Being an Egyptian Worker: Multiple Career Options for Men and Women

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

The working class in ancient Egypt had many career options. Some jobs were the most coveted, and some were considered extremely dangerous. Interestingly, women excelled at both the unpaid and the paid jobs.

Painting by anonymous Egyptian tomb artist(s), which shows a man and a woman working in the field.
Besides helping in fields, Egyptian women worked as beauticians, hairdressers, domestic nurses, basket weavers, singers, dancers, or musicians.
(Image: Anonymous Egyptian tomb artist(s)/Public domain)

Employing for Quarrying

Mining and quarrying were important and dangerous occupations in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians mined for gold, silver, copper, and lead. Many of the quarries were subterranean, so workers had to lie on their bellies, breathing in all the dust, with the danger of being crushed to death, with accidents and fatalities extremely common. Condemned criminals and prisoners were employed in quarries because of the dangers the job entailed. In the New Kingdom, sandstone was the most common building material, followed by limestone. Other hard stones that were quarried included basalt, diorite, granite, and schist.

On the Way to a Writer’s Job

As an educated Egyptian, one would go for a job as a scribe, an undemanding job after a person had completed many years of apprenticeship. The work a person did after graduating depended on the level of literacy attained. With more experience, scribes were able to write dictations or get a chance to write their own composition.

The writing equipment consisted of a simple wooden palette with two depressions on one end for red and black ink, and a slot on the other for the brushes a scribe wrote with. The scribe mainly used the hieratic script, which was a cursive form of hieroglyphic invented around 2500 B.C. As a scribe, a person enjoyed a high status in Egyptian society, having their own important god called Thoth, depicted either as an ibis or as an ibis-headed man.

Learn more about the richness of the Nile and stability of the Egyptian society.

Positives of Being a Scribe

Being a scribe offered the chance of upward mobility, as being able to write was an essential prerequisite to landing a much coveted job as an engineer on a prestigious building project. But to be eligible for that, a degree in mathematics or the ancient Egyptian equivalent was required. They had to bribe to get a well-paid post. No wonder, one Egyptian father wrote to his son, “I shall make you love books more than your mother.” Although the scribes worked for the pharaoh as a government employee, they could also offer their services to some illiterate businessmen, who engaged them to keep track of their accounts or handle correspondence.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Prospects in the Army

Another job with good career prospects was service in the Egyptian army. The best job was that of an archer; the bow and arrow were the most effective weapons in the wars that the Egyptians fought, so archers were considered elite fighters. The elite fighters were rewarded at the end of their service with a parcel of land, and slaves to work the land. A career in the military also offered a chance of promotion.

Stone head carving of Ramesses I by Keith Schengili-Roberts, originally part of a statue depicting him as a scribe.
Pharaoh Ramesses I had served in the army as a commander. (Image: Keith Schengili-Roberts/CC BY-SA 2.5/Public domain)

Two New Kingdom pharaohs, Horemheb and Ramesses I, had previously served as military commanders. With a bit of luck, and perhaps bribery, one would work their way up, socio-economically.

Egyptians weren’t good at fighting and it wasn’t until the New Kingdom that they first had a standing army. Prior to that, they had an army of conscript peasants, who had little military training and were summoned in times of emergency.

Option of Literate Profession

It was imperative for a physician in ancient Egypt to be literate. There was no hard and fast dividing line between conventional medicine, which was based on empirical observation, diagnosis, and treatment and magico-religious medicine that heavily relied on spells and incantations to the gods. A strict hierarchy prevailed among the medical professionals, the most important doctors being those who were part of the pharaoh’s court.

Being a Trader

The map shows major trade routes including the Land of Punt.
Egyptian traders went to the Land of Punt in search of gold, ivory, and exotic animals. (Image: Cush at English Wikipedia/Public domain)

Egyptian traders traveled abroad to import hardwood from Lebanon and Syria, or gold from Nubia in the south, or copper and turquoise from the Sinai Desert. There was also an unidentified region known as the Land of Punt, the Horn of Africa, where the traders went to acquire gold, ivory, ebony, and exotic animals such as monkeys and baboons that were kept as pets by the wealthy Egyptians.

They also traded with the inhabitants of western Turkey to obtain copper and tin, essential to make bronze; with Greeks and the inhabitants of the island of Crete for olive oil; or with the people of Afghanistan for the highly-prized blue stone called lapis lazuli, which was popularly used to make jewelry. In exchange, they exported grain, linen, and papyrus, as well as artifacts made of gold, glass, and stone.

Learn more about being Egyptian.

Career Options for Women

Women in Egypt, generally performed one or more of the traditional unpaid jobs as housewife, child-rearer, cook, cleaner, caregiver, bread maker. Unless they had a servant, the woman of the house fetched water from the Nile.

Women who stepped outside their homes earned in kind for their services since Egypt didn’t have a monetary economy. They chose from a variety of jobs like that of a beautician, hairdresser, domestic nurse, basket weaver, singer, dancer, or musician and many more professions as well. But the entertainment industry did not include many married women. Some literate women with the right connections, became priestesses, overseers, or senior bureaucrats.

Anonymous Profession of Women

Men and women both worked as artisans in ancient Egypt. However, we get to see the stunning record of only men’s artistic achievements in ancient Egypt. This is mainly because women were not considered important. The historical records name very few women artisans. Women rarely signed their work and most were anonymous in their lifetime. Only a few of them were thought of as artists and once in a while noticed, as in the case of a painter and a sculptor who were shown dining together in the afterlife with their patron in a tomb painting at Thebes.

Painstaking Job of a Craftsman

As craftsmen, men inherited the craft from their fathers. They put in several years of apprenticeship and worked mostly for the pharaoh. Whatever the nature of their craft, the tools were extremely simple, meaning that their work was both painstaking and laborious which needed patience and self-discipline.

Learn more about the life of ordinary Egyptians.

Common Questions about Egyptian Society

Q: Who were mainly employed for quarrying?

Condemned criminals and prisoners were mostly employed for this job. The workers had to lie on their bellies and breathe in dust, with the danger of being crushed to death.

Q: Why were scribes so highly valued?

Scribes were highly valued because they worked for the pharaoh as government employees. The scribes were also hired by illiterate businessmen, who engaged them to keep track of the accounts or handle their correspondence. Being a scribe also helped one to get the much coveted job as an engineer on a prestigious building project.

Q: Did ancient Egypt have a military?

Egyptians weren’t good at fighting and it wasn’t until the New Kingdom that they first had a standing army. Prior to that the pharaohs heavily relied on peasants who had little military training. This conscript army was always summoned during emergency.

Q: What were women’s jobs in ancient Egypt?

Women in ancient Egypt could pick up any job: beautician, hairdresser, domestic nurse, basket weaver, singer, dancer, or musician. Some literate women became priestesses, overseers, or senior bureaucrats as well.

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