Dr Leire Olabarria (lecturer in Egyptology at Birmingham University, UK) gives us a fascinating insight into the life of typical workers in Ancient Egypt, their methods for recording information, and similarities to today! Subscribe here.
If you had to pick one period of interest within all of ‘Ancient Egypt’, which would it be?
"First Intermediate Period, which is now seen as a period of creative innovation and regional change."
The history of Egypt is long and rich, and each period has its own interesting features.
If I had to pick just one it would be the First Intermediate Period (22nd to 21st century BCE), which was regarded for many years as a chaotic dark age of decentralisation between the time of the pyramids (the Old Kingdom) and the classical period of Egyptian civilisation (the Middle Kingdom).
Scholarship has completely changed the way we understand the First Intermediate Period, which is now seen as a period of creative innovation and regional change.
Could you give us some understanding of the ‘daily life’ of a ‘typical' Ancient Egyptian?
"...laundry lists, letters criticising lazy co-workers, documents disinheriting children who do not care for their parents, and even sketches for window frame replacements!"
The ancient Egyptians were not any different to us in that we are all human, with our insecurities, desires, ambitions, and dreams. There are a number of sources that provide windows into the daily lives of ancient Egyptians that show that they were very similar to us.
An excellent example is the site of Deir el-Medina, which was a purpose-built settlement for the workers who carved and decorated the royal tombs of the Valley of the Kings in the New Kingdom (16th to 11th century BCE).
Documents retrieved from the village comprise laundry lists, letters criticising lazy co-workers, documents disinheriting children who do not care for their parents, and even sketches for window frame replacements!
That does sound eerily familiar! How were the workers at the Deir el-Medina site treated by their ‘employers’? Did they have rights as we would recognise them?
"...workmen organised the first known strike in history..." (12th century BCE)
That is an excellent question. Workers at Deir el-Medina were employed by the state, who would pay them in rations. The pay was relatively generous, but when times of scarcity came about the rations were reduced by the government.
The situation became untenable and the workmen organised the first known strike in history, which is recorded in the Turin Strike Papyrus, dating to the time of Ramesses III (12th century BCE).
If your readers are interested in this topic, I highly recommend the book Village life in ancient Egypt by A. G. McDowell, as it is a compilation of texts from Deir el-Medina translated into English, including accounts of the strike I have just mentioned.
Moving on to mummification, was this a typical procedure for most Egyptians?
"It was the heart that was regarded as the seat of cognition and emotion."
There was not a single type of mummification in ancient Egypt.
First, there were coexisting methods that would cater for people’s varying resources or financial means. Second, the process itself changed over time.
We need to remember that Egyptian history covers many centuries. Even though sometimes we may get the impression that Egypt was an immutable civilisation, we shouldn’t let ourselves be fooled, as Egypt was in fact dynamic and diverse.
Regarding the process itself, many people are surprised to discover that the brain was ideally discarded. It was the heart that was regarded as the seat of cognition and emotion.
Did Ancient Egyptians use hieroglyphs to write down or record all their information?
"Several scripts were known in ancient Egypt, and the hieroglyphic writing system was just one of them."
It is important to make a distinction between script and language. Several scripts were known in ancient Egypt, and the hieroglyphic writing system was just one of them.
Hieroglyphs were often chosen for monumental inscriptions, while other more cursive scripts such as hieratic would have been preferred for day-to-day matters.
Scripts are used to render languages, and ancient Egyptian language goes through several phases, with Middle Egyptian being regarded as its classical stage.
Although ancient Egyptian language is well understood, our knowledge keeps improving constantly, for example with more nuanced interpretations of the verbal system or with new editions of texts that propose more accurate renderings of some terms.
Their language recording capabilities sound quite complex, in comparison with English, for example. Could the average Ancient Egyptian read and or write?
"...there may have been forms of partial literacy."
Great question. Based on what we know from ancient Egypt it seems that a very small percentage of the population may have been able to read and write. However, we need to bear in mind that there may have been forms of partial literacy.
Monumental inscriptions were often formulaic and perhaps some people may have been able to recognise some typical expressions.
Many monuments would include instructions to the literate elites who would pass by a monument to, for example, perform an invocation offering and recite the name of the deceased so that they would be remembered. Some of those expressions might have been be widely recognisable, as they played an important role in the cultural repertoire of the ancient Egyptians.
What led to you being an Egyptologist?
"...fascinated with history, archaeology, and ancient civilisations..."
I wish I could say that I always wanted to be an Egyptologist, but that is not the case for me.
When I was a child I was fascinated with history, archaeology, and ancient civilisations, but the drive to become an Egyptologist came about organically as I started reading more about the history of Egypt.
If it hadn’t been Ancient Egypt, what would have been #2 on your list?
"...I guess I fulfilled my childhood dream in some sense!"
When I was a child I wanted to be a writer. I loved to read and I dabbled at writing some short stories. I am still an avid reader and I now write about ancient Egypt, so I guess I fulfilled my childhood dream in some sense!
And as an academic, are your dreams disturbed by burning questions? Any advanced civilisations that disappeared without trace...
"...the past as we know it is already captivating, fun, and fascinating enough..."
Fortunately I am a heavy sleeper, so it takes more than a tricky question to keep me awake at night!
On conspiracy theories, I think the past as we know it is already captivating, fun, and fascinating enough. I honestly think it is sad that antiquity is simply not interesting enough for some people so that they need to come up with conspiracy theories about entirely new civilisations for which there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever.
Please can you give us a brief overview of your current work?
"If you are interested in uchronias, alternate history, and counterfactuals, keep your eyes peeled!"
I am a lecturer in Egyptology at the University of Birmingham, where I teach on the history, archaeology and language of ancient Egypt. My specific field of expertise is kinship and family, and my book on this topic came out only last month.
I also do fieldwork in Egypt, where I excavate the necropolis of a provincial town in Middle Egypt. Unfortunately this year we had to cancel our field season due to the Covid-19 outbreak, but I am hoping to be able to go to the field again in spring next year.
I am also about to start a new project for which I will be co-editing a book on the use of ancient civilisations in science fiction literature. If you are interested in uchronias, alternate history, and counterfactuals, keep your eyes peeled!
Congratulations on your book! Can you give us a little overview?
"I elucidate what it meant to be related in ancient Egypt, arguing that kinship went beyond the Euroamerican concept of blood."
Thank you! The book is entitled Kinship and family in ancient Egypt: archaeology and anthropology in dialogue and it has been published by Cambridge University Press in March 2020.
The concept of family is very often taken for granted, but it is a fluid category that needs to be defined within a specific context. In this book I elucidate what it meant to be related in ancient Egypt, arguing that kinship went beyond the Euroamerican concept of blood.
As I see it, kinship in ancient Egypt was based on practice, and that is why I refer to kinship as a performative concept. Kinship was not just given at birth, but it was probably made and remade by means of social practice.
This is a periodical blog, probably monthly, featuring articles and interviews on topics I find interesting, and which inspire my writing.
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