted of a circular well about 8 feet (2.4 meters) wide. A channel connected the well to the Nile and a staircase connected tax collectors to their critical indicator – marks on the wall showing how much the river had flooded.
Before modern times and especially before dams, the Nile flooded annually each summer, pushing nutrient-rich silt across farmlands to feed crops. Less flooding meant less silt, less produce and less taxable profits for farmers. Too much flooding meant less farmers in general, as the deeper waters would have washed away farms, buildings and people. All that mattered to the pharaoh was the marks on the wall. Littman says that the 10 cubit mark (10 feet or 3 meters) was the sweet spot for maximum taxable profits.
The newly-discovered nilometer (named for the river that gave it its job) was found among ruins of the ancient city of Thmuis. Greek writing on the walls, including the names of likely donors who paid for the structure in return for future returns from taxes, date the construction of the device to the 3rd century BCE when the Greek general Ptolemy took over after the death of Alexander the Great. Showing the beauty of its simple yet effective design, the nilometer far outlived the 275-year Ptolemaic dynasty, being used for at least 1,0000 years.
While this nilometer was once part of a temple where priests predicted floods, farmers prayed for crops and tax collectors calculated their bonuses, the course of the Nile changed due to nature and human re-directions and the area is now a residential and business district.
The nilometer is no longer connected to the Nile but, as Ben predicted, Egyptians still pay taxes until they’re dead.