Thursday, May 26, 2011

Page 12: Health and Hygiene in Ancient Egypt

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The purpose-built workmen's town of Kahun was constructed to house the ancient Egyptian officials and workforce building the pyramid of Sesostris II at Lahun in about 1895 BC. The larger houses in Kahun generally  included a reception hall or living room, women's quarters, a kitchen and a room with washing or bathing facilities. There were also cellars and circular granaries. In poorer as well as rich dwellings, stone tanks used for washing were set into the mud floors, and running down the center of every street were the remains of stone drainage channels. The town housed an estimated population of 5000 on a 14 hectare site.

Sir William Flinders Petrie, the British Egyptologist who excavated Kahun between 1888 and 1890, discovered that almost every house had been invaded by rats and their holes had been stuffed with stones and rubbish. A pottery rat trap was also found. Cats were kept to protect food and grain from rodents but, in the absence of a cat, 'cat's grease' was recommended as a deterrent.

The workmen's village of Deir el-Medina was occupied by Theban artisans for 450 years from the beginning of the 18th Dynasty to the end of the 20th Dynasty (figure 2). The dwellings were originally built of mudbrick but later housing included walls with stone bases. The single-storey, flat-roofed houses had an average of four rooms, with small windows with stone or wooden grilles. The inside walls might be decorated with frescoes or whitewashed, and wooden doors opened directly on to the street. During the reign of Seti I (19th Dynasty) there were about 600 people living in the village and, unlike in the earlier years of settlement, the animals were kept in compounds outside rather than inside the village walls.

The smallest workmen's village, at Tell el-Amarna, waas built in the 18th Dynasty to house the workmen constructing Akhenaten's new city, Akhetaten. It was occupied by some 350 inhabitants for about 13 years. EAch house had four areas; an outer work area, a living room, a bedroom and a kitchen with stairs leading to the roof. The houses, although not elaborate, were sturdily built with mainly white-washed walls and ceilings.

None of these settlements had wells, so water had to be brought from the river, which, at Deir el-Medina, was over 1.5 km away. In this village water was first stored in large jars within the house but later a community reservoir was built outside the north gate. In all the dwellings furniture was sparse and simple. People slept on the floor, on clay benches along the wall or on beds of interlaced cord with a wooden headrest. Feathers were used to stuff cushions although these were used as back supports rather than pillows.

In ordinary ancient Egyptian homes the lavatory consisted of a wooden stool under which a cup half-filled with sand might be placed or, as at Deir...
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Monday, May 23, 2011

Page 11: Health and Hygiene in Ancient Egypt

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During the 67-year reign of Ramesses II (19th Dynasty) an estimated 2 1/2 million people lived in ancient Egypt. Most were landless peasants, dependent for an existence upon the beneficence of the local landlord and the caprices of the Nile's annual inundation. When the Nile rose too high houses and fields were flooded but many times in ancient Egypt's history the inundation proved inadequate. Lack of water brought famine, pestilence and disease (figure 1).

There are no records of how many people died during the seven-year failure of the Nile's annual flood during the reign of the Pharaoh Djoser (Third Dynasty) but it may have been many thousands. An inscription engraved on a granite block on the island of Sehel during the Greek Period tells how, during this famine:
Children wept. Grown-ups swayed. As to the old, their heart was sad, their knees gave way, they sat on the ground, their arms swinging.

The most common ordinary dwelling in early Predynastic Egypt was the round hut built of poles, reeds and mud. This was later changed to a square shape and, later still, was built of mudbricks dried in the sun - the traditional adobe house. These dwellings have survived less well than the stone-constructed tombs and ancient Egyptian temples from which much of our knowledge of ancient Egypt is derived.
During the Dynastic Period ancient Egypt was divided into provinces, or nomes, and by the New Kingdom there were 42 nomes, each with its own administrative center and urban development. The most densely populated areas were the Delta and the area in southern Egypt from Thebes to Aswan (estimated at over 200 people per square kilometer). Bubastis, the capital of the eighteenth nome of Lower Egypt, which was inhabited throughout the Dynastic Period, covered an area of about 75 hectares. Heliopolis, near modern-day Cairo, was the largest city in the New Kingdom and had an urban area of about 23 square kilometers.

