The Domestic Life of Ancient Egyptians
More is known about daily life in ancient Egypt than in most other ancient civilizations. Egyptologists use tomb paintings, funerary equipment and objects, and artifacts from the excavations of ancient Egyptian towns to reconstruct what daily life was like in ancient Egypt. Most of the evidence found by archaeologists comes from tombs and pyramids; some of these objects were models of common, everyday objects and some of the paintings or reliefs depict scenes from daily life. The kinds of houses and clothing people used depended on their location, such as if they lived in the country or in a town, and their social status. The quality of household goods, clothing, and even food depended on whether a family belonged to the lower class, which included farmers and common soldiers, or the upper class, which included nobles, priests, and army officers.
Life for Lower-Class Egyptians
The family in Ancient Egypt was made up of a father, mother, children, and for commoners of means, servants. Polygamy was permitted but not practiced among the common people, possibly for economic reasons. Men were farmers, potters, craftsmen, or hunters and provided for their family. Craftsmen worked for nobles or government officials and did not own their own shops to sell wares publicly. Serfs were attached to the land of a noble family and worked for that family, but they could not be sold like slaves. Women cared for their children and home, and could become professional mourners or musicians. Children lived at home until they married and studied for their future profession. Boys would accompany their fathers to the fields or the workshop and become apprentices. Girls would learn household chores and duties from their mothers.
Egyptian families lived in houses made of mud bricks, dried in the sun with packed dirt floors. The number of rooms varied according to the family’s wealth and with time. Lower-class houses could have only a few rooms or as many as a dozen. In towns, houses would have two or three floors. The family would use the first floor for business and the upper floors for private living space. Furniture included low three-legged wooden stools, although many lower-class people sat on the floor on mats. Few people owned or regularly used a table, instead doing their cooking and other tasks crouched down on the floor. If a family had a stool or a chair, only the head of the household would use it. Egyptians slept in beds with wooden frames, a rush mat, and a headrest made of wood or stone. Their mattresses were filled with straw or wool, although the poor might only have a mat. The poorest Egyptians slept on the bare floor, without a mat. Often the family would sleep on their flat roof to catch a cool breeze at night. Pottery or stone bowls filled with oil served as lamps. Woven rush baskets contained their clothing and household tools. Most poor Egyptians did not have a bathroom or toilet, so they either relieved themselves outside or used a toilet seat with a removable ceramic or pottery bowl underneath.
Egyptian houses had kitchens with a clay stove for cooking. Egyptians ate bread made from emmer wheat and barley and baked over an open fire or in an oven. They drank beer, and the lower-class might drink wine for special occasions. Egyptians ate fruits and vegetables, such as figs, plums, dates, grapes, onions, turnips, lettuce, and beans, grown in gardens. Domestic animals, such as geese and cows, provided meat in addition to wild game and fish. Lower-class Egyptians ate and drank out of cups made of baked clay and plates of clay or reed mats. A typical meal for a lower-class family would include bread and fruit for breakfast, bread and meat with fruit and beer for lunch and dinner.
Lower-class Egyptians wore clothing of white linen. Men wore loosely draped linen kilts and women wore linen sheath dresses. Both sexes wore make-up and perfume. Men and women went barefoot, although some worse papyrus, palm leaf, or leather sandals that were taken off when in the presence of a social superior. Children often did not wear any clothing and their heads were kept shaved, sometimes with a braided side-lock. Egyptian families bathed in the Nile River, in which they also swam for pleasure.
Domestic chores included cooking, cleaning, and weaving. Women would grind wheat to make bread, bake the bread, and preparing any additional food they had. The women and children fetched water from the river or well each day. Egyptian clothes did not require much sewing, but lower-class women had to weave the linen sheets for their beds, the kilts the men wore, and their own sheathes. Women and children would also make the reed sandals they wore. Lower-class men were occupied in their professions: working in the fields or making their crafts. Older children accompanied their father or mother to learn a trade.
Life for Upper-Class Egyptians
Upper-class families also consisted of a father, mother, children, and servants. Polygamy was practiced by a few great noble families and royalty, but most upper-class men had one wife, and priests were limited to one wife. Wealth, property, and inheritance devolved through the female line. Upper-class men were priests, scribes, army officers, or owned land. Upper-class women supervised their household servants and children or became priestesses or musicians. Children of wealthy parents received formal education from tutors to become scribes, were taught by priests in the temple to enter the priesthood, or were prepared to become army officers.
