Daily life in ancient Egypt — II

Zahi Hawass , Tuesday 14 May 2024

Zahi Hawass continues his account of the daily lives of the ancient Egyptians by looking at evidence garnered through settlement archaeology and images and artefacts from mortuary contexts



The complex ancient Egyptian bureaucracy was dependent on detailed record-keeping maintained by an elite group of scribes. Only a small fraction of the population was literate, and the men (and a few women) who could read and write were essential to the success of society. 

The highest members of the elite, such as the royal family, the viziers, and the top ranks of the army and priesthood, were literate, but the principal record-keeping was done by a cadre of lower-ranking scribes trained in schools connected with the state temples. 

These men appear in various contexts in Egyptian art, keeping tallies at regular cattle censuses, recording the contents of granaries, overseeing the collection of taxes, and carrying out similar activities.

While the monumental texts of the ancient Egyptians were carved in hieroglyphs on stone, scribal records were written in hieratic script with a reed brush and red and black ink on rolls of papyrus. Hieratic was a cursive form of hieroglyphs, the signs simplified and thus faster and easier to write.

After the end of the fourth century CE, when the last hieroglyphs were carved, the ancient Egyptians were mute, their writing no longer able to be read. The discovery by Napoleon’s soldiers of the Rosetta Stone, written in Greek and two Egyptian scripts, provided the key by which Jean-François Champollion was able to crack the code and bring the ancient writings back to life in the early decades of the 19th century.


CLOTHING: Clothing is one place where the artistic and archaeological records sometimes clash rather than complement one another. 

In art, clothing is highly stylised and often archaic and is intended to denote age, status, and function rather than reality. However, once the artistic code is understood, pictorial images, taken in conjunction with excavated examples of actual textiles and garments, provide us with significant information about what the ancient Egyptians wore.

Labourers, boatmen, acrobats, and soldiers are often shown wearing only a waist sash or loincloth. These could be made of cloth or leather. One example of an elaborately cut leather loincloth belonging to a New Kingdom royal attendant and archer named Maiherpri was discovered in the Theban hills near his tomb. Female dancers and musicians are sometimes completely naked, or perhaps wear only a girdle or a bead dress that accentuates rather than hides the body.

The principal garment worn by ancient Egyptian men, from slaves to king, was the kilt, a rectangular piece of linen worn wrapped around the waist. It could be fastened with a knot or a sort of buckle, and it came in different lengths, from just below the knee to the middle of the calf. The flap could be square, rounded, or pleated, and a starched apron could be added on top. Both kilt and apron could also be pleated.

In the Middle Kingdom, a new type of skirt appeared. This was longer than the Old Kingdom version and was worn pulled up under the armpits just below the chest. Another new garment from this era was the bag tunic made from a rectangular piece of cloth folded over and sewn up one side. Men, especially from the upper classes, could also wear cloaks. 

The New Kingdom saw a revolution in clothing styles. The kilt was still the fundamental item of attire, but it became fuller and was often pleated. Aprons, bag tunics, cloaks, and shawls, all elaborately draped and pleated, were added on top, and some garments had voluminous sleeves. A new style was the “sash kilt”, which combined kilt and apron in one length of cloth. The Middle Kingdom kilt pulled high on the torso became the official uniform worn by the Theban vizier.

The typical woman’s dress of the Old Kingdom was a simple sheath with a strap over each shoulder. This could be sewn in a patterned fabric or adorned by painting, embroidery, a tapestry weave, or a beaded overdress. In art, this seems to hug the body tightly, but actual examples are much looser. All women wore this dress in earlier times; later, it was only worn by goddesses. Actual examples of the bead net that fitted over this type of garment have been found.

Another type of dress was a rectangle of cloth wrapped around the body and tied at the shoulder. In the New Kingdom, this became a party gown, sometimes with added sleeves. The fabric used was generally very fine, even diaphanous (although as it was wrapped around the body twice it was not see-through), and one edge was fringed with loose threads from the fabric’s edge. This type of dress could come in a number of styles and fabrics. Children are generally depicted as naked, although in reality they often wore smaller versions of adult garments.

For the most part, kings and queens wore the same types of clothing as the elite. However, there were several types of garments generally identified as specifically royal. One of these is the shendyt kilt, a short, pleated skirt with a central panel. However, this could also be worn by nobles, perhaps in situations where they acted as delegates of the king. 