Apart from this natural urban development there were periods when large workforces were needed for the construction of state buildings, most particularly the Pharaoh's mortuary complex. The majority of the peasant workforces used for the building of public works were employed only during the period when the Nile flooded and work on the land ceased. Remains of housing built to accommodate  at least 4000 workmen have been found near the pyramid of Khafre at Giza (Fourth Dynasty) although the maximum seasonal workforce may have numbered 100,000.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Page 10: Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Medicine



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reinforces pathological and epidemiological findings. A volume of this size can serve only as an introduction to the fascinating subject of ancient Egyptian medicine. Interested readers will find the bibliography (chapter 8) a useful source of further information.

Picture: Limestone relief from the causeway of Unas' pyramid, Saqqara, Fifth Dynasty, showing the effects of famine. (Courtesy of the Musee du Louvre, Paris, E. 17.376.)


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Page 9: Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Medicine

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Research into the medicine and diseases of ancient Egypt involves the study of many aspects of its civilization. The study of literary sources and artistic representations in painting and sculpture, as well as the examination of skeletal remains and mummies, has yielded a wealth of material. In addition, the wider interaction between ancient disease and the contemporary environment involves the studies of architecture and town planning, clothing, nutrition, agriculture and animal husbandry, commerce and travel.

Medicine is both an art and a science. The art of restoring and preserving health is as old as life itself but the science of discovering and analysing the process of diseases is little more than a century old and could not have been accomplished without parallel advances in technology. Modern medicine is greatly assisted by diagnostic techniques such as radiography, computed tomography, electron and light microscopy, serology and endoscopy, all of hich have been applied to ancient Egyptian remains. It is now possible not only to blood-group mummies but to extract DNA by molecular cloning, to analyse trace elements in teeth by atomic absorption spectrometry, to measure metal levels in bone by X-ray fluorescence and to computerize all these details into the International Mummy Data Base held at the Manchester Museum.

The application of modern techniques to the study of Egyptian remains has enabled new diagnoses to be made and, in some cases, the old ones to be redefined. During the 1960s, for example, extensive radiological examination of a series of mummies revealed skeletal evidence of a very rare inherited diseases called Alkaptonuria, which deposits a characteristic black pigment into the spine. This pigment was seen in almost a quarter of the mummies X-rayed, althoughg in modern society alkaptonuria occurs in only one person in five million. Expert papers were written which offered explanations for this remarkably high frequency of alkaptonuria in ancient Egypt. Twnety years a new technique called nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy demonstrated a molecular similarity between the black spinal pigment and junpier resin - an embaler's material.

This book is not simply a history of ancient Egyptian medicine. It is an attempt to present an overview of health and disease in ancient Egypt and to outline important developments in the practice of medicine. Hypothetical or unsubstantiated data have not been included but evidence from modern scientific research has been quoted where this

Page 8: Chronology

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  • 332 - 30 Ptolemies
  • 205 - 180 Ptolemy V
  • 51 - 30 Cleopatra VII
  • 30 - Ad 395 Roman Emperors
Byzantine Period AD 323 - 642

Islamic Period AD 642 - 1517

Page 7: Chronology

From W. J. Murnane, the Penguin Guide to Ancient Egypt, 1993, and including of those rulers mentioned in the text.

Neolithic Period before 5000 BC     Fayum A


Predynastic Period c. 5000 - 3300 BC


Early Dynastic Period 3050 - 2613 BC

Old Kingdom 2613 - 2181 BC
Middle Kingdom 2040 - 1782 BC
Second Intermediate Period 1782 - 1570 BC