27 October 2009

Research: Life in Ancient Egypt

By Jean Adams

Daily life in ancient Egypt was harsh. Despite being the most advanced nation of the then world, most people didn't live beyond 40 years of age. Because of this, they usually married at a young age.

Egyptian culture expected women to marry at around age twelve. Marriage was a secular activity regulated by custom rather than law. Instead of a marriage contract, men and women drew up property contracts at the time of marriage in the event of death or divorce. The woman then travelled to the home of her new husband.

In the home, women were responsible for the day-to-day running and decisions. Women had the same legal rights and status as men under the law. The men were usually gone from the home much of the time because of seasonal work or warfare. Tomb builders had their own towns and villages near their current work, enabling their families to live with them.

The division of labor within a household evolved from environmental conditions. The men did heavy physical labor in the hot sun, while women labored inside or in the shade. Women attended to the household's gardens and orchards. Kitchens were situated outside the home because of the intense heat and meals were eaten outside or on the flat rooftops.

Twice a day, women fetched water and filled huge clay vessels that stood in the courtyard or by the doorway of every house. Women did most of the weaving, spinning linen thread from flax fibers. As farmers, women never handled tools with blades. They winnowed the grain, separating the stalks and seeds, and then they ground the grain for baking. Women helped to make wine and beer, and they pressed oil from nuts and plants.

How about this, ladies. Women did not wash dirty laundry! It was the men who handled the laundry because it was washed in the Nile and there was a constant threat from crocodiles along the river banks.

If they had the means, bathrooms were built right in their homes. There is evidence that in the New Kingdom the gentry had small bathrooms in their homes. In the larger homes next to the master bedroom there was a bathroom that consisted of a shallow stone tub that the person stood in and had water poured over him. There is no evidence that the common people had bathrooms in their homes.

It was the responsibility of each household to dispose of their garbage at the communal dump - the irrigation canals. As a result, these dumps were breeding grounds for vermin and disease. Some homes in the cities may have had trays of earth for drainage and disposal of waste. For the most part, however, ancient Egyptians simply dumped their waste in canals or open fields.

There were no formal schools for girls, so mothers educated their daughters in the home. Women attended professional schools, such as the school of medicine at Heliopolis and the woman's school at Sais, to learn to become doctors.

Women in Egypt were free to seek employment outside the home. Many women worked as musicians or dancers in the temples and during festivals. Wealthier households employed women as maids or nannies, and sometimes as professional mourners for funerals.

Some women would operate a small business out of their home, such as linen or perfume manufacturing. These activities increased the household income because these items were much in demand for funeral rites.

Professional opportunities for women included physician or midwife, director of dance or singing troupes, and overseer. The women who became doctors mostly attended to other women as gynecologists. Their skills were such that they performed Cesarean sections and surgically removed cancerous breasts.

Legal rights, responsibilities, and status were divided along class lines rather than gender lines. Within a given class, men and women had the same rights. Women were free to buy and sell property, enter and execute contracts, and file lawsuits. A woman could acquire possessions, property, and debt separate from her husband through labor or inheritance. A woman was entitled to inherit one third of their joint property on the death of her husband, the remaining estate was divided between the surviving children and siblings of the dead man.

Women were also equally accountable under the law. A woman who was convicted of a capital crime in a court of law would be executed, but only after the court determined that the woman was not pregnant. If one was found to be pregnant, her execution was stayed until she could give birth to the child.