Work and Play


I’ll make you love the scribe’s job more than you love your own mother. I’ll make its beauties obvious to you, for it is the greatest of all professions, and there is none like it in all the land… See, there is no worker without an overseer except for the scribe, who is always his own boss. Therefore, if you can learn to write, it will be far better for you than all the other careers which I have listed before you, each one of which is more wretched than the last.

Middle Kingdom scribal propaganda

Education and literacy were the keys to professional advancement in Dynastic society. Writing developed in Egypt at about 3000 BC, and from this point onwards only those who could combine an ability to read and write with a basic grasp of arithmetic were eligible to compete for prestigious posts as administrators and accountants in the three major white-collar employment sectors: the civil service, the army and the priesthood. The rather vague title of ‘scribe’, which could be applied to anyone who was literate regardless of occupation, quickly became one of the most prestigious of Egyptian accolades, and many wealthy and influential men chose to stress their high status by being sculpted in the typical scribe’s pose: seated cross-legged with a reed brush poised to write on a roll of papyrus stretched across the knees. In addition to enhanced employment prospects, the literate received an enviable range of fringe benefits. Most importantly, the educated were exempt from the indignities of hard manual labour, always something to be avoided in ancient Egypt. Instead, they were able to reinforce their more elevated status by mingling with the equally refined upper classes rather than the uncouth peasants. In stark contrast, the illiterate and uneducated laboured under a severe social handicap, constantly banging their heads against an unpassable and unavoidable barrier to promotion. Quite simply, anyone who was anyone in ancient Egypt could read and write.

The basics of reading and writing were acquired either at home or at school before the trainee scribe, following the long-established custom of teaching via apprenticeship, progressed to working under the direct supervision of an older and more experienced professional. Often this supervisor was a close male relation such as a father or an uncle. During the Old Kingdom wealthy families employed tutors to equip their children with a primary education, and this tradition of private coaching for the upper classes continued well into the New Kingdom. However, during the prosperous Middle Kingdom, formal day-schools known as the ‘Houses of Instruction’ were established in association with the royal palaces and temples. Here, select bands of young boys received a good basic education designed to provide the ever-expanding state with a much needed supply of well-trained bureaucrats. These schools were not, unfortunately, noted for their imaginative or stimulating lessons, and the pupils studied very little beside reading, writing and, to a lesser extent, arithmetic. Every day the students, some as young as five years of age, attended alfresco morning classes where they passed their time endlessly chanting, copying and re-copying a series of classical texts which increased in complexity and dullness as the pupil advanced in proficiency.

When your mother sent you to school, where you were taught to read and write, she cared for you each day with bread and beer at home. When you yourself become a man and take a bride, and become settled in your house, pay attention to your own son, and bring him up carefully as your mother raised you.

New Kingdom scribal instruction

There were no specialized or simple reading books designed to encourage the development of tender young Egyptian minds. Instead, the first book to be studied, a lengthy text known as the Kemit, was a standard compilation of polite Middle Egyptian phrases, model letters and guidance to young scribes, written in an old-fashioned vertical script which must have been as dauntingly unfamiliar to the young students of the New Kingdom as Chaucer’s Middle English would be to the primary school children of today. Once this formidable academic hurdle had been overcome, students were faced with a succession of more advanced traditional works, with modern literature being considered only after three or four years when the pupil had become reasonably fluent in both his reading and writing. The so-called Wisdom Texts formed an integral part of this scribal training. These texts, which have furnished many of the quotations given in this book, developed during the Old Kingdom and remained very popular throughout the Dynastic period. They always followed the same format, and were written as lists of rather long-winded and idiosyncratic advice dictated by a revered master to his son or favourite pupil. The opinions on offer ranged from the general to the highly specific, and much of the advice still holds good in the modern world:

If a man’s son accepts his father’s words, then no plan of his will go wrong.

Old Kingdom Wisdom Text

Do not tell lies against your mother; the magistrates abhor this.

Middle Kingdom Wisdom Text

Lend a hand to an elder drunk on beer; respect him as his children should.

New Kingdom Wisdom Text

He who spits in the sky will have spittle fall on his head.

Late Period Wisdom Text

The schoolboy’s studies were made particularly tedious by the unique Egyptian tradition of employing three different types of writing at the same time, each style being considered appropriate to a specific type of document. The most popular and frequently used type of writing was a curly-looking script running from right to left. Specially developed to be written quickly with a fine paintbrush, this so-called cursive hieratic was the writing of everyday life and, consequently, the most widely studied and read. In contrast, hieroglyphic was a highly specialized, intricate and rather time-consuming form of writing reserved for monumental inscriptions of everlasting importance which could be carved or painted slowly and with great care. Cursive hieroglyphic, written from left to right, fell between these two extremes, being the writing of the semi-formal religious, magical and scientific texts. Towards the end of the Dynastic period changes in the Egyptian language led to the development of demotic, a fourth type of script which was used mainly for business purposes. Egyptian pupils, struggling to cope with different styles of writing, would have envied their modern counterparts faced only with the need to distinguish between the highly similar ‘joined-up’ lower case writing, sloping italic writing and printed capital letters.

Don’t waste your day in idleness, or you will be flogged. A boy’s ear is on his back. He listens when he is beaten.

