Welcome to the Ancient Egyptian Home
by Ilene Springer
This isnt ancient Egypt were talking about; this is what youll see if youre fortunate enough to travel along the Nile along some of the smaller villages of modern-day Egypt. Nevertheless, this will give you a glimpse into what the ancient Egyptian home looked like from the outside and the daily activities that took place around it.
You might wonder why so many ancient monuments are left standing while we dont have any ancient Egyptian homes still around. The answer: Mud versus stone. Stone was built to last, and the ancient monuments are, for the most part, built from stone. Homes, however, were built out of a much less expensive materialmudbrick. This basic building material consisted of chopped straw mixed with mud from the Nile. Ancient homeowners then shaped the bricks in a wooden mold and left them to dry in the sun. After time, the elements would lead to crumbling and some bricks in the walls would have to be replaced. To protect them from
the heat of the beating sun, the ancient Egyptians placed narrow windows high on the walls. As in Egypt today, many of the mudbrick walls were whitewashed to deflect the suns heat.
Depending on how wealthy and elaborate the dwellers were, the walls inside would be painted with colorful scenes of everyday life. Beneath your feet would be an earthen floor covered with reed mats. Above you, youd see a ceiling of sticks and palm rafters woven together.
In the towns, houses could be multi-storied to make most of limited land. The typical house, such as the ones excavated at the workmans village at Deir el-Medina (Tell Amarna in Upper Egypt), were squarish in shape and consisted of three main roomsa sleeping area, living area and a yard which acted as an outside kitchen with a cylindrical, baked clay oven; sometimes there was also a grinding floor for grain to make bread or beer. There were often two cellars for storage under the home. Various types of wheel-thrown pottery were used for eating and storage of food.
In the front of the home, space was often allotted to a craftsmans work, such as carpentry or pottery making. And sometimes the ancient Egyptian farmers lived with their petsin this case, livestock, such as goats and cattle.
The interior walls of the living quarters often contained niches where various statues of protective gods and goddesses were kept. A woman hoping to become pregnant, bear healthy Children or be a good mother might have the statue of Bes (a rather unattractive but lovable dwarf-like protective household god), the cat goddess Bastet (protector of fertility) or Taweret (a protective deity of pregnant women. Taweret took the form of a hippopotamus with the limbs of a lion, the tail of a crocodile and a human breast.)
Many homes had stairways leading to a flat roof that contained a vent for catching cool breezes and storage bins or small grain silo. The roof was actually a great place. Often during the hot months, the ancient Egyptians cooked, ate and slept on their roofs. In fact, most of their liveseven during other times of the yearwere spent outside.
The wealthy noblemen and their families, of course, lived in more extravagant homes on spacious estates in the countryside or on the outskirts of a town. Their houses had high ceilings with pillars and were lavishly decorated with brilliantly painted scenery. There were secluded gardens, courtyards with palm trees to provide shade and privacy and pools with sweet-smelling lotus blossoms. The pool might also be stocked with exotic fish from the Nile. These wealthy citizens had servants quarters for their help, plus granaries, stables and a small shrine for worship. How do we know what the homes of the wealthy looked like? Archaeologists have actually found scaled models of homes buried in the tombs of their owners.
Interestingly, the homes of the wealthy and not so wealthy were sparsely furnished. The most common piece of furniture in all ancient Egyptian homes was a low, square wooden stool. The corners flared up and on top, the Egyptians placed a leather seat or cushion. Actual chairs with backs were rare and these belonged to only the wealthy. Most homes did have small tables made of wood or wicker and had three to four legs.
Beds for the wealthy were made of a woven mat placed on a wooden framework, standing on animal-shaped legs. At one end was a headrest (that we Westerners marvel at) made of a carved neckpiece set on top of a short pillar attached to an oblong base. Sometimes the headrests were wrapped in layers of cloth to make them more comfortable. Peasants and farmers woke up on reed mats covered in coarse linen, while noblemen and their wives awakened to the feel of fine linen sheets. Clothes, jewelry, linens, cosmetics and other domestic goods were kept in cabinets, chests or baskets under the beds or on shelves on the walls.
And what about the plumbing? There was no running water. But the homes of the wealthy often included "bathrooms" which were actually recessed rooms with a square slab of limestone on the corner. The master or lady of the house would stand on the slab while servants (or slaves) would douse him or her with water. The used water would then run into a large bowl in the floor below or through an earthenware channel in the wall where it emptied into a bowl outside. Then that bowl was emptied by hand. Using the toilet was based on the same principle. Some limestone seats have been discovered in which it appears that waste was emptied directly into the sand.
If you were a common person, you ate your meals on a bench with reed mats. If you were from a wealthy family, you sat on cushions and ate from a low table. And in the evening, you would light a lampa simple bowl of pottery or stone containing oil and a wick. Sometimes pottery torches were placed into brackets on the wall. In wealthier homes, there were lamp stands in the form of papyrus plants. Whether they were rich or not so rich, the ancient Egyptians continue to amaze us with how much they did with their homes using only the simplest materials available to them. And if you do get the chance to go by those villages, realize that youre witnessing a scene that hasnt changed much in over four thousand years.
Duke University Website on Ancient Egyptian Life
Robinson Research on the Web (Plumbing)
Ilene Springer (Sennuwy) writes on ancient Egypt and archaeology and is a student of museum studies at Harvard University.
Last Updated: June 13th, 2011