Wealthy families lived in large homes with up to sixty rooms. In addition to bedrooms, these homes included reception rooms for entertaining, private living space, and even bathrooms with limestone toilets and removable bowls. The rooms were arranged around a private courtyard or corridor. The houses were surrounded by a wall with one door. Shutters, mats, or cloth covered the windows of the upper floors to keep out dust and insects. The household of the extremely wealthy or noble could include a personal staff (including servants such as scribes, sealers, stewards, body servants, and nurses), a household staff (including such servants as guards, caterers, cooks, brewers, bakers, washerwomen, and maids), and a farm staff (including herdsmen, fishermen, carpenters, gardeners, and servants in charge of domestic animals). Upper-class men and women did not perform the daily household chores themselves, but rather supervised the servants who performed them. Upper-class women would amuse themselves in their cultivated gardens and plan entertainment for their families and guests, while children played with toys.
The furniture and household goods of a wealthy family were much like those of common people, but more abundant and made of more costly and comfortable materials. Wealthy people slept in beds with mattresses, fine linen sheets, canopies, and feet were carved to look like animals. Four-legged stools or chairs with animal skin or leather seats and wooden or stone tables were used. Chairs with arms were only used by the most wealthy or important. Wealthy families would also have numerous couches for entertaining. The interior of these spacious homes were decorated with wall paintings and the wealthy used bronze, gold, or silver dishes instead of clay. The clothing and sheets of upper-class families were made of finer linen and woven by servants. Intricate metal jewelry boxes contained their personal belongings and cosmetics and wooden cabinets housed their clothing.
Men typically wore knee-length kilts of white linen or wool made from a long rectangular sheet of cloth that was sound around the waist and tied or fastened with a buckle. Some men wore “under kilts” under a heavier pleated kilt that was fastened with a fringed sash. Men also wore short capes. Women wore simple ankle-length sheath dresses, which became more elaborate over time and were covered with pleated, fringed robes. Both sexes wore leather sandals. Men and women wore jewelry, including bracelets, anklets, earrings, rings, and necklaces. Upper-class men and women wore jewelry made of glass, gold, and semi-precious stones. Men and women both wore cosmetics and perfumes, including green and black eye makeup (malachite and kohl), rouge (made of red ocher mixed with fat), and henna (used to dye the hair and stain the soles of the feet and palms of the hands). Both sexes used body creams and oils to protect their skin from the dry climate. Men and women would also wear wigs made of human hair that attached either to their own short hair or shaved heads.
The upper-class ate a variety of fruits, vegetables, meats, and fish. They were able to drink wine on a regular basis as well as beer. Upper-class Egyptians attended formal banquets, which included entertainment provided by dancers and musicians (popular instruments included: trumpet, oboe, flute, harps, tambourines, drums, and lutes). In addition to attending banquets, upper-class Egyptian men enjoyed sport hunting, fishing, and fowling. They hunted wild game, such as gazelles, ibex, and ostriches, and threw boomerang-like sticks to hunt wild birds. Upper-class families kept animals as pets, especially dogs, cats, and monkeys, in addition to livestock. Toys and games for children included dolls and balls.
These resources will help you to learn more about what daily life was like for both upper- and lower-class people in ancient Egypt.
Ancient Egyptian Life: This site is divided into sections that cover the beliefs, social system, political system, & daily life of ancient Egyptians.
A Day in the Life: This site gives a day in the life of lower-class and noble Egyptian families.
Domestic Life in Ancient Egypt: Includes information on daily life and the way different types of people, such as scribes and soldiers, lived.
Daily Life in Ancient Egypt: This site includes information on farming, the role of women, family, games, furniture, dress, food, & homes.
Egyptian Life: Information on ancient Egyptian homes, art, buildings, clothing, jewelry, food, & hygiene.
The Role of Women: This site details the role of women in ancient Egyptian society and their occupations both inside and outside the home.
Guide to Ancient Egypt: This guide to ancient Egypt includes sections on daily life, dress, children, home, food, & leisure activities.
The Family: This site explains marriage, family, daily life, and dress in ancient Egypt.
Daily Life: An explanation of dress, home, and the daily activities of ancient Egyptians.
Social Life: Information on ancient Egyptian municipal life, marriage, and home life.