BMCR 2014.03.39

The Material World of Ancient Egypt

, The Material World of Ancient Egypt. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. xiii, 214. ISBN 9780521713795. $27.99 (pb).


From Greek and Roman antiquity to modern popular culture, Egypt has fascinated with its monumental architecture, exotic customs, and mysterious royals (pyramids, mummies, King Tut, to name a few). The enduring appeal of major Aegyptiaca however has traditionally diverted attention away from the Egyptians’ ordinary objects and daily life. This imbalance has been partly remedied by a few important studies,1 but as ongoing excavations and new technologies reveal previously unknown or misunderstood aspects of daily life, revisions and updates are essential. William H. Peck, a retired curator of ancient art at the Detroit Institute of Arts, takes on the task of demystifying Egyptians by examining the materials they used to make daily tasks feasible and comfortable. His panorama of cultural snapshots makes for a thorough and vivid introduction to Egypt’s material culture, especially suited to general readers and undergraduate students. Classicists, historians, anthropologists, and anyone interested in the physical tribulations of ancient or non-industrialized societies will also find this book valuable for its insights into human resourcefulness.

The first three chapters (9-34) are a broad but discerning introduction to the land, its history, and the emergence of material culture as a research field. Egypt’s geography, geology, and climate are emphasized as the prime influences on the form and function of artifacts, from houses and temples to wigs and underwear. A chronological outline delineates royal periods from 5300 BCE to 395 CE, and clarifies terms (‘pre-dynastic,’ ‘old-kingdom,’ ‘first-intermediate,’ etc.) that are used later to date developments in manufacture. Peck draws out significant continuities between periods, but also points out transformations within this vast timeline and cautions against erroneous extrapolations from one period to the next. The last introductory chapter sets developments in the documenting and evaluating of materials within the history of exploration in Egypt, from the Ottoman occupation of the country in the sixteenth century onwards. Peck weaves together historical, political, and methodological landmarks. Highlights include Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt and the monumental Description of Egypt produced by his expeditionary group, early archaeologists’ destructive probing methods and their discarding of ‘commonplace’ objects, the acquisition of Egyptiana by European museums through unrestricted export policies, the influence of the physical sciences on Egyptology, shifts in museum curatorship from royal to ordinary artifacts, and the contribution of new technologies such as GPS distance sensing and the electron microscope. As research has become more efficient and cultural attitudes have evolved, the Egyptians’ daily practices are understood better than ever before.

Peck’s examination shifts between raw materials, finished objects, and daily practices as shown by the titles of the next twelve chapters (48-198): ‘Dress and Personal Adornment,’ ‘Housing and Furniture,’ ‘Food and Drink,’ ‘Hygiene and Medicine,’ ‘Containers of Clay and Stone,’ ‘Tools and Weapons’ (a bit redundant as weapons are covered in the last chapter), ‘Basketry, Rope, Matting,’ ‘Faience and Glass,’ ‘Transportation,’ ‘Sport and Games,’ ‘Music and Dance,’ and ‘Weapons and Armor.’ Each theme is investigated through diverse sources; mainly the objects themselves, tomb paintings, models found in tombs, and texts. Peck traces the development of his topics from the pre-dynastic to the Roman period with two methodological caveats: first, since much of the evidence comes from royal and upper class tombs, any conclusions about the great masses must be carefully qualified. To demonstrate, Peck juxtaposes ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ versions of the same object (e.g. dress, furniture, 81; housewares, 90) and situates it within a hierarchy of social contexts. Second, artistic convention often obscures or abstracts the realities of daily life; for instance, a tomb drawing shows a couple in formal attire plowing a field (49, figs. 40, 41). Their unsuitable dress reflects the symbolic language of the afterlife rather than actual farming clothes.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is Peck’s focus on the human body; its needs, troubles, and pleasures. Among other things we read about the circumstances of partial and full nudity (56-7); about facial hair and tattooing (58); the unisex use and proper folding of loincloths (53); the application of ointments, wigs, eye shadow, and eyeliner for sun protection (59-62); about the use of wooden headrests as pillows (89); the use of the Nile for waste disposal and the resulting disease transmission (110); about head-shaving to prevent lice (111); and the discovery of stomach parasites, malaria, tuberculosis, and other maladies in mummified remains (119). Embattled by the daily hassles of their bodies, Egyptians literally come alive in contrast to the ritualistic poses and stern profiles familiar from tomb paintings. To the same effect Peck emphasizes commonalities between their practices and those of other ancient and modern peoples in Egypt, the Sudan, and elsewhere. Similarities include the construction of mud-bricks and houses (74, 77, 144), farming techniques, diet, foodstuffs, cooking (95-6, 102, 125), health concerns (120), basket making (148), furniture (149), backyard games (174), pets (178), musical instruments (183, 185), work songs (187), and dancing (189).

