14 Everyday Objects From Ancient Egypt
For nearly 3,000 years, ancient Egypt flourished as the preeminent civilization of the Mediterranean world. His legacy lives on through a multitude of objects left behind – majestic monuments, written records, artifacts and works of art. From this rich wealth of information, archaeologists and scholars have identified objects that were part of the daily life of ancient Egyptians.
In a culture that emphasized the afterlife and the importance of maintaining the fragile order of the universe, even everyday objects could hold deep meaning.
“In ancient Egypt, magic was as much an integral part of a material object as its practical function,” explains Lorelei H. Corcoranprofessor of art history and director of the Institute of Egyptian Art and Archeology at the University of Memphis. “The aesthetics of an object relied on the Egyptians’ keen observation of the natural world and the innate beauty of the shapes and patterns that exist within it.”
Moreover, the development of Egyptian civilization allowed Egyptians to stay in one place, which gave them the opportunity to advance design and craftsmanship. “They developed very elaborate metalworking techniques,” Corcoran explains. “They created beautiful things, with an aesthetic of beauty they inherited from nature.”
Objects also sometimes had subtle meanings incorporated into their design. The shape of a round or oval mirror and its handle, for example, also formed a hieroglyph, ankh, it meant both “mirror” and “life,” Corcoran notes. “So when you use the mirror,” she explains, “you kind of reflect your life.”
Here are 15 objects that were part of daily life in ancient Egypt.
The Egyptians made ceramic drinking vessels for their beverages and sometimes turned them into works of art. The Lotiform calyxwhich is exhibited in The encounter New York museum, is decorated with scenes of people, flora and animals. “It’s just the incredible explosion of the natural world on this ship,” says Corcoran.
2. Floor lamp
The Egyptians used oil lamps – basically simple pottery or stone bowls – to light their homes. Some were laid on the groundwhile others were placed on supports inspired by the columns of the temple.
Instead of using pillows, the ancient Egyptians used stone or wooden headrests. “It’s basically a curved piece that’s attached to a rod and then to a platform, and you lay down and then lay your head on the curved piece,” Corcoran explains. “It elevates your head, keeps it cool and keeps bugs away.”
The ancient Egyptians were very hygiene conscious and cut their hair short or shaved it to thwart lice. This razor, which has a blade attached to a wooden handle, was found in a basket in a woman’s grave. It is part of the Met’s collection of Egyptian artifacts.
Egyptians wore wigs both to protect their heads from the sun and to show their social class or rank, according to Peck. They were made of human or animal hair and plant fibers on a netting base which could be linen. Women tended to wear wigs with simpler hairstyles than men, although they sometimes wore more elaborate ones for festival celebrations.
An Egyptian’s toilet set might also include a pair of copper alloy tweezers like these, now in the Met’s collection.
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Based on William H. Peck’s 2013 book The Material World of Ancient Egypt, the Egyptians wore shoes made from the skins of cattle, goats, and gazelles, or woven from plant materials such as papyrus and grasses. The leather-free sandals resembled modern flip-flops, with a strap across the instep secured by a cord between the toes, according to Peck. Members of the royal elite wore more elaborate sandals, such as these gold sandals that belonged to a queen of Pharaoh Thutmose III.
Egyptians loved colorful jewelry, often in the shape of gods, sacred animals, and other designs. The jewelry may have been designed as amulets that would magically protect the wearer from disease, accident, and other harmful events, Peck writes. These amethyst and gold bracelets and anklets feature lions and lion claws.
Although we are used to thinking of Egypt as a hot place, temperatures drop early in the morning and evening, and the feet of the ancient Egyptians apparently got cold. This pair of striped wool socks was designed to be worn with sandals, according to Dr. Margaret Maitland, Senior Curator, Ancient Mediterranean at National Museums of Scotlandwhich houses an extensive collection of Egyptian artifacts.
Egyptians were apparently preoccupied with their appearance – both men and women wore make-up, for example – and they looked at themselves in a mirror like this one in the collection of the National Museums of Scotland.
“The gleaming copper alloy of this could be polished to give a clear surface for you to see yourself clearly,” says assistant curator Dr. Daniel Potter. “One of the Egyptian terms for a mirror translates to ‘Seeing the Face’, a perfect description! We take mirrors for granted today, but there are wonderful examples of wooden cases for mirrors to protect, which shows how valuable they were.”
11. Ancestor bust
This small limestone figurine would have been kept on a shelf embedded in the wall of an Egyptian house. Since Egyptians didn’t have cameras to take pictures, the busts helped them remember their deceased loved ones, Maitland says.
This wooden tool, with a cylindrical handle and a conoidal head, is an example of the tools used by the Egyptians. “This mallet was used so intensively that it left deep indentations in the wood on all four sides, from which the worker must have struck thousands of blows,” says Maitland. “Good quality wood was relatively rare in Egypt, so it is perhaps unsurprising that this mallet continued to be used for so long.”
Just as we sometimes doodle on scrap paper, the ancient Egyptians used limestone flakes, which were more readily available than pieces of papyrus, as notepads. “Here’s a great drawing of a man or boy chasing a monkey in a palm tree,” Potter explains. “The figure in the middle depicts how the king was shown on the temple walls when defeating an enemy, so the doodler may have made a little joke.”
14. Board Game
Several centuries before Monopoly and Risk, playing board games was a popular Egyptian pastime, according to Peck. A popular game, Senet, was designed to be played by two people, who threw sticks to determine how many squares they could move their pieces. The passage of coins on a board also served as a metaphor for the journey to the afterlife and was depicted on the walls of tombs.