Ancient Egypt: History and culture
Ancient Egypt: Household utensils and materials
Cutting and piercing
Smoothing and sharpening
Storing and transporting
Preparing and serving food and drink
Making fire
Tying things together: string, ropes, cords
Making clothes
Cleaning
Grooming

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Household utensils and materials

    Homes which have become little more than sleeping and leisure facilities in our times, used to be bustling centres of economic activity under the supervision of the mistress of the house. Food, clothing and many simple utensils were made there, often from basic raw materials. Thus, the flax plant had to be turned into fibre, spun into thread, woven into cloth which could be sewn into clothes; grain had to be ground, sieved, made into dough and baked into bread; barley brewed into beer.
    In cities there were small manufacturing plants belonging to aristocrats using the same technologies to supply the needs of the wealthier part of the population, but most households were quite self-sufficient as far as basic needs were concerned (cf. the looms in the house of Djehutinefer).
    Mending even small and cheap items was of great importance. In a society where energy and transportation were relatively expensive and manpower cheap, investing time in repairs made good economic sense.
 
    The use unearthed utensils were put to is not always evident: a certain plate may have held food, a drill may have been used for making fire or some basket may have served for storing grain. The illustrations on this page are therefore exemplary of technologies rather than utensils proven to have been used for the purposes described in the accompanying text.
 

Cutting and piercing

Knives, axe, awls     Tools for cutting and cleaving are among the most ancient implements invented by mankind. If at first they were only used for butchering animals, they became more varied as people began to make clothes, build accommodations and accumulate possessions.
    The pace of change was slow. During much of Egypt's ancient history knives continued to be made of stone just as they had in pre-historic times; even after metallurgy had been invented and mastered. It was only during the Roman Period that flint blades disappeared completely and were replaced by iron knives [24] even among the general populace.
    In households knives were used for cutting foodstuffs, for carving wood and bone, probably for trimming hair, though they had special razors for shaving. They were also employed in situations where we would use scissors. Papyrus and cloth were torn apart or cut with simple blades until Roman times, when the use of shears with blades connected by an iron spring [20] and the later scissors [5][6] the blades of which were riveted together at a central fulcrum point, became more widespread [21].
    Axes, hatchets rather with short wooden handles, were occasionally used for cleaving, but their heads were made of stone which splintered easily, and later of copper or bronze which grew dull rapidly. Only in the Late Period did they become more useful with the introduction of iron.
    Occasionally things had to be stitched together and awls were used to make holes through materials too tough to be pierced with needles.
    To many tradesmen their home was also their workshop where they kept and used their tools. Carpenters had quite an array of cutting and drilling implements: Saws, adzes, drills, chisels and the like. Butchers needed knives and cleavers, and every peasant had to keep a sickle for harvesting his corn and a hackle for dressing the flax.
 

Smoothing and sharpening

Grindstones     Cutting tools are only as good as their edge. Stone knives and axes were generally not ground but knapped. Resharpening consisted in hitting the blade near its cutting edge flaking off small slivers of stone and leaving behind a razor-sharp ridge.
    Metal blades were sharpened by whetting them with a smooth stone, dents were removed by hammering. The edges of the tools were hardened by annealing - heating the tools and letting them cool slowly - and hammering.
 

Storing and transporting

containers     Egyptians did not have many possessions, but the few they did have, had to be stored when not in use. Baskets made from reeds growing near-by were cheap and sturdy. Wooden boxes fashioned by professional carpenters were better at keeping mice and rats out, but were also more expensive, while only the richest could afford chests made of alabaster.
    Foodstuffs were stored in pots, bags and baskets. These often had handles or the like by which they could be suspended, to prevent rodents from getting at the food. Produce grown in the vegetable garden was gathered in bags which were easy to carry.
    Water was poured into heavy earthen containers which had to be carried from the well into the house. Distances to wells were typically short, as groundwater was easily accessible. At times goat skins were also used for transporting water, though probably not in the house as they were awkward to handle.
    Other beverages, such as beer, wine or milk were stored in pottery vessels as well. These unglazed wares were quite porous and the moisture seeping out evaporated, cooling the remaining contents. This was desirable with drinking water, but less so with wine. In the Late Period the inside of wine vessels was therfore often coated with resins or wax to prevent seepage. The neck of the amphora was sealed with a stopper of mud to prevent evaporation and further fermentation.
 

