Human lives run through every object on display in this exhibition: through the hands that made them, the beliefs that imbued them with power and meaning, the interactions with nature that inspired them. However, it is difficult to immediately get a clear picture of everyday life in Ancient Egyptian Society from them, as many of the surviving objects were preserved in tombs rather than in domestic contexts. Although these were often items made specifically for funerary purposes they can still tell us a lot about everyday items. Death was believed to be a continuation of life on earth. Using tomb illustrations, surviving texts, and material culture we can piece together the story of life in ancient Egypt.
From representations of individuals to things people held and used thousands of years ago, these objects bring forth an immediacy of the society and culture of people much like us, yet thousands of years ago. We recognise elements of our lives in the surviving materials from daily life, and aspects of our society in the civic officials and multiple classes, yet also confront the power imbued in these objects by the belief systems that unite all beings in ancient Egypt.
Although the divinely-appointed pharaoh was all powerful, owning all of the land and leading all military, religious and civic organisations, the pharaohs delegated the administration of their kingdom to high officials. Where these positions were initially given to members of the royal family, by Mesehti’s time there were many non-royal officials, albeit mostly from the upper classes. Mesehti was a nomarch, the overseer of a nome (a province or administrative district). He functioned in a role similar to mayor of Atef-Khent, the 13th Upper Egyptian nome, and his tomb was found in Asyut, the nome’s main town.
‘the imakh, beloved of his city, revered of his nome, Mesehti; the nomarch, chief of priests, great in his functions, noble in his dignity, Mesehti’.
Mesehti’s tomb was discovered in 1893 and contained a number of models and two richly inscribed coffins. It is from these coffins that we know this figure’s name, and official role. The abundant grave goods, elaborate coffins and text that explicitly places him as a nomarch confirm that the indications of civic life we can glean from these objects relay to the upper strata of society.
This statue would have been placed in Mesehti’s tomb as an anchor for his ka-spirit* (life-force) throughout the afterlife.
There would have been numerous other figures placed in a tomb. This painted, wooden offering bearer wearing a white dress, red headband, and carrying a casket, duck and driving a white calf, was made during the Old Kingdom, a time when figures of female offering bearers became more common in the tombs of the elite amongst the statues of the deceased, their family and servants. They were included to offer eternal sustenance with their provisions to the deceased in the afterlife, offering containers of food and drinks such as grain and beer. Carrying a casket on her head and accompanied by animals, she was based on women in towns who carried their loads in this way.
The following three objects are clustered together in an examination of the use of perfumes and cosmetics thousands of years ago. They are but three of an extraordinary number of objects relating to ablutions and makeup that have survived the ancient world, indicating this was a big part of daily and ritual life in society at the time. Cosmetic and hygienic toilette is a common part of life today which helps us envisage how these items would have been used in the past. They are familiar yet are rooted in the visual forms and symbolism of material culture in Ancient Egypt.
This grouping of objects provide evidence of several more aspects of the everyday lives of Ancient Egyptians. They encompass architectural elements, bathing in the home or in religious ritual, and in this papyrus, an insight into social events.
‘Chairemon asks you to dine at the banquet of the lord Serapis in the Serapeion tomorrow, which is the 15th, starting at the ninth hour.’ Translation of the Greek invitation.
This tiny figure, measuring under 8cm, offers both insight and mystery.
The figure comes from a small tomb in the necropolis of Beni Hassan, near the modern city of Minya in Middle Egypt. Beni Hassan is a rock-cut cemetery that sits on a sloping limestone hillside, today about a mile from the east bank of the Nile. It is most well-known for its grander tombs of 11th and 12th Dynasty officials, painted with bright scenes and located on the upper terrace. However, between 1902 and 1904 archaeologist, John Garstang (1876-1956), excavated 888 ‘shaft tombs’ on the lower level, considered to be a ‘middle class’ cemetery. On this lower level in tomb BH 420, this and two other dolls were excavated, three of only eleven objects which contrast to the larger number of funerary items found in higher class tombs, and the hundreds in the tombs of the Pharaohs.
It has previously been assumed the vibrant blue beads were made of faience, but stereomicroscopy has revealed they are made of glass, displaying characteristic bubbles. This identification is supported by XRF analysis which shows elements associated with glass (Ca, Si, Fe, K) with a copper colourant (Cu). This analysis has revealed a truly significant discovery: these beads are among the earliest known glass found in Egypt.
Garstang assumed this to be a child’s toy, which has since been disputed; the accompanying contents of the tomb did not indicate a child’s burial. This doll does not feature the sexual characteristics to function as a fertility figure, nor the realistic human features of a model or shabti figure to assist in the afterlife. The true purpose and use of this stunning doll remains a mystery.