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Ancient Egypt: Meat, eggs, and fish
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Plucking geese
Cleaning geese
Tomb of Nakht, XVIII Dynasty Courtesy Jon Bodsworth



    Meat, while daily fare on the tables of the rich, was eaten by the poor on festive occasions only if at all. Apart from game hunted in the Delta or desert, people kept various kinds of domesticated animals, some exclusively as sources of meat, such as geese, some breeds of cattle and, until the New Kingdom, Oryx antelopes for temple offerings.

    Every kind of meat was prepared in its own way, some boiled as stew, or roasted. One specific cut of beef for instance was called "roast".
Quails, ducks and smaller birds are salted and eaten uncooked; all other kinds of birds, as well as fish, excepting those that are sacred to the Egyptians, are eaten roasted or boiled.
Herodotus, Histories 2,77
    Whatever couldn't be eaten fresh had to be preserved quickly, either by salting and brining, drying or smoking and at times kept in earthen vessels.[4] A kind of pemmican (pounded dry meat mixed with melted fat) was sometimes made; fish roe, beer or honey were also used as preservatives.

    In the Great Harris Papyrus the donation of more than a hundred thousands birds and fowl are mentioned. 57,810 pigeons, 25,020 water fowl mostly various kinds of geese and ducks, 160 cranes belonging to three different species and 21,700 quails . As opposed to this only 3,029 quadrupeds, cattle, sheep and goats were donated.

    In Upper Egypt the attitude towards pigs was negative during the pre-dynastic, while they were raised and eaten in the Delta. With the unification of the country under rulers of the south, pork consumption seems to have become rare throughout Egypt for a few centuries. But during most of the dynastic period pigs were grown and consumed by the populace, even if they were generally not acceptable to the gods.
    The pig is accounted by the Egyptians an abominable animal; and first, if any of them in passing by touch a pig, he goes into the river and dips himself forthwith in the water together with his garments
Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg
    But even if (according to Herodotus writing in the Late Period) anything and anybody connected with pigs was shunned - for instance swineherds had to intermarry - pork was frequently eaten in Egypt, about at the same rate as goat meat and mutton and probably more often than beef.
    But to the Moon and to Dionysus alone at the same time and on the same full-moon they sacrifice swine, and then eat their flesh
Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg

Poultry and eggs

    The Egyptians distinguished 15 kinds of teal and other ducks and apparently attemped to domesticate many of them during the Old Kingdom, by Ramesside times only a few select ones were still bred in captivity.
    The domesticated chicken with its prodigious laying power was unknown until the times of Thutmose III, who seems to have kept some in his zoo. Egg production was a thing of the future. While one can cause many fowl to lay a second clutch of eggs by removing the first, the Egyptians may have preferred to let the eggs hatch and slaughter the grown birds later.
    Eggs are very rarely mentioned in the context of food but had important symbolic meanings [2]. They were gathered and eaten by the fowlers in the marshes of the Delta:
I live on eggs and honey. [After a successful hunt I eat] fish from my harpoon and birds [from] my net.
Offering of fish, tomb of Petosiris


    Fish, mostly dried, were part of most Egyptians' daily diet, despite the fact, that they were considered unclean by a few of the better-off Egyptians.
    But it is not permitted to them [i.e. the priests] to taste of fish.
Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg
Woman carrying an offering of fish
Drawing after decorations in the tomb of Petosiris
Source: Gustave Lefebvre Le tombeau de Petosiris

    The Ethiopian pharaoh Piye (716-711 BCE) wouldn't break bread with the fish eating noblemen of Lower Egypt. Offerings for the dead rarely included fish and during various periods the eating of certain kinds of fish was outlawed. A few species of fish were considered sacred
    and of fish also they esteem that which is called the lepidotos to be sacred, and also the eel; and these they say are sacred to the Nile:
Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg
    Some fish, like the bu (bw.t) and the shep, were shunned by the Egyptians because of their taste, but otherwise there were few restrictions as to their consumption. Perch, catfish (even the electric variety), carps, mullets and eels were especially important. Tilapia, elephant-snout fish, tiger fish, moon fish and many others were also eaten. [1]
Preparing the catch, 4th dynasty - Source: Lepsius
Giza, 4th dynasty
After Lepsius, Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien

    Fish were cleaned, cut up, the fish eggs set apart for further treatment, and eaten boiled, roasted, pickled in brine or dried. For the inhabitants of the fens they were a major source of nourishment
    Some too of these people live on fish alone, which they dry in the sun after having caught them and taken out the entrails, and then when they are dry, they use them for food.
Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg

    The Harris papyrus records the Amen temple being allotted 441,000 whole fish, mostly medium sized fish like mullet and catfish.

Grey Catfish Grey Catfish (Synodontis schall)
Inscription on a fish weight used at Deir el Medina for measuring fish rations
Source: Jaroslav Cerny: Deux noms de poissons du Nouvel Empire, BIFAO 37 (1937-1938), p.35

    At Deir el Medina there was a team of fishermen supplying fish for each of the two teams of craftsmen, those of the right and those of the left. Fresh fish were delivered every few days to the doorkeeper and doled out by the scribe of each team. The size of the ration was according to rank, though amounts seem to have been variable. According to ostracon MC25592 the leader of the right team received four parts, ten of the workmen got two and a half parts, the scribe himself took two parts and a further eight men had to be satisfied with one part and a half [3].


[2] Pharaohs often referred to their early days as having been in the egg. Thus Ramses II relates his appointment as co-regent: He gave to me the land while I was in the egg. (J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Three, § 267)
The Dream book in the Chester Beatty III papyrus interprets the eating of an egg as a portent for losing something through theft.
[3] Louis-A. Christophe:Le ravitaillement en poissons des artisans de la nécropole thébaine à la fin du règne de Ramsès III, BIFAO 65 (1967), pp.177-199
[4] At Amarna pottery sherds were found with inscriptions such as
Year 10, preserved meat of the festival of the Aten...Ankhaten of the akhit of Pharaoh
W. H. F. Petrie, Tell el Amarna, Methuen and Co. 1894, p.33
It is not quite clear what the exact meaning of the term used, jwf dr, is. Pickled meat has been proposed, Petrie thought it might refer to pounded meat. The akhit ( may have been a storeroom or the like, Petrie suggested kitchen.
A letter by the superintendent of the treasury Sethi to Ramses II mentions dried meat:
50 bags of pickled meat, pressed; 60 dried meat from the flank; 18 dried meat of the loins
After a transliteration and German translation by I. Hafemann on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website, Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Briefe => Briefe des Neuen Reiches => Briefe vom/an den König => oBerlin 12337 => Brief an den König vom Schatzhausvorsteher Sethi

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These are just suggestions for further study. I do not assume any responsibility for the content or availability of these websites.


Faunal remains[1] The Spatial Structure of Kom el-Hisn: An Old Kingdom Town in the Western Nile Delta, Egypt - Faunal remains , Dissertation by Anthony J. Cagle
Fish in Early Dynastic EgyptFish in Early Dynastic Egypt (University College London)
Pyramids and ProteinPyramids and Protein of Cattle, Sheep, Goats and Pigs (Aera website)

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