Ancient Egyptian Science

Ancient Egyptian Science

Part I

by Jimmy Dunn

Thoth as a baboon, with a scribe at his feet

There was no word known to us from ancient Egypt with the specific meaning of "science". The word Rh, "to know" probably comes closest, but it had a wide range of meanings. This is perhaps understandable, as our current definition of science is rather broad. We define it as the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation and theoretical explanation of phenomena. Otherwise, it is knowledge, especially gained through experience. Knowledge itself was the domain of the god Thoth in ancient Egypt, who was the patron deity of scribes. It was the scribes who were almost exclusively responsible for ancient Egyptian science, usually in either a priestly role, or that of administrators.

Our understanding of ancient Egyptian science originates from various sources, including artifacts, tomb paintings, inscriptions and papyri. Nevertheless, our knowledge of ancient Egyptian science is incomplete, though expanding. At the same time, there is also no reason to believe that the ancient Egyptians had any special hidden knowledge, in general, that has since been lost

If Egypt had early scientists, than certainly Imhotep was one of them, in his capacity as doctor, architect and high priest. It was he who is credited with building Egypt's first pyramid

Though the ancient Egyptians probably did not classify science in the same manner we do today, various evidence points to certain disciplines. These included anatomy (for art), astronomy and astrology, which were inseparably linked in ancient Egypt, biology and veterinary medicine, chemistry, geography, geology, history, law, linguistics, mathematics, including geometry, medicine, mineralogy, pedagogy (education), philosophy, physics, particularly related to mechanics, sociology and theology. Often, magic was perhaps not so much thought of as an individual science, but an aspect of many of the disciplines.And an essential feature of ancient Egyptian science was its close ties with theology and with the prevailing notion of a world created in its entirety by gods, perfectly ordered and unchanging.

Yet, there was a profound difference between modern science and ancient Egyptian science. While the modern scientist tries investigating phenomena by experiment, analysis and a continual process of advancing hypotheses which either prove inadequate and are replaced by others, or else lead to a general theory or conclusions, the ancient Egyptian scholars clung, as a rule, to the works of his predecessors.

Thoth as an Ibis, before Ma'at, representing order

Yet the earliest of times, it seems that the people of the Nile Valley sought out answers to make sense of the world around them. Gathering and storing food, selecting materials for shelters, making tools, struggling against disease and disorder were all concerns that would have led them to acquire and pass on a wide range of knowledge. This was of course not unique to the Egyptians and yet, the abundant resources of the Nile Valley may have, at an early stage, allowed them to ponder these issues without the extreme pressures of pure survival.

The bent pyramid is a fine example of early experimentation prior to the successful completion of the true pyramid

Nevertheless, it seems as though as soon as a body of knowledge had been accumulated which satisfied daily needs, it was regarded as sufficient, binding and largely immutable. If some serious incident or catastrophe occurred where accepted wisdom offered no help, the ancient Egyptian scholars, rather than trying to find out the reason, would turn to the writings to see how their predecessors would have coped with the situation. When they were forced to seek answers elsewhere, it was usually not through any doubt being cast on previous views but empirically, by checking the results given by current methods and coming up with alternative solutions that were better suited the the situation. Hence, it was the pressure of practical needs that sometimes forced the scribes to lay their scrolls aside and look for new approaches to new problems.

So it was that most of the inspiration for particular developments in Egyptian science was the need to solve a particular problem, such as the moving of large weights of stone, the calculation of the height or angles of pyramids, or predictions of the Nile inundation. Research appears not to have been undertaken for its own sake, and no attempt was made to derive general laws, such as mathematical theorems, from practical solutions.

As their social structure became more complex and developed, some tasks soon grew more specialized, so that only certain groups knew are used certain kinds of specialized information. However, it was probably not until Egypt was unified by a common king around 3,000 BC that Egyptian science began to really bloom. Indeed, it may very well have been this unification that spurred the development of writing at about the same time, and it was writing that gave Egypt the basis for scientific expansion. In fact, even the ancient Egyptians recognized this period as a golden era in science, the arts and technology.

As early as the Old Kingdom, we find examples of historical scientific records including lists of annals. Theology and magic are represented by extensive collections such as the Pyramid Texts, and though we have only copies now, certainly some Wisdom Literature was originally written during the Old Kingdom.

