If you haven’t visited the exhibition that is currently on at the Auckland Museum – Egypt: In the Time of Pharaohs – I can thoroughly recommend it. It covers all the things that you would expect to find in an exhibition on Ancient Egypt: pyramids, pharaohs, tombs, mummies, gods, temples, statues and carvings. But also (and to my mind more interesting) it gives a glimpse into the everyday lives of the people who lived there.
I have always had a fascination with ancient civilizations, especially Ancient Egypt, and have avidly devoured exhibitions, documentaries, books and more. I was very fortunate to have been able to visit Egypt with my mother Gill in 2010, just months before the Arab Spring that put an end to tourism for a long while. Although there are cities and many more people there now, there were people living much as they would have done millennia ago in tune with the rhythms and fortunes of the Nile River and the natural world.
The Nile River is “a fertile paradise; the landscape supports biological diversity. Waterfowl and hippopotami remain near the river, while ostriches, lions and gazelles roam the savannah. Artwork on graves depicts geese, cattle, donkeys, dogs and cats. Rock paintings feature crocodiles, gazelles and ostriches. While the Egyptians’ menu includes livestock and fish, their staple is grain. In gardens, lettuce and onions grow next to palms, figs and countless flowers. Linen for clothing is produced from flax plant fibres“.
From the bountiful produce from the Nile came many of the foods and drink that we are equally familiar with today. These are depicted in great detail in recognizable scenes. On the menu would be a type of bread made from grain. With that you would eat vegetables, fruit, and perhaps fish. Festivals are special occasions for holiday meals when beef, lamb, goat or poultry may be served. After water and milk, bear is the most popular beverage – even for kids. Wine is for festivals only, unless of course you are a god (many scenes depict offerings for the gods).
Along with the foodstuffs the exhibition shows examples of furniture and furnishings from homes, along with lots of offering plates and a range of different plates, bowls and jars made of clay or stone and often glazed or otherwise decorated.
Ancient Egypt was rich in culture, as evidenced by elaborate art and sophisticated record keeping. Their innovation is obvious right from almost the earliest settlement of the Nile Valley. Back before 3000BCE ancient Egyptians started to build irrigation systems to make the best use of the Nile water, to manufacture papyrus, and to develop the first art: rock drawings, painted pottery and figurines. By 2700BCE they have developed a writing system and start to build iconic palaces and temples. By around 2000BCE art and craftmanship are flourishing, along with literature, science and scholarship. They are producing exquisite glassware, faience (a glazed ceramic material made of crushed quartz), and intricate jewellery from precious materials such as amethyst, carnelian, turquoise, lapis lazuli, gold, silver, bone and ivory.
Beauty is core to Egyptian culture, revered in all creativity and pursued through architecture, art and personal adornment. Although the people worship nature, they also welcome opportunities to augment it. Cosmetics, hairdressing and jewellery are embraced by men and women alike, both wearing bracelets, collars, rings, charms, idols and Udjat eyes that range from simple to magnificent. Their hair is dressed with tiaras and crowns made of flowers and ribbons. Hairstyles and wigs vary widely – both men and women use dyes and grooming products made from fats and oils, as well as extensions of real hair, then refine their hairstyles with wood combs and curling tongs. Wigs are popular, made of human hair or palm fibres dipped in beeswax. Big hair is a sign of youth and health. Priests however, shave their heads – sometimes their entire bodies. Egyptians consider body hair undesirable. Men remove it with razor blades, while women remove it with a cream made from sugar, citric acid, sunflower oil and water. Both sexes pluck their eyebrows with tweezers.
Gravesites reveal razor blades, curling tongs, tweezers and mirrors made of polished metal. The ideal of beauty is supported by elaborate jewellery, clothing, grooming and makeup. Cosmetics are also advanced with both men and women enhancing their eyelids with minerals such as galena, azurite and malachite. They use grinding stones to crush the minerals into fine powders, then use makeup pens for precise application. Egyptians use stone palettes to hold their mineral-based makeup, storing these powders and pastes in small jars of fine stone. Later the jars themselves are beautiful multi-coloured glass formed into attractive shapes.
Alabastra are small bottles used to hold perfume or massage oil. They are usually made from pottery or glass but also calcite alabaster. Ointment jars are important because fragrances symbolize the presence of the divine. For skin care, Egyptians use precious ointments and oils made from scented substances such as aromatic resins and plant oils. Oils, essences and ointments are kept in small containers or bowls. These are usually decorated with flower motifs such as lotus flowers and buds. Fragrance oils and ointments are worn on top of the head, ensuring that they smell of rose, musk or myrrh instead of unpleasant body odours.