Traditional scribal advice

The Egyptian schoolmasters were invariably very strict with their young charges, regarding frequent beatings as an integral and essential part of the learning process. As one Egyptian adult ruefully reminisced with his former mentor, ‘You smote my back, and so your teaching entered my ear.’ Leaving aside the question of corporal punishment, the approved teaching method differed markedly from current western educational practice. In particular, reading was taught by the constant memorizing, reciting and then writing of whole phrases which were regarded as one entity; there was no attempt to teach the pupils how to analyse a sentence by considering each word, or how to build up the spelling of a particular word by identifying and pronouncing the individual component signs and letters. Nor were the pupils encouraged to develop independent thoughts or to express themselves in imaginative prose. Instead, each conventional phrase was learned parrot-fashion so that it could be reproduced as a whole. This system of block learning goes a long way towards explaining why many Egyptian documents, even private letters, are so full of identical phrases that they manage to give the impression of being written by the same scribe. Some Egyptian letters consist entirely of these conventional phrases, and represent little more than a generalized greeting without any personal content, somewhat as a modern pre-printed birthday or Christmas card or even a brief postcard can serve as a rather impersonal gesture of contact today.

Instructing a woman is like holding a sack of sand whose sides have split open.

Late Period opinion of Scribe Ankhsheshonq

There is no direct evidence to show that girls ever accompanied their brothers to school. Indeed, as primary education was merely the first step towards a vocational training, and as few girls if any were expected to progress to high-status professions, most parents would have baulked at the unnecessary expense required to educate their daughters. After all, formal education was a privilege reserved for very few boys and the majority of the population remained both illiterate and uneducated. Nevertheless, and in spite of Scribe Ankhsheshonq’s rather bigoted opinion, society did not object in principle to the education of females. Although the only Egyptian woman to be depicted actually putting pen to paper was Seshat, the goddess of writing, several ladies were illustrated in close association with the traditional scribe’s writing kit of palette and brushes.1 It is certainly beyond doubt that at least some of the daughters of the king were educated, and the position of private tutor to a royal princess could be one of the highest honour. The very influential New Kingdom official Senenmut, Steward of Amen during the reign of Queen Hatchepsut, clearly regarded his position as tutor to Princess Neferure, daughter of Hatchepsut and heiress to the Egyptian throne, as the high point of his unusually successful career.


Fig. 17 The goddess Seshat

More surprising is the evidence provided by ostraca recovered from Deir el-Medina which suggest that at least some ordinary housewives were able to read and write. These texts, which seem to be informal notes jotted down to jog the writer’s memory, deal with fairly trivial female concerns such as laundry lists, underwear and dressmaking advice, and as such are certainly not the type of document which a woman would employ a scribe to write on her behalf. It would, however, be wrong to extrapolate from this evidence and deduce that the majority of housewives were educated. Presumably the standard of literacy in a town like Deir


Fig. 18 Primitive hieroglyphs from Deir el-Medina

el-Medina, which included a high percentage of educated draughtsmen, masons and artists together with their families, was far higher than in a purely agricultural community where few peasant men and women would ever need reading and writing skills. It is interesting that Deir el-Medina has also yielded a number of non-hieroglyphic symbols which were obviously used by the illiterate or partially literate as a means of identifying their personal property. These signs, which vary from simple geometric shapes to more intricate hieroglyph-like figures, have been found on house and tomb walls, but are most commonly used to identify laundry which was sent to the washerman.

There’s nothing better than a book; it’s like a boat sailing on the water.

Middle Kingdom Satire of the Trades

Very few of the privileged women who received a primary education were able to progress via formal apprenticeships into professional careers. This is not necessarily because there was an official ban on women occupying influential posts and, indeed, no such veto has ever been recorded. Instead, it reflects the fact that a girl would be embarking on her nuptial and domestic responsibilities at precisely that age when her brother might expect to commence his training. Without all the conveniences of modern life, including efficient contraception, the mistress of the house had more than enough work to fill her day, and she would certainly have been unable to take on the commitment of a full-time career. After all, the upper-class wife derived her status from her husband’s position in the community and she had no need to work to increase either her social standing or her personal wealth.

A wife was, however, expected to support her husband in his chosen career, to the extent that she might even be called upon to act from time to time as his official representative. The clearest surviving example of a wife deputizing for her absent husband is recorded in a New Kingdom letter written to the Scribe of the necropolis, Esamenope, by his wife Henuttawi.2 Henuttawi tells how, at her husband’s request, she supervised the reception of two ships of grain intended to pay the monthly rations of the Theban workmen. Unfortunately, when the ships were unloaded there was an obvious shortfall in the number of grain sacks, and Henuttawi, without herself directly challenging the sailors, proposed that the matter should be investigated further as someone had obviously tampered with the cargo during the voyage. Although it would have been more usual for a son to take over Esamenope’s role, no one questioned Henuttawi’s right to act officially on her husband’s behalf, and her ability to carry out her role effectively seems to have been accepted by all.

Those wealthy ladies who were lucky enough to find themselves with time on their hands turned to the temple in an attempt to occupy their spare hours profitably while enhancing their social status. Religion, the one eminently respectable ‘career’ always open to royal and upper-class Egyptian women, was an approved interest for non-working females just as our modern society actively approves of those public-spirited women who have no need to take paid employment but who undertake a certain amount of voluntary work for charity. Egyptian public life was very much dominated by men, and in all the big provincial centres of Egypt the male élite held important and high-profile positions such as mayor, magistrate or senior civil servant. Their wives were free to take an equally prominent corresponding interest in the local temple where they often served as priestesses, particularly when the cult was that of a female deity. The duties of these upper-class priestesses were somewhat nebulous. Whether or not they were expected to be regular celebrants at the temple is open to question, and it seems very likely that these were purely honorary positions conferred automatically on all large-scale temple benefactors. It would certainly be wrong to class these priestesses as mere temple employees, and it seems likely that they were expected to make donations to the temple coffers rather than receive payment for their services.