Another item of kingly attire was the jubilee cloak, a tight-fitting garment that held the arms to the body and was worn during the Sed Festival, the celebration of royal renewal. In ceremonial contexts, kings also wore bull’s tails as a sign of virility and elaborate beaded aprons (often called sporrans) and belts. Another special costume was the panther or leopard skin, worn by priests.

In the art of the period, most clothing is shown as being pure white, with the exception of the patterned sheath dresses mentioned above and garments worn by foreigners. Actual examples tell a different story, however. Archaeology confirms that almost all clothing was made of linen woven from flax thread of varying qualities. Before the Coptic period, there is little evidence for the use of wool other than for some cloaks.

Our richest source of textiles is the tomb of the ancient Egyptian boy-king Tutankhamun, which contained kilts, tunics, shirts, sashes, scarves and shawls, caps, and gloves. Some of these were of plain white or off-white linen, but others were elaborately decorated in a multitude of colours and materials. Some outfits were adorned with beadwork, spangles, or sequins, others were embroidered, and many showed the foreign influences prevalent in the cosmopolitan land of Egypt during this period.

Tutankhamun was also buried with numerous examples of the basic Egyptian undergarment: a triangular piece of cloth with two ends tied at the back and the third pulled between the legs and tied in front. It is not known whether women wore any kind of brassiere or strapping, although some pieces of material have been found that might have served such a purpose.

When they covered their feet (which was evidently not often), the ancient Egyptians wore sandals woven from grass or reeds or made from rawhide or leather. These came in different styles, but all were held to the foot by a strap around the upper foot or ankle with a thong between the first two toes. In the New Kingdom, the toes could be turned up. 

Many pairs of sandals were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. The most elaborate of these are of fine leather painted with images of the king’s traditional enemies so that he would magically crush them with each step. This, like the images on the foot stools, helped to maintain the proper order of the universe.


JEWELLERY: The use of jewellery in ancient Egypt dates back as far as the Predynastic Period, reflecting the basic human instinct for adornment. 

Jewellery was also used to indicate rank and status, and it often served a magico-protective function. As is the case with clothing, much of our information about jewellery comes from two and three-dimensional representations, and again, there is a divide between the ideal and the real. For example, Tutankhamun is not shown in art wearing earrings (although his ears are shown as pierced in a number of representations), but a number of pairs were found in his tomb.

The ancient Egyptians, both men and women, wore necklaces, bracelets, armbands, earrings, and anklets. Necklaces could be simple strings of beads with or without pendants and pectorals chains with large trapezoidal plaques attached or wide collars. This last type, which came in two basic versions, the broad collar and the encircling collar, was extremely popular for much of Egyptian history. They were formed of tubular beads strung on a backing in multiple rows. By the Middle Kingdom, the simple tubular beads could be replaced by royal names or other hieroglyphs, such as the ankh, the ancient Egyptian symbol of life.

Bracelets also came in many forms. There were bangles, cuffs, and flexible bracelets made of beads. Armlets were not as common, as they were harder to keep in place. Women wore anklets, often decorated with a claw that magically protected the wearer from scorpion bites. Beads were also used in belts and girdles.

Finger rings first became popular in the Middle Kingdom. The earliest were plain wires and then scarabs were added. In the New Kingdom, rings became more elaborate. The scarab ring remained popular, but other types of signets developed as well.

Earrings appear first at the end of the Second Intermediate Period and became common in the New Kingdom, when they were worn by both sexes. The most common types are the hoop, the stud, and the plug. Some earrings could be quite elaborate and heavy, and during certain periods of the New Kingdom some people had double-pierced ears to accommodate earrings that needed two supports.

The materials used in Egyptian jewellery were chosen carefully for their symbolism. Gold was considered the flesh of the gods: it shone with reflected light and did not corrode. It is also easily malleable and was readily available, making it an ideal choice for many purposes. Silver was associated with the moon and the lotus and was also seen as the bones of the gods. It had to be imported, however, and was rarely used before the later periods.

Semiprecious stones were very popular for beads, amulets, pendants, and inlays: red carnelian and green feldspar, both found locally; blue green turquoise from the Sinai; and deep blue lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. Each of these colours was highly symbolic: red for power; green and turquoise for renewal and regeneration; and deep blue to evoke the night sky and the River Nile. 

These stones could be replaced by faience, a quartz-based ceramic that was easy to produce and to work, as it could be shaped by hand or moulded. It was once assumed that faience was considered a low-cost substitute for stone, but it is now believed that it was also thought to have magical properties, as it transformed from dull and white to shiny and colourful. The ancient Egyptians began to work glass in the New Kingdom, and thereafter used it in place of faience or stone. Enameling (in which glass is powdered then fused with a metal surface) is seen in the later periods.

