Weights and Measures

The unit of weight used in Ancient Egypt was the deben. It was equal to 91 grams and was divided into 10 parts. Bread was weighted by the loaf, which weighed between 28 and 33 ounces.

Liquids were measured by the jar, which was the equivalent of .13 of a gallon. Cereals were measured by the barrel, corresponding to nearly 1.1 gallon. Length was measured in royal cubits divided into 28 fingers, or the length of the arm from the end of the middle finger to the elbow. There was also a small cubit, used by architects and divided into 24 fingers.

Egyptians calculated distances in units of 20,000 cubits, which would be the equivalent of 6.5 miles. They measured area in a unit equal to 100 square cubits, or 29,440 square feet.

Source: Journey to the Past – Ancient Egypt

Egyptian Dress

The most common textile in Egypt was linen. It was mostly a spotless white. Dyes such as iron (red), indigo (blue) and saffron (yellow) were sometimes used, but coloured and patterned clothes were usually the mark of a foreigner.

However, the Egyptians did decorate their clothes with beads and beautiful feathers. Wool was not used for weaving in ancient Egypt. Silk and cotton did not appear until foreign rulers came to power in Egypt, after about 1000BC.

The basic items of dress for men were a simple kilt, loin cloth or tunic. Women wore a long, closely fitting dress of fine fabric. Fashions for both men and women varied over the ages, with changes in the straps, pleating and folds. Although more elaborate styles of clothing did appear in the New Kingdom, clothing was relatively simple, with elaborate wigs, jewellery and eye make-up creating a more dramatic effect.

tutschairThe image to the right shows Tutankhamun and his wife, Ankhesenamun, in their palace. The image is made from glass, silver, precious stones and faience (glazed pottery). The queen is wearing a long, pleated dress, while the pharaoh wears a pleated kilt. Garments were draped around the wearer rather than sewn, and pleating was very popular from the Middle Kingdom onwards. Both Tutankhamun and his wife wear sandals, bracelets, wide collars and beautiful headdresses or crowns. The queen is offering her husband perfume or ointment from a bowl.

Food and Banquets

Working people in Egypt were often paid in food. They ate bread, onions and salted fish, washed down with a sweet, grainy beer. Flour was often gritty and the teeth of many mummies show signs of severe wear and tear. Dough was kneaded with the feet or by hand, and pastry cooks produced all kinds of cakes and loaves.

food

A big banquet for a pharaoh was a grand affair, with guests dressed in their finest clothes. A royal menu might include roast goose or stewed beef, kidneys, wild duck or tender gazelle. Lamb was not eaten for religious reasons, and in some regions certain types of fish were also forbidden. Vegetables such as leeks were stewed with milk and cheese. Egyptian cooks were experts at stewing, roasting and baking. Red and white wine were served at banquets. They were stored in pottery jars marked with their year and their vineyard, just like the labels on modern wine bottles.

Workers and Slaves

The pharaohs may have believed that it was their links with the gods that kept Egypt going, but really it was the hard work of the ordinary people. It was they who dug the soil, worked in the mines and quarries, sailed the boats on the river Nile, marched with the army into Syria or Nubia, cooked food and raised children.

Slavery was not very important in ancient Egypt, but it did exist. Most of the slaves were prisoners who had been captured during the many wars that Egypt fought with their neightbours in the Near East. Slaves were usually treated well and were allowed to own property.

Most Egyptian workers were serfs. This meant that their freedom was limited. They could be bought and sold along with the estates where they worked. Farmers had to be registered with the government. They had to sell crops at a fixed price and pay taxes in the form of produce. During the season of the Nile floods, when the fields lay under water, many workers were recruited into public building projects. Punishment for those who ran away was harsh. They might be beaten, and their tools or their house could be seized.

Skilled Workers

Skilled workers formed a middle class between the poor labourers and the rich officials and nobles. Wall paintings and models show us craft workers carving stone and wood, making pottery, or working precious metals. There were boat builders, and chariot makers, too.

Artists and craft workers could be well rewarded for their skills, and some became famous for their work. The house and workshops of a sculptor called Thutmose was excavated in el-Amarna in 1912. He was very successful in his career and was a favourite of the royal family.

Craft workers often lived in their own part of town. A special village was built at Deir el-Medina, near Thebes, for the builders of the magnificent, but secret, royal tombs. Amoung the 100 or so houses there, archaeologists found delivery notes for goods, sketches and plans drawn on broken pottery. Working conditions cannot always have been very good, for records show that the workers once went on strike. They may well have helped to rob the tombs that they themselves had built.