Good speech is more scarce than greenstone, and yet it may be found amongst the talk of maids at the grindstone.

Old Kingdom Wisdom Text

The traditional Egyptian division of labour decreed that the man should work outside the home while the woman worked within it. This view was reinforced by the contemporary literature which constantly depicted active men supported by passive wives, and was subtly emphasized by the artistic convention of depicting light-skinned ‘indoor’ women married to sun-bronzed ‘outdoor’ men; in this context, ‘outdoor’ may be taken as a symbol for employment outside the home. Tomb paintings conform totally to the conventional view of daily life, so that we have very few scenes showing women working in anything other than purely domestic contexts, and no scenes showing a woman performing any work of great importance. But, it must be remembered that these tomb walls were painted to depict a way of life which was deliberately both idealized and stereotyped: just as upper-class Victorian and Edwardian morality maintained that a woman’s place was in the home, conveniently ignoring the thousands of women who were forced to work for a living, so the Egyptian scenes emphasize that paid work was, quite properly, the prerogative of men. The scarcity of tomb scenes showing women supervising cooking perhaps gives us some indication of the lack of realism in these conventional images.

As might be expected, the true situation seems to have been less straightforward, and it would be a grave mistake to underestimate the economic importance of the Egyptian woman, just as it would be a mistake to ignore the contribution made by her children who, in the absence of any form of protective legislation, were able to take full-time jobs from a very early age. Many women did, in fact, need to work outside the home in order to supplement the family income. The work available to these women may be divided into three broad categories: those who were both well connected and well educated were able to take professional posts, usually as domestic administrators or supervisors; those with the appropriate skills and talents entered the female-dominated music, weaving and mourning industries; while those with little or no formal training entered domestic service.

Several female job titles have been preserved on tomb walls and funerary stelae.3 However, these titles cover a relatively restricted range of duties, and it would appear that the professions open to women were limited both by tradition and educational opportunity. Once the purely honorary accolades (Sole Royal Ornament, King’s Acquaintance, etc.) and the more lowly servant’s tasks (Hairdresser, Grinding Girl, etc.) are excluded from the list, it becomes clear that the majority of the better-educated women worked either as domestic administrators or as supervisors of mainly female activities.4 Their work was almost invariably indoor work and often, but not always, they were employed by other high-ranking ladies who maintained their own retinues of mainly female attendants. This sexual division of labour is underlined by the many depictions of private life which show female servants attending to their mistresses while their husbands are served by men, and it extended into religious life where, as a general rule, Egyptian male gods were served by male priests and female gods by female priestesses.5 Even young children demonstrate a degree of segregation in their play, so that illustrations invariably show the boys devising their own games apart from the girls.

The female supervisors and managers predominantly exerted their control over female workers engaged in what were perceived to be female activities. Thus, from the Old Kingdom onwards we know of women working as ‘Supervisor of Cloth’, ‘Supervisor of the Wig Workshop’, ‘Supervisor of the Dancers of the King’ and even ‘Supervisor of the Harem of the King’ – all typically female-linked occupations. These titles were not uniquely confined to women – there were certainly some male overseers of wig-making, dancing and music – but the female managers were, as a general rule, responsible for the women dancers and singers and the production of women’s wigs. However, although men occasionally supervised the female workers in these trades, we have no direct evidence for women ever managing male workers. The work of the female administrators was confined to private or royal households, and it is striking that, although there were literally thousands of scribes employed in the civil service, we know of no woman occupying an influential bureaucratic post. Similarly, but perhaps less surprisingly, we know of no women employed in any high-ranking capacity in the army or in agricultural administration.

The highest-ranking administrative title ever held by a woman belonged to the Old Kingdom Lady Nebet, wife of Huy, ‘Sole Royal Ornament’ and ‘Hereditary Princess, Daughter of Geb, Countess, Daughter of Merhu, She of the Curtain, Judge and Vizier, Daughter of Thoth, Companion of the King of Lower Egypt, Daughter of Horus’. The vizier held the most powerful and prestigious position in ancient Egypt; a position which was, in theory at least, non-hereditary. As the king’s right-hand man he was frequently a member of the king’s immediate family and, second only in importance to his monarch, he acted as both senior civil servant and chief judge. It would certainly have been very unexpected for a woman to hold such an important position of authority and circumstantial evidence indicates that, although Nebet was clearly accorded the title of vizier, the actual duties of the office were undertaken by her husband, Huy.6 No other woman was accorded the honour of this title until the 26th Dynasty.

