Recommended Grade Level: 4-9
The social hierarchy of ancient Egypt resembled a triangle or pyramid, with the highest rank occupied by the Pharaoh. Below the Pharaoh, the Vizier (also referred to as “High Priest’’) acts as the king’s consultant and political advisor. His responsibilities included: settling disputes between nobles, approving documents, and protecting the king. The nobles and priests ranked equally and were both responsible for keeping their regions safe and in order. The nobles acted like state governors and were responsible for making local laws for their subordinates. The role of priests was to make the gods happy through prayer and the practice of religious ceremonies to the god of their region’s temple.
Scribes were the only individuals in society who were literate, and they focused much of their time recording state documents, agricultural records, and the number of soldiers or workers in one region. Soldiers ranked on the same level of scribes and were responsible for defending their region from outside invaders. They were also rewarded with land, as a tribute for risking their lives for their country. You can thank the craftspeople in ancient Egypt for the beautifully detailed art that was produced during this civilization. These artisans mainly specialized in pottery, sculpting, painting, weaving, jewelry, and shoemaking.
Farmers and the enslaved were ranked lowest in the social pyramid. Farmers worked to cultivate crops and agriculture for the pharaoh. As much of their work required them to live outside of where they were born, many farmers chose to rent out homes from nobles by paying them a percentage of their crops each year. The enslaved were often prisoners captured from war and were subjected to serve the pharaoh by tending to housekeeping matters. They were also put to work in more dangerous or risky jobs such as minework and drilling rocks in quarries. Female prostitution was also common and included local women as well as enslaved females from outside places like Libya and Algeria. Unlike modern prostitution, the women were not paid with money, but were “Harem Girls” for noblemen, soldiers, and kings. In return for their services, they were given a place to stay and food to eat.
Recommended Grade Level: 5-9
Did you know that physicians in ancient Egypt would perform spells and other rituals when treating sick or dying patients? Archeologists have been able to dig up scribes containing spells to help ward off diseases or heal wounds. In The Edwin Smith Papyrus (1501 BCE), there are various medical procedures accompanied with instructions for casting spells to treat a variety of accidents, injuries, fractures, wounds, dislocations, and tumors. Other medical scrolls like the Ebers Papyrus (1550 BCE) contain 700 magical formulas to treat various illnesses including psychological illness and issues related to dentistry. The scroll also suggests that countless of ancient Egyptians suffered from tooth decay and other oral infections.
It was also common for women to take on the roles of physician and midwife in their city (depending on whether or not they could afford to attend school). One example would be the first recorded female doctor, Peseshet, who dates back to 2500 BCE. She directed and oversaw more than a hundred female physicians in ancient Egypt. Peseshet also trained mid-wives in the Sais region.
Recommended Grade Level: 5-9
To build the pyramids, ancient Egyptians used math to calculate the degree and angle of the North Star in the sky. They then used this calculation to measure right angles (90 degrees). Without using a sundial or compass, they documented where the North Star appeared each night and then split the rectangular space in half diagonally, in order to design a triangle shape. Archeologists have discovered numerous scrolls containing fractions, multiplication, and the use of a decimal system. One of the most important records is the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, which contains 21 arithmetic and 20 algebraic problems dating back to 1550 BCE! For the ancient Egyptians, there were no numerals from 2–9 or zero. They only had numbers from factors of 10 (1, 10, 100, 1000…).
Recommended Grade Level: 5-9
One of the most prominent inventions by the ancient Egyptians is black ink, made from a mixture of vegetable gum, soot, and beeswax. They replaced soot with other materials such as ochre to make new ink colors. To accompany this new invention, the ancient Egyptians also designed the earliest form of “paper” in 3,000 BCE, known as papyrus. Papyrus was made by taking multiple stems from Cyperus plants (also known as papyrus) that were common in the region and then cutting each stem into usable strips to write on.
Another important invention was the calendar. It was invented in 2510 BCE by Egyptian farmers to calculate the Nile flooding season. To calculate, they began recording the appearance of the Dog-Star in the Eastern sky. The calendar had 365 days, 12 months and 30 days in each month. Although they didn’t factor in the half-days of the year, it was nevertheless a feat considering the resources they had at hand.
