For nearly 3,000 years, ancient Egypt thrived as the preeminent civilization in the Mediterranean world. Its legacy persists through a wealth of objects left behind—majestic monuments, written documents, artifacts and art. From that rich trove of information, archaeologists and scholars have identified items that were a part of ancient Egyptians’ everyday lives.
In a culture that emphasized the afterlife and the importance of maintaining the fragile order of the universe, even everyday objects could carry deep significance.
“In ancient Egypt, magic was as much an integral part of a material object as its practical function,” explains Lorelei H. Corcoran, a professor of art history and director of the Institute of Egyptian Art & Archaeology at the University of Memphis. “The aesthetics of an object relied on the Egyptians’ keen observation of the natural world and the innate beauty of the forms, and patterns that exist within it.”
Additionally, the development of the Egyptian civilization enabled Egyptians to stay in one place, which gave them the opportunity to advance design and craftsmanship. “They developed very elaborate techniques of metalworking,” Corcoran says. “They created beautiful things, with an aesthetic of beauty that they got from nature.”
Objects also sometimes had subtle meanings incorporated into their design. The shape of a round or oval mirror and its handle, for example, also formed a hieroglyph, ankh, that meant both “mirror” and “life,” Corcoran notes. “So when you use the mirror,” she explains, “you're sort of mirroring your life.”
Here are 14 objects that were familiar parts of everyday life in ancient Egypt.
The Egyptians made ceramic drinking vessels for their beverages, and sometimes turned them into works of art. The Lotiform Chalice, which is on exhibit in The Met museum in New York City, is decorated with with scenes of people, flora and animals. “It’s just the amazing explosion of the natural world on this vessel,” Corcoran says.
2. Standing Lamp
The Egyptians used oil lamps-basically, simple pottery or stone bowls—to light their homes. Some were placed on the floor, while others were put on stands that were modeled after temple columns.
Instead of using pillows, ancient Egyptians used stone or wooden headrests. “It’s basically a curved piece that's attached to a stem and then a platform, and you lie down and then you lay your head on the curved piece,” Corcoran says. “It elevates your head, keeps it cool and keeps bugs away.”
The ancient Egyptians were very concerned about hygiene, and cut their hair short or shaved it to thwart lice. This razor, which has a blade attached to a wooden handle, was found in a basket in a woman’s tomb. It's housed in the Met’s collection of Egyptian artifacts.
Egyptians wore wigs both to protect their heads from the sun and as a way of showing social class or rank, according to Peck. They were made of human or animal hair and plant fiber filler over a netting base that might be made of linen. Women tended to wear wigs with simpler hairstyles than men, though they sometimes donned more elaborate ones for festival celebrations.
An Egyptian’s set of items for personal grooming might also include a pair of copper alloy tweezers such as these, now in The Met’s collection.
According to William H. Peck’s 2013 book The Material World of Ancient Egypt, the Egyptians wore footwear fashioned from the hides of cattle, goats and gazelle, or woven from plant material such as papyrus and grasses. The non-leather sandals were similar to modern flip-flops, with a strap across the instep secured by a cord between the toes, according to Peck. Members of the royal elite wore more elaborate sandals, such as these gold sandals that belonged to a queen of the pharaoh Thutmose III.
The Egyptians loved colorful jewelry, often in the shape of gods, sacred animals, and other designs. The jewelry may have been intended as amulets that would magically protect the wearer against disease, accidents, and other bad events, Peck writes. These amethyst and gold bracelets and anklets feature lions and lions' claws.
Although we’re accustomed to thinking of Egypt as a hot place, temperatures drop in the early morning and the evening, and ancient Egyptians’ feet apparently got cold. This pair of striped wool socks was designed to be worn with sandals, according to Dr. Margaret Maitland, Principal Curator, Ancient Mediterranean at National Museums Scotland, which houses an extensive collection of Egyptian objects.
The Egyptians apparently were concerned about their appearance—both men and women wore makeup, for example—and they looked into a mirror such as this one in the National Museums Scotland’s collection.
“The shiny copper alloy of this one could be polished up to give a clear surface to allow you to see yourself clearly,” Dr. Daniel Potter, an assistant curator, explains. "One of the Egyptian terms for a mirror translates to ‘See Face,' a perfect description! We take mirrors for granted today but there are wonderful examples of wooden cases for mirrors to protect them, showing how prized they were.”
11. Ancestor Bust
This small limestone figurine would have been kept on a shelf set into the wall of an Egyptian home. Since Egyptians didn’t have cameras to take pictures, the busts helped them to remember relatives who had passed away, Maitland says.
This wooden tool, with a cylindrical handle and conoidal head, is an example of the implements used by Egyptians. “This mallet was so intensively used that it left deep impressions in the wood on all four sides, from where the worker must have struck thousands of blows,” Maitland explains. “Good-quality wood was relatively scarce in Egypt, so it's perhaps not surprising that this mallet continued to be used for so long.”
13. Scratch Pad
Just as we sometimes doodle on scrap paper, the ancient Egyptians used limestone flakes, which were more readily available than pieces of papyrus, as their scratch pads. “Here's a great doodle showing a man or boy chasing a monkey up a palm tree,” Potter explains. “The figure in the middle stands the way the King was shown on temple walls when defeating an enemy, so the doodler might have been making a bit of a joke.”
14. Board Game
Many centuries before Monopoly and Risk, playing board games was a popular Egyptian pastime, according to Peck. One popular game, Senet, was designed to be played by two people, who threw sticks to determine how many squares they could move their pieces. The passage of pieces across a board also served as a metaphor for the journey in the afterlife, and was depicted on tomb walls.