Part 2 of What Evidence is there for the Daily Lives of the Ancient Egyptians?

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Gaming Box and pieces for ‘twenty squares’ and senet, New Kingdom, XIXth Dynasty, reign of Seti I, this game is also depicted in two tomb reliefs from the period

Part 1 can be found here.

Evidence in the form of tools and implements allows for the assessment of fishing, hunting and craft practices in all periods. Tomb 741 H5 at Helwan provides an example of these types of artefacts for everyday use; ten copper hooks were excavated of varying sizes.  These artefacts are very important to assessing activities in Early Ancient Egypt due to a complete lack of philological evidence and limited availability of art history.

Sport and leisure in the lives of the Ancient Egyptians is also represented by a variety of finds and grave goods.  Archaeological evidence in the form of models playing instruments, like one painted wooden figure of a female harpist dating to Dynasty nineteen and actual instruments excavated, allow for analysis of music and entertainment in daily life.[20] Frescos from tombs show nobles engaging in many leisurely activities such as fowling, but as the large majority of the population were of the peasant class and worked for a living, we have limited evidence for leisure in relation to the masses.

Models and scenes from burials provide a wealth of evidence for the assessment of daily life in Ancient Egypt, depicting a range of daily activities from agriculture and craft to household and leisure activities.  The earliest models come from the Predynastic period from sites such as Abadiveh and Naqada, however, due to their low quality we can only make interpretations of the activities they show by comparison to later models.[21]  From the old kingdom we mainly have examples of food-preparation like the milling of grain and baking, and the models are mostly of single figures each showing one stage of a larger timeline of activities.[22]  Food preparation was an extremely important part of these activities as the staples were required by everyone everyday. From the late old kingdom models and scenes of cattle husbandry and crafts also start to appear.

The majority of models depicting daily activities come from the Middle Kingdom and include scenes of food processing, the manufacture of everyday goods and agricultural tasks which are important to assess as a vast percentage of the population were farmers or craftsmen.  TT280 for instance reveals many workshop and labor scenes.[23]  From the Middle Kingdom we increasingly see scenes such as cooking, and from the end of the Old Kingdom we also have the introduction of combination scenes.[24]  This allows for the assessment of the relationship between different daily tasks.[25]  Models of houses ranging from small huts to large-multistory structures have also been excavated which allow the assessment of living space and domestic tasks.  Models also see the inclusion of leisure and entertainment activities as seen with scenes of dancing and musicians from post 6th dynasty. In the Later periods the number of models gradually decline.

Limestone Shabti

Shabtis are also an important grave good for assessing daily life especially in relation to the Amarna and post-Amarna periods.  Since the shabti was a form of servant to perform everyday work its representations can provide us with some knowledge of the tasks performed in Ancient Egyptian daily life. Evidence of agriculture can be seen in shabtis such as with the inclusion of implements from about the time of Tuthmosis IV.   Separate implements were also modeled including hoes, picks, bags and baskets.[26] Some shabti spell versions also include evidence of daily tasks such as water carrying and brick making.  Middle kingdom shabtis also include mention of daily activities in their spells.[27]

Shabtis also provide some evidence of the dress of daily life especially in the Amarna to the late Ramesside Period.  Post-Amarna shabtis often gave representations of the dress of daily life with long pleated robes and curled wigs of the duplex type.  The shabtis also present evidence of the dress and style of females in this period, but less so than men.[28]

Conditions of climate and terrain have greatly preserved material evidence in Ancient Egypt beyond that of other ancient civilizations.[29] Much of the material that is available to us to assess daily life also comes from settlement sites.  Excavations have turned up evidence in the form of pottery vessels, storage jars, knives and other implements of bronze and flint, toys, games and musical instruments used in the activities of everyday life.[30]  Unfortunately many ancient towns are now covered by modern habitations or lie within the cultivated land of the NileValley, but sites on the higher level of desert have remained less effected by conditions and provide us with such evidence which helps make assessments.

Archaeological excavations of settlements have provided us with much of the evidence we now have for the assessment of daily life in the early periods.  Deposits of animal droppings and small circular ‘enclosures’ such as those found at Hemamiya, and bone deposits like from Merimde provide us with a basis of assessment for animal husbandry and domestic activities in early Egyptian daily life. [31]  The remains of granaries and storage pits at sites like Merimde, and Badari where traces of the grains used in food preparation have been found provide evidence for domestic activities and agriculture.  Grain silos from Buto Layer IV are exemplary of the evidence available to assess agricultural life.[32]  From these features we can make assessments such as how granaries appear to be associated with individual dwellings demonstrating that family-units were becoming economically independent.