In 3500 BCE, ancient Egyptians were also interested in documenting time so they designed a sun clock (obelisk), which was a stone placed on the ground which measured shadows throughout the day. The water clock was another invention that measured time. In c.1417–1379 BCE, a stone with a tiny hole was used to measure how many drops of water dripped in a day to determine the passage of hours. This creation was mainly used in temples by priests to decide the performance schedule of religious ceremonies.
Surgical instruments were invented by physicians in ancient Egypt around 180–47 BCE. American Egyptologist Edwin Smith discovered a papyrus scroll containing 48 surgical procedures for injuries to the head, neck, shoulders, breast, and chest. It also included a list of instruments used during surgeries and instructions on how to stitch a wound using a needle and thread. The list suggests using lint, swabs, bandages, adhesive plaster, surgical stitches, and cauterization. This scroll is the earliest document in the study of neurology. At the Cairo Museum, you’ll be able to see the collection of surgical instruments used in ancient Egypt, such as scalpels, scissors, copper needles, forceps, spoons, lancets, hooks, probes, and pincers.
Toothbrushes were invented between 3500 to 3000 BCE (perhaps in response to the high levels of death caused by tooth decay) and toothpaste was invented because of the grit and sand which found its way into the bread and vegetables of their daily meals. Toothpaste was made of rock salt, mint, dried iris petals, and pepper, according to one recipe from the 4th century CE.
Around 2600 BCE, the process of mummification was introduced in ancient Egypt. It took 70 days to remove all moisture from the human body in order to prepare it for the afterlife. This procedure was so successful in preserving the skin and bones of an individual that even after thousands of years, archeologists were able to determine which illnesses and diseases were prevalent among ancient Egyptians. Some of the common diseases include: arthritis, tuberculosis of the bone, gout, tooth decay, bladder stones, and gallstones. There is also evidence of the disease bilharziasis (schistosomiasis), caused by small, parasitic flatworms.
Recommended Grade Level: 4-9
Though nudity was normalized in ancient Egyptian fashion, how a person dressed in ancient Egypt determined their class and rank in society. Lower-class men and women commonly wore a simple white kilt known as a shenti, with no top coverings. In some cases, women could afford to wear a dress called a Kalas, which was pleated and used to protect their skin from the heat of the sun. Upper-class women in the Old Kingdom of Egypt (c. 2613-2181 BCE) wore long dresses that covered their full bodies.
Women and men often shaved their hair to avoid head lice and consid- ered it to be more hygienic. To protect their heads, most ancient Egyptians wore headdresses or wigs. They typically wore head pieces called nemes, which were made of starch and linen. Army men wore blue crowns called kherpresh which was part of their military uniform. Queens like Nefertiti often wore flat crowns that featured customized etchings.
To accompany their headpieces, ancient Egyptians commonly wore jeweled and beaded collars made of gold or copper. Some wore handmade pendants or necklaces too. Most pharaohs wore fake beards made of copper or gold, remov- able depending on the outfit or occasion.
Lower-class citizens used human or horse hair for their fake beards which were dyed red with henna and then braided. Beards signified wisdom and had different meanings depending on the color and style of the beard.
In ancient Egyptian mythology, there were many female deities who oversaw important responsibilities like protecting, healing, and teaching their people how to be kind. The most popular god in ancient Egyptian Mythology was Re (or Ra) who was known to be both male and female and the Sun God. They were involved in creation and the afterlife, and known as the mythological ruler of the gods, the father and mother of every Egyptian king, and the patron god of Heliopolis.
One of the major female deities of the time included Hathor, who was linked to the sky, the sun, sexuality and motherhood, music and dance, foreign lands and goods, and the afterlife. She was also known as one of the many forms of the Eye of Re. Maat was the Goddess who personified truth, justice, and order. Pharaohs and nobles often prayed to her before a battle. Isis was the wife of Osiris and mother of Horus who connected the living with the dead by being present during funerary rites. She symbolizes motherhood, protection, and magic.
