The pharaohs of Egypt presided over a huge kingdom for thousands of years, taming vast stretches of wilderness, erecting monuments that have stood the test of time, and creating stories that have since become legends. But there are many, less famous, Egyptian inventions that have been passed down to us, many of which are still in use now. This article covers ten of these, exploring how they came about, what role they played in Egyptian society, and their legacy in today’s world.
A Background On Ancient Egyptian Inventions And Culture
Ancient Egypt boasts one of the largest collections of antiquities and monuments in the world. It also had an immense cultural impact on surrounding ancient and modern civilizations, spanning topics including language, mathematics, and architecture. However, ancient Egypt was also known for its wide variety of inventions that are still used today. Read on for 10 of the most important Ancient Egyptian inventions.
In the early nineteenth century, British archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie led a number of important excavations throughout Egypt, digging up almost 3000 ancient graves filled with personal possessions and items to protect the spirit in the afterlife. Sadly, many of these belonged to children, and it was in one of these graves that Petrie uncovered one of his most surprising finds: a set of skittles. The tomb, dated to 5200 BC, contained a number of balls and nine stones shaped, according to Petrie, like vases. At first, the archaeologists took these to be ornaments, but they soon realized that they had discovered the earliest evidence of bowling, one of the most unexpected ancient Egyptan inventions.
It is believed that the ancient game was rather different than the regulated, and often extremely competitive, version played today; it simply involved rolling a ball at a set of stationary objects at some specified distance. It is unlikely that they had specific surfaces or ‘alleys’ in which to play, or that there was any way of guaranteeing the uniformity of the pins. The balls were often made of husks of corn, covered in leather and bound with string, but could also be made out of stone or even porcelain. The primitive form of bowling enjoyed by the Egyptians was later adopted by other ancient civilizations, including the Romans, and eventually developed into the game we still play today.
9. Paper And Ink
Although the invention of writing pre-dated the Egyptians, paper and ink, which we now consider inseparable from the written word, were ancient Egyptian inventions. It was not paper as we know it today, but a precursor called papyrus, named after the grassy reeds that grew along the Nile, from which the material was made.
For many years, historians have been trying to determine the exact methods used by the Egyptians for turning this plant into a writing surface, but the records are frustratingly obscure. It is thought, however, that the first step involved cutting the stem into strips, after which they were soaked to expand the fibers, and laid down in overlapping layers. They were then compressed, either hammered, rolled or pressed, until the layers fused to form a flat surface, although ancient papyrus was nowhere near as smooth as modern paper. The dry Egyptian climate meant that documents made out of papyrus were incredibly long-lasting.
There was little point to all that papyrus, however, unless there was some way of writing on it. The Mesopotamians had carved their letters into clay, stone and wax, but the Egyptians came up with the less strenuous method of using ink. They made this by grinding a number of different pigments and ores together with water to form a thick liquid that could be applied to papyrus with a brush or stylus. By combining different natural substances, such as copper, iron, quartz and malachite, the Egyptians were able to produce ink in a variety of colors, although black, red and blue are the most common.
8. Make-Up And Wigs
For the majority of human history before ancient Egyptian civilization, people’s time and effort had been taken up with the necessities of life, acquiring food and shelter for survival with little time for anything else. But as urbanization began to occur, first in the Middle East and then in Egypt, and organized systems were put in place to provide for their inhabitants’ daily lives, we see the ideas of leisure and recreation emerging. People, at last, had the time and energy to look beyond the bare necessities, as clearly shown by the set of skittles above.
Cosmetics and beauty regimes were also Egyptian inventions that manifested through this new trend. There is no doubt that appearing attractive to the opposite sex has always been a human priority, whether biological, subconscious or deliberate, but the ancient Egyptians took this a step further by inventing a number of rituals and products designed to emphasize a woman’s looks. From removing unwanted hair with a wax-like substance made of sugar to augmenting the facial features with make-up made from natural pigments including crushed beetles and toxic lead, beauty became a key concern for the wealthy women of ancient Egypt who did not have to work.
