Daily life in ancient Egypt

Zahi Hawass , Tuesday 7 May 2024

The evidence garnered through settlement archaeology, taken in combination with scenes and artefacts from mortuary contexts, provide us with a picture of the idealised daily life of the ancient Egyptians, writes Zahi Hawass in the first of two articles

Relief from Khunum tomb
Relief from Khunum tomb


Under the best of conditions, the ancient Egyptians led rich, full lives. The bountiful Nile provided them with an abundant and varied diet. Although native wood was in short supply, there were some usable species, and luxury woods such as cedar and ebony could be imported from abroad. Egyptian carpenters were among the best in the world, and the furniture they created was both elegant and functional. Flax provided raw material for clothing, and exquisite jewellery was made from gold and semi-precious stones, found for the most part in the deserts, or from faience, a silicate closely related to glass. A wide range of quality works are represented by ancient Egyptian furnishings, including clothing and jewellery.

The poor had little in terms of permanent possessions, and thus are inadequately represented in the archaeological record, but the middle and upper classes have left much evidence behind for us to study. Egyptian society was dominated by and organised around the king and his family in their royal palaces, supported by the high elite in their townhouses and country estates. The middle class, of craftsmen, lower-status scribes, and merchants, lived primarily in towns and cities. The lower classes lived in the countryside, farming the fields, or were crammed into the towns, working for the wealthy in their kitchens or shops. The truly unfortunate, including prisoners of war, were sent to the mines and quarries to do the back-breaking work of extracting the mineral wealth of the country.

FURNITURE: The houses and palaces of the ancient Egyptian elite were furnished much like our homes today, with chairs, stools, tables, beds, and boxes of every shape and description filled with luxury items. Lower-class houses had almost no furniture. Chairs were rare, and the poor slept on simple reed mats laid on the floor. The middle class had chairs and beds of reeds or wood, and boxes in which to store their clothing and jewellery. The upper classes and royalty had chairs, stools, beds, tables, and boxes, made out of luxury materials such as imported wood and gold. Chairs were used mainly by the master, mistress, and their honoured guests. Probably only royal children, like Tutankhamun, had chairs of their own. Even the lowliest objects were beautifully designed, elegant and functional. In addition, they were shaped or decorated to protect the owner, or even to contribute to the proper continuance of the Egyptian cosmos. This was especially true of items specifically made to be buried with their owners, but applies also to objects used in everyday life (many of which also ended up in tombs).

For example, we have already seen how doors and doorframes were painted red as protection against demons. Many objects were decorated with the wedjat, the eye of the falcon god Horus. According to Egyptian myth, this eye was wounded during Horus’ epic battle with his uncle Seth for the right to rule Egypt, and healed by his mother Isis. It thus represents regeneration and health, and was a common protective symbol.

The earliest furniture that has survived in the archaeological record dates from the early Predynastic period and was found in tombs. These pieces, mainly bed frames and some stools, were made of the inferior local wood, using only stone tools. Functional but not particularly elegant, these consist of roughly cut branches lashed together with rope.

By the early dynastic period, copper tools had been introduced and woodworking immediately became more sophisticated. A group of bed frames found at the elite cemetery of Tarkhan have bulls’ legs, a motif that would last for the rest of dynastic history. Little actual furniture has survived from the third dynasty, but a wall painting from the tomb of Hesire at Saqqara illustrates the types of furniture common in this era: beds, chairs, and stools, with both bovine legs and supports of bent timber. The beds, again in a style common throughout the Pharaonic period, are low to the ground and slope towards the foot. Also included with Hesire’s ideal furniture were many elegant boxes for storing personal possessions.

In the Fourth Dynasty, Egyptians were importing wood from abroad. The use, for example, of cedar from Lebanon, allowed carpenters much more scope for creativity. One remarkable cache of royal furniture was discovered near the Pyramid of Khufu of Giza, in the hidden tomb of his mother, Hetepheres I. Although the wood was badly decayed when it was discovered in 1925, the excavator, George Reisner, was able to reconstruct the original appearance of these beds and chairs from the traces that remained.

