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Ancient Egyptian raw materials: Animal products
Gut and sinew
Ostrich Eggshell
Skins and leather
Tortoise shell

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Animal products

    Animals were used in many ways. Their meat served as food both for men and gods, their milk was drunk and processed, their strength exploited for plowing and transportation, their fat formed the base for medicines and poisons.
    Like so much else, animal products were administered by an official such as Sehetepibre who served under Senusret III and Amenemhet III and prided himself to have been
The Prince, Count, Royal Seal-bearer, beloved Sole Companion, Great one of the King of Upper Egypt, Grandee of the King of Lower Egypt; Magistrate at the head of the people, Overseer of horn, hoof, feather, scale, and pleasure ponds
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.1, p.126


Prehistoric bone harpoons; Spource: W.M.Flinders Petrie - Prehistoric Egypt, Plate XXVIII- predynastic statuette; source: Jon Bodsworth

Prehistoric bone harpoons
Source: W.M.Flinders Petrie: Prehistoric Egypt, Plate XXVIII

Predynastic bone statuette with inlaid lapis-lazuli eyes. [3]
Naqada I
Source: Jon Bodsworth

    A plentiful material, bone was fashioned into needles, awls [7], pins [5], arrowheads, ornaments such as strings of beads [6], bracelets and rings, statuettes [3], and many other small objects. Bones used for carving had to be fresh, i.e. uncooked. After carving the workpieces were polished. Bone was often employed as a cheap replacement for ivory.
    Glue was also made from bones, but also from sinews, skin and cartilage, apparently from various kinds of animals and fishes. The raw material was cleaned and boiled in water. After straining and cooling one received a solution which could be used fresh or dried, ground into powder and reconstitued with warm water at a later date. It was applied warm to wooden surfaces, as below a temperature of 30°C it gelled. [18] Since the second millennium, plywood the layers of which had been held together with little square pegs, was being glued together. Gesso, a mixture of glue and plaster of Paris was used as a sort of glue putty for smoothing wooden surfaces before painting or repairing flaws in stone sculptures.


Predynastic feather

Remains of a feather from the pre-dynastic period
Petrie Museum, UC73065

Fans, Source: 'The Glory of Egypt' by Samivel     Few feathers have survived from ancient times and even fewer have been identified. Feathers in pillows from the tomb of Yuya and Tuya have been referred to as doves' down.[20] But most of what is known about the use of feathers in ancient Egypt has been deduced from depictions. Easiest to identify are the plumes of ostriches. Other birds whose feathers were probably used were night herons, crows or ravens, water fowl, pigeons,[21] and falcons.[20]

Fans with long handles used during a royal procession.
Such fans were probably shades [17] rather than simple fans for fanning air or chasing away flies.
Source: 'The Glory of Egypt' by Samivel

    Feathers were often used for personal adornment and for the royal ceremonial dress.
Then came those kings and princes of the Northland, all the chiefs who wore the feather, every vizier, all chiefs, and every king's-confidant, from the west, from the east, and from the islands in the midst, to see the beauty of his majesty.
From the Piankhi stela
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part Four, § 873
bird wing used as fan-     Ancient peoples usually lived by the rule of "Waste not, want not". One would expect that a resource, even a 'waste' product such as feathers, would not have been discarded, without an attempt at finding use for it and sitting on a cushion stuffed with feathers must have been preferable to sitting on the hard ground. How widespread the use of pillows was cannot be ascertained, only a small number of cushions have been found in tombs of noblemen and royalty. Small feathers and down of ducks. geese or pigeons were at times at least used to stuff these pillows and cushions.[20]

Servant fanning a royal woman with a bird wing.
Deir el Bahri, reign of Mentuhotep III.
Photo by E. Brugsch

    At times whole birds' wings, presumably after letting them completely dry out, were used as fans.
    Ostriches provided the aristocratic hunters not only with excitement, their feathers decorated their horses and were shaped into fans for their ladies. These consisted of an ostrich feather fastened to a wooden handle or of a number of feathers trimmed to a half circle shape with a long handle, which was sometimes given the form of a papyrus flower [8].