Wigs too were popular with Egyptian women. While the cheapest and most readily available wigs were made out of vegetable fibers, the royal family had theirs made exclusively of human hair, often from Nubian peoples, to simulate the Afro style popular during the 2nd millennium BC. Queen Nefertiti herself was known to wear such pieces beneath her crown.
It was not only Egyptian women who benefitted from the new beauty craze that erupted as the civilization expanded, and cosmetics were not the only Egyptian inventions to come from it. The first barbers were also found in ancient Egypt, with records from as far back as 5000 BC indicating that there were men employed to cut and groom the hair and beard using sharpened flints and shells. As today, trends were liable to change: sometimes it was fashionable to be clean-shaved, while at other times long hair and beards were back in vogue.
Some of the earliest barbering was performed by priests or doctors since it had a ritual or medical purpose, and even after it became professionalized, barbers were respected as skillful men. The Egyptian elite often had their own live-in barber to attend to their grooming needs, much like a butler, or at least had one make house calls, while for the masses, getting a haircut meant visiting one of the city’s street barbers, a tradition that persists in many cultures today!
6. The Calendar And Timekeeping
When it came to time, the Mesopotamians had paved the way by creating the sexagesimal system. However, today’s recognizable calendar and methods of timekeeping were Egyptian inventions. Based on the cycles of sun and moon, the Egyptian calendar was divided into twelve months of 30 days each, along with five additional days at the end of the year to bring the total up to 365. It is plain to see how this invention has stood the test of time. Unlike us, however, the Egyptians recognized only three seasons, which were used by farmers to determine when crops needed to be sown and reaped.
The Egyptians were not only the first to plot the days, months, and years still used today, but they were also responsible for the first timekeeping devices. Discovered in 2013, the earliest known sundial was excavated in the Valley of the Kings, dating from roughly 1500 BC. Yet this was not the first example of a timekeeping device. Huge obelisks, first constructed 2000 years earlier, were used to tell the time from the way that their shadows fell over its engravings, and around the same time as the first sundial, the Egyptians made the water clock. Being able to tell the time facilitated a far more organized and efficient society, meaning that the invention of these devices may perhaps have enabled many of the other innovations made by the ancient Egyptians.
5. Tables (And Other Furniture)
The humble chair and table might seem like a fairly mundane part of everyday life. However, before ancient Egyptian inventions such as tables and chairs, people simply sat on the floor or small stools, and used large blocks or primitive benches as surfaces. And then, around the mid-third millennium BC, came an explosion in the art of furniture, as intricately carved items began to be created in Egypt.
Mainly made out of wood and alabaster, Egyptian tables consisted of a smooth platform raised off the ground with either a pedestal or legs, which were sometimes separate or detachable elements. Their purpose was much the same as modern tables, with evidence of ancient tables used for dining, writing, and playing board games.
The Egyptian chair, however, was quite different. It was not a universal piece of household furniture found in any home or public place, but instead a status symbol, a luxury enjoyed only by the elite. While peasants and farmers might sit on stools, the wealthy or royal Egyptians had proper chairs with backs and armrests. Ancient chairs have been discovered fashioned out of precious materials, such as ivory and ebony, embellished with expensive metals, and meticulously decorated with the carved figures of animals, plants or deities.
4. Toothpaste And Breath Mints
If the loaves of bread miraculously preserved for thousands of years show us anything, it is that Egyptian granaries and bakeries would not have passed modern-day health inspections. The bread was so filled with pieces of grit and chips of stone that it wore down the enamel of the consumers’ teeth and caused widespread dental issues. Abscesses plagued the ancient Egyptians, and toothpaste became one of the most prominent Egyptian inventions to prevent them for those who could afford it.
Egyptian toothpaste was made by grinding and mixing up a variety of salt, dried flowers, pepper, ashes, and even eggshells. This abrasive paste was then rubbed in using either the finger or a primitive form of the toothbrush, made out of frayed twigs. Although this served surprisingly well in cleaning the teeth, the toothpaste may have done more harm than good, as its gritty texture resulted in bleeding gums.
