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Craftsmen and artists: Their position in ancient Egyptian society
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Craftsmen and artists

    Not always in human history was a distinction made between art and craft or were artists considered a breed apart, but Egyptian artisans - like expert workers anywhere and anytime - were certainly aware of their capabilities and their own worth and proud of it.
Chief of the artisans, the draftsman Irtysen says:
I know the secrets of the hieroglyphs, the way to put together feast offerings. All magic I have prepared . Nothing goes by me unnoticed. Because I am an artisan excellent at my craft, who has become the foremost at what he has learned. I know the ratios of fluids, weigh the amount, reckon, remove, insert the tenon into the mortise so every part will be in its place.
I know how to render the posture of a man's statue, the step of a woman's statue, the wing strength of a dozen birds, the bearing of him who strikes a prisoner, the look an eye casts on someone else and also make fearful the face of the sacrificial victim, the arm of him who hits the hippopotamus, the stance of the runner.
I know how to make pigments and incrustations without letting the fire burn them, with the water being able to wash them away.
None will know this but me and my oldest son. The God has ordained that he shall practice because it is into this he has been initiated.
I have seen with mine eyes what has left his hands when he directed the work, in all precious and exalted stones, from silver and gold to ivory and ebony.
 
A funerary offering of a thousand loaves of bread, beer, fowl, oxen, clothing, all the good and pure things for the blessed Irtysen, true of voice, brought into the world by Idet, true of voice.

Mortuary stela of Irtysen, 2000 BCE
My translation into English of a French translation by Serge Rosmord,
accessed at http://webperso.iut.univ-paris8.fr/~rosmord/hieroglyphes/C14tra.html

    The artisans, like most Egyptians, were organized in hierarchies at the top of which stood royal supervisors like Parennefer, who served under Akhenaten and was buried in the southern cemetery of Akhetaten. He had the following titles:
  • Royal artisan with pure hands
  • Supervisor of all the king's artisans
  • Supervisor of all the king's works in the House of the Aten
  • Foremost of the ordinary citizens
  • One accompanying the Lord of both Lands anywhere
  • Supervisor of the prophets of all the gods
    Their employers, rather than paying tribute to the artists and glorifying their creations, extolled their own generosity, how they fed, clothed and housed their workers. A stela was found at Manshiret es-Sadr, for instance, on which Ramses II acknowledged the abilities and enthousiasm of the artisans who had created a big statue from a quartzite monolith, but which also described how he had catered for the needs of his workers to keep them happy [2].
    Still, they appreciated outstanding pieces of craftsmanship [1], but artists generally remained anonymous. There were exceptions, though. Sethau, first prophet of Nekhabit, was grateful to Merire, the artist who decorated his tomb
With his own fingers he carved inscriptions when he came to embellish the tomb of Sethau ... as to the scribe of the divine books Merire - he does not copy. His heart guides him, inspires him with a spirit from above. He has no teacher to prescribe him a template and form which to follow. A quick scribe is he and expert in all.
My translation of a passage quoted by P.Montet
    The materials Egyptian craftsmen worked with since prehistoric times were stone, clay, plant matter such as wood and fibers, animal matter i.e. bone, ivory, feathers etc.
    Later metals were added: gold which was found in its metallic state, silver, at first as an adjunct of gold and ores which had to be smelted - copper and tin, their alloy bronze and finally iron.
    The uses for clay were discovered very early. Enamel pearls were found in tombs of the early 4th millennium. Quartzite sand was made into glass on a significant scale since about the 16th century.
 
    To produce their artefacts they had to fashion tools which became evermore sophisticated. Every trade had its own set of implements: Carpenters, sculptors, stonemasons and builders, gold- and silversmiths, other metal workers such as iron smiths and foundry workers, weavers, spinners and dressmakers, potters, glass-blowers, surgeons and scribes.

    Much of what the artisans of ancient Egypt had to offer, was out of reach for the vast majority of the population. Their clientele were the royal household, the nobility and the ever growing bourgeoisie who could afford their services and products to varying degrees. Cabinet makers carefully carved beautiful furniture for the rich, while the less well-off made do with often crudely gessoed and painted chests and chairs, and the poor had to do without. Sempstresses sewed dresses of the finest linen, while the peasant woman's handiwork was much simpler and cheaper.