Gender roles in the royal context depended heavily on familial ties. The role of pharaoh was mostly only assigned to men (even if they were young children like King Tutankhamun himself).
Pharaohs were both the heads of state and the religious leaders of their people. The word “pharaoh” means “Great House,” a reference to the palace where the pharaoh resides. However, the fifth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt, was a woman named Hatshepsut. She was the second historically confirmed female pharaoh, after Sobekneferu. Hatshepsut came to the throne of Egypt in 1478 BCE and was the sixth pharaoh of the 18th dynasty. She ruled ancient Egypt for 20 years and was considered one of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs, regardless of gender.
Royal mothers, wives, and daughters derived their status from their relationship with the king. You may be familiar with the name, Queen Nefertari, the second wife of King Ramses II. After her son’s tomb was excavated, scholars were able to find out the significant role she played in foriegn politics, as well as her ability to write and read hieroglyphics.
Recommended Grade Level: 5-9
Ancient Egyptians from thousands of years ago have left us a rich literary legacy that lasts to this day. Did you know that “abracadabra” comes from the mystical name Abraxas — a magical elixir from ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman times? The main writing system used in ancient Egypt was called hieroglyphs, a language that integrates elements of images, sound, and alphabet. However, this ancient language has been lost to history. Although Europeans have been fascinated by ancient Egypt since the Greek and Roman times, no full contact was established until Napoleon brought his military and a group of scientists to conquer Egypt. We only began to understand hieroglyphs again in the 19th century when linguists finally unlocked it using the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone records a decree issued to a temple priest in the Delta in three languages: Greek, hieroglyphs, and demotic. By cross-examining the languages, French scholar Jean-François Champollion decoded the ancient language and opened doors to the world of an- cient Egypt written on numerous artistic objects and papyrus paper.
Written words in ancient Egyptian cannot be separated from its arts and architecture. For ex- ample, the less-seen backside of the famous King Tut’s mask was inscribed with verses from the Book of the Dead to protect the mummy.
During the New Kingdom, a small village named Deir el-Medina was home to artists and artisans working on the grand tombs in the Valley of the Kings. As archaeologists continued their excavation in this region, writ- ten documents such as laundry lists, love letters, mortgage files, and work attendance were uncovered and gave us a glimpse into the life of ancient Egyptians. Egypt was commonly referred to as “The two lands,” divided across the Delta in the north and the Nile valley in the south, and it is the king’s priority to unite the two regions. For example, this duty is reflected in King Tutankhamun’s official title, including his five names: (1) The Horus “Strong bull, beautiful of births,” (2) He of the Two Ladies ‘Law-giver who calms the two lands and pacifies all the gods,” (3) The Golden Horus “Appearing in regalia, who pacifies the gods,” (4) Dual King “Lord of Re’s manifestations,” (5) Son of Re “Living image of Amum” –– Tutankhamun.
The idea of being “Egyptian” might be more fluid than we think.
Other than being associated with Egypt through language, par- entage, or place of birth, people could also “become” Egyptian by adopting local names and customs. Due to its powerful cultural influence and far-reaching dominance, even people who have never been to Egypt could know its religion, language, and art. And as people moved in and out of Egypt all the time, cultur- al objects traveled with them.
Even though the Rosetta Stone allows us to learn and read hieroglyphs now, the general literacy rate in ancient Egypt was estimated to be 5% or less. In contrast, most priests (viziers) were literate. Having access to the knowledge of healing, predictions, and prayers, they not only were in charge of rituals, but also assisted the king in overseeing the country’s economy and administration. Therefore, the ability to read and write could help one gain enormous power, significantly improve their and their family’s living standard, and open doors to previously unreachable worlds. Using brush pens made from chewed reeds and writing from right to left, boys could train to become scribes at the temples and have access to papyrus scrolls. As a result, the temples where priests held their office functioned not only as “the home of the gods,” but also as a cultural center, tax office, school, library, archive, and museum.
