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Visitor trails Daily Life in Egypt, In the Time of the Pharaohs

Egyptian Antiquities - Length: 1 hr 30 mins - Tour days: Monday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday

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La maison égyptienne
La maison égyptienne

© Musée du Louvre

00Introduction

Ancient Egypt bequeath to us more than just artefacts of artistic and religious significance. This trail is an invitation to share a few moments in the everyday life of Egyptians during the time of the pharaohs.

Found for the most part in tombs and well preserved thanks to the country's arid climate, writings on papyrus, farming tools, musical instruments, and toiletry articles bring us into contact with diverse aspects of life in ancient Egypt, revealing to us the culture of daily life, rather than that of temples.
Rooms 3 to 10 on the ground floor of the Richelieu wing present the Egyptians' natural environment and the way it was organized, looking at the rural economy, accounting, writing, and art and craft techniques, as well as life in the home, bodily practices, music, and games.
Although certain objects, such as chairs or bowls, need no explanation to be appreciated, others are more difficult to interpret. The Egyptians left no written information about things that seemed obvious to them. In such cases, the deciphering of documents can help. What was the real purpose of the fragile wooden spoons adorned with openwork relief (display case 3, Room 9) that bear no traces of use?
The scenes from paintings and reliefs that come from tomb decorations (Rooms 4 and 5) reflect the way the Egyptians perceived their own lives. We should remember though, that the selection of images they propose was intended to serve the specific interests of a master in the afterlife.

 

How to get to the next stop:

Cross the Sully wing to the Crypte du Sphinx; climb the stairs on the left. The statue of Egyptian dignitary Nakhthorheb greets you in the south wing of the Cour Carrée. Rooms 3 to 10 present various aspects of Egyptian life in pharaonic times; for the Nile see display case 2 in Room 3.

Modèle de bateau
Modèle de bateau

© Musée du Louvre/C. Larrieu

01Model of a boat

The river waters abound in figurines of fish, crocodiles, hippopotami, and frogs, dating from various periods and made of various materials; scale models of boats from the Middle Kingdom sail along the surface. The Nile was the main thoroughfare, and all heavy goods were transported by water.
In these distant times when there were no bridges for crossing the river, owning a boat was a sign of wealth. During the early Middle Kingdom, painted wooden models of everyday activities were placed in tombs; the most common of these was the model of the boat and its crew, which reflects its importance in the lives of the ancient Egyptians. The owner of this boat is represented sitting in the cabin with a flower in his hand.

How to get to the next stop:

On the wall facing the windows, a painted bas-relief represents the fish of the Nile (display case 3).

Nile Fishing Scene
Nile Fishing Scene

© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps

02Nile fishing scene

This is a fragment from a scene depicting fishing in the marshes. The water is teeming with Nile wildlife. We can see the fisherman's foot on the boat, behind the tip of his harpoon; these elements are represented on a disproportionate scale in relation to the animals below, themselves represented on various scales. We can distinguish two crocodiles, two hippopotami, a frog perched on a plant stalk, and all kinds of fish. The species are so accurately portrayed that they are all identifiable, including the plant (Potamogeton lucens); an annotated drawing even provides the names. This precision, worthy of a natural history plate, reflects the importance of the Nile in Egyptian culture. The Egyptians went down to the river to irrigate their fields, to fish, cool down, or simply spend a pleasant moment, as they still do today.

How to get to the next stop:

Enter Room 4, entitled "Work in the fields; the mastaba."Against the back wall (on the right as you enter) is a modern reconstruction of an Old Kingdom mastaba - the chapel from the tomb of the dignitary Akhethetep, housing bas-reliefs purchased from the Egyptian government in 1903.