Town remains of all periods provide a wide variety of evidence for daily life in Ancient Egypt, even though the majority of excavations in Egypt have been on burial sites[33].  Deposits of animal bones, teeth and horns of avian, bovine and equine animals, such as those found at Kom el-adhem,[34] provide assessment of domestication and the use of animals in everyday tasks and as a source of food.  Also artefacts excavated such as bowls, baskets and pottery shards provide us with evidence of daily tasks in and around the household.[35]  Much of the debris that is found at these settlement sites in the later periods has been attributed to the daily tasks of the servant and peasant classes allowing for interpretation of the domestic economy.[36]

Deir el Medina

Excavations have uncovered traces of dwellings, which are especially helpful in the assessment of the use of living spaces in a domestic context.  Buto is one example of a site rich in domestic evidence in Layer IV.  We also have evidence of living areas from earlier sites including Merimde where there has been excavated a number of buildings with walls made of straw-tempered mud.  Some of the most significant sites for the assessment of daily life actually come from the New Kingdom, the most important of these is the workmen’s village at Deir el-Medina which preserves not only an extensive amount of settlement remains but also large numbers of ostraca used by the inhabitants for rough notes and records.[37]  It is from these ostraca that we gain a look into the minds of the inhabitants and the day to day running of the community and socio-economic system.[38]

The workmen’s village at el-Amarna provides one with features of agricultural and domestic importance, the likes of which have also been found in the Memphis area, Elephantine and Tell el-Dab’a.[39] Like many Ancient Egyptian settlements however Amarna has disappeared partially under modern cultivation, but still stands as a fine example of everyday life; with excavations uncovering wells, grain silos, workshops, bakeries, refuse dumps, communal areas and artefacts of day to day activities.[40]

Like many other sites there is debate about how typical this community was, but when one looks at the large number of sites used in Ancient times for different purposes it is difficult to judge just what is typical.  Archaeological and architectural evidence from places such as el-Amarna and Deir el-Medina are very important to the assessment of daily life as they provide evidence in, or close to, their direct context.  Material and features found at these sites allow for better understanding of production and consumption throughout a certain community and we should take advantage of the evidence that is available.  Kemp explains that excavations of sites such as this provide a greater clarification of how spaces were used in daily life, whether it be for cooking, craft or communal activities. Such can be the interpretation for a number of circular features and an L-shaped feature possibly used as a corn storage bin indicating food preparation.[41]

When considering the evidence is available for the assessment of daily life we see that there are several types to include.  Throughout all the ancient periods the majority of evidence comes from burials, with a lesser amount from settlement sites, though there are sites of great use to assessment especially in the New Kingdom.  A large amount of the assessment of daily life can be made grave goods, and from the early dynastic period onwards, we gain a lot from art history; scenes of daily life painted on the walls.  Such grave goods include not only objects used in domestic and everyday activities themselves but also models and statuettes of scenes.  Along with a range of philological material, aspects of everyday life such as agriculture, labor, craft, household and leisure activities and food preparation are represented significantly through archaeological evidence and allow for assessment and interpretation.

Part 1 can be found here


Aldred, C., Egypt to the End of the Old Kingdom (London, 1988), 100-126

Baines, J. and Malek, J., Cultural Atlas of Ancient Egypt (Oxford, 2000), p.170, 176, 190-200

BritishMuseum, A General Introductory Guide to the Egyptian Collections in the British Museum (London, 1964)

Brunton, G. and Caton-Thompson, G., The Badarian Civilisation and Predynastic Remains Near Badari (London 1928), pp. 2-52

Budge, E.A., The Dwellers of the Nile (Manchester, 1926)

Catalogue of a Collection of Eqyptian Antiquities, The Property of Henry Abbott, ESQ., MD (Cairo, 1846)

Faulkner, R.O., Wente, E.F. and Simpson, W.K., The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions and Poetry, New Edition (London, 1973)

Grajetzki, W., Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt: Life in Death for Rich and Poor (London, 2003), pp.40-41, 59-60, 78-83

Hope, C.A., Gold of the Pharaohs (Sydney, 2000), pp.43, 88-123

Hope, C.A., Egyptian Pottery (Buckinghamshire, 2001), pp.7-15

James, T.G.H., Excavating Egypt: Excavating in Egypt: The Egypt Exploration Society 1882-1982 (London, 1982)

Kemp, B.J., Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation (2nd Edition) (New York, 2006)

Montent, P., Eternal Egypt: The Civilisation of Ancient Egypt from Earliest Times to Conquest by Alexander the Great (London, 1988), pp.79-106