Priest dressed in fur     Fur was occasionally used for upholstery.
    Originally lion furs, later leopard furs were sometimes worn by Sem priests draped over a shoulder when they performed the ceremony of the Opening of the Mouth.
[The sem-priests of your house] in leopard skin: they pour (libations) on the ground
Harpers' songs, Text C: Paser (TT 106)
After a German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website
Some Old Kingdom sarcophagi were adorned with reliefs of leopard furs. Several leopard skin outfits have been found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, which a pharaoh might wear in his role as a priest. These furs came from the African regions south of Egypt: Nubia, Punt etc
I bring it to thee from the land of the Negro ......... red cattle, thy firstlings ........ thy gazelles, thy panther-skins.
From a depiction of a presentation of tribute to Sheshonq I
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part Four, § 724

Gut and sinew

    The elasticity of twisted animal gut and sinews was made good use of in the making of stringed instruments and bows. Sinew was also used to tie things together and as an ingredient in glue making.


    Human hair [13] was employed in the making of good quality wigs but found few other uses.
Your head, my lord, is anointed, you have travelled north in the tresses of an Asiatic woman.
pBM 9900 (pNebseni), Tb 172
After a German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website
Woollen embroidery on linen, Coptic; Source: Petrie Museum
Woollen embroidery on linen, Coptic;
Source: Petrie Museum [14]
    Animal hair was not used very often either. Sheep wool, which in colder climates was the fibre of preference for making garments, was occasionally spun into thread and used for clothing. At least as early as the Middle Kingdom wool was dyed a variety of colours: red, blue, yellow, green. Its use became more widespread in the Graeco-Roman era. Diodorus Siculus (I, 87) mentioned of the sheep: Its wool makes decorous and at the same time protective clothing. Goat hair was also made into fabric at times, as a find at el Amarna proves. A two-strand rope made of camel hair was found and dated to the Old Kingdom.
    Unlike plant fibres which are often mentioned in ancient texts, wool is not encountered in literature. It may have served above all the poorer parts of the people and marginal populations like the nomadic tribes of the deserts.
    Fly-whisks, a bunch of long hairs fixed to a short handle - still used in Africa for chasing away flies but having also ceremonial purposes - were fashioned from horse hair, more rarely from giraffe hair.
    Occasionally bags and sacks were woven or knitted from goat hair, giraffe-tail hair or the like. Bracelets were fashioned from coarser kinds of hair, such as hair from the tail of oxen.


    Undoubtedly used frequently, little is left of this material as there are insects that destroy horn in very short periods of time.
    Horns were used as vases, cups or other receptacles. Bracelets [9], little containers [10], handles for knives, and combs were carved from it and in the Late Period strigils, used by Greeks and Romans to scrape dirt and sweat off the skin. It was employed in the production of composite bows.
Lay down your bow of horn and put aside your arrows!
The Tale of Sinuhe
Ostrakon Ashmolean Museum 1945.40
After a German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website


Nubian carrying tribute of ivory and skins     Throughout ancient Egyptian history ivory was processed. The local ivory came from the Nile hippos, the slightly softer elephant tusks were imported from Syria, the Sudan and Libya which used to be less arid and still supported elephant populations; but at least since the Middle Kingdom hippo ivory seems to have been used more frequently. Ivory is quite stable over long periods of time, though splintering can occur above all in elephant ivory.
    Harpoon tips were made since 4500 BCE, from the fourth millennium onwards ivory was used for carving combs, bracelets, furniture legs, statuettes [1], knife handles, spoons [2], gaming pieces [4], writing tablets and much more, such as inlaid work where the ivory was set in ebony wood. It was used naturally coloured or tinted green or red.
    Carpenters, experts at using saws and rasps, were mainly responsible for working the raw material. For the production of clappers or apotropaic wands the ivory was split lengthwise, apparently by sawing, often after removing the hard outer layer and exposing the softer, white dentine. The wands were polished on both sides and decorated with carvings.

Ostrich Eggshell

Ostrich eggshell artefacts     Ostrich eggshells were used as vessels, but only very few have been found.

Ostrich eggshell artefacts from the Petrie Museum
Clockwise from top left: inlays (UC34401); pierced shell used as vessel (UC59774); strings of pierced beads (UC38832); 5 cm tall pendant (UC5378)

Eggshell fragments were worked into beads for necklaces and the like and into pendants and amulets.[19]


Shell scoop; Source: Petrie Museum
Shell scoop
Source: Petrie Museum
    Water shells were collected and the bigger ones fashioned into scoops by tying them to handles or used as containers for eye paint. Smaller shells were pierced and strung together to form necklaces, bracelets and the like [16]. Cowrie shells, reminiscent of the female genitals, and figures of fertility deities like Bes and Taweret were often strung together and made into necklace amulets.