Preparing and serving food and drink

Kitchen utensils     The preparation and serving of food required quite a few utensils, most of them made of burned clay. Pots, pans, cups, dishes, bottles and the like had to be acquired from professional potters as a normal household would have been highly unlikely to have the necessary kiln, nor the householders the skills for producing even simple Nile ware.
    A major task of the housewife or one of her servants was bread making, a back-breaking process of separating the grain from the chaff in a stone or clay mortar, grinding the corn on a hand mill [27], sieving it, kneading the dough and baking it in the oven which was outside in a yard or on the roof. Whether bread moulds were used at home or only in bakeries is uncertain, but most people would probably have baked simple pitta-like bread, shaped like a thin, flat disk, which is easily prepared and baked in a few minutes.
    Food was cooked in earthen vessels, metal being too costly for most. It was served on pottery dishes which were at times decorated [2], dishes of faience, stone, copper or bronze were used by the wealthy. Plates and spoons [3][4] have also been found, but it is unknown whether they were used for eating rather than for preparing the food before Roman times.
    Traditionally, people in North Africa and the Middle East have eaten from a shared dish placed on the floor using bread to scoop up the food. Ancient Egyptians quite possibly had similar table manners.
    Some other kitchen utensils were bottles, jugs, knives, ladles, mills, sieves, and strainers [7].
 

Making fire

Fire drill, excerpts. Source: UCL website     Fire was made by rubbing two pieces of wood together, one piece held stationary on the ground, the other twirled between the hands. The resulting friction heated the soft lower fire stick enough to light inflammable kindling.
    This whole process was made much easier by the use of the fire drill, a wooden bow the string of which was wound tightly around a spike. With a hollowed out drill cap made of stone or a nut shell the spike was pressed against the fire stick and rotated by moving the bow back and forth.
    Petrie was the first to discover how the ancient Egyptians had made fire when he found Middle Kingdom bow drills and fire-sticks at Kahun. This firemaking method seems to date to the Old Kingdom at least [30].
 
    While Egypt had quite a large number of trees which could be used for fire wood, they probably rarely cut down whole trees for the purpose, as this involved hard work, made more difficult by the kind of axes they had. As women were the ones responsible for cooking, they must have relied on gathering dead branches and other, at times less savoury fuel like dried dung, to keep their fires going. Charcoal [29], an excellent and expensive fuel, was probably rarely used for cooking.
 

Tying things together: string, ropes, cords

ropes and threads     With technologies such as buttons, clasps, nails, nuts and bolts or glue not yet invented or unavailable to ordinary householders [13], things which had to be connected were often tied together. Heads of hatchets were inserted into notches carved in the handle and tied to it with leather strips. Handles for flint knives [9][17] were made by wrapping the blunt end of the blade with some string. The cut of robes was loose and they were held close to the body with cords. Loin cloths were tied around the waist [8].
    Other things have not changed that much: just as we still do, they hung up things on cords, tied their (seldom worn) shoes [10] with laces, strung beads on strings and tied them around their wrists, hung amulets around their necks, wrapped possessions in a piece of cloth and tied it into a bundle, and ran running cords through the hem of woollen bags so they could be pulled shut.
 
    The raw materials for these strings and cords were animal and plant fibres, rawhide, and leather. Fibres were spun into threads, some as fine as a third of a millimetre, and two or more strands were twisted into string. Flax, palm fibre, rush, papyrus, and various grasses were used for coarse ropes. Two-strand ropes were sometimes doubled and redoubled, resulting in thick ropes of eight strands. For making nets they had netting needles [26], made of wood, bronze or any other suitable material.
    Wide network was made of this rope to enclose jars ; a ring passed round the lower end of the jar, the net covered the sides, and joined into a handle of rope at the top. Rings of rush rope are found, probably for carrying jars on the head.
    Small, flat, square baskets of rope were made, about 6 or 7 inches in height and width. And a band, probably for going round the back of a man in palm climbing, is formed of 14 fine ropes parallel, interwoven with strips of linen cloth, and ending in two thick loops for attaching the rope.
    Baskets were also made of palm leaf; both of the modern round type with palm rope handles, and of the flat, square form ; the latter is most thoughtfully designed, with a wooden bottom bar, woven rope corners, six fine ropes up the sides to distribute the pressure, retained in place by a cross rope, and ending in a twisted rope handle, the top edge having a fine rope binding.
W.M.F. Petrie Kahun, Gurob and Hawara, p.28
    Linen sewing thread was often made of two S-spun threads Z-plyed together, but three thread yarns are also known. Threads could be as fine as one fiftieth of a millimetre, the coarse yarns were somewhat thicker than half a millimetre. They generally chose a thread as fine as the threads of the cloth they were sewing and also matched the colour.[31]
    Leather was cut into thin strips and sometimes pleated into cords [15]. Being more expensive, it was used less often than plant fibres.
 