Ken-Her-Khe-Peshef (1270-1200 BCE) was one such young male scribe from the Deir el-Medina community. Adopted by the scribe Ramose, he succeeded in the scribe’s office. He must have been good at writing, as archaeologists have found ardent love letters (and passionate replies) and battle stories in his handwriting. They discovered not only his writings on papyrus paper, but also his signature on the stone cliff in the nearby quarry. He is also known as an avid collector of historical and religious manuscripts and owned a book on dream interpretation. Girls and women were often excluded from such social class, but their labor, and its products, connected the gods, the living, and the dead.
Recommended Grade Level: 6-9
From cabinets of curiosities to public museums, we run into ancient Egyptian art – often out of context – in the Western world, and they shape the way we think about ancient Egyptian culture. Sometimes stolen, these artifacts exemplify colonial expansion, industrialization, and international trade as much as its original meaning, if not more.
When discussing ancient Egyptian art and architecture, the first things that come to mind might be the monumental Great Pyramid, the shiny gold funerary mask of King Tutankhamun, the breathtaking painted bust of Queen Nefertiti, and the enchanting Rosetta Stone. However, these “permanent” works of art, even the mummification process, do not adequately represent ancient Egyptian life due to its intended use of serving the elite class, the chosen few. Crafts and architecture were deeply intertwined with people’s everyday life. Most people lived in houses made of mud-bricks or mud-plastered reeds and used pottery made from clay. Other than religious rituals, temples full of art and manuscripts were also places for administrative tasks such as knowledge sharing, magical healing performance, and tax and land registration.
The natural world was a constant inspiration for artists in ancient Egypt. Since the Nile was considered the source of life, and the marshes along rivers teemed with various plants and lifeforms, the cyclical nature of river floods (corresponding to its agricultural cycle) was a recurrent theme in the arts. Moreover, a blind singer’s song about the ephemerality of life was featured along with the prosperous marshes in an 18th Dynasty chapel close to a meticulously prepared mummy in the burial chamber. This example shakes the commonly held belief that ancient Egyptians were all committed believers in an eternal afterlife. Perhaps just like how we have diverse opinions about death to- day, ancient Egyptians had their own individual opinions on such philosophical questions as well. The people who worked on artistic projects ranging from the grand pyramids to King Tut’s delicate mask probably never viewed themselves as artists. Trained as artisans from a young age, they usually worked with family and friends, as trade expertise was often passed down through generations.
Another characteristic that distinguishes ancient Egyp- tian arts is that they rarely focused on realism. Most works aimed to express an invisible higher being, such as a god’s power and beauty. Statues were also ritually activated and deemed “alive.” This could explain why sculptors were often called s-ankh, meaning “causing to live.” Unlike in the west, innovation was rarely the top concern of ancient Egyptian artists. Rather, they created works in the old way (using similar forms and/or material) to evoke sacred authority continued from the past, a preference also known as “archaism.”
Ancient Egyptians used a systematic approach and particular visual elements to attain archaism through thousands of years. For example, in the famous Narmer Palette, both the scale of their bodies and the height of their forehead were used to demonstrate the status of figures. Grids were also employed to achieve balanced composition and consistent aesthetics over a long period of time.
With the differences mentioned above, ancient Egyptian art might never fit easily into the Western standards of art, and perhaps it doesn’t need to. But the sweeping colonial ideology is still very present today. As Christina Riggs, the author of Ancient Egyptian Art and Architecture: A Very Short Introduction, observes, “One enduring response to Egyptian art and architecture [in the West] was the idea that the ancient Egyptians might not entirely be ‘us’, but they absolutely couldn’t be ‘them’.” By absorbing ancient Egyptian arts into the linear Eurocentric Art History, European scholars justify the presence of the artifacts’ current locations in public museums across Europe. Today, with more than 100,000 objects, the British Museum boasts itself as holding the largest collection of Egyptian objects outside Egypt. However, African-American artist Fred Wilson questions such arbitrary appropriation and justification through his art series Re:Claiming Egypt. Grey Area (1993), for instance, is part of the series and includes five painted plaster casts of the famous Nefertiti bust of different shades of grey, from white to black. Just as Fred Wilson’s Grey Area casts a shadow on faces beyond the beautiful Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, questions about ownership of ancient cultural artifacts extends beyond ancient Egypt. And the questions remain unanswered today.
