Scholia Reviews ns 18 (2009) 8.
Kasia Szpakowska, Daily Life in Ancient Egypt: Recreating Lahun. Malden, Oxford, Victoria: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. Pp. xii + 244. ISBN 978-1-4051-1856-9. US$34.95.
University of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Kasia Szpakowska’s book recreates the everyday life of the middle-class villagers of Hetep-Senusret -- now Lahun -- during the Late Middle Kingdom. Her approach intends to build up a picture of Egypt not ‘as a monolithic, static culture’ (p. 8) but as a dynamic and lively society. Pursuing this, the narrative focuses on the experience of a young Egyptian girl Hedjerit and her gradual assimilation of the cultural values, beliefs, and practices of the Twelfth Dynasty. Right from the preface, the author explains that all the names used for the characters are actual names evidenced in Lahun. In the same way, Hedjerit’s words at the beginning of every chapter reproduce the style of authentic Egyptian texts.
As a proficient Egyptologist, Szpakowska’s work is based on several sources: from texts (medical, religious, legal, literary, and accounting documents) to archaeological finds, osteological analysis, and even paleopathological and DNA evidence. At the back, this readable book includes a full bibliography and an index reinforcing the abundant notes that close every chapter.[]
The work begins with an explanatory chapter that informs the reader about the setting of Lahun. With interesting data about the homes and the village animals, it describes the historical, geographical, and social context of Hedjerit’s background.
In Chapter 2, ‘Birth’ (pp. 23-44), the author considers the delivery process using Hedjerit as a model. Although childbirth is not documented in detail, she complements the subject with ethnographic evidence that allows her to draw some reasonable conclusions (for example, the use of the squatting position). Child protection, infant, and maternal mortality, post-partum problems, and family size are also questions examined within this chapter.
Chapter 3, ‘Close to Home’ (pp. 45-63), offers a comprehensive vision of the small daily world of a child on the basis that Ancient Egypt was a ‘society that did not ignore its children, but acknowledged them as active and dynamic members of society’ (p. 51). Hedjerit, as a teething child, went from breastfeeding to food and started being interested in playing. This interaction with toys, as well as pets, had implications for the acculturation of children because they then began to imitate their parents and learn their traditions. Szpakowska argues that female dolls and some mud figurines, first categorized as toys (p. 55), were in fact sacred objects associated with fertility rites and other religious practices. The author concludes, however, that these artifacts could have retained a ‘multivalent nature’ (p. 58), being responsible of the religious education of the youth.
The following Chapter, ‘The Stuff of Life’ (pp. 64-80), looks closely at the household items (cosmetics, mirrors, boxes, clothing, jewellery, and hairstyles) that conveyed and enhanced prestige, status, and even ethnic identity. This means that the most practical ordinary objects or activities worked as vivid indicators of a symbolic function, retaining a codified message about the role each citizen played inside this particular society.
Szpakowska explores the manufacturing of goods in Chapter 5, ‘Crafts and Trades’ (pp. 81-101), giving especial attention to the textile production. Basically a social activity, the expertise of women was spinning (an indoors activity), whereas men did the laundry outdoors. Among the other large number of crafts attested in Lahun, the most important were flint-knapping, carpentry, brick-laying, stone-masonry, basketry, matting, and pottery. Equally central proved to be drink and food production in the local economy of Hedjerit’s town: bread and cakes, legumes, seeds, fruits (sycamore figs, carob, balanites), vegetables (lettuce, garlic, celery, onion), and fish were surely part of the Egyptian diet according to the archaeological excavations in Lahun.
Chapter 6, ‘Learning, Earning and Leisure’ (pp. 102-21), deals with the problematic theme of literacy in Egypt’s Classical Age. Although this period developed a centralized education in order to uphold the increasing bureaucracy, literacy was still restricted. Women, for instance, did not have access to formal schooling unless they belonged to the royal family. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many professions did not require literacy. Documents attest the presence of hairdressers, cosmeticians, nurses as examples of female occupations, while men could work as potters, fishermen, hunters, butchers, and bodyguards. []
Another issue that emerges in this chapter is the range of pastimes young Hedjerit was able to enjoy: dancing, music, games, and listening to tales.
In the next Chapter, ‘Religion’ (pp. 122-49), the writer discusses the difficult phenomenon of the personal piety of the townspeople of Lahun under the premise that religion ‘was integrated into all facets of life’ (p. 123). The religious practices of Heka (magic), the power of the spoken word, mud figurines shaped as divinities, and pilgrimages appear to have been particularly common. The priesthood, a part-time activity, was not exclusively male and was thus a profession which Hedjerit could easily look forward to.
Chapter 8, ‘Sickness’ (pp. 150-78), is devoted to the fascinating subject of the healing process. From forensic evidence and a valuable group of medical papyri, Szpakowska goes through this complex topic explaining each type of physical problem and its treatment: injuries, accidental or deliberate traumas, nutritional deficiencies, diseases (tuberculosis and schistosomiasis), animal assaults, alimentary, ocular and dental disorders, old age, general aches and pains. Even though there was a hierarchy of specialized healers and medical substances were prescribed, magic and spells were not absent from medicine. In fact, many illnesses were thought to be caused by demons or dead entities.
In Chapter 9, ‘Death’ (pp. 179-207), the death of Hedjerit’s mother allows the author to discuss the funerary rituals of the middle-class residents of Lahun. Along with the mourners, Szpakowska points to the subject of the preparation of the body (purification and mummification) and its burial. The disposal of the coffin in the cemetery was accompanied by Coffin Texts, offerings and the significant ‘opening of the mouth’ ritual.[] However, death -- though sad -- was an integral part of the Egyptian daily life that produced the ambivalent attitudes of both terror and joy towards the afterlife.
The final Chapter, ‘Love’ (pp. 208-24), concerns the transition of Hedjerit towards being an adult. Besides the end of the youth sidelock, circumcision was the custom for boys, although it was not universally practised. For the girls the passage was indicated through the onset of menstruation, which was not considered taboo. Neither was sexuality a taboo. Love poetry, homosexuality, and contraceptives are also issues treated in one of the sections of this chapter. Lastly, the author shifts to the marriage and the laws of inheritance and property transfer, reflecting the fact that ‘women had equal legal rights’ (p. 218), something unusual in the ancient world.
To sum up. Szpakowska’s volume sheds light on the role of middle-class women in Ancient Egypt from a gendered perspective. Nevertheless, Daily Life in Ancient Egypt is an introductory contribution to Egyptology. As the author states in the preface, the book is addressed not only to scholars but to university students and a non- specialized audience interested in learning more about the ancient Egyptian society. This explains why it cannot afford to go deeper into some issues and remains as a succinct synthesis.
Finally, I would like to mention the fact that the book is illustrated with remarkable line-drawings and black-and- white photographs of archaeological artefacts. In spite of the low quality of the photographs and its uneven selection (a huge number of mud figurines but not any picture of a votive stela or jewellery, for example), the book will be attractive to anyone who wishes to read an appealing and original introduction to the Egyptian mind.
[] As the author specifies in the preface, many of Szpakowska’s sources belong to the Manchester Museum and the Petrie Museum.
[] These are only few of the recorded job titles found on the excavations of Lahun (also known as Kahun). See http://www.kahun.ucl.ac.uk/main.html
[] This ritual is mentioned in the Pyramid Texts (5th and 6th Dynasties of the Old Kingdom), Coffin Texts (as early as the First Intermediate Period) and the later Book of the Dead (New Kingdom). Cf. http://www.pyramidtextsonline.com/