Published Online: 7 FEB 2012
Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.
The Encyclopedia of Ancient History
How to Cite
Nicholson, P. T. 2012. Technology, Egyptian. The Encyclopedia of Ancient History. .
- Published Online: 7 FEB 2012
In its broadest sense, “technology” encompasses the means by which an object is produced, and is sometimes defined as the science of “mechanical and industrial arts” It does not imply anything about the level of sophistication of those means. Egyptian technology is relatively simple, and lacks, for most of pharaonic history, iron.
Egyptian materials are composed of stone, copper, or copper alloys (e.g., bronze), animal products (e.g., hair, wool, hide, bone, etc.), plant products (e.g., flax, papyrus, resin), and a very few complex materials such as glass, faience, and Egyptian Blue. It is with these materials, singly or in combination, that all artifacts were produced. However, many of these materials were ends in themselves. So, for example, we find papyrus used to make sandals, baskets, and writing material, but generally not incorporated into devices for manufacturing something else. The same is true of faience and glass; they were the end product of a technological process, and were not then used in manufacturing any complex technological item. This defines Egyptian technology as basically simple: it uses natural materials, usually in minimal combinations. Thus a coffin, for example, might comprise wood, gesso, paint, and varnish and may have copper inlays and worked stone eyes -a combination of materials - but one does not find materials combined to make sophisticated mechanical devices.
The “unsophisticated” nature of Egyptian technology is sometimes unexpected by students of the subject. The expectation is that a people capable of building pyramids or producing intricate jewelery must have had complex and sophisticated technology. The key to understanding Egyptian artifacts is that they were put together using simple natural products, whose shaping or re-forming was undertaken by simple means. Today, this might be referred to as “appropriate technology,” a technology fitted for its purpose. The understanding of these simple means, however, could be quite sophisticated: for example, the observation of which resins adhere most strongly, or that the fibers of papyrus can be “felted” together, or that some sands when heated with an alkali make a stable glass. The Egyptians were masters in the understanding of their environment, and knew how to extract from that environment those materials that had the properties they required to produce particular artifacts. Their technology involves the exploitation and enhancement of those natural properties to make things. In this, they are by no means unique, but the scale and intricacy of what they produced has caught the imagination of peoples beyond Egypt and has led to an interest in their technology.
Despite a general fascination for the crafts and technologies of ancient Egypt, these crafts and technologies have received relatively little attention from scholars. This is partly the result of the historical development of the discipline of Egyptology. Once hieroglyphs had been deciphered, the focus of the subject shifted toward a quest for written evidence, and with it the assumption that the Egyptians would have written down anything which was of significance to them. If scholars collected enough documents, all aspects of Egyptian knowledge would become clear. Almost two centuries after decipherment, we still lack textual evidence for many aspects of Egyptian life, particularly technology. We have, for example, no source on the making of faience, or glass, or the correct way to construct a pyramid. Technology must therefore be investigated in other ways, and until recently those ways have fallen outside the interest of most Egyptologists.
There have, however, been notable exceptions to this rule. Sir Flinders Petrie (1853–1942) paid great attention to how things were made, and so collected technological specimens, which he then attempted to understand in terms of recreating craft processes (Petrie 1909). His work on faience and glass based on finds from Amarna and Memphis are obvious examples of this. His publication The Arts and Crafts of Ancient Egypt made many of his findings accessible to a general audience, and was soon joined by Alfred Lucas' (1867–1945) classic volume Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries (Lucas 1926). This set out the scientific evidence for identifying particular materials used by the Egyptians and discussed aspects of their technology. So influential was this book that it has remained in print (albeit with revisions) to the present. The influence of the book also meant that Egyptologists tended to quote from it rather than undertake new work on materials and technology.
This situation began to change in the 1980s, and numerous studies of specific materials were undertaken. Many of these were eventually brought together and summarized in Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology (Nicholson and Shaw 2000). The numerous contributors to this book each provided specialist chapters on particular materials and technologies, going beyond the scope of Lucas' original volume and presenting their studies for a twenty-first century audience.
References and Suggested Readings
- 1926) Ancient Egyptian materials and industries. London. (
- 1962) Ancient Egyptian materials and industries, 4th ed., revised by . London. (
- 2000) Ancient Egyptian materials and technology. Cambridge. and (
- 1909) The arts and crafts of Ancient Egypt. London. (