Recommended Grade Level: 8-9
In ancient Egypt, trade was a very important part of their economy. Just like how people today go to the grocery store to buy food instead of growing everything themselves, ancient Egyptians needed to trade for goods and services beyond their productive capabilities. Trading was done between individual citizens as well as between different countries and regions. However, ancient Egyptians did not rely on money like we do today. The idea of money, cash, and coins was not introduced to ancient Egypt until the Persian Invasion of 325 BCE. Instead, ancient Egyptians relied on a barter system. People assigned values to goods and services and made trades they thought were fair. Ancient Egyptians measured the value of a good or service using a unit known as a deben. Think of a deben as a dollar, except there was no real deben coin. For example, if a scroll of papyrus paper was worth one deben and a pair of sandals was also worth one deben, the two items could be fairly traded. A deben typically equalled 90 grams of copper. But sometimes, debens of silver or gold with higher values would be used to measure the value of very expensive luxury items.
Trade first began between Upper and Lower Egypt before they were unified in 3150 BCE. Different regions had access to different resources and varying types of soil that allowed for different crops to grow. When ancient Egypt began trading with the ancient city of Byblos, located in an area that is now Lebanon, they were able to access stronger types of timber from larger trees. This allowed ancient Egyptians to obtain wood for fuel to create hot fires for pottery, build better furniture, chariots, and stronger boats that let them travel to farther lands.
The main trade route of ancient Egypt was the Nile River, the longest north-flowing river in the world! The Nile River gave ancient Egyptians access to the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea which allowed them to travel to different areas of Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. In order to secure a steady supply of resources, ancient Egyptians set up trade centers in other areas of the world as well. Some of this land was obtained through peaceful negotiations while others were obtained through military invasions. There is evidence of kings in the First and Second Dynasty of Egypt leading armies to secure trade centers in Nubia, an area in modern day southern Egypt and northern Sudan. One important trade center in Nubia during the Old Kingdom of Egypt was called Yam. It was a resource for wood, ivory, and gold. The money that the ancient Egyptian government obtained through trading during the Old Kingdom helped fund important monuments like the Pyramids of Giza. While ancient Egypt was rich in grains and papyrus plants for papyrus paper, Egyptians were interested in trading for resources such as spices, metals, and precious stones. In the Sinai Desert, ancient Egyptians traded for copper and gems to make ornaments and fine jewelry. In Yemen, they traded for myrrh and frankincense, two spices that were used for health purposes and became an important part of burial rituals. In the Near East and Asia, they traded for hard timber, cattle, horses, silver, ivory, and wine. And there is evidence of jewelry made with lapis lazuli, a dark blue precious stone, from Afghanistan. In some Mycenean (ancient Greek) wall paintings, depictions of soldiers from Egypt show evidence of the enslaved being traded as well.
Ancient Egyptians traded by land as well as by boat. During the First Dynasty of Egypt, goods were packed and tied to the backs of donkeys as traders traveled along Wadi Hammamat in Egypt’s eastern desert. Wadi Hammamat was a major mining region and important trade route in Egypt’s Eastern Desert. Goods such as incense, panther skins, ivory, and live animals such as giraffes and baboons were obtained through land routes.
Although there is plenty of evidence of ancient Egyptians receiving imported goods, there are very few records with details about foreign trading, especially information about what Egypt exported. The discovery of materials not native to Egypt and items made in Egypt that imitate foreign goods provide evidence of ancient Egyptians making contact with foreign nations. However, in many records and hieroglyphic inscriptions of goods arriving in Egypt, it is unclear whether these goods were received as a gift from other nations, through military campaigns, or through trade.
Typically, only the wealthy such as the nobles, government officials, and royalty had access to luxury goods that were traded from distant lands. Most ancient Egyptians were self-sufficient farmers who had to farm their own crops and live off their land. Middle class Egyptians used locally made items while lower class Egyptians had very few material goods.