Spindle, needles etc

Making clothes

    Much of the cloth used in ancient Egypt was made of flax and woven by the families of peasants. It was cut with knives, scissors coming into use under the Romans [5][6], and sewn with needles made at first from bone, later from bronze and iron. The finest of these needles were about one millimetre thick. On has to admire their ability to create eyes in such thin workpieces. For coarser work they used wooden bodkins. Leather was first pierced with awls, before it was stitched together.
    Wool was also, more rarely, spun, but knitting was apparently unknown. Coloured wool was at times interwoven with linen; or the linen fabric was embroidered with it [19].
 
Brushes

Cleaning

    Egyptian houses were built of sun-dried mud bricks at times white-washed and the floors were stamped earth. The floor of the outdoor kitchen too was simply the ground baked stone hard by the sun. Unless it was raining, which happened only rarely, these floors were easy to keep clean by sweeping. Like most ancient Egyptian tools, these brushes did not have long handles which would have rendered their use less irksome, and required bending low when employing them.
    In the absence of kitchen sinks and running water dishes and clothes were probably taken to the river or a near-by canal for washing, or rinsed by pouring some water over them.
    Already in ancient times there were house-proud women who put their less fastidious peers to shame. The following passage from a Ptolemaic papyrus is somewhat fragmentary, but one gets quite a good idea what the priest and his good wife had to put up with:
The pastophore said to his wife: "Beware of this woman! She is sort of a refined person."
[/// ///] the pastophore. She saw how dirty the house was. She took off her clothes. She girded herself with a [///]. [//////] wash (?) it. She filled a vessel with water. She put (it) down in the place of cleaning. She hung up the copper vessels. She put (them) [/// ///] hot water. She said to the wife of the pastophore: "Go [/// ///]!"
She [///] (and) she washed [/// ///].
Saqqara Demotic Papyri I
after a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website

 
Grooming: mirror, razor, pincers, perfume vessels, palettes

Grooming

    Most Egyptians had little time and less means to waste on elaborate grooming. Some water labouriously drawn from a well and carried in heavy earthen pots had to do in most cases, sometimes in conjunction with a little salt, natron [33] or possibly a paste containing natron, potash or clay, and used as cleaning agent. Pieces of cloth similar to modern terrycloth with loops capable of absorbing large amounts of water and which were possibly used as towels have been found in a mass grave of soldiers at Deir el Bahri, dating to the late First Intermediate Period. [32]
    A great many could not afford a mirror and a razor and had to get a shave from someone else or go without. If they had some oil or grease for their skin they kept it in little pottery vessels or shells and not in expensive stone jars. Their wives did not own tweezers to pluck out body hair, scent in little glass bottles to perfume themselves, or ornate combs and hair-pins to stick in their hair [28].
    The scribe who composed the Satire of the Trades and who could probably afford quite a few of these luxuries, mocked the poor who could not:
.... the smith ..... stinks more than fish roe.
the potter ..... grubs in the mud more than a pig ..... His clothes are stiff with clay
The [stoker (?)], his fingers are foul, their smell is that of corpses
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 1, p.188

 


Picture sources:
[  ] The pictures were taken from the Virtual Museum site of the UCL [1]

