Part 1 of What Evidence is there for the Daily Lives of the Ancient Egyptians?

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Part 2 can be found here.

We often hear about the kings and queens of Ancient Egypt but what about the lives of the general populace? How can we learn about them? The daily life of the Ancient Egyptians can be assessed by the wide range of archaeological evidence, philological evidence and art history available to us.   Through the use of modern archaeological and chronological dating methods we can gain a better understanding of what daily life entailed in the world of the Ancient Egyptians. 

Evidence of daily life from the early periods is limited, but there is still some available to us.  Grave goods provide a wealth of evidence for daily life as the deceased were buried increasingly over time with personal possessions.  Excavations of burials at Badari for instance have uncovered a variety of artefacts and adornments that were used in everyday life. For example grave 5225 at Badari contained a number of pots that could have been used in the daily life of a household and a cosmetic slate palette.[1]  The pottery and vessels found as grave goods provides us with evidence of the types of crafts and trades that appear in the daily life of the period.

There is also evidence in the form of small figurines and gaming pieces from which we can assess leisure in pre-dynastic daily life.  Such is found in tombs like tomb M.VIII at Abu Roash where a number of lion-shaped playing pieces were uncovered.  Everyday items like these help illustrate the refined lifestyle of the upper class.[2]  We have a vast amount more to assess from in later periods, but as you can see the pottery, grave goods and archaeology of the pre/early-dynastic period does allow for some assessment of daily life.

The vast majority of evidence available for daily life in the early periods comes from burials such as those at Helwan, Saqqara and Abydos, evidence of everyday activities for instance, is seen in the form of copper vessels from the tomb of Idi at Abydos.[3]  Tomb 24 H5 at Helwan also contained alabaster water jugs and pans.[4] A large number of cooking vessels, pots, jars and pans have been excavated from all periods providing us with assessable evidence for domestic activities.

Scene from mid 5th Dynasty from the rock cut tomb of court-singers Nefer and Kahay at Saqqara. Series of scenes common in rural life. Upper register showing construction of papyrus boat, middle registers show cattle rearing and agricultural activities important to maintaining daily life, the lower registers show the baking of bread and the lives of fowlers, and the very bottom register depicts dancing.

From the old kingdom onwards we have increasingly available evidence of the dress and clothing styles in daily life from wall paintings and statuary.  Statuary from the new and middle kingdoms allows for the assessment of daily dress, some showing the long kilts wore by men that reached from the chest or hips to their ankles, and wide cloaks.  These statues also provide us with evidence from which we can assess hairstyles and wigs, showing a range of styles from shoulder length wigs to clean shaven heads.[5]  Daily dress and cosmetics are also examinable from burials from the early dynastic period onward. For instance, jewelry found in cemeteries 5400, 5700 and 5100 at Badari, including necklaces and earrings,[6] and a range of actual styled clothing and cloth making materials as well as what may be interpreted as pieces of looms and cosmetic items and jewelry from Helwan.[7]

From around the beginning of the Old Kingdom significant new forms of evidence starts to dominate and become more available for the assessment of daily life, these are wall paintings and art.  Before this period there are very few examples of tomb wall decoration such as the painting in the Chalcolithic Tomb 100 at Hierakonpolis showing scenes of hunting and domestic activities.[8]  Wall paintings in Old Kingdom chapels often show a range of images in tombs of both officials and lower status individuals like tradesmen, as the afterlife was conceived similarly for all non-royals.[9]

The inclusion of temporal ordering within these tomb paintings also provides us with a timeline of the daily activities.  For instance the agricultural and cattle-rearing year’s activities are shown often in order from the upper register continuing down.[10]  The scenes in old kingdom tombs often portrayed trade and craft activities with the tomb owner supervising them. [11]  In doing so, they provide us with evidence of the daily life of the general population as craftsmen and farmers.  This theme continues well into the New Kingdom with wall decoration such as from the tomb of Menkheperran-sonb at Thebes (Dynasty 18) showing artisans at work.[12]  Employment is a large part of the daily lives of individuals in all communities and these depictions allow this aspect to be further analysed concerning the Ancient Egyptians.

Tomb and chapel scenes provide for much of the basis of assessment of daily life.  This fifth dynasty wall painting from the tomb of Nefer and Kahay is a prime example of the many parts of life depicted (See image above).  Not only does this wall painting show us areas of agricultural life, farming and fowling, but also preparation of food and what could be interpreted as a scene of leisure with dancers.  In certain later periods such as the Amarna Period in the New Kingdom, artistic evidence becomes less useful to the assessment of daily life, as with the reign of Akhenaten, artistic expression was based on the Royal Family.  This allows for a rare view of the daily lives of the Royals, but not of the common people.

Middle Kingdom scenes of everyday activities generally follow the traditional scenes of the Old Kingdom.  Scenes of daily life are found in fragments of reliefs from both Royal and Private tombs and chapels, especially at sites like Beni Hasan which is the location of many privately owned tombs of the Middle Kingdom. Scenes continue in this period to depict hunting and fishing, and food preparation; some scholars believe that these scenes were simply copied from the Old Kingdom prototypes but they still provide us with a foundation from which to assess activities of daily life.[13]

The ‘Satire of Professions’, boasting the profession of scribe, found on a wooden board in the Deir el-Medina, written in hieratic. Example of a text describing the occupations carried out in everyday life.

