Bread in Ancient Egypt

This week I am exploring the world of ancient Egyptian bread. I happen to be a pretty keen baker and especially love to make bread so this topic is a melding of two interests.

Figure 1: Limestone statue from Saqqara dating to the Old Kingdom (JE 87818) http://www.globalegyptianmuseum.org/record.aspx?id=15271

Bread formed the basis of the diet for the average ancient Egyptian, the poorest in society appear to have eaten bread, beer and a few vegetables. The breadmaking process began with the mixing of the dough, which was kneaded with both hands in a a kneeling position on a low or flat surface or feet in a large container[1]. This work was mostly reserved for women and they are often shown carrying out these activities in statues – such as grinding flour, baking bread and making beer. An example can be seen in this limestone statue from Saqqara dating to the Old Kingdom (JE 87818) (Figure 1). The making of beer went hand in hand with bread making as stale bread could be used in place of grain mashed in a pot of water[2].

Figure 2: Ovens at the rear of one of the bakery/brewery chambers https://www.amarnaproject.com/pages/amarna_the_place/komelnana/index.shtml

Alongside domestic production there is also evidence that in the New Kingdom there was the ability for bread to be produced on a larger scale. Excavations at the city of Tell El- Amarna have revealed a structure to the south of the main city called Kom el Nana. This structure comprised a single large brick enclosure with reinforced walls and external buttresses that had been divided into two parts by a wall[3].  The building housed ceremonial and religious structures but also a ‘substantial combined bakery and brewery’[4]. This combