Finding a Livelihood: Different Occupations of Ordinary Egyptians

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

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

The elite who were very few in number in Egyptian society led a fascinating life but it was the ordinary Egyptians who had to toil through difficulty to earn a living. Which were the different professions available to them?

A fresco depicting everyday life of the masses in ancient Egypt.
Ordinary Egyptians worked as farmers, herdsmen, and miners. Both men and women worked hard to earn their living. (Image: matrioshka/Shutterstock)

Lives of Ordinary Egyptians

Very few Egyptians led lives of luxury, and digging deep into the other side of history, about the ordinary Egyptians, gives an insight into their lives. Only a few houses have survived because most were built of mudbrick, and as most villages were built close to the banks of the Nile, over time the mudbrick decomposed. One village that survived was Deir el-Medina, inhabited by the craftsmen who toiled in the desert in the Valley of Kings and the Queens.

Public Sector Workforce

Most Egyptian men and women, worked for a living. Boys did the same job or entered the same profession as their fathers. Many Egyptians, were employed by the government, in effect being employed by the pharaoh. A large percentage of the workforce was employed in the public sector, more than at any other time in human history.

The working conditions of the government-employed workforce is known from the documents found, which cover every aspect of employment. For example, what they had to do to get a job, their terms of service, what happened when they became sick, and on what grounds they could go on strike.

It helped to bribe an official to get a plum post. Officials took a roster of workers who were on sick leave, in order to deduct days off from their earnings. When there was a shortfall in rations, workers would down tools and hold a torchlight procession in protest, chanting like modern workers on strike.

Being Farmers

Most Egyptians were farmers, a lot easier being one in Egypt than anywhere else in the ancient world due to non-dependence on rainfall. They waited for the annual inundation of the Nile every year without fail. The gods had it in their power to suspend the inundation if they got angry, but the priests knew how to keep them happy.

As soon as the water receded, they marked out their land. If the flooding was heavy, it would become difficult to work out exactly where their land ended, resulting in getting into a dispute with their neighbor. It was impossible to establish fixed boundaries on land that was constantly flooded. They would dig a network of canals crisscrossing their fields to begin plowing.

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.

Tale of ‘Shadoof’

Egyptian workers transferring water with the help of shadoof.
A shadoof was a cantilevered pole. It was used to transfer water from the river into the canals in ancient Egypt.
(Image: Marzolino/Shutterstock)

Egyptians transferred water from the river into the canals by means of a cantilevered pole known as a shadoof with a bucket on one end and a weight on the other, which was the worst part as they had to spend a lot of time bending, lifting, and sloshing in muddy water in the hot weather. Shadoofs are still in use today.

Another thing was that before they were permitted to harvest the crops, government officials would come around to calculate how much they had to pay in taxes to the IRS or the pharaoh and other gods.

Time to Reap

During harvest time, the farmers filled several baskets and set out for the local temple to make their payment. The baskets were inspected, counted, and placed in a storeroom. Only the wealthy owned a farm and raised the cattle but the poor had a few pigs.

A farmer and his wife might work together as a team to produce linen made out of flax. Flax was easy to grow, one of the first crops ever cultivated by man. The farmer planted the flax seeds and then, when they harvested it, set it out to dry before stripping away the outer husk, leaving it to soak for several days before beating, scouring, and bleaching it. Later, it was handed over to the woman who did the spinning and weaving.

Learn more about the lives of an ordinary Egyptian family.

Finding a Livelihood

If a farmer did not own a farm, he was a herdsman, who followed the herds of sheep, cattle, and goats that roamed the land beyond the cultivated strip along the Nile. They also earned a livelihood by hunting, fishing, or collecting papyrus in the rich swampland of Lower Egypt around the region of the Nile Delta.

They punted around in a little shallow-bottomed boat, made out of bundles of bound papyrus reeds lashed together in the shape of a shallow crescent to prevent it from sinking.

Multiple Uses of Papyrus

Papyrus wasn’t only used for making boats but also for writing material. Papyrus was light weight, so it was easy to carry and store. The Greeks, who were major importers of papyrus, called it biblos, from which the word ‘bible’ was derived. The word ‘paper’ came from papyrus, demonstrating its ubiquity as a writing material throughout the ancient world. No wonder, papyrus was one of the chief Egyptian exports.

A drawing on papyrus showing Egyptian life.
Papyrus, considered one of the chief exports of Egypt, was popular in Greece. Greeks called it biblos, from which the word ‘bible’ was derived. (Image: Jane-two/Shutterstock)

To turn papyrus into writing material, the Egyptians first slit open the stalks with a sharp knife and lay them out in parallel horizontal strips, placing a second layer of papyrus over the first, vertically. The surface of the papyrus layers were pounded with a flat stone for the strips to bond by means of their natural juices. Manufacturing papyrus was another job the Egyptians did, though in their spare time.

Working in a Mine

Egyptians also considered becoming miners or quarrymen, although, the dangers were probably greater, which is why condemned criminals and prisoners of war were often set to work in the mines. There were no timber supports in the mines. Timber being extremely expensive was imported but if they could not afford it, they had to crawl on their belly to get to the rock face, do the hacking, lying down, breathing in dust all the time. The fittest worked at the rock face with lamps bound to their foreheads. As the rocks broke away, children would haul them to the entrance of the mine, where older men and even women would take over. All of that would be done under the watchful eye of the foreman, who whipped them if they were careless in their work.

Learn more about career options for women.

Common Questions about Egyptian Life

Q: How did social class affect daily life in ancient Egypt?

Life for elite Egyptians was full of luxury while the ordinary class had to go through tough times, finding work which often landed them in difficult situations.

Q: What does shadoof mean?

Egyptians used shadoof to transfer water from the river into the canals. It was a cantilevered pole with a bucket on one end and a weight on the other.

Q: How did ancient Egyptians make writing material from papyrus?

Egyptians would first open the stalks of papyrus with a sharp knife and lay them out in parallel horizontal strips. Then, they would place a second layer of papyrus over the first, vertically. The surface of the papyrus layers were pounded with a flat stone for the strips to bond by means of their natural juices.

Q: How does papyrus relate to the Bible?

The Greeks, who were major importers of papyrus, called it biblos, from which the word ‘bible’ was derived.

Keep Reading
Issues in the Study of Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egyptian Tools: Building Civilizations
Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World: Egyptian Pharaohs