From the Middle Kingdom we witness a number of literary pieces of evidence for daily life in Ancient Egypt.  One such example of this evidence is the ‘Hekanakhte papers’ (12th dynasty) which are a collection of Middle Kingdom letters providing a detailed explanation of agricultural life in the period.[14]  These letters also provide rare evidence of the literacy skill of Egyptian women as one letter is from a woman to her mother. This provides us with philological evidence from which we can assess the extent of literacy of Egyptian women in daily life.  The shabti spells are another example of this type of evidence providing lists of daily activities which the shabti is to participate in.

The Middle Kingdom saw the introduction of fictional literature such as the ‘Tale of Sinuhe’ and the ‘Tale of the Eloquent Peasant’ that, though from their plots we see that they are fiction they purport to be historical, so provide us with information of daily life and tasks.[15]  For instance, the eloquent peasant provides evidence of trade and its importance to daily life and the use of domestic animals in daily tasks.[16]  The Middle Kingdom ‘Satire on Trades’ is another prime example as it describes aspects of all possible occupations in contrast to the easy life of being a scribe. Towards the beginning of the New Kingdom we also increasingly gain evidence in the form of Ostraka including letters, student writing exercises, such as numerous found at Deir el-Medina, and numerous more fictional texts.

As previously discussed, a vast amount of evidence for daily life in the early periods comes from burials, the same can be observed with all periods as objects of everyday use were placed in the tombs to ensure provisions for the dead, for their lives after death.[17]  After the Early Dynastic Period the amount of grave goods steadily increased.  These artefacts allow for the assessment and interpretation of many parts of daily life, one such example of this is of dress.  The eighteenth dynasty tomb of the architect Kha included piles of well preserved folded tunics and sheets.[18]  Subsidiary graves are also helpful in the interpretation of domestic practices and craft as they contain a more humble population and from these we gain deposits of pottery, domestic containers and implements.[19]  Subsidiary graves often held artisans, and tools uncovered from their graves provide evidence of crafts, for instance, carpentry, pottery production and building. And offerings to the dead give us an idea of the foods eaten.  These pieces of evidence are not only important to assessment of the daily life within the home but also give us examples of the types of crafts and labor being participated in by the general population.

Part 2 can be found here.


[1] Brunton, G. and Caton-Thompson, G., The Badarian Civilisation and Predynastic Remains Near Badari (London 1928), p.9

[2] Schulz, R., and Seidel, M., Egypt: The World of the Pharaohs, p.35 – 1st Dynasty, c.3000BC – many of these items are found in the tombs of the elite from the pre-dynastic times.

[3] Aldred, C., Egypt to the End of the Old Kingdom (London, 1988), p.58 – vessels such as those found in the tomb of Idi and all over Egypt in all periods allow for assessment of domestic tasks and food preparation as well trade due to a number of imported products identified by labels, markings and materials.

[4] Saad, Z.Y., The Excavations at Helwan (Oklahoma, 1969), p.40

[5]Schulz, R., and Seidel, M., op.cit., p.129

[6] Brunton, op.cit., p. XXVII – cemetery sites at Badari and elsewhere also provide a means of assessing social stratigraphy in society with the comparisons of different grave goods and burial types and sizes from the pre-dynastic period onwards.

[7] Saad, Z.Y., op.cit.,  p.49

[8] Kemp, B.J., Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation (2nd Edition) (New York, 2006), p.80 – the domestic, and hunting and gathering scenes are a theme of the tomb 100 wall painting which surround the primary focus on a number of sea-faring vessels which remain open to interpretation

[9] Schulz, R., and Seidel, M., op.cit., p.82

[10] Ibid., p.85

[11] Ibid., p.85 – These scenes appear frequently as it was honourable to be put over such activities as they involved the working of possessions of the royal administration

[12] O’Connor, D., Ancient Egyptian Society (Pittsburgh, 1990), p.17

[13] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., The British Museum: Dictionary of Ancient Egypt (London, 2003), p.40

[14] Shaw, I., The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (Oxford, 2003), p.150 – The majority of these papers were written by the farmer Hekanakhte who left them as instructions for his family while he was absent.

[15] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., op.cit., p.164

[16] British museum website, http://www.britishmuseum.org/

[17] Lythgoe, A.M., An Exhibit Illustrating the Daily Life of the Ancient Egyptians, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol.13, No.12 (Dec., 1918), p.283

[18] Ancient Egyptian Clothing, in K.M.T., Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt, Vol.6, No.4, p.34 – tomb discovered in the artisan’s cemetery at Deir el-Medina in 1906

[19] Subsidiary graves mostly contained artisans and craftsmen so are more reliable in use to interpret the lives of the common Egyptian population rather than the lives of the Royal families

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