Chapel of the tomb of Akhethotep
Chapel of the tomb of Akhethotep

© Musée du Louvre/C. Larrieu

03Chapel of the tomb of Akhethotep

The rich tombs of the Old Kingdom lay beneath a mastaba (Arabic for "bench"); the decorated chapel inside could be entered by relatives and visitors. The bas-reliefs on the mastaba in the Louvre provide a panorama of the life of a high-ranking dignitary on his country estate and of his meal accompanied by musicians and dancers. These scenes should also be interpreted in a funerary sense: everything was intended to ensure the deceased's comfort in the afterlife .
At the back are two large, magical "false doors," through which the deceased could communicate with the world of the living. On the left wall are scenes of cattle breeding; against the next wall, agricultural life, with peasants in the tiresome process of rendering their accounts in the presence of scribes. Below, the voyage to the Field of Offerings in large, well-manned boats.
The other side of the door shows a hippopotamus hunt and fishing scenes, with a truly miraculous catch of all manner of fish. Below, the boats that have returned from an inspection of Delta properties go full sail against the current, aided by the north wind. The master's meal is depicted on the next wall (at the back on the right), with a procession of women from the farming estates bearing produce intended to ensure the deceased's survival in the afterlife.
On the right of the entrance corridor are the funerary statues of the deceased; on the left, the distribution of rewards to the weaver women who worked for him.

How to get to the next stop:

Opposite, evoking a New Kingdom chapel, the paintings from Unsu's tomb (display case 3) portray farm work from tillage through harvesting.

Paintings from the tomb of Unsu
Paintings from the tomb of Unsu

© 2008 Musée du Louvre / Christian Décamps

04Harvesting and preparing the soil

These wall paintings on mud once decorated the vestibule of the chapel of Unsu's tomb; they were removed in the early 19th century. Because of their great fragility only fragments remain, but these have been reassembled in the museum to suggest the original decorative scheme, by aligning the three registers of the overall composition. Unsu was grain accountant in the temple of the god Amun in Thebes; the fragments of the paintings from his mortuary chapel emphasize this aspect of his life. We see him supervising the various stages of cereal cultivation, from plowing through transporting the harvest by river. On this fragment, two seasons are portrayed chronologically from bottom to top. At each level, a dark band represents the black Egyptian soil-a reminder of the earth which was common to every period. At the bottom, laborers are shown turning the earth and pulling a plow ("I'm going to do more than my charge," says one of them); a sower follows in their wake. In the center are the harvesters with their sickles, followed by girls gleaning: "Give me a hand! We'll be back this evening. And don't be nasty like you were yesterday; stop that today!" On the upper register, the ears of wheat are transported to the threshing floor where oxen trample them to separate the grain from the chaff.

How to get to the next stop:

These two exhibits-the mastaba and the Unsu paintings-provide an introduction to the rest of this room devoted to agriculture, source of ancient Egyptian wealth. Other exhibits include legal and accounting papyri and scale models. The hoe is in display case 10, facing the windows.

Houe
Houe

© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps

05Hoe

The hoe was the indispensable tool for all farming and earth-moving operations-in other words, it was essential to the exploitation of the country's natural resources. The Egyptian laborer used it to dig, dragging its blade back to scrape the earth into a basket he held between his feet. The dikes and irrigation canals required constant maintenance; this task befell the shabti, the deceased's servants, duly equipped with hoe and pick. Modern-day Egyptian farmers still prefer the updated version of this tool, equipped with a metal blade, to any other invention-and they probably reproduce the gestures made by their ancestors.

How to get to the next stop:

On the other side of Unsu's chapel, you will see display case 7, containing the papyrus entitled "Djedhor at work in the fields of the afterlife."

Fragment of the Book of the Dead on Papyrus: Djedhor Working in the Fields of the Afterlife
Fragment of the Book of the Dead on Papyrus: Djedhor Working in the Fields of the Afterlife

© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps

06Fragment of the Book of the Dead on papyrus

This full-page illustration from a chapter of the Book of the Dead depicts the Field of Offerings, a mythical region where the deceased has a plot that must provide his nourishment. This illustration presents the farm work to be performed by the deceased in person. We see him engaged in various activities: driving the team of oxen and pushing the plow, sowing the seed, and, on two occasions, harvesting with a sickle in a field of giant wheat. The text of the Book of the Dead specifies that the wheat in this land of plenty grows to a height of 7 cubits (3.5 meters)! The landscape is presented Egyptian-style, rather like a card with windows. At the bottom are irrigation canals; at the top, the gods, to whom the deceased pays homage, followed by Thoth, the ibis-headed god of writing, bearing his palette.