The female administrators seem to have held their most influential posts during the Old Kingdom; evidence from the Middle and New Kingdoms indicates that women retained their salaried domestic work but were now no longer classed as supervisor or overseer, and were not included in even minor positions of authority in the royal palaces. We certainly know of several women ‘stewards’ and some ‘treasurers’ active in the private sector during the Middle Kingdom. One such professional administrator was the ‘Treasurer, Keeper of the Property of her Lord, Tchat’, whose name and titles are mentioned several times on the walls of the 12th Dynasty private tombs at Beni Hassan.7 The Lady Tchat worked as an official in the household of the influential local governor Khnumhotep where she was obviously held in the highest regard; reliefs in Khnumhotep’s own tomb, where Tchat is several times depicted standing close to the Mistress of the House, Khety, indicate that she played a prominent role in family life. Tchat combined her role of treasurer to the household with that of concubine to its master. Eventually, following Khety’s death, she gave up her official duties to marry Khnumhotep, thereby making her two surviving sons legitimate heirs to their natural father.

The sky and the stars make their music for you while the sun and the moon praise you. The gods exalt you, and the goddesses sing their song to you.

Verse from the Temple of Hathor, Dendera

Music was a particularly lucrative career which was open to both men and women and which could be pursued either on a freelance basis or as a servant permanently attached to an estate or temple.8 Good performers were always in demand and a skilful musician and composer could gain high status in the community; for example, the female performing duo of Hekenu and Iti were two Old Kingdom musicians whose work was so celebrated that it was even commemorated in the tomb of the accountant Nikaure, a very unusual honour as few Egyptians were willing to feature unrelated persons in their private tombs. The sound of music was everywhere in Egypt, and it would be difficult to overestimate its importance in daily Dynastic life. The labourers in the fields sang popular folk songs as they worked, the sailors on the Nile matched their strokes to the rhythm of a traditional shanty, and the army marched to the sound of the drum and the trumpet. Leisure hours were filled with singing and dancing, nubile all-female song and dance troupes were a standard after-dinner entertainment, and even the heavy coffins were dragged to the burial grounds to the accompaniment of a rhythmic clapping. It is therefore deeply disappointing that, despite the survival of several instruments and many artistic representations of musical activities, we have very little idea of how this music actually sounded. In the absence of a recognizable music theory and notation, attempts to replicate the sounds enjoyed by the pharaohs are bound to be little more than interesting conjecture.


Fig. 19 All-female dinner band

The typical Egyptian secular orchestra included a large percussion section with rattles, clappers and drums helping to define the beat of the music, and strong wind and string sections with a combination of clarinets, double oboes and flutes and at least one harp. The players were supervised during the Old Kingdom by a conductor who stood in front of the performers, indicating the rhythm and pitch of the music by a complicated series of hand gestures. This conductor appears to have become superfluous to requirements at some stage during the Middle Kingdom, and was no longer depicted by the New Kingdom artist. At this time lyres and lutes were first introduced into Egypt from Asia; these very quickly became very popular additions to the standard postprandial ensemble.

All the Egyptian gods and goddesses were understood to enjoy a good tune, and so the temples employed bands of musicians and choirs of singers and dancers to enhance communication


Fig. 20 Female percussion group

with the deities. These temple musicians, both men and women, were employed on a regular basis and given frequent coaching sessions by official instructors who worked hard to ensure that the clapping and singing were as perfect as possible. More high ranking were the official songstresses of the deity; many upper-class women described themselves as religious songstresses, even including their title on their funerary monuments; it would appear that this should again be classed as an honorary temple position rather than a paid job. These ladies were certainly held in highest regard, and at Abydos there was even a special cemetery reserved for the songstresses of a number of gods and their stillborn babies.

Holy music for Hathor, music a million times, because you love music, million times music, to your soul, wherever you are. I am he who makes the singer waken music for Hathor every day at any hour she wishes.

Middle Kingdom song to Hathor

Very few of the gods actually played any instrument; the only one to be regularly depicted performing for his own evident pleasure was Bes, the ugly dwarf god who was associated with women and childbirth. Goddesses were generally more strongly identified with music than their male counterparts and, while the goddess Merit was recognized as the personification of music, it was Hathor, goddess of love, ‘Mistress of Music’ and attendant at royal births, who was most closely linked with music, in particular with one musical instrument: the sistrum which was played only by women. It was a rather large loop-shaped rattle with a long handle, often featuring the head of Hathor, which had initially represented the papyrus reeds of the Nile Delta where, mythology decreed, Hathor had been forced to hide with her young son. Eventually the sistrum lost all trace of its original meaning and instead started to serve as a religious symbol for life itself. It consequently became absorbed by other deities, and was particularly identified with the cult of Isis at the end of the Dynastic period. The playing of the sistrum was often accompanied by the rattling of the heavy menit bead necklaces which the female musicians carried in their spare hand. To a lesser extent, the round tambourine was also associated with both women and religion; New Kingdom illustrations suggest a link between this tambourine and the cults of both Hathor and Isis, while we know from the surviving temple birth houses that the beating of round tambourines was the appropriate way to mark the divine birth of a king.

Music was occasionally associated with women for more prosaic reasons. The Turin Erotic Papyrus, for example, includes one scene where a prostitute has hastily dropped her lyre to copulate with an over-eager client, while a crude sketch on a piece of wood recovered from a New Kingdom Theban tomb shows a woman who is actually engaged in full intercourse with a man but who still clings on to her lute. The clear inference is that prostitutes used their musical skills to entice their clients, and a link between music, femininity, sex and even childbirth is again suggested by the Bes tattoos on the musical prostitute’s thighs. Less tastefully, to modern eyes, figurines which show male harpists with their instruments resting on disproportionately erect penises again emphasize the link between music and sexuality.