Buried with Hetepheres were two armchairs, a low-slung bed frame, a carrying chair, a box to hold curtains, and the skeleton of a portable canopy. These pieces were covered in many places with gold sheeting and inlaid with faience. A number of complex joint types, including the dovetail, were used, and copper sheathing protected the most vulnerable joints. One of the armchairs had lion-shaped legs and plain wooden panels for the back and seat. The armrests are decorated with floral motifs. Linen cushions stuffed with goose down would have provided padding.

It is interesting to compare the furniture found in the tomb of Hetepheres to queenly furniture discovered in the tomb of Yuya and Tjuya, which dates to the 18th Dynasty, more than 1,000 years later. The same basic shapes still hold: the chairs and beds are low to the ground, the proportions pleasing. The chairs from the later tomb, belonging to a princess named Sitamun, are more elaborately decorated, with scenes and even texts that have religio-magical meaning. In general, chair seats and backs could be made with wooden slats or could be woven from rope or reeds.

Most of our information about thrones comes from statuary and two-dimensional art, but a number of elaborate chairs were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. The decoration of these objects was highly symbolic, as the throne served to support, protect, and identify the king. A common motif was the use of the heraldic plants of Upper and Lower Egypt on the two sides of the base. These could be arranged so that the lily or lotus of Upper Egypt was on one side and the papyrus of Lower Egypt on the other, or, in an icon seen over several millennia, the two plants could be shown twined around the lungs and windpipe of an animal, the hieroglyph for unite.

Tutankhamun was also buried with a number of footstools. Several of these are decorated with images of foreign prisoners, their arms tied behind their backs. By placing his feet on these magical figures, the king would be symbolically trampling on his enemies.

Beds were made in the same basic way as chairs, with wooden frames filled with wooden slats, rope, or reeds. A mattress of linen stuffed with reeds, feathers, or straw could be placed on top of the frame and covered with sheets of linen, its quality varying depending on the status of the owner. Instead of pillows, they supported their necks with headrests. Although these look uncomfortable to us, they would have been padded and, as they were used for over 3,000 years, must have worked well.

Stools for seating were another popular item of furniture, used especially for children and house guests. Most have animal legs, specifically, of the bull, gazelle, and lion. The folding stool became popular in the Middle Kingdom; these often had legs with goose heads at the bottom, their bills biting the struts that supported them. Another type of stool was made as a lattice of thin rails, with a double cove seat made with woven rope or curved wooden slats. Artisans also sat on stools, as shown in many tomb scenes, but these had three legs rather than four to accommodate the uneven floors of their workshops.

The elite ate at small tables. These, as shown in many offering scenes, could be made with pedestal supports or legs of pottery, wood, or stone, their tops of reed matting or wood. A group of actual tables from Beni Hassan have cavetto cornices and torus molding.

For storage, the middle and upper classes had boxes and chests of various sizes and shapes. Tutankhamun, for example, was buried with more than 50 boxes and chests. These contained clothing of all descriptions, jewellery, regalia, and food supplies. Elaborate cosmetic boxes are also known from tomb contexts.

To create the functional and stylish furniture prized by the Egyptians, carpenters used simple tools such as adzes, saws, chisels, and the bow drill. To polish surfaces, they used rubbers of sandstone. A wide variety of joints were developed, beginning with the butt and simple miter and becoming increasingly more sophisticated. Items made with poorer-quality wood were often gessoed and then finished with a thick gypsum plaster. Other materials were used in appliqués and veneers, and very expensive pieces could be adorned with marquetry or gilded.

FOOD AND DRINK: The diet of the ancient Egyptians was rich and varied, and is illustrated for us in numerous tomb and temple scenes as well as evidenced by actual samples of food and drink, preserved for millennia in mortuary or settlement contexts. We do not know the typical meal schedule, but it is likely that the wealthy ate two to three times a day, perhaps beginning with a light breakfast, then a large lunch, followed by a smaller dinner. Peasants might have eaten only twice, at daybreak and then in the late afternoon.

