“Everyday Life in Ancient Egypt” Frances Boardman

This Sunday’s talk at the Essex Egyptology Group meeting was given by Frances Boardman. The title of her talk was “Everyday Life in Ancient Egypt”, and she gave us a broad overview of various aspects of Egyptian daily life. The style of her talk was very stream of conciousness (in a good way) so it’s hard to summarise – one subject would lead into another organically and you’d suddenly realise that where you had just been being told about education now you were thinking about hair conditioner recipes. The emphasis was on positive and entertaining subjects, an antidote to how we can often get bogged down in the details of how nasty, brutish and short life must’ve been. A lot of the information about Egyptians’ lives comes from funerary contexts or bureaucratic documents, but Boardman managed to draw out of this sort of data anecdotes and asides which brought to life the Egyptians as individual people. I’m not going to attempt a full summary, instead I’ll talk about the bits that stuck in my mind the most or made me laugh the most – giving a flavour of the talk rather than an exhaustive list.

She talked a bit about education, and how you could rise up the social scale by being bright and getting proper schooling. And she talked about how there was some clever psychology in the choice of teaching materials. The way the boys learnt writing and vocabulary was to copy out set texts over & over till they got them correct – some of these texts ended each section on a cliff-hanger so you would be eager to come back and find out how the story went on. One text that we have a lot of copies of lists all the possible occupations you could have, and how terrible they are – you might get bitten by insects if you’re a reedcutter, you will have to work till your arms are tired and then work even more if you’re a carpenter. And finishes up by explaining how awesome it is to be a scribe (so work hard at school, little boy, work hard!).

When talking about working lives she also discussed the sorts of things we can find out from the attendance rolls (from Deir el Medina, I think). While there weren’t any such thing as weekends, people clearly expected to take time off for a variety of celebrations and obligations. You see workers listed as missing to celebrate birthdays for themselves and their extended families. You also see workers listed as off sick – she told us about one chap who is noted as sick from having been bitten by a scorpion. A few days later two other workmen are off because they’re mummifying him, clearly he failed to recover. And that also tells us a bit about how more ordinary people dealt with the death of friends or family – you rallied together and organised the funeral yourselves. Workmen obviously took time off for funerals of family members – and proving that nothing really changes she read us an entry where someone was off because he was burying his aunt. Another hand had added a note next to that entry saying “To my certain knowledge, this is the third time he has buried this aunt!” 🙂

I mentioned hair conditioner in the first paragraph – this was part of her discussion of social lives and beauty regimes. Apparently if you wanted to prevent dandruff the advice was to first slather your hair in fish oil, wrap it up and leave it for 24 hours. Then the next day, spread hippo fat through your oily hair and wrap it back up. After another 24 hours, rinse it all out – voilà! no dandruff. And probably no friends, either 😉 Apparently if you incubate fish oil and hippo fat at blood temperature for that sort of length of time then the compounds you get include some of the active ingredients in modern dandruff treatments. Only much more smelly.

She also told us that Egyptians are one of the only cultures that don’t have a flood myth – presumably because they were rather blasé about floods: “Yep, happens every year, good farming afterwards, what’s the big deal?”. And the flooding itself had an impact on the culture that you might not expect – it was in one sense responsible for the Pyramids & the temples. Not the particular shapes or whatnot, but the fact that the Egyptians had these big building projects in the first place. Every year not only was there no way to do any agricultural work for 3 or 4 months during the flood, but also the available land to live on was very restricted. So there was a lot of surplus workforce – take them away to do some big project (and feed them while they were there) and the people still at home can better feed themselves and there’ll be less unrest while everyone is bored.

If I have any criticism of the talk it’s that it was slanted too much towards the positive – for instance she talked about medical things that have since been borne out as having some truth or efficacy. But she didn’t mention the remedies that turned out to be useless or harmful. Having said that I did appreciate the change of focus – as I said at the start of this post it is easy to get bogged down in the details of how I wouldn’t want to be an Ancient Egyptian. This was an entertaining high level overview that gave us a real sense of personality to the Egyptians.