Court & Nobles

Egyptian palaces were vast complexes. They included splendid public buildings where the pharaoh would meet foreign rulers and carry out important ceremonies. Members of the royal family lived in luxury in beautiful townhouses with painted walls and tiled floors near the palace.

The governors of Egypt’s regions also lived like princes, and pharaohs had to be careful that they didn’t become too rich and powerful. It was not uncommon for those who were a threat to the pharaoh to suddenly be found dead. The royal court included large numbers of officials and royal advisors. There were lawyers, architects, tax officials, priests and army officers. The most important court official of all was the vizier, who carried out many of the pharaoh’s duties for him.

The officials and nobles were at the top of Egyptian society. But most of the hard work that kept the country running smoothly was carried out by merchants and craft workers, by farmers, labourers and slaves.

Egyptian Poor

Although life for the poor was hard in Ancient Egypt, by comparison to other societies of the time, even they were comparatively well-off and had a reasonably high standard of living. Most peasants worked in the fields, while many others were employed in the massive building programmes of the pharaohs. Most were well treated.

A stable family life was important to all classes of Egyptians. Great respect was given to elderly relatives. Once children became teenagers they often became servants to more afluent families. Houses, whether in town or country, were constructed of dried mud, mixed with straw and made into bricks. They were reasonably spacious, usually two stories, with flat roofs in which a vent was provided to catch the cool north winds.

Here are some snippets showing life for the poor:

Getting Around

Few poor people could afford wagons, horses or camels to transport themselves and their goods about. The most common form of transport for them was donkeys. There were few proper roads so transport was always difficult. For many people the only journeys they ever undertook were to and from the local market. Donkeys still provide the main means of transport for poor Egyptians in remote areas today.

A Measure of Worth

The measure of a man’s wealth was calculated by the number of beasts he owned, such as goats and geese, but particularly cattle. Scribes recorded the details and people were taxed accordingly. The agricultural season in Ancient Egypt was governed by the annual flooding of the Nile. Each year the river burst its banks, depositing a thick black silt over a considerable distance of the surrounding land making it very fertile. Farmers also constructed irrigation channels from the river far into their fields to grow more crops inland.

Slave Trade

Although the Ancient Egyptians did extend their rule over a small empire in north Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, they were not by nature a war-mongering people. When they did make forays into other lands, such as Nubia, Ethiopia or Lebanon, they captured native peoples and brought them back to Egypt as slaves. Some were put to work as servants in rich households, but mostly they provided the labour for the almost continuous building programmes of the pharaohs.

Egyptian Rich

As is the case for all societies at any period in the past, what remains are the belongings of the wealthy and, more especially, royalty. While the magnificent buildings, art and artefacts tell us a great deal about the sophistication and wealth of the Ancient Eygptians –they tell us little about daily life of the ordinary people.

However, it is certain that wealthier Egyptians and nobles enjoyed an opulent lifestyle. Comfort and hygiene featured strongly in their lives. They had strong family values and most wealthy households employed servants or slaves to carry out the mundane tasks.

Here are some brief snippets showing the world of the rich:

Ornate Furniture

Wood was in short supply in Egypt, but the wealthy could afford exotic imports, such as Lebanese cedar or ebony. Carpenters were skilled craftsmen and decorated their work with fine inlays and friezes.

Ornamental Glass

The arts of glass-making and enamelling were well known to the Egyptians. They also made fine white and coloured porcelain of a comparable quality to that made in China. Houses of the wealthy were decoreated with many fine art pieces.

Fine Jewellery

Egyptian jewellery was striking in the originality of its design. Skilled metalworkers fashioned all manner of shapes by welding thin strips of metal into intricate designs using molten sulphur. Gold (beaten or moulded) and fine jewels, such as turquoise and amethyst, were commonly used. They were embellished with fine ceramics and painted glass which, to the Egyptians, were almost as expensive as semi-precious stones.

Spacious Houses

The houses of the rich were quite large, often occupying two stories, and were made from bricks covered in white painted plaster. They were raised on platforms as protection against damp. Most also had a small, shady garden with an ornamental pool. Inside they were highly docorated with frescoes and enamelled wall paintings.

Keeping up Appearances

headrestMost Egyptians took pride in their appearance, especially the wealthy who could afford the finest materials. Both men and women had their hair cut short, but wore elaborately braided and decorated wigs. The wealthier they were, the more elaborate their headdresses were. Both sexes seem also to have used cosmetics, in particular eye make up.

Comfortable Lifestyle

Houses were quite comfortably, if simply, furnished, making great use of rare woods and fabrics imported from abroad. Most furniture was quite elaborately carved, such as lion-claw feet on tables and chairs. Beds, complete with stuffed mattesses, also had head and foot rests (see the photo) and reclining back boards.