Footnotes:
[13]: Nails [11] were used since pre-dynastic times (c.3200 BCE), buttons [12] seemingly later, though their purpose may not have been buttoning up garments. Adhesives like wax were easy to use, but of limited usefulness; while glue made from animal bones and sinews was difficult to produce and apply, and therefore probably employed only by craftsmen. Starch, eggwhite, gums and resins also had sticky properties which were occasionally made use of:
... they wash the corpse and roll its whole body up in fine linen cut into bands, smearing these beneath with gum, which the Egyptians use generally instead of glue.
Herodotus Histories Part II
On the other hand, clay for bonding bricks together or making repairs to walls was available to all.
[19]: Interestingly, the Jews who adopted many Egyptian cultural achievements used this (among other things) to set themselves apart from neighbouring peoples: Shaatnez, the mixing of linen and wool was strictly forbidden to them (Deuteronomy 22, 11)
[21]: The principle of sprung utensils like tweezers [22] was known since the Early Dynastic Period, though the metals of the day (copper and bronze made from naturally occurring ore mixtures) were brittle and therefore not suited for the repeated bending the use of shears requires. The principle of connecting two shanks with a pin at a fulcrum was also known [25]. At Gurob implements have been found which have been interpreted as scissors (or hair curlers) [23]. Iron shears began to appear in Europe in the 5th century BCE.
[29] During the reign of Ramses IV the superintendant of cattle of Amen-Re, Bakenkhonsou, wrote to the scribe of the storeroom of contributions, Iriaa, requesting firewood and charcoal
... The superintendant of the treasury, Khaemter, came to see me, in the district of Kheru. He gave me a document and told me: 'May 1000 logs of wood and 70 measures of charcoal be made ready, as I have told you that there is no more wood in the storeroom under my responsibility.'
Papyrus Louvre E 11006 (3)
[31] Paul T. Nicholson, Ian Shaw, Ancient Egyptian materials and technology, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p.282
[32] Nicholson & Shaw, op. cit., p.291
[33] Ian Shaw, Paul T. Nicholson, The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, British Museum Press 1995, p.197

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- -Index of Topics
-[28] Personal Hygiene and Cosmetics
-Main Index and Search Page
 
Links(Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the availability or content of these websites
 
-[1] Petrie Museum collection
-[2] Incised pottery dish, 12th dynasty, UC7592 (Petrie Museum collection)
-[3] Ivory spoon, UC4424 (Petrie Museum collection)
-[4] Wooden spoon, Roman Period, UC7077 (Petrie Museum collection)
-[5] Iron scissors, Roman Period, UC36207 (Petrie Museum collection)
-[6] Copper alloy snuffers, UC63502 (Petrie Museum collection)
-[7] Bronze strainer, 19th dynasty, UC30086 (Petrie Museum collection)
-[8] Leather pleated strap fragments, UC59690 (Petrie Museum collection)
-[9] Wound handle of rawhide, Middle Kingdom, UC59694 (Petrie Museum collection)
-[10] Child's right leather slipper, Bronze Age, UC28281l (Petrie Museum collection)
The picture is a bit dark. To see more details save it to your disk and use a graphics program to brighten it.
-[11] Nails, 2nd Intermediate Period, UC25600 (Petrie Museum collection)
-[12] Blue glazed concave button, 18th dynasty, UC1348 (Petrie Museum collection)
-[14] Loop of cord, New Kingdom, UC7715 (Petrie Museum collection)
-[15] Leather pleated cord, UC59025 (Petrie Museum collection)
-[16] Papyrus cords, UC31331 (Petrie Museum collection)
-[17] Palm fibre cord used as handle for flint knife, 12th dynasty, UC7330 (Petrie Museum collection)
-[18] Linen with occasional threads of coloured wool woven in, Coptic Period, UC7001 (Petrie Museum collection)
-[20] Iron shears, Roman Period, UC63500 (Petrie Museum collection)
-[22] Copper tweezers, Early Dynastic, UC40555 (Petrie Museum collection)
-[23] Scissors (?) elsewhere on the same site called a hair curler, Middle to New Kingdom, uc7787 (Petrie Museum collection)
-[24] Iron knife, Roman Period, UC7743 (Petrie Museum collection)
-[25] Bronze hair curler, 18th dynasty, UC7786 (Petrie Museum collection)
-[26] Wooden netting needle ?, 12th dynasty, UC28273 (Petrie Museum collection)
-[27] Lower grindstone, Neolithic, UC2961 (Petrie Museum collection)
-[30] The fire makers of El-Kharafish: a late prehistoric camp site in the Egyptian Western Desert
 

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© April 2003
Minor changes:
January 2006
July 2005
September, July 2004
September 2003

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