Just how specialized individual disciplines could be may best be understood when considering medicine. From tomb monuments we know that, for example, some specialized physicians existed. Herodotus writes that, "The practice of medicine is so divided among them that each physician treats one disease, and no more. There are plenty of physicians everywhere. Some are eye doctors, some deal with the head, others with the teeth or the belly, and some with hidden maladies..." . By the Middle Kingdom, we see more and more emerging sciences. Evidence, often in the form of lists, for example, document efforts to create an encyclopedic record of the world. In mathematics, there were good approximations for, and a method of calculating the surface and volumes of various geometric shapes. Astronomy began to be well documented, and of course, integrated into religion. This was also the beginning of the Bronze Age in Egypt, with its widespread adoption and use.

The Rhind Papyrus

Egyptian science no doubt was influenced positively by foreigners who were attracted to the Nile Valley. After the Old Kingdom, Egypt was for a time ruled by Hyksos kings, who not only imported horses and weapons development to Egypt, but also science, and perhaps particularly mathematics. One very important mathematics text known as the Rhind Papyrus is thought to date to this period.

During the New Kingdom, when Egypt expanded into the Near East and south into Nubia, the knowledge of foreign lands seems to have further enriched Egyptian science. This is perhaps most visible in the foreign plant and animal illustrations recorded in the "Botanical Garden" of Tuthmosis III at Karnak. Various texts of the period list many foreign location names, but foreign contacts were not limited to external contact. Indeed, many near easterners began to reside in Egypt and some advanced to high administrative offices. At the same time, many Egyptian physicians, by now famed throughout the region, resided at various royal and princely courts in the near east.

A wall of the Botanical Garden at Karnak - Photo from Jane Akshar of Flats in Luxor

It is difficult to understand exactly how much all of this foreign contact influenced Egyptian science, but it certainly had an effect. Babylonian cuneiform script found in Amarna point to some relevant scientific contact, and even the technique used in applying plant dyes to fabric came to Egypt from Palestine during the New Kingdom.

During Egypt's Late Period, the country was ruled by foreign kings. Darius I, a Persian king, absorbed Egypt into his empire. Yet he was recognized in Egyptian sources as an expert on Egyptian magic, and as a patron of Egyptian science.

Evidence also exists to show that knowledge was transferred from Mesopotamia to Egypt during the Persian era. The expertise acquired by the Egyptians was most likely in areas that were then more advanced in Mesopotamia, or at the time completely unknown in Egypt. Disciplines that seemed to benefit the most included astronomy, astrology and mathematics. Omina, which foretold the future by observation of the sun and the moon on which the Babylonian calendar is based, were used in Egypt from the sixth century BC onward. The zodiac, which almost certainly originated in Mesopotamia, was introduced to Egypt as late as the third century BC, and from that time forward it played an important role in Egyptian astronomy and astrology.

The Ptolemaic Period of Greek rule ushered in a fabulous era of science in Egypt, but not really of Egypt. At this point in history, the administration of Egypt was increasingly Greek, while the Egyptian language faded away to be used mostly by the common populous and in the Egyptian priesthood. Hence, the scribes who were a traditional center of Egyptian knowledge, found themselves outside of the administrative centers, and became concentrated in the priesthood, where an ever smaller priestly elite was centered. Indeed, the local priests seem to have rejected Greek science and instead took pride in their own ancient traditions.

On the other hand, much evidence exits that the Greek authors did learn from the Egyptians. Greek authors wrote on Egypt and its culture, and even translated Egyptian literature, law and scientific texts. It was during this period that the famous Museion in Alexandria was established, an institution for research that achieved international acclaim at the beginning of the third century BC, which introduced Egyptian knowledge to Europe.

The Mouseion as imagined by Carl Sagan

When, in 30 BC, Egypt became a subject of Roman Rule, the Egyptian language was almost removed from its public life. It was only employed by the Egyptian priest, for the most part. Nevertheless, numerous scientific texts show the intensity with which Egyptian writings were studied and copied. Some works, such as the "Book of the Temple,' have survived in Hieratic and Demontic versions, and even Greek translations, and new copies were made of older works.

Egypt's ancient sciences continue to have an impact on us today. For example, the Egyptian calendar, modified with the introduction of leap years, was introduced by Julius Caesar, the Roman Emperor, in 46 BC, and it remains the basis of our modern Western calendar. But unfortunately, even as Christianity spread across the Egyptian landscape, Egyptian science found its twilight as those early Coptic Christians rejected Egyptian science as pagan.






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