Ancient Egyptian Science Part II: Organization and Methods

Ancient Egyptian Science
Part II: Organization and Methods

by Jimmy Dunn

Amenhotep, son of Hapu, was probably a royal architect responsible for the immense building projects under Amenhotep III.

One of the most striking features of ancient Egyptian science was specialization. We believe that as early as the Old Kingdom, there were already specialized physicians. The training of scribes, upon whom scientific recording was dependent, was specialized at an early stage in order to prepare the student for his future work.

Evidence suggests that they spent about four years at basic schooling, probably focused on Egypt's classic literature. Students then learned how to compose their own letters and how to study the natural sciences in more advanced training. Specialized training they might need and practical experience in their field was provided by an apprentice system that usually began early in their studies.

Though craftsmen were apparently required to pass a specialized test, as indicated by examination dialogues embedded into religious contexts, there is no indication that a final examination was administered to scribes at the end of their training.

Those scribes who did not enter a specialized profession at the end of their training were usually employed to create purely scientific inscriptions in the House of Life. Religious inscriptions were authored, copied and stored in the House of Life, an institution found in all major temples.

The House of Life was very important in Ancient Egypt, as a central cult where the well-being of Egypt and its population was safeguarded with the help of magic, but it was also a library, scriptorium and even a type of university. Inscribing religious and scientific texts was subordinate to the all-important task of safeguarding Egypt and its people, and helps explain the strong link between science, religion and magic. These disciplines were not necessarily separate, as they are in our modern scientific world. Furthermore, centers of scholarship were evidently engaged in a robust exchange of information, since the same texts are known from various locations.

Specific houses of life were held in especially high regard. For example, the priests of Heliopolis were renowned for their wisdom, as was reverently recorded in Egyptian as well as in classical texts. Particularly during Roman times, when it fell upon the Egyptian priesthood alone to carry on the traditions of its ancient science, they must have been very organized in their creation of written records. An enormous amount of text was produced during this period, even though the temples seem to have been increasingly short of resources, as evidenced by the many manuscripts written on poor quality or recycled papyrus or even onto the back pages of Greek administrative records. But in 392 AD, when the pagan cults were finally banned due to the spread of Christianity, Egyptian science lost its organizational basis.

The task oriented nature of Egyptian science, along with its integration into religion cannot be emphasized enough. There was no systematic research and experimentation within multiple fields, or the pursuit of "pure" knowledge in ancient Egypt, as there is today. To the ancients during the classical period of their science traditions, knowledge was not gained from nature, but found in texts. The intellectual sphere of Egypt relied on scientific scripts and the role of cultural traditions was essential. In turn, tradition was deeply rooted in religion. the purpose of Egyptian science merely served theology, or was a component of theology, in an attempt to explain, usually by speculation, that which could not otherwise be understood. Importantly, magic, to the ancient Egyptians, was the culmination of knowledge. With its help, one could even coerce the gods.

The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus was an extensive text pertaining to the field of medicine

The knowledge recorded in texts was initially gained in many different ways. Some were adaptations from other cultures. At other times, the ancient Egyptians would sometimes indicate that a god had written a certain book, which was subsequently discovered. Other texts were credited to earlier kings. Indeed, most of the texts, with exception of wisdom texts, were anonymously authored and were obviously understood to be a collective cultural achievement. Yet this cannot have happened without discoveries made by individuals who, due to some necessity, added to this body of knowledge through observation, the basis of all science. At the same time, Egyptian science gave little trust to empirical methods, and there was usually no importance given to systematical research.

Hence, while invasive practices were used in mummification, there is no evidence that corpses were ever dissected to gain knowledge in anatomy. Expeditions to foreign lands were usually undertaken, not in search of knowledge, but for military or economic reasons, though scientific data was sometimes collected.

But many phenomena could not be observed and therefore were speculated upon, such as the netherworld, gods and the creation of the world. In this, speculation commonly involved drawing analogies to the known world on Earth.

There is some controvery as to whether Snefru's Pyramid at Meidum collapsed due to contruction techniques, or perhaps because of other factors, but its construction led up to that of the Red Pyramid, the first true one to remain mostly intact.

A good example of the relationship between science and religion can be seen in the pyramids of Egypt. Here, religion and speculation on theology probably dictated the first true pyramids with smooth walls, but a practical need arose to implement this religious device. Clearly experimentation, failure, observation and correction were involved in the evolution required to built the first true pyramid. Much must have been learned in this process, but it was the practical implementation of religious ideology, and indeed the magic that surrounded it, which drove the ancient Egyptians to build these pyramids.

Even though scientific pursuits in ancient Egypt were very different than they are today, there was nevertheless a sincere search for knowledge. And even though the methods and goals of scientific pursuits was different than they are today, they were not necessarily illogical. There was considerable sophistication in their development of terminology and of principles, which evidences that we cannot dismiss their work as completely "unscientific". Indeed, the modern concept of science is in fact the product of an evolutionary sequence that, among other traditions, began in pharaonic Egypt.

See also:






Reference Number

Alexandria, City of the Western Mind

Vrettos, Theodore


Free Press, The

ISBN 0-7432-0569-3

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul


Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

Egyptian Warfare and Weapons

Shaw, Ian


Shire Publications LTD

ISBN 0 7478 0142 8

Life of the Ancient Egyptians

Strouhal, Eugen


University of Oklahoma Press

ISBN 0-8061-2475-x

Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The

Redford, Donald B. (Editor)


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 581 4

Temples of Karnak, The

de :Lubicz, R. A. Schwaller


Inner Tradition

ISBN 0-89281-712-7