The weaver in the workshop is in a worse position than the woman in labour. With his knees pushed up against his chest he is unable to breathe the air. If he misses just one day of weaving he is given fifty lashes. He has to bribe the doorkeeper with food to let him see the light of day.

Middle Kingdom Satire of the Trades

Throughout the ancient world cloth production was primarily associated with women. In near-contemporary Greece and Rome this specialization of duties was taken to extremes, and the mistress of the house was held responsible for the provision of all the cloth (invariably wool) which would be needed by her family. This included all the clothing, sheeting, towels and shrouds, and was a daunting undertaking for any woman. Fabric manufacture became a very highly rated domestic task, to the extent that wool-work, spinning and weaving, rather than knitting, eventually became synonymous with woman’s work and was expected of females of all ranks and ages. A virtuous wife could easily be identified by her skills at the loom, and even the most noble of Greek ladies was expected to spend a large part of her day weaving in order to provide the clothing for the household and its dependants.9 As the large and heavy loom could not easily be transported, this effectively condemned her to spending many hours working alone at home.

The situation in Egypt was far more flexible. Commercial weaving was still a female-dominated industry, particularly during the Old Kingdom when the hieroglyphic sign representing ‘weaver’ was a seated woman holding what appears to be a long, thin shuttle, but not all women needed to learn how to weave. Cloth could easily be obtained by barter, and any surplus of home-produced linen could be exchanged for other household items at the market. Lower-class Egyptian men were not embarrassed to be seen working at the loom, and several labourers at Deir el-Medina happily excused their absence from work by explaining that they had needed to stay at home and weave. Larger-scale commercial weaving occurred in the workshops attached to temples and large estates where both women and, to a lesser extent, men were employed, and also in the royal harem where the finest of the royal linen was produced. Although the ladies of the harem may themselves have done some of the more intricate threadwork their real function was to supervise and train the female workers in the weaving sheds; weaving formed just one of the valuable economic sidelines of the royal women.

Linen was by far the most important cloth produced in Egypt. Flax, the plant from which linen is derived, was not native to Egypt but was introduced in Predynastic times when it quickly became an important crop, essential for the production of both linen and linseed oil. Flax remained an economically valuable commodity throughout the historical period. When it is considered that the wrapping of one mummified body could use over 375 square metres of material, the importance of flax farming can be fully appreciated. Even though it was customary to recycle used household cloth and bandages in mummification, there must have been a constant demand for new linen.

The actual manufacturing process was fairly simple if time consuming. The flax was harvested by pulling the whole plant out of the ground in order to preserve the stalk; the younger the crop, the finer would be the finished thread. After an initial preparation of the fibres the flax was spun on a small hand-held spindle to produce a ball of thread, the twist of the thread being to the left as flax naturally tends in this direction when drying. The spun thread was then woven into cloth on a loom. Horizontal hand-operated ground looms made of wood were used by both men and women in commercial workshops until the Hyksos invaders of the Second Intermediate Period introduced the more mechanically efficient vertical loom. This new-style loom was operated exclusively by men. The finished material was carefully marked in one corner by either the weaver or the owner, and was stored either as bolts or large sheets (up to 2 metres wide and occasionally over 25 metres long) in special woven baskets or wooden chests. A variety of grades of cloth was produced, with the finest and most delicate linens being rightly prized all over the ancient world.

Death is before me today like a man’s longing to see his home when he has been many years in captivity.

Middle Kingdom text

Some women were able to gain employment as professional mourners, an exclusively female occupation. These specialists were hired to enhance the status of the deceased by openly grieving at his or her funeral. They were not, therefore, an essential part of the funeral ritual, although they did add to its impact. As far as we can tell from contemporary tomb illustrations, the job involved donning a traditional mourning dress of white or blue-grey linen and following the funeral cortége while making an ostentatious display of grief which included loud wailing, beating exposed breasts, smearing the body with dirt and tearing at dishevelled hair; all signs of uncontrolled behaviour, the ‘disorder of sorrow’, which presented a marked contrast to the sedate, spick-and-span image which Egyptian women normally admired. Occasionally, very young girls accompanied their mourning mothers to work, and the New Kingdom tomb of Ramose at Thebes shows a group of professional grieving women which includes a tiny girl whose youth is made apparent


Fig. 21 Mourning women from the tomb of Neferhotep

by both her small stature and her nakedness. A more important role in the funeral ritual was played by the two women chosen to impersonate the two djeryt, Isis and Nephthys, the sisters of Osiris who assumed the shape of birds while searching the world for their dead brother. These two women wore an archaic form of sheath dress and a short neat wig. They walked next to the sledge which was used to drag the body towards the tomb, and had an entirely passive role in the ceremony.

A few women also acted as official mortuary priests and, just like the often-quoted Hekanakhte, they received payment for ensuring that the tomb of the deceased was correctly maintained, with all the ritual offerings duly made. These roles were generally hereditary, with the care of the tomb being passed from father to son or daughter until the funding of the endowment expired.

The servant who is not beaten is full of curses in his heart.