For those who succumbed to the perils of dental decay, the Egyptians came up with another innovation: breath mints. To disguise the acrid smell of rotting teeth, ancient Egyptians sucked on drops made of boiled honey and flavored with fragrant herbs and spices, such as cinnamon, myrrh, or frankincense. They also added mint to their toothpaste to improve the breath, a practice which remains ubiquitous in dental products today.
3. The Police
With the expansion of urban living and centralized power came the emergence of organized law enforcement, as the first-ever police force was founded in ancient Egypt. It was initially introduced around 2500 BC to patrol and regulate the ships and boats traveling on the Nile, to protect them from thieves and ensure that trade and the economy continued to prosper. By roughly 1500 BC, the Egyptians had developed an elite paramilitary police force known as the Medjay. The term Medjay was originally used to refer to a nomadic people from Nubia, who were employed as the first policemen, but the name soon became synonymous with the force in general. The Medjay were charged with protecting the Pharaoh’s most valuable areas and possessions, including his capital city, the borderlands, and the palace.
Unlike the modern force, the Egyptian police were not responsible for any detective or investigative work (victims or prosecutors had to provide all their own evidence). Their job was purely to preserve the order and stability of the regime by punishing law-breakers and rebels, often cruelly. They went about this task in several ways, including using animals such as dogs, and even monkeys, to apprehend criminals.
2. The Lock
There was another solution for those who didn’t have a private police force to guard their residences: at first, homes and buildings were protected by a simple bolt placed across the door, but during the second millennium BC, the Egyptian inventions of lock and key became the new security systems.
Although undoubtedly less complex than modern keys, the ancient Egyptian tumbler lock represents a significant shift in the history of engineering. Inside, several pins formed a series of mini bolts, and when the matching key was inserted, its prongs lifted these up to allow the bolt to be pulled back and the door opened. Early examples of these were large, sometimes 2 feet long, and were made out of wood. As with the furniture and cosmetics invented during the Egyptian age, however, locks were not common; they were most often used to protect the rooms and possessions of the wealthy, and have even been found inside the great pyramids that served as the tombs of Egypt’s rulers.
Earlier civilizations, such as those that emerged in Mesopotamia, had largely treated physical and mental illnesses as the work of the gods and attempted to treat them using religious and magic remedies performed by priests or even exorcists. It was in ancient Egypt that medicine as we know it today developed. Although the supernatural still played a large role in their understanding of health, the Egyptians had a far more scientific approach to curing sickness, creating medicines from natural resources, such as minerals, herbs, and animal products, and also performed early forms of surgery. As early as 2200 BC, there were institutions known as Houses of Life, where medicine would be practiced by doctors and priests. Dedicated to the improvement and protection of human life, these centers could even be considered a forerunner of the hospital.
Not only did the Egyptians introduce a huge number of new medical concepts, but they were also responsible for the world’s first public health system. Around 1500 BC, the village of Deir el-Medina was established for the craftsmen and laborers working on the royal tombs in the nearby Valley of the Kings. As well as their monthly wages, food supply and servants, these workers were also given a shared physician to see to their health concerns and help heal any complaints. Even when they were sick, it is thought that the workers still received their rations: the first recorded evidence of sick-pay! As benevolent as this sounds, it is important to remember that this system was only put in place so that the pharaohs could ensure a stable supply of workers to complete their magnificent tombs.
Nonetheless, the progress made in hygiene, diagnosis, and cures shows that much of modern medicine is indebted to the innovations and understanding developed by the ancient Egyptians.
More On Ancient Egyptian Inventions
The ancient Egyptians left us far more than the pyramids and inspiration for Halloween costumes: their inventions and discoveries have shaped the world we live in today. From putting on make-up to sitting on a chair, our everyday lives are the result of innovations that occurred thousands of years ago. For more surprising historical inventions, read about those of the Romans, Greeks, and Mesopotamians.