How to get to the next stop:

Room 5 complements Room 4; it presents breeding, hunting, and fishing techniques, with a section devoted to food. The bas-relief representing the Menu of Tepemânkh is in display case 5 (in the middle of the room, against the central wall).

Le menu de Tepemânkh
Le menu de Tepemânkh

© R.M.N./C. Larrieu

07The Menu of Tepemânkh

Tepemânkh is sitting at a table laden with slices of bread. His sons are kneeling, performing funerary rites for their father. Above this scene is the list of foods intended for the deceased: an ideal menu, carved in bas-relief, which once adorned the wall of an Old Kingdom tomb. The names of the greatest delicacies of these distant times are inscribed here, including pastries, sweets, and drinks: this was the à la carte menu available to the deceased in his mastaba. An annotated drawing next to it gives the menu in French, although of course it is impossible to translate the names of specific breads and pastries.

How to get to the next stop:

Go into Room 6, "Writing and scribes". On the left of display case 4 (against the back wall, to the left) is an inventory table from a 5th Dynasty temple.

Inventory and accounts from a temple of Abusir
Inventory and accounts from a temple of Abusir

© 2009 Musée du Louvre / Georges Poncet

08Inventory and accounts from a temple of Abusir

The ancient Egyptian administration was quick to develop a taste for inventories. Bookkeeping played a major role in this civilization, whose state-controlled economy, founded on the distribution of rations, gave rise to a great deal of tedious accounting.
This fragment of papyrus may not look very special, but it is actually a precious document dating from the Old Kingdom, the age of the great pyramids. It comes from the archives of the mortuary temple linked to the pyramid of 5th Dynasty king Neferirkare Kakai. It is an inventory of the vases belonging to the collection of liturgical objects, with (sometimes very precise) details of their form, material, color, and state of preservation: "Empty, leaks, many repairs, many chips to the rim . . . Chips, numerous repairs, leak, hole . . ." This remarkable document demonstrates how meticulously the accountant-scribes updated their inventories. In the mastaba, accountant-scribes are portrayed recording details of the harvest.

How to get to the next stop:

At the other end of display case 4 is a schoolboy's tablet entitled the "Satire on the Trades."

Tablet of an apprentice scribe
Tablet of an apprentice scribe

© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps

09Scribe's tablet

Writing enabled the Egyptians to transmit their culture from one generation to the next. They valued their literary heritage, which included great classics. Schoolchildren even copied selected extracts, of which the most famous is the "Satire on the Trades." This text was written in black, and punctuated and dated in red; it took the schoolboy eighteen days to copy it.
This critical appraisal of a series of professions was intended to extol the best one of all: that of clerk (scribe).
"The mat-weaver in his workshop is more wretched than a woman, his knees are drawn up to his belly, there is no air to breathe. If he goes one day without weaving, he gets fifty lashes, he has to bribe the doorkeeper to let him out into the daylight.
"The arrow maker, in a wretched state, goes into the desert. What he must give his she-ass (to eat) is more than her work is worth, and he must also give plenty to the marsh-dwellers who guide him. When he reaches home in the evening, he is exhausted by his journey.
"The courier goes abroad after bequeathing his property to his children, fearful of lions and Asiatics, and only finds himself when he is back in Egypt. He returns home broken, worn out by his journey. His house is made of mere cloth and bricks, there is no comfort there."
The fragments on display in this room demonstrate the principles and evolution of writing and of the scribe's equipment.

How to get to the next stop:

In the center of the room, a long display case (2) displays scribes' equipment, notably this palette containing brushes.

Scribe's palette
Scribe's palette

© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps

10Scribe's palette

Scribal palettes were usually made of wood; this one is of ivory. It is a sort of pen case with integrated ink cartridges. It still contains four plant stems, which are sometimes called "calami." The calamus, however, was a sort of quill with a split in the hollow stem to let the ink flow, whereas the Egyptians of pharaonic times used the flattened tip of a stalk as a very fine brush. Such brushes produced flowing lines, whereas the strokes formed by calami (which were widely used during the Roman Period) were very precise. The surface all around the two wells of black and red ink is copiously stained. This lovely ivory object was once in the hands of a rather careless scribe: there are still traces of a very faded inscription over its surface. It looks as though it was last used only yesterday.