Late Period employment advice

An Egyptian woman of good character could always find employment as a servant; the lack of modern conveniences, such as electricity and plumbed water, meant that there was a constant demand for unskilled domestic labour. A servant’s wages were relatively cheap, and most middle- and upper-class homes had at least one maid who could be trained in domestic skills while helping out with the more arduous household chores. Girls entered domestic service at a relatively young age, and anxious mothers relied upon responsible householders to protect their inexperienced daughters while providing them with a good basic training. This concern for the welfare of the younger servants is well illustrated by a private letter written during the New Kingdom. The Scribe Ahmose had become worried about the fate of a servant girl who had been specifically entrusted to his protection but who had unaccountably disappeared, apparently on the orders of his superior, the treasurer Ty:

What is the reason for taking away the servant girl who had been given to me but who has now been given to someone else?… As far as I am concerned I am not worried about the loss of her value, as she is very young and does not yet know her work… But her mother sent a message to me, saying ‘You have allowed my child to be taken away when she was entrusted to you…’10

Domestic servants appear to have been closely tied to their master’s services, but they could lose their position if their behaviour was not considered appropriate to their situation:

Now, as soon as you receive this letter from Sahathor, have the housemaid Senen thrown out of my house. See, if she spends just one more night in my home, watch out! I will hold you responsible for any evil which she may do to my concubine.

Middle Kingdom letter written by Hekanakhte

Servants should not be confused with slaves who, although in many cases required to perform the same range of tasks, remained at all times the legal property of their masters and mistresses.11 Owners had many rights over their slaves who could be sold, transferred, emancipated or rented out at will, but they acknowledged a corresponding duty to feed, clothe and care for their property, just as they cared for the well-being of their free servants. Despite the popular movie scenes which show Cecil B. de millions of slaves toiling, suffering and dying under the hot Egyptian sun, slavery was relatively rare in Egypt. Such slaves as there were were either born into slavery or else represented the unfortunate victims of war:

I have brought those whom my sword spared as numerous captives, pinioned like birds before my horses, also their wives and children in their thousands and their cattle…

Inscription of Ramesses III

Some slaves were also imported into Egypt by foreign slave-dealers. It would be wrong, however, to suggest that all the foreign workers in Egypt were slaves; the comparative buoyancy of the Egyptian economy attracted many professional weavers, singers and dancers, and immigrant workers from Asia were a common feature of everyday Dynastic life. A few free-born Egyptians actually chose to enter voluntary slavery by executing a legal contract of self-sale or self-dedication, thereby extricating themselves from a burden of debt due to their now-owner; that free-born Egyptians were prepared to take this irrevocable step, binding on both themselves and their descendants, suggests that the life of the Egyptian slave was perhaps not quite as harsh as we might imagine.

Whether the female slaves, or indeed the female servants, were expected to provide sexual services for their masters and their house-guests is unclear, although we know that many unmarried slave women did bear children during their captivity. Similarly, it is not clear whether the brothels of Dynastic Egypt were staffed by free women or by slaves. Certainly all other slave-owning societies, past and present, have expected their female slaves to sleep with their masters as and when required, while the less conventional Greeks also expected pretty young boy slaves to be available to the men of the household. The case of Nenufer and Nebnufer who purchased a slave woman expressly for the purpose of breeding heirs has been discussed in Chapter 1. Under Egyptian law the children of such a union would be born into slavery, but could easily be freed and adopted by their owner/ father. We must assume that this couple were not alone in choosing to use a slave as a surrogate mother, and the Bible suggests that this may have been a standard practice at this time:

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children; and she had a handmaid, an Egyptian whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said unto Abram, ‘Behold now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing; I pray thee, go in unto my handmaid; it may be that I may obtain children through her’… And Sarai took Hagar her maid and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife.

Gen. 16:2

Ultimately, every Egyptian was a servant of the king, who could call upon the services of his people as and when he felt necessary. This he did under the long-established system of corvée, or conscripted labour, whereby all Egyptians were bound to donate their labour to royal projects such as the building of a public monument or the digging of irrigation ditches. Only those who were already employed on important projects, such as the higher-ranking servants of the local temple, were legally exempted from this conscription, although the administrators and those wealthy enough to pay a bribe or send along replacement labour quickly exempted themselves from their public duty. The heavy burden of the corvée therefore fell upon the poor, the uneducated and the peasants while the worst of the hard labour – a trip to the gold mines in the Sudan – was reserved for convicted felons and prisoners of war. All the corvée work was hard and highly unpopular and, to add insult to injury, paid only subsistence rations. The punishment for avoiding the work was, however, extremely harsh, and those tempted to desert could be faced with a lifelong prison sentence, interspersed with yet more periods of forced labour. Women were not automatically exempted from the corvée, and a Middle Kingdom register giving the names of eighty deserters includes the case of Teti, daughter of the Scribe Sainhur, who was found guilty and who suffered ‘… an order issued to execute against her the law pertaining to one who flees without performing his labour duty’.

On that day the workman Menna gave a pot of fresh fat to the chief of police Mentmose. Mentmose promised him ‘I will pay you for it with barley obtained from my brother. My brother will guarantee the transaction. May Re keep you in good health.’