The staples of the Egyptian diet were bread and beer, made from emmer wheat and barley. Bread was a good source of complex carbohydrates and also provided some protein and trace nutrients. In addition to images illustrating both the bread itself and every stage of its processing, several hundred loaves have been preserved, mainly from tomb contexts. There were many types of bread, which could be made in a variety of shapes. Most was made from emmer wheat, which is actually somewhat difficult to process. It must first be threshed to break it down into spikelets, which contain the kernels surrounded by chaff. The trick then is to remove the chaff without smashing the kernels, which was done by wetting the spikelets then pounding them in limestone mortars with wooden pestles. The resulting mixture was dried in the sun, then winnowed and sieved to separate the wheat from the chaff. The cleaned grain was ground in a saddle quern.

The grain was then mixed with water and sometimes a leavening agent (although it is also possible that the dough was left out to collect airborne yeast). Quality ranged from coarse to very fine, and cooked grain could be added to give loaves a multi-grain texture. Bread could also be flavoured with coriander seeds or dates. Special loaves were made from lotus-seed or tiger-nut flour. The dough was made into loaves, either by hand or in molds. Common shapes were disks, hemispheres, triangles, and cones, although fish and human figures were also made.

The Old Kingdom bakeries at Giza illustrate one method used to bake bread. These bakeries, in the area being excavated by Mark Lehner, are arranged as a series of chambers. Along the east wall of each were two lines of holes in a shallow trench, where pots containing bread dough would have been set. Hot coals would have been heaped into the trenches to bake the bread. Lids were heated in a hearth in a corner of the rooms, and low counters of stone and mud lined the walls. In the Middle Kingdom, square hearths were more common, and the clay bread moulds were taller and narrower. In the New Kingdom, a new type of oven was introduced. This was a large clay cylinder with an open top set into an emplacement of bricks and mortar. The dough was shaped into flat disks and slapped onto the preheated oven wall.

Ancient Egyptian beer was thick and cloudy, not thin and clear like our modern beverage. A rich, nutritious drink, filled with complex carbohydrates and sugars, it was a good source of fatty and amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. It was used in many medicines, perhaps in part for its intrinsic properties but more importantly as a delivery agent.

Beer was also a key commodity, and in a pre-money economy, was used as a unit of exchange.

The earliest archaeological evidence for beer comes from Hierakonpolis, where what looks to be industrial brewery has been found. This is a mud brick installation, where large conical vats containing beer mash appear to have been heated. Some of the vats found here have residue of chaff and emmer wheat at the bottom, suspended in a viscous matrix.

It was long thought that Egyptian beer was made from lightly baked bread crumbled into a vat, wetted, and left to ferment. The exact ingredients were still debated, with some suggesting dates or barley malt as the key element. However, new studies show that beer making used two batches of grain, one sprouted and the other cooked in water. These were then mixed together, producing a lot of sugar, then sieved, to separate the chaff from the liquid. The mash was then enriched with yeast and lactic acid bacteria to make it ferment.

It is likely that the poor subsisted mostly on beer and bread eaten with scallions. They may also have hunted small game, trapped aquatic birds such as ducks and geese, and fished to supplement this diet.

During the Neolithic and Predynastic eras, the wild fauna of the Nile Valley was extremely varied, and hunting was a primary source of meat. From the savannah-like desert came antelopes and gazelles, ostrich, hyena, wild asses, cattle, sheep, and goats. Hippopotami, crocodiles, and waterfowl of every description came from the river and its marshes, and over 56 species of fish, both riverine and marine, could be caught. As animals were domesticated and the climate became drier, some species died out or moved away. Desert hunting for large game became a sport and a ritual activity practised by the nobility. Domesticated herds of cattle, sheep, and goats became the principal source of meat.

