Recent work on the mummies of working people at Deir El-Medina in Egypt suggest that tattoos were much more common than previously thought 3,000 years ago. In the local cemetery, seven mummified women have been identified with tattoos. One had over 30!
The subject of the tattoos included sacred motifs such as Wadjet eyes, baboons, cobras, cows, scarab beetles, and lotus flowers. Some tattoos appear to have religious meaning, while others appear to offer healing or protection. Just like today, ancient Egyptians got tattoos for many reasons.
This is the cubit rod (aka ruler) of Maya, “treasurer of king Tutankhamun.” He also served under Tutankamun’s two successors, Ay and Horemheb. The cubit rod was an important part of being a treasurer because the Egyptian government was built on land management, and taxes were mainly agricultural products. To know how much to tax, you had to know how to measure the field, and the unit of measurement was the cubit.
This rod measures the royal cubit of seven palm-lengths (52.3 cm) and the common cubit of 6 palm-lengths. There are also a number of gradations shown including “digits,” palm-lengths, and fractions of digits from halves to sixteenths. Just in case Maya needed to measure really small distances.
Throughout much of Egyptian history, foreign and local trade networks were critical to the country’s economy, and there is a great deal of evidence for state-run commerce. However, records of private traders and merchants remain far more scarce. In issue 24 of Ancient History, we look at how trade both sustained and spread Egyptian culture, from the Old through New Kingdoms.
Image: A reconstruction of the ancient capital (and trade hub) of Pi-Ramesses, by Rocío Espin.
For the ancient Egyptians, life on earth was only one part of an eternal journey which continued after death. One’s purpose in life was to live in balance with one’s self, family, community, and the gods. Any occupation in Egypt was considered worthwhile as long as one was performing one’s duties in accordance with ma’at (harmony and balance as personified in the goddess Ma’at), the central value of Egyptian culture. This is evident through inscriptions as well as artwork depicting people engaged in various jobs presented, for the most part, admirably.
The inscriptions were set down by scribes, among the most highly respected professions in Egypt, and while most of their works have other people, professions, or events as subject matter, there are a number which celebrate the occupation of scribe above all others. The most famous of these is The Satire of the Trades (from the Middle Kingdom, 2040-1782 BCE) in which a father encourages his son to become a scribe because it is better than any other profession. Another well-known work, this one from the New Kingdom (c. 1570 – c. 1069 BCE), is A Schoolbook or Be a Scribe which delivers the same message, this time from a teacher to a lazy student.
This is Meritamun. Her name means “beloved of Amun,” the great Egyptian creator/sun god. She lived in ancient Egypt, sometime between 1500 BCE and 331 BCE, and was likely high status judging by the quality of the linens she was mummified with. Meritamun was between 18 and 25 when she died.
In ancient Egypt, the coming of the annual Nile flood was eagerly anticipated. The floods made Egypt fertile, replenishing the fields with beautiful, dark silt. This joyous season was also when Egypt held one of its most spectacular festivals: the Feast of Opet.
Held annually in the city of Thebes, the main attraction was a huge procession from the temple complex at Karnak to the temple of Luxor, with statues of the cities’ most sacred gods at the heart of the parade. Opet’s formal name is “heb nefer en Ipet” or “beautiful feast of Opet.” It is believed that “opet” or “ipet” is the holiest inner sanctuary of the temple of Luxor.
The beautiful feast of Opet was so important to the ancient Egyptians that the second month of the Nile flood, when the festival usually occurred, was named after the festival: “pa-en-ipet” or “the [month] of Opet.” Fitting, because the festival slowly grew from 11 days in the mid-1400s BCE to 27 days in the mid-1100s BCE. The festival really was its own month! And the ancient Egyptians probably did not mind having so much time to party.
Osiris as the Djed Pillar holding the Disc of the Sun God Ra, supported by an ankh symbol representing Life, surrounded by Isis and Nephthys. Egyptian Book of the Dead, Papyrus of Ani. New Kingdom, 19th Dynasty, ca. 1250 BC. Now in the British Museum.