Ostracon from Deir el-Medina

Many women were able to make an important contribution to their family economy without actively seeking employment outside the home. Although tradition decreed that the work of men and women should be more or less separated, and that outdoor labour should be depicted as the prerogative of men, comparison with modern Egypt suggests that many women did, in fact, help their husbands with their daily work. For example, we know that the wives of fishermen were expected to gut and then sell their husbands’ catch, and a few tomb illustrations show women labouring in the fields alongside their menfolk, picking flax, winnowing wheat and even carrying heavy baskets to the storehouses. Women are not conventionally illustrated ploughing, sowing or looking after the animals in the fields, but they are shown providing refreshments for the labourers, while gleaning was an approved female outdoor activity recorded in several tomb scenes; women and children follow the official harvesters and pick up any ears of corn which have been left behind. Of equal, or perhaps greater, importance were the small-scale informal transactions conducted between women, with one wife, for example, simply agreeing to swap a jug of her homemade beer for her neighbour’s excess fish. This type of exchange, which formed the basis of the Egyptian economy, allowed the careful housewife to convert her surplus produce directly into usable goods, just as her husband was able to exchange his labour for his daily bread.

The few attendance records which have survived from Deir el-Medina indicate that this type of freelance trading by both men and women made an important contribution to the household budget. Officially the necropolis labourers worked a ten-day week, spending eight days in temporary accommodation in the Valley of the Kings and then returning home for a two-day rest. The full working day was eight hours long, with a midday meal break. However, the labourers were never unduly pressured to turn up for work on a regular basis and there were many holidays so that, as one ostracon shows, out of fifty consecutive days only eighteen were working days for the whole crew. Even on an official working day many labourers absented themselves with a variety of rather lame but apparently acceptable excuses ranging from the need to brew beer and weave to the need to build a house, and so relaxed were the authorities that the standard monthly grain ration was always paid over, regardless of the number of hours actually worked. Therefore, anyone wishing to increase his personal wealth was well advised to abandon any thought of working overtime at his official job and to concentrate instead on a spot of private enterprise which would bring an immediate reward. Not surprisingly, cottage industries flourished at Deir el-Medina, with enterprising weavers, brewers, dressmakers and potters supplementing their official income by supplying the immediate needs of their neighbours, while the skilled draughtsmen, artists and carpenters moonlighted by working unofficially to provide funerary equipment for the wealthy Theban aristocracy.



Fig. 22 Trading in the marketplace

Throughout the Dynastic period Egypt had no official currency. Barter, the exchange of one article or service for another, formed the basis of every transaction, no matter how trivial. Unfortunately, this reduces any modern attempt to calculate the true cost of dynastic living to little more than educated guesswork, as ‘prices’ were always both comparative and infinitely variable. It is quite simply impossible to state that a duck or a house or a funeral cost so much without understanding the full value placed on all types of commodities by a particular person at a specific time. Although the government, which acted as both the major employer and the major collector of surplus produce, was able to operate a crude price-control mechanism by regulating wages and the release of stored foodstuffs on to the market, there was no official policy of price-fixing, and the law of supply and demand was consequently paramount.

Despite the lack of coinage, shopping in Egypt was not always a totally haphazard experience as there was a universally recognized benchmark available as a point of reference for anyone wishing to conduct a serious transaction. This deben, a standard weight of copper, represented an intermediate stage between the use of money and true barter and allowed the Egyptians to develop a unique system of price referencing whereby any two commodities could be equated in value. Therefore, although the deben did not take the physical form of a note or coin, it was understood by everyone that, for example, at a given time during the New Kingdom a pig was priced at 5 deben of copper. Anyone wishing to buy a pig therefore had to find either 5 deben of copper or, more typically, a combination of other goods or services which were collectively also valued at 5 deben. It was then necessary to find a pig owner who valued the offered goods enough to make the swap. Some idea of the relative values placed on items at a given time can be gained from the study of surviving price lists. We know, for example, that during the New Kingdom the pig mentioned above was a pricey item when compared to a goat which was usually valued at two or three deben. This reflected the general scarcity of swine in Egypt at this time. In contrast a pair of shoes usually cost between one and two deben while a coffin, a very expensive item requiring both wood and skilled labour, was priced at over twenty deben of copper.12

The collector of taxes lands on the riverbank. He surveys the crops and assesses the tax payable, attended by menials who carry staves and Nubians wielding clubs. He orders ‘give us grain’, but there is none available to give. The farmer is beaten savagely, being tied up and ducked head first into the well. His wife is also tied up, as are his children. The neighbours all run away. And, after all this, there is still no grain to give.

New Kingdom Wisdom Text

The lack of currency did not mean that there was no taxation; taxes in kind were levied on all the primary producers as a contribution towards the royal expenditure which could not be entirely matched by the income from the royal estates. The tax collector was one of the most feared of the Egyptian bureaucrats. He arrived regularly at harvest time, assessed the crops with an expert eye, and then extracted immediate payment from the farmers, using physical violence whenever necessary. Tax defaulters were summoned before the local magistrate and received summary punishment, while those who could not pay were conscripted into the forced labour gangs. A scene painted on the wall of the New Kingdom tomb of the vizier Rekhmira shows the tax man in action, accepting a diverse selection of goods and cattle from a local mayor; the items used to pay the tax include grain, cakes, rope, mats, goats, sacks, pigeons and metal ingots, and must have presented immediate storage problems for the official.

The recognized system of bartering meant that those householders who managed to acquire a substantial surplus of perishable foodstuffs, perhaps by producing a glut of home-grown vegetables or by making too much bread for family consumption, were able to offer their goods to a wider public by trading at the local market where they would in turn benefit from a more varied range of exchange goods. Here, every market day, local traders and visiting merchants spread out their temporary stalls to fill the crowded streets and alleys of the town, arranging their merchandise to best advantage in wide wicker baskets. Professional traders were in the minority, and the whole market was far more like a present-day garage or car-boot sale than a formal shopping centre. There was always an exciting variety of goods on offer, and the stands ranged from those of the professional jewellers who tempted potential customers with alluring and expensive displays of baubles, bangles and seals to the more humble stalls of the local peasants offering the most basic of market produce: bread, beer and gutted fish. Itinerant craftsmen took full advantage of the market crowds to sell their services, while small snack bars did brisk business serving delicious take-away food and reviving drinks to the jaded shoppers.

