Food in Ancient Egypt Term Paper

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Food in Ancient Egypt

Food as a Marker of Social Status in Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt under the rule of Pharaohs was a highly stratified society. At the top of the social layer were the kings and their close relatives. Below them were the nobility, priests, and rich merchants, followed by soldiers and craftsmen. Peasants represented the low class but at the very bottom of the social layer were slaves (Lambert). Archaeologists and historians have uncovered that various visual representations of ancient Egyptians such as clothing, houses, occupations could tell others of each person's social status. For example, rich merchants lived in exquisite and large houses, while the poor often lived in small houses made of mud bricks. But one of the major markers of ancient Egyptians' social status -- whether one was a member of the upper, middle, working class or a slave -- was food. Though food is usually viewed for its fundamental role as sustenance, scholars now recognize that it reflects people's social and economic systems (Samuel 1997).

Archeologists studying ancient societies today pay greater attention to food because it is considered intrinsically social. Food defines and maintains social relations. According to one scholar, "Variations in what people eat reflects substantive variation in status and power and characterizes societies that are internally stratified into rich and poor, sick and healthy, developed and underdeveloped, overfed and undernourished" (cited Gumerman 106). Gumerman comments that archaeologists try to understand social relations through the study of food because an event involving food (whether a formal dinner party or an ordinary family lunch), tells a lot about the participants, preparers, and consumers. The manners of food consumption and distribution in various ancient societies often delineated social, economic, racial, ethnic, and gender boundaries.

Food consumption may even define social relations within a family as in many societies manners of consuming food may reflect male or female behavior, or the role of the elderly and the young. In complex societies such as ancient Egypt, foodways reflected much more. Gumerman explains: "Specialists, for instance, may produce and cook food for other individuals who may be served in various ways, ranging from individual meals to feasts involving many guests. In addition, the food often is differentially allocated to various groups. Elites or comers, for instance, may receive certain types and portions of food that are importance in defining their status. Food distribution also may be regulated through bureaucratic and administrative offices -- often through a market system" (107). Gumerman further points out that understanding social context in which the meal is served and consumed can help us define a consumer's social position because people consume different kinds of food depending on their social status. Even leftovers can tell us about social relations in a given society as the "disposal location may indicate how space is viewed" (107).

For ancient Egyptians, food was a source of sustenance and marker of social status not only for the living beings but also for the deceased. According to Egyptian mythology about gods, Horus offered his eye to his father Osiris, killed by his brother Seth, and Osiris was restored to life after eating the eye. This story formed the basis of food offerings to the dead by Egyptians. Archeologists note that it is common to see in the Egyptian tomb scenes the images of food being offered to the deceased. The scenes depict the types and quantities of food offered, delineating social status of the dead person. According to Hussein, most of the tombs depict the following list of food offered: "1,000 loaves of bread, 1,000 jars of beer, 1,000 jars of wine, 1,000 birds, 1,000 choice cuts of meat, and 1,000 strips of linen cloths." But these were the luxuries only kings and the rich could afford. The peasants and especially slaves had no chance of maintaining this tradition.

The main diet of ancient Egyptians consisted of bread and beer and the main crops were emmer and barley. Most Egyptians were agriculturalists though there was a sizable number of urban citizens. The type of bread and beer consumed by Egyptians of different social positions also differed. The poor and slaves mostly ate bread baked outside and the desert sand blown into dough during preparations often wore down their teeth (Lambert). Fish in Egypt was plentiful but other meat products, including duck, geese, pigs, cows, sheep, and goats were accessible to rich people. The main source of protein for the poor and slaves were fish and beans. Egyptians also ate fruits and vegetables such as melons, figs, dates, onions, lentils, radishes, and garlic. Most Egyptians drank beer but the rich and kings enjoyed wine on a regular basis. Slaves and servants could sometimes enjoy these luxury products when benevolent masters gave them away leftovers and disposals.

The subject of slavery and servitude in ancient Egypt is a complex and controversial topic. For instance, it was believed for a long time that the Pyramids at Giza were built by slaves but this theory now is in dispute because it is hard to imagine how such a large number of slaves could be controlled with rudimentary weapons in open areas. From visual depictions archaeologists have uncovered, it is clear that there were slaves in Egypt but by reading textual references it is hard to delineate between slaves and servants. And using the cases of slavery in ancient Rome or the plantation slavery in nineteenth-century America to understand ancient Egyptian slavery may be misleading and anachronistic (Dunn). According to Mobilla, "Although not enslaved, farmers were tied to the land of a wealthy master. They worked the master's land, cared for the animals, and sometimes had a small plot of their own to garden." Because of this difficulty of defining slavery in Egypt, it is also hard to estimate the number of slaves at any given moment.

In Egypt, the common cause of slavery was capture in war. War captives became a royal resource and many of them were given to soldiers as war booty while others, more meritorious ones, were assigned to temples. Any free individual was allowed to have nineteen booty slaves (both male and female) whereas the number of slaves assigned to temples could be in thousands. Sometimes, people became slaves because of committing sins or unlawful acts. In other cases, some free individuals offered themselves for voluntary servitude in exchange to have their debts they could not pay waived. Slavery acquired through inheritance was also common in ancient Egypt. Slaves, of course, could be bought and sold but, according to Dunn, there were no public markets for slaves. Transactions were undertaken by individuals who approached their clients personally rather than in public.

It is hard to make general statements about slave conditions or master-slave relationship in Egypt because of a large span of time being discussed here (rules and regulations involving slave relationships certainly kept changing) and because the fate of slaves were ultimately decided by individual masters. Some masters were more brutal while others were relatively benign and masters could treat their slaves depending on personal sympathies or dislikes. Many slaves, especially those working in quarries and mines, were treated harshly and kept undernourished but other slaves were sometimes better off than free peasants because they lived as servants in the houses of rich people and had access to greater amounts of quality food.

Slaves could be employed for a variety of tasks by rich Egyptians. "The master might employ a slave in many different manners, such as in domestic service as the guardian of children, cooks, brewers or maids," as Dunn explains the complexity of master-slave relationships. "They might be used as gardeners or field hands or in the stable. The master might also require the slave to learn a trade to improve his property (the slave). They could become craftsman, or attain a higher status. . . . Slaves who were taught to write could rise as high as a manager of the master's estate. In one case, a freeman was recorded in the Leopold Papyrus as working under the supervision of a Nubian slave who belonged to the high priest of Amun." Slave masters were also bound by certain obligations in treating their slaves. For instance, household mistresses had an obligation to properly nourish slave children and bring them up and slave children could not be forced into hard work (Dunn).

Archaeologists and historians note that it is hard to get precise data on the kind of food slaves were given. As noted, it often depended on the whim or the character of a master. Slaves working in households were relatively better off and their ration could consist of variety of foods. Many slaves were fed barley which was food normally given to animals. There is more information on the kinds of food that were available to free Egyptians. Most Egyptians ate bread and drank beer and in a moneyless market economy the wages were also paid in bread and beer. Janssen, however, notes that there… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Food in Ancient Egypt.  (2011, October 9).  Retrieved February 23, 2019, from

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"Food in Ancient Egypt."  9 October 2011.  Web.  23 February 2019. <>.

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"Food in Ancient Egypt."  October 9, 2011.  Accessed February 23, 2019.