The ancient Egyptians also used shells, flowers, and seeds for adornment. Cowrie shells were very popular and were made into girdles and worn by young women to enhance their fertility. Pearls appear first in the Ptolemaic Period. Ivory from elephants and hippos could also be used in jewellery, most often as inlays.

Many jewels were in the form of or included protective or magical symbols of some sort. Necklace pendants were most often amulets, such as the hieroglyph for protection or the figure of a protective god. Magical images and symbols were woven into the decoration of many pectorals, bracelets, and rings. The fact that jewels encircled various parts of the body added to their protective function.


COSMETICS: The ancient Egyptians used cosmetics of various sorts, as well as perfumed unguents, for reasons of both health and beauty. 

They began with good personal hygiene. They had no soap of the sort we use today, but used body scrubs made of salt, natron, and honey (the recipes for which are found in medical papyri) and cleansing cream made from both vegetable oils and animal fats. Moisturiser was also important in Egypt’s dry climate, and recipes for wrinkle removers are known from papyri. Carob pellets were used as deodorants.

Kohl, or black eye paint, was used as both a cosmetic and in cures for eye problems. Actual examples are seen as early as the Predynastic Period and have galena as their principal ingredient. This was used for lashes and to outline the eyes. Green eyepaint was also used. Made from malachite, this was used on the lids and beneath the brows but was not popular much past the Middle Kingdom. In the Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods, eye paint was ground on flat palettes of schist. Later, it was stored in small pots or multiple small tubes joined together and applied with a stick.

Women also painted their cheeks and lips. Although the exact formulation for this rouge is unknown, it was probably red ochre in oil or animal fat. Henna might have been used to colour finger and toenails and also to redden nipples. Mirrors were made from polished bronze or even gold, and their handles were decorated in a number of ways. The papyrus plant was a popular motif, the umbel forming a support for the mirror’s disk.

Scents were extremely important, and classical authors state that ancient Egyptian perfumers were known as some of the best in the world. Ancient Egyptian scents were not perfumes as we understand them today, but rather plant essences combined with oils and fats. Many of the ingredients were expensive, rare, or imported, or both, and were thus available only to the rich. 

Plants thought to have been used in perfumes include the water lily/lotus (Nymphaea Caerulea), the scent of which was associated with the smell of the gods and also had connotations of regeneration and rebirth. Henna flowers had a strong odour, as did the Madonna Lily. Cinnamon and cedar bark were imported, as were resins such as myrrh and frankincense, laudanum, and galbanum. Some herbs and spices might have been used as well.

The perfumed unguents were made by crushing an aromatic plant and then combining it with oil or fat by one of several methods: enfleurage (saturation); maceration (dipping the plant matter into heated fats or oils, then sieving the resultant mixture); or expressing the scent. Several types of oils were available, from nut or seed oil to animal grease.

Many examples of unguent containers have survived, often from mortuary contexts, since perfumes were essential for the afterlife. In many cases, these were anthropomorphic, representing, for example, a young girl or servant carrying a pot in which the unguent could be placed. Bes, the god of pleasure, and animals with erotic connotations such as monkeys and frogs were also popular. Cosmetic implements often take the form of a naked young girl swimming with her arms extended to push forward the spoon in the form of a flower, bird, or kitten.

Many tomb scenes from the New Kingdom show the deceased and his family at a banquet wearing cones on their heads. These are thought to have been scented fat, perhaps ox tallow with myrrh, although they might also have been of beeswax. They would have melted slowly as the evening progressed and flowed over the wig, keeping the wearer nicely scented.


DANCE AND MUSIC: Music and dance were essential to the ancient Egyptians. Although such entertainments were certainly part of their daily lives, most of our information comes from tomb and temple contexts, and thus relates to their ritual use. 

The ancient Egyptians used an assortment of musical instruments, some native and some brought in from abroad over the course of their history and including pipes and flutes, lutes and harps, and rhythmic devices such as sistra (sacred rattles), drums, and clappers. They also sang, and it has been suggested that they used chironomy, a system of hand gestures used to indicate musical values.

Many types of dances are represented on tomb walls, performed primarily but not exclusively by women or girls. Sometimes skirts and headdresses are worn, but often the dancers are naked and wearing only a girdle. 

The contexts in which dances were included ranged from processions, for example when a statue was dragged to a temple, to funerals and to banquets that may or may not have been cultic in nature. Flexibility was required, and some dances involved props such as balls or staffs.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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