How to get to the next stop:

Room 7 is devoted to arts and crafts, from raw materials-wood, stone, clay, metal - to fine finished products. Various fragments in the large display cases at the back provide details of the techniques used. Display case 1 displays the stele of chief craftsman, scribe, and sculptor Irtysen.

Stele of the master craftsman, scribe, and sculptor Irtysen
Stele of the master craftsman, scribe, and sculptor Irtysen

© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps

11Stele of the master craftsman, scribe, and sculptor Irtysen

This was the stele of the sculptor and chief craftsman Irtysen. It comes from his chapel at Abydos (sacred city of the god Osiris), and is on display here because its inscription is of exceptional interest. In the text, Irtysen boasts of his various skills: writing, drawing, and all manner of artistic techniques. He even claims knowledge of certain production methods that he intends to keep secret and reveal only to his son. Irtysen portrays himself as a Renaissance-style master rather than a mere craftsman, with a range of skills and knowledge that covers every aspect of the creative process. It was very unusual for an Egyptian to talk about his art; Irtysen must have hoped to be read and recognized by all thanks to this inscription in the great temple of Abydos, which was a national pilgrimage site.

How to get to the next stop:

As you walk toward the opposite wall, you will see display case 6 on the right. It is devoted to faience and glass, and notably contains a mummy's bead netting.

Bead net for a mummy
Bead net for a mummy

© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps

12Bead net for a mummy

Irtysen, during the Middle Kingdom, alluded to secrets concerning the making of certain materials. The Egyptians did indeed produce synthetic materials such as the blue and green frits that served as pigments. They were also past masters in the production of faience, a material based on silica (desert quartz) whose surface was glazed. They used it to make jewelry, amulets, statuettes, and little everyday objects.
The large, tubular bead necklaces that adorned the shoulders of men and women in festive costume are a familiar feature of statues, reliefs, and paintings. Bead netting sometimes covered womens' dresses, and during the Late Period, mummies were also dressed in netting, decorated with protective symbols. This example is amazingly well preserved; at the top are two images of the black dog Anubis (god of cemeteries), the scarab which symbolized rebirth, and the djed pillar symbolizing Osiris, king of the dead. The varied palette and consistency of each color are admirable.

How to get to the next stop:

Go into Room 8, which is devoted to the home and and to furniture. The large central display case (1) contains a selection of particularly well-preserved items of furniture and household objects. Take a close look at the chair.

Chair
Chair

© 1985 RMN / Chuzeville

13Chair

During the New Kingdom, it was the custom to place the deceased's personal and domestic objects in the tomb around the coffin. Thanks to the exceptional climate in Egyptian cemeteries (located in desert areas, beyond the fields and villages), unviolated tombs have yielded objects to archaeologists which would never have come down to us otherwise.
The legs of the most beautiful and most complete chair are shaped like a lion's legs and paws, and painted blue. Its elegantly curved back is made of two different kinds of wood, inlaid with contrasting white ivory (or bone). The broad seat is rather low, as was the custom in Egypt. Unlike the other furniture items in the room, it has been restored, the seat being repaired using strips of leather.

How to get to the next stop:

Room 9 is devoted to jewelry, clothing, and bodycare. The jewelry in the three display cases along the left wall is presented in chronological order. Jewelry from the New Kingdom is displayed in display case 6, in the middle of the room.

Necklace with fish pendants
Necklace with fish pendants

© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps

14Necklace with fish pendants

Egyptian jewelry is famous for its forms (with motifs that were often protective or religious) and colors (with the combination of semiprecious stones, faience, and metal). This collection ranges from the rarest gold and silver items to the most commonplace faience or bronze rings. The necklace with fish-shaped pendants belongs to the category of luxury jewelry for the privileged classes. The goldsmith used a number of techniques to create this splendid piece: a thick and complex chevron chain, with repoussé work on the fish and cloisonné on the water lily. The two tilapia fish and the lotus (or water lily) flower were symbols of rebirth and considered beneficial to the wearer.

How to get to the next stop:

On the opposite wall, three other display cases contain a collection of toiletry articles, a highlight of the Louvre's Egyptian department. Take a close look at display case 3, the last on the left. It contains a spoon in the form of a young girl carrying a vase.