O’Connor, D., Ancient Egyptian Society (Pittsburgh, 1990), pp.7-37

Oakes, L. and Gahlin, L., Ancient Egypt (London, 2006), pp.136-143

Schmandt-Besserat, D., Immortal Egypt (Malibu, 1978)

Schulz, R., and Seidel, M., Egypt: The World of the Pharaohs, pp.82-95, 123-131

Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., The British Museum: Dictionary of Ancient Egypt (London, 2003), pp.38-41, 99-100, 163-164

Shaw, I., The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (Oxford, 2003)

Shorter, A.W., Everyday life in ancient Egypt (London, 1932), pp.38-127

Stewart, H.M., Egyptian Shabtis (Buckinghamshire, 1995), pp.34-42

Tooley, A.M.J., Egyptian Models and Scenes (Buckinghamshire, 1995), pp.8-59

Uphill, E.R., Egyptian Towns and Cities (Buckinghamshire, 2001), pp.21-38, 47-62

Ancient Egyptian Clothing, in K.M.T., Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt, Vol.6, No.4

Baines, J., Literacy and Ancient Egyptian Society, in Man, New Series, Vol.18, No.3 (September 1983), pp.572-599

Forbes, D., The Middle Kingdom Tomb Models of Vizier Meketre, in K.M.T., Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt, Vol.6, No.3 (1995)

Kemp, B.J., The City of El-Amarna as a Source for the study of Urban Society in Ancient Egypt, in World Archaeology, Vol.9, No.2, Architecture and Archaeology, (Oct., 1977), pp.123-139

Lovell, N.C., in The SSEA Journal, Vol.21-22 (Canada, 1994), pp.20-36

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), pp.283-288

McDowell, A., Agricultural Activity by the Workmen of Deir el-Medina, in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol.78, (1992), pp.195-206

Meskell, L., Archaeologies of Life and Death, in American Journal of Archaeology, Vol.103, No, 2 (Apr., 1999), pp.181-199

El-Khouli, A. and Kanawati, N., The Old Kingdom Tombs of El-Hammamiya (Sydney, 1990)

Kanawati, N. and Hassan, A., The Teti Cemetery at Saqqara, Vol.1 – The Tombs of Nedjet-em-pet, Ka-aper and Others (Sydney, 1996)

Saad, Z.Y., The Excavations at Helwan (Oklahoma, 1969), p.39-57, © Trustees of the BritishMuseum

[20] Shorter, A.W., Everyday life in ancient Egypt (London, 1932), p.40

[21] Tooley, A.M.J., Egyptian Models and Scenes (Buckinghamshire, 1995), p.8

[22] Aldred, p.126

[23] Forbes, D., The Middle Kingdom Tomb Models of Vizier Meketre, in K.M.T., Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt, Vol.6, No.3 (1995), p.35 – (The Tomb of Meketre)

[24] The most common of these combination scenes was models of the brewing and baking processes

[25] Tooley, op.cit., p.29

[26] Stewart, H.M., Egyptian Shabtis (Buckinghamshire, 1995), p.37

[27] Schulz, R., and Seidel, M., op.cit., p.129 – ‘to cultivate the fields and irrigate the banks, to ferry over the ‘sand’ (fertilizer) of the east and the west’

[28] Stewart, op.cit., p.36

[29] Lythgoe, op.cit., p.283

[30] Ibid., p.287

[31] Shaw, I., op.cit., p. 39

[32] These grain silos were in the form of a number of round, mud brick features excavated in Buto Layer IV

[33] O’Connor, op.cit., p.15

[34] Lovell, N.C., in The SSEA Journal, Vol.21-22 (Canada, 1994), p.26

[35] ibid., p.31

[36] Kemp, B.J., The City of El-Amarna as a Source for the study of Urban Society in Ancient Egypt, in World Archaeology, Vol.9, No.2, Architecture and Archaeology, (Oct., 1977), p.137

[37] Deir el-Medina (1550-1070BC), located in Upper Egypt on the west bank of modern day Luxor, housed the workers who built the tombs in the Valley of the Kings in much of the New Kingdom period.  There is some debate whether this was a typical community as it was state run but it is still a valuable site for evidence of daily life as it held not only the workmen but their families.  There is also some evidence of agricultural activities, see McDowell, A.,  pp.195-206

[38] Shaw and Nicholson., op.cit., p.82

[39] Ibid., p.34

[40] El-Amarna (1352-1336BC), founded by Akhenaten in the New Kingdom, el-Amarna is one of the best preserved examples of a settlement of Ancient Egypt

[41] Kemp, B.J., The City of El-Amarna as a Source for the study of Urban Society in Ancient Egypt, in World Archaeology, Vol.9, No.2, Architecture and Archaeology, (Oct., 1977), p.133

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