Peck occasionally relates the vagaries of discovery and preservation in order to set his evidence within its archaeological context. His discussion of jewelry is enhanced by comparing the precious ornaments in the tombs of King Djer (Dynasty One) and Queen Hetepheres (Dynasty Four) to the humble trinkets of an unpreserved mummy at Mendes (69). One of the most noteworthy incidents he reports is in the chapter on music and dance (185): a literal silence hangs over our textual and visual evidence of musical instruments since it provides no information about pitch, intervals, and rhythm. Yet the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 offers a distant echo of how Egyptian music may have sounded. Two trumpets unearthed from the tomb were played by a British military musician in 1939, a performance recorded by the BBC. Peck concludes this story with the internet link to the recording: BBC News Middle East website

Peck’s discussion balances well between expert, knowledgeable, and general readers. On one hand, he keeps abreast with current research, pointing out how accepted knowledge is revised by new approaches. Microscopic observation of folding patterns, for instance, has revealed that textiles previously identified as sheets and towels are actually clothes. Similarly, mysterious tools depicted on a temple wall are understood as surgical instruments after comparison with associated texts (116-17). The scanning of mummies with computed tomography has replaced destructive and unproductive dissections (119). Alternate theories for the production of Egyptian Faience are tested in kilns (154). Yet he also sets the record straight for those who have been misled by fictionalizations of Egypt in popular culture. The famous King Tutankhamun was actually a minor king who would have been forgotten but for the chance preservation of his tomb (29); camels were not used in Egypt until the Ptolemaic period (168); the two-wheeled chariot was not used for transportation (168-9), etc.

Discussion of materials and practices is enriched by Egyptian texts. A letter from a man asking his son to make an apron out of a loincloth exemplifies the repairing and recycling of clothes (51). Another father writes his son with a request for eye-salve (59). Elsewhere, a memorandum records payment for a pot of fat with a measure of barley (93); a tomb inscription features a dialogue between two men preparing to circumcise a third (114); the caption to a board game supplies the playful banter of the two players (175). The ninety-three black and white images illustrating the book are generously captioned, and many are also discussed in the text. These include photographs of the landscape, buildings and artifacts, drawings by the author, and excerpts from early books on Egypt (figs. 13-16). Particularly instructive are the illustrations of unusual objects such as headrests, carpenter tools, or measures for leveling (figs. 31, 62, 65). Color plates would have been helpful, especially when the topic is coloration (e.g. Egyptian faience, 154-9), but this is not essential to the book. Besides, the thousands of colorful and high-resolution images available on the internet more than make up for the cost-efficient illustrations preferred by publishers. Peck concludes each chapter with a list of further readings, which are duplicated in the general bibliography (203-9). A sufficient index follows (211-14). The book is handsomely produced on glossy paper with ample page margins for notation. I found two typographical errors (‘Artemidoris’ for ‘Artemidorus,’ 33, ‘others’ for ‘other,’ 109).

In sum, Peck brings to relief the physical substance of daily life in Egypt, and he does so with the immediacy and realism of an eye witness. The book persuasively impresses upon its readers a gradual recognition of the Egyptians’ humanity; a sense of the familiar which becomes almost self-evident in hindsight. As Peck foreshadows in his introduction, ‘the allure of the great monuments and the secrets of mummification cannot take away from the obvious fact that these ancient people were human beings…It is always amazing to see how many of the ordinary aspects of life have not changed from the way that the Egyptians carried them out thousands of years ago’ (1).


1. Note esp. Wilkinson, J. G., and In Birch, S. (1878). The Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians. London; Erman, A., and Tirard, H. M. B. (1894). Life in Ancient Egypt. London; Lucas, A., and Harris, J. R. (1962). Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries. London; Nicholson, P. T., and Shaw, I. (2000), Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology. Cambridge.