Skins and leather

Rawhide bangles Rawhide bangles
Source: Petrie Museum website: UC59673

    Leather was not of major importance in a hot climate like Egypt's, where its main use was in the production of furniture, rarely worn footwear [12] and smaller items like dog collars, bracelets, dagger sheaths, leather bags [11] and the like.
    Since the middle of the fourth millennium BCE two main kinds of tanning were known: chamois leather was treated with fat, while an extract from acacia pods was used for tanning ordinary leather. Tawing with alum resulted in a stiff leather product. A red dye was made from dried and powdered scarlet-grain, a scale insect, a yellow dye from the skins of pomegranates. Most of the leather used came from cattle, sheep and goats.
    Leather rolls were at times used instead of papyrus as writing material
Now all that his majesty did to this city, to that wretched foe and his wretched army, was recorded each day by its (the day's) name under the title of : ........ recorded upon a roll of leather in the temple of Amon to this day.
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 392

    When transporting liquids on donkeys, skins - generally goat skins - were preferred to the much heavier earthen jars
Providing himself with asses he filled some skins with wine and laid them upon the asses...
Herodotus, Histories II
Gutenberg Project
    As water containers they enabled the Egyptians to cross the Sinai and send mining and quarrying expeditions into the desert.
    Rawhide was used in the construction of chariots and sometimes of shields. Parchment, animal skin from which the hair had been removed and which had been rubbed smooth, was stretched over the voice boxes of musical instruments such as mandolins and tambourines.


    Giraffe's tails were probably not a very common commodity, even if they are mentioned in the Tale of a Shipwrecked Sailor. In East Africa animal tails are still occasionally used as fly-whisks by dignitaries.
Then he (i.e. the lord of the island on which the sailor had been shipwrecked) gave me a load of myrrh, Hknw-oil, laudanum, Xsyt-spice, tiSpss-spice, perfume, eye-paint, giraffe's tails, great lumps of incense, elephant's tusks, greyhounds, long-tailed monkeys, baboons, and all kinds of precious things.
Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature Volume 1, p.214

Tortoise shell

Tortoise shell armlet

Tortoise shell armlet, seemingly pre-dynastic
Source: Petrie Museum website, UC15494

    Turtles and tortoises did not play a large role in Egyptian culture. Their meat was eaten and occasionally their carapaces were used in the production of dishes, combs, bracelets and the like. Whole carapaces were used as sound boxes for musical instruments and may have served as shields.


Source of pictures:
Bone harpoons: W.M.Flinders Petrie Prehistoric Egypt, Plate XXVIII
Fans: Samivel The Glory of Egypt
Woollen embroidery on linen: Petrie Museum
Shell scoop: Petrie Museum
[17] Gerald Massey, Ancient Egypt: the Light of the World Adamant Media Corporation , vol.1, p.222
[18] Paul T. Nicholson, Ian Shaw, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p.475
[19] Jacke S. Philips, "Ostrich Eggshell", 2009, in Willeke Wendrich (ed.), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, accessed at, September 2009, Los Angeles
[20] Emily Teeter, "Feathers". 2010 in Willeke Wendrich (ed.), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles. accessed at
[21] Lucas & Harris, 1989, p.28

 -Index of Topics
-Main Index and Search Page
Offsite links(Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further study. I do not assume any responsibility for the content or availability of these websites.
-[1] Figure of a woman, carved in hippopotamus ivory. Early Predynastic, Badarian 5th millennium BC. (Jon Bodsworth)
-[2] Long handled spoon of elephant ivory. Early predynastic (Jon Bodsworth)
-[3] Predynastic bone figure with lapis-lazuli inlaid eyes. Naqada 1 (Jon Bodsworth)
-[4] Ivory gaming piece in the form of a lion. First Dynasty. (Jon Bodsworth)
-[5] Bone pin, 12th dynasty, Petrie Museum
-[6] String of beads, Petrie Museum
-[7] Bone awl for leatherwork, 12th dynasty, Petrie Museum
-[8] Wooden head of a fan, Petrie Museum
-[9] Bracelet made of horn, Coptic Period, Petrie Museum
-[10] Horn kohl pot, 18th dynasty, Petrie Museum
-[11] Leather bag, Middle Kingdom, Petrie Museum
-[12] Sandal, 12th dynasty, Petrie Museum
-[13] Human hair, Middle Kingdom, Petrie Museum
-[14] Woollen embroidery woven on linen, Petrie Museum
-[16] String of shell 'beads', Petrie Museum
-Ostrich shell, Petrie Museum collection
-Decorated ostrich shell (Brian Yare)
-Turtles in Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt by Francesco Raffaele

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