Recommended Grade Level: 6-9
In ancient Egypt, the citizens in the highest social class were the pharaohs, while upper class citizens were nobles and government officials. Middle class citizens were educated people who had jobs such as doctors and scribes. Lower class citizens were craftsmen and merchants. The majority of ancient Egyptians were considered lower class and worked as farmers and laborers while the lowest social class in ancient Egypt were the enslaved. Although there is no record of official laws outlining slavery in ancient Egypt, ancient Egyptians used the word “sqrw-anx” to refer to people who were bound for life. It is widely assumed that the Great Pyramids were built by the enslaved, but ancient Egyptian slavery was quite different from other types of slavery around the world. Although there are many defini- tions of slavery, it typically refered to as forced labor in ancient Egypt.
There were several ways that an individual could enter slavery in ancient Egypt. Sometimes slavery was the punish- ment for committing a crime. Individuals could be sentenced to slavery for a determined amount of time or for life.
Sometimes family members, women in particular, would be used as collateral for a loan and forced to work in the homes of those they were in debt to. Individuals might sell themselves into slavery due to economic difficulties in exchange for food or a place to live. Children of enslaved females were born into slavery themselves, regardless of the social status of the child’s father. Sometimes citizens would dedicate themselves or family to the perpetual service of the gods in temples. But the most common way individuals became enslaved in ancient Egypt was by becoming a prisoner of war.
In ancient Egypt, there were three main types of slavery. Typically when we think of slavery, we think of chattel slavery. These are prisoners of war, people guilty of crimes, and those born into slavery who are forced to work for the slavemasters or the government. There is evidence of military excursions during the Old Kingdom to Nubia and Libya in order to capture civillains and bring them to Egypt as slaves. This practice increased in popularity in the Middle Kingdom, although some of the enslaved could be freed after a period of servitude. The enslaved were seen as the royal resources of the pharaoh. They could be sent away to live in labor colonies, given to temples, given away to other individuals as rewards, or given away to other governments as political favors.
Another type of slavery in ancient Egypt was bonded labor. This was common during the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom (2181 – 1650 BCE). Citizens sold themselves or their family members into slavery in exchange for food or shelter or to pay back a debt. Shabti slaves, for example, sold themselves into slavery for the promise of a place in the Egyptian afterlife. The third type of slavery was forced labor through the Corvée labor system. This is where the belief that the Pyramids were built by the enslaved comes from. The ancient Egyptian government would often draft Egyptian citizens to work on various projects such as military expeditions, mining and quarry- ing, agricultural labor, and construction projects (like the Pyramids). Although these individuals were not owned by a slavemaster, their work was unpaid and seen as a duty to the state. Not showing up for this work would result in a sentence of permanent labor for life. If a citizen could not be found, a family member of the same sex would be forced to work in their place.
The enslaved also performed other tasks, aside from manual labor. The enslaved could be cowherders, builders, sandal makers, barbers, and even priests. The enslaved from Nubia could be members of the pharaoh’s army such as mercenaries, shield bearers, charioteers, and fan-bearers of the pharaoh. Asiatic slaves that came from noble backgrounds could be chamberlains (someone who manages the household of the king), butlers, and chief royal heralds. The enslaved that were in traditional master-slave relationships would perform household tasks for the slavemasters. This could include taking care of children, grinding wheat to make bread, cooking, cleaning, getting water for food and washing, and helping the mistress of the house get dressed and apply makeup. Although the enslaved were seen as the lowest social class in ancient Egypt, they were still integrated as members of society. The enslaved could own property, pay taxes on that property, testify in court (even against the slave- masters), write legal contracts, and be responsible for paying fines.
Although the enslaved who ran away would face the death penalty, there were other ways of escaping slavery. Young slaves would sometimes be adopted into the slavemaster’s family and treated like the slavemaster’s own children. The enslaved could also marry into free families, or even buy their own freedom as there is evidence of the enslaved becoming scribes and engi- neers. During the period of the New Kingdom (1570 – 1544 BCE), people from other lands would enter Egypt as “self-slaves” in hopes of a better life or in order to get food and shelter. Although the ancient Egyptians had a different system of slavery than our common understanding of slavery, it is important to remember that these individuals were still forced to do unpaid work and were viewed as less than the other citizens of ancient Egypt.