Several tomb scenes combine to provide us with a clear impression of the hustle and bustle of an Egyptian street market. On the walls of the Old Kingdom tomb of the officials Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep at Sakkara a full-scale town market is in progress. Fruit, fish and vegetable stalls are all doing a roaring trade, two potters are competing to attract attention to their own wares and the haberdasher unrolls a bolt of his finest cloth to tempt a potential buyer. Over by the beer stand, at least one customer is already feeling somewhat tired and emotional. As the predominantly male shoppers stroll around with their practical shopping bags slung across their chests, a seller of lettuce and onion bargains with a man carrying a large jug of beer, ‘Give me some of your product and I will give you sweet vegetables.’ More excitingly, over by the vegetable stall, a trained security monkey is arresting a naked thief by biting him in the leg. One thousand years later, in the New Kingdom Theban tomb of Ipuy, the market ambience is virtually unchanged. Here, by the quayside, astute women traders have set up temporary stands to tempt the newly disembarked and newly paid sailors, helping them to convert their standard grain rations into a range of other goods. Bread, vegetables and fish are again on offer, and the ubiquitous beer stall is well stocked and ready for its first thirsty clients. Anyone who has ever enjoyed the cheerful bustle of a modern Egyptian village market will immediately recognize that, despite the presence of coinage and the absence of beer stands, there has been very little obvious change in the three thousand years since Ipuy’s tomb was painted.

Make a holiday! And do not tire of playing! For no one is allowed to take his goods with him, and no one who departs this life ever comes back again.

Middle Kingdom Song of the Harpist


Fig. 23 Trained security monkey arresting a thief

The Egyptians were a people who knew how to make the most of their spare time. Whole families enjoyed spending the day together, and picnics at the tombs of the ancestors or boating expeditions on the Nile were always a popular treat. More exciting were the days spent hunting and fishing in the marshes when, as some tomb scenes suggest, the entire family squeezed into a light reed boat in order to watch the men of the household attempt to bring down birds with a traditional curved throwing stick. Given the fragile nature of these delicate boats it would appear that the artists must have employed a degree of artistic licence in their endeavours to portray a happy family day out; otherwise we would expect to see fairly frequent scenes of capsized boats and dripping-wet families. In contrast, hunting in the desert was acknowledged by all to be a dangerous and expensive sport, reserved for upper-class men and the professional hunters who accompanied each expedition.

Back at home, many a happy hour could be spent playing with the children and the household animals.13 Pets played an important part in Egyptian family life and dogs and cats and, to a lesser extent, monkeys and even geese are frequently included in family groups, sitting proudly beside their owner’s chair. The majority of the dogs shown in these scenes appear to be lovable mongrels, although the presence of several distinctive whippet and saluki-like animals suggests that deliberate breeding was at least partially successful. These dogs, who were given suitably descriptive names such as ‘Ebony’, ‘Antelope’ or ‘Good Watcher’, made loyal companions while fulfilling the useful role of guard and hunting dog. At the end of their lives they were often accorded an elaborate burial, and poignant doggy graves with expensively mummified bodies encased in miniature canine coffins have been recovered at several archaeological sites.

However, despite its useful work, the dog was not universally admired, and many Egyptians interpreted the dog’s affectionate loyalty as a sign of cringing servility and weakness. Cats, with their mysterious aloofness and natural independence, attracted far more respect, becoming invested with several symbolic implications. In particular, as cats were customarily depicted sitting under a woman’s chair and rarely depicted in association with a man, they became recognized as symbols of femininity and female sexuality. Several powerful female cat deities emerged, and the cult of the goddess Bast, centred on the town of Bubastis in the Nile Delta, became hugely popular during the Late and Graeco-Roman Periods. Cats were certainly a useful addition to any household; not only did they protect against snakes and vermin, but they also played an important role in hunting waterfowl.

After the hustle and bustle of the day, most married couples derived a great deal of quiet pleasure from simply sitting peacefully together; this evident enjoyment of each other’s company is one of the most touching aspects of Egyptian married life. Wealthy families particularly enjoyed relaxing in the luxurious gardens of their villas, and this enjoyment was enhanced by watching the labour of others less fortunate. Home entertainments have left little trace in the archaeological record, and although we can guess that music and story-telling were important social events, we have no idea how often they occurred. In contrast, we do know that board games were hugely popular with all adults, and many tomb scenes show husbands and wives gently competing over the gaming board. It is perhaps surprising, given this evident enjoyment, that more such games did not develop. Indeed, during the entire Dynastic period there were only two universally popular games: ‘senet’, a board game for two players which was enjoyed from Predynastic times until the Roman Period, and its rival ‘twenty squares’, a game imported from the East, again for two players. Wooden boards for these two games are often found on either side of reversible gaming boxes designed to hold the necessary pieces, and these elaborate boxes were often included in the funerary equipment of the wealthy so that they could be used to while away dull moments in the Afterlife.

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