    Crafts were generally learned from one's parents, from neighbours or close relatives. But at least during Graeco-Roman times there were tradesmen who acted as masters to apprentices, taking the teaching of the trade upon themselves and even garanteeing its outcome:
I, Orsenouphis (also called) Psosneus, son of Kalales, a weaver, acknowledge that I am under obligation to teach Helene, the slave of Herakleon, son of Eirenaios, the weaver's trade as I myself know it, for two years and six months dating from Pharmouthi of the present forty-second year of Caesar, Helene being fed and clothed during the aforesaid time. I shall give to Helene a tunic worth eight silver drachmai. And if I shall not teach her, or she shall be considered not to know what she has been taught, you will perforce have her taught at my own expense.
Herodes, son of Herodes, wrote for him at his request because he is illiterate.

(2nd hand) I, Herakleon, son of Eirenaios, have apprenticed the aforesaid slave girl as aforesaid.
P.Mich.inv. 948, Tebtunis, 13 CE
http://wwwapp.cc.columbia.edu/ldpd/app/apis/item?mode=item&key=michigan.apis.3178 accessed June 2009
    Once the trade had been learned one had to start exercising it in order to earn one's living. Not everyone could set himself up as an independent tradesman; most worked for temples, royal institutions or, more and more in the Graeco-Roman period, for private enterpreneurs:
I, Harmiysis, son of Petesouchos, a Persian of the epigone, agree that for two years from the aforesaid time I will present myself to work and do everything that is ordered, and to weave whatever the said Heron, son of Haryotes, wishes every day, in return for which the said Heron shall pay in my behalf for the aforesaid period of time, annually, the poll tax in the village of Tebtynis and the weaver's tax and my expenses and the surtax of one third and the work on the enbankments and the bath tax and the tax on fountains, and on account of payments in kind over the aforesaid period of time, monthly, one artab of wheat measured by the four-choinix measure of Tebtynis, and on account of clothing and oil, annually, twenty-eight drachmai of silver. And I will not absent myself by day from Heron's establishment, but will accompany him all over the nome. And for each day that I do not remain with him, I will pay to Heron two drachmai of silver, and I will do everything as aforesaid.
Sarapion, son of Ptolemaios, wrote for him because he is illliterate.

(2nd hand) Heron, son of Haryotes. The agreement was made with me as aforesaid.
P.Mich.inv. 1266, Tebtunis, 1st century CE
http://wwwapp.cc.columbia.edu/ldpd/app/apis/item?mode=item&key=michigan.apis.1349

 


Bibliography for this and related pages
Gustave Lefebvre. Le Tombeau de Petosiris, Le Caire: L'institut Français d'archéologie orientale, 1924. 3 volumes
Lionel Casson Ancient Egypt, Time-Life Books 1975
A. Lucas, J. R. Harris ; 1962, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries, reprinted by Histories and Mysteries of Man LTD., London, 1989
Hermann Junker ed., Grabungen auf dem Friedhof des Alten Reiches, Band IV: "Die Mastaba des Kai-em-anch", Wien und Leipzig 1940
Pierre Montet, Haiey yom-yom bemitzrayim (La vie quotidienne en Egypte), Am Hassefer Publishers Ltd. Tel Aviv 1963
Pierre Montet, Les scènes de la vie privée dans les tombeaux égyptiens de l'ancien empire, Strasbourg 1925
W. M. Flinders Petrie Naukratis, London, 1886
W. M. Flinders Petrie Kahun, Gurob, and Hawara, London, 1890
W. M. Flinders Petrie Illahun, Kahun and Gurob, London, 1891
W. M. Flinders Petrie The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh
Cheryl Ward, Boat-building and its Social Context in Early Egypt: Interpretations from the First Dynasty Boat-Grave Cemetery at Abydos, Antiquity 80 (2006), pp. 118129
Vom Ackerbau zum Zahnrad, rororo Taschenbuch Ausgabe 1969
T.G.H.James Pharaos Volk, Artemis Verlag Zürich und München 1988

- ancient Egyptian toolsComposition and development of ancient Egyptian tools
Carpenters and their toolsCarpenters and their tools
Gold- and silversmithsGold- and silversmiths
Tools of builders and masonsTools of builders and masons
Working with stoneWorking with stone
Working with stoneStone vessels
Working with stonePottery
Foundry workersFoundry workers
ship constructionEarly ship construction: Khufu's solar boat
GlassGlass
DyingDying
Cloth makingCloth making
PerfumeryScents - incense and perfume: Ingredients, production, applications
MummificationMummification
 
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Did ancient women learn a trade outside the home?Did ancient women learn a trade outside the home? by Peter van Minnen
Amenemhat TT N82[1] Amenemhat TT N82: vue 7
Amenemhat TT N82[2] German translation of the Ramses stela

 

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