Spoon in the Form of a Young Girl Carrying a Vase
Spoon in the Form of a Young Girl Carrying a Vase

© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps

15Spoon in the form of a young girl carrying a vase

Among the most delightful artefacts are beautiful wooden spoons, carved in relief or in the round, representing young women performing graceful activities such as swimming or picking flowers. Animals were a common decorative theme too, with hunting dogs and game in ivory, faience, or wood.
The spoon in the form of a young girl stooping slightly as she drags a heavy bag with a jar on her head is delicate despite the effort she is making. She belongs to the theme of the servant in action, yet has all the erotic potential of a young, scantily clad servant girl. The handle-a fine piece of openwork wood with colored-paste inlay-ends in a shallow bowl with a pivoting lid. The fragility of this object suggests that it was not intended for everyday use.

How to get to the next stop:

At the back of the room (display case 4), you will see a rare example of a well-preserved item of clothing: a pleated robe, dating from the Middle Kingdom.

Tunic of Pleated Linen
Tunic of Pleated Linen

© Musée du Louvre / G. Poncet

16Tunic of pleated linen

Fabrics played an important role in Egyptian civilization, yet it is rare to find a well-preserved item of clothing still in one piece. This robe is all the more surprising in that it does not correspond to the usual representations of clothing in Egyptian art - in particular the long, straight sleeves and horizontal pleats. About fifteen robes of this kind have come down to us; they seem to have been made for women, judging from the tombs in which they were found. We can be sure that some of them were actually worn, because they still bear traces of perspiration. It was a sign of wealth to own a large wardrobe. Linen was the principal material in pharaonic Egypt, but wool was not uncommon; silk and cotton appeared at a later date. Clothing featured among the essential offerings made to the dead and the gods. The materials varied in quality, ranging from the coarsest cloth to the finest muslin.

How to get to the next stop:

In the center of the last room ("Leisure activities; music and games"), display case 1 contains the finest specimens of musical instruments, including the harp, lyre, tambourine, sistrum, and castanets. The rest of the collection is presented instrument by instrument in the other display cases.

Angle harp
Angle harp

© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps

17Angle harp

The harp was the Egyptians' favorite musical instrument. During the earliest periods the sound box was arched; this model, with its straight, vertical, leather-covered sound box, first appeared during the New Kingdom. The triangular harp in the Louvre is the only one of its kind that is so well preserved: only the strings are modern restorations. We know from representations that it was played to accompany singers and dancers in everyday life, and to accompany religious ceremonies in the temples. Unfortunately, no scores have ever been found; it is likely that music was transmitted by aural tradition alone.

How to get to the next stop:

At the back of the room between the windows, a square display case (8) is devoted to popular board games. Near the right window, display case 9 (on the wall) contains other games, including a hippopotamus-shaped board with fifty-eight holes.

Plateau de jeu en forme d'hippopotame
Plateau de jeu en forme d'hippopotame

© R.M.N./Les frères Chuzeville

18Game board in the form of a hippopotamus

Egyptologists sometimes refer to this game as "dogs and jackals"; it consists of a board with holes, and pegs that were often decorated with the heads of dogs (with low set ears) or jackals (with alert, pointed ears.) The pegs displayed here are antique, but did not originally accompany this particular game board.
Specialists have worked out the rules of the game by studying the many known examples of this kind of board, which all have two symmetrical series of twenty-nine holes. It was a game for two players, who took it in turns to throw dice or knucklebones and move their pegs forward the corresponding number of holes. The game started behind the head, in the middle of the back. If a player landed on the tenth hole (at the tail) or the twentieth (near the side cavity), he had to move back; the fifteenth (at the start of the track around the side cavity) and twenty-fifth (at its end) won the player extra goes. This game was very popular and boards of this kind have been found all over the Middle East. With its fine faience inlaid with colored glass, the specimen in the Louvre is the most refined example. Unfortunately, the head of the hippopotamus is broken.

How to get to the next stop:

If you wish to continue your exploration of ancient Egypt, there is also a trail on the theme of Osiris.

 

Author(s) :

Pierrat-Bonnefois Geneviève