Animal husbandry was an important occupation. Tomb scenes show the various domesticates being herded and carefully cared for by their tenders. Cattle, sheep, and goats provided not only meat, but milk for various dairy products, such as cheese, cream, yoghurt, and butter. In the Old Kingdom, it is likely that the Egyptians tried to domesticate some additional animals, most notably the antelope and hyena, but these efforts were only partially successful. All parts of the animals were eaten, from the muscle to the internal organs. Animal fat was also used for cooking, medicines, perfumes and unguents.

Pigs are rarely shown in tomb art, and this fact, coupled with a statement by Herodotus (a fifth century BC Greek historian) that they were taboo, has suggested to scholars that they were not considered an acceptable food. However, further study of the evidence and new finds of pig bones at several sites has confirmed that they were an important food source. Perhaps they were considered dirty (they do wallow in mud and their own excrement), and their meat can carry a dangerous parasite called trichinosis, but pigs were consumed at least by the lower classes.

Mice and hedgehogs were also eaten. Perhaps the Egyptians, like the Romans, force-fed mice with specific foods, such as raisins, to flavour their meat. Hedgehogs were coated with clay and then baked. When the clay shell was removed, the prickly outer skin came off with it, leaving the tender meat behind.

The ancient Egyptians enjoyed many varieties of poultry. They ate small birds such as partridges, quails, pigeons, and doves, and hunted the migratory waterfowl that flew through the country seasonally, using clap nets to capture entire flocks. Numerous species of ducks and geese graced the Egyptian table, and eggs were also considered a staple. Cranes are shown being herded in tomb scenes, and ostriches were hunted, and their meat and eggs eaten. Chickens were not native to Egypt and do not appear until late in Egyptian history.

The Nile was teeming with fish in antiquity, and the Egyptians used nets, harpoons, and baited lines to catch them. Tomb art and archaeology agree that fish were a major component of the Egyptian diet. Herodotus claims that priests were not permitted to eat fish. This may have been a later taboo, perhaps connected with the Osiris myth in which a fish ate the murdered god’s genitals.

Vegetables were grown in gardens or gathered in the marshes. Green scallions were a staple of the lower class diet, and garlic and radishes were popular foods. Egyptian lettuce, sacred to the god Min, was like our romaine, and was considered an aphrodisiac. Celery was eaten raw or used as a flavouring in stews. Leeks, cucumbers, and some types of squash were also eaten, at least in the later periods. The tubers of sedge plants, such as the papyrus could be eaten raw, boiled, roasted, or ground into flour. Tiger nuts (a grass tuber) were used for breads and a special dessert. Some seeds, such as that of the lotus, were also consumed. Legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, fava beans, and lupines were important sources of nutrients.

Native fruits included the date, figs, grapes (and raisins), dom palm nuts, persea, and zizyphus berries. Foreign fruits such as the pomegranate became popular in the New Kingdom, and in the Graeco-Roman era the apricot, apple, pear, plum and quince were brought in, along with several varieties of nuts. Olives were grown in Egypt and were eaten raw or pickled. However, there is no evidence that olive oil was produced or used before the Graeco-Roman era.

The main sweetening agent was honey, used in baked goods, as a priming agent in beer and wine, and in some perfumes. Honey was also used in about 500 medical cures. Most of the honey consumed in Egypt was local, but some was imported from Palestine. Egyptian bees, which are smaller and more aggressive than their European cousins, were kept in long tubes of baked clay stacked one atop the other. Carob was another sweetener, and the hieroglyph for sweet, nedjem, takes the form of a carob pod.

The Egyptians used a number of herbs and spices to enhance the flavour of their food, which was prepared by stewing, boiling, grilling, roasting, or frying. Native herbs were dill, fenugreek, thyme, parsley, coriander, cumin, fennel, marjoram, mint, and cinnamon; peppercorns were imported.

In addition to beer, wealthy Egyptians drank wine made from grapes, dates, palms, or figs. The best vineyards were in the Delta and the oases, and these were the centres for wine production. The ancients labelled their wine jars with date and source, as we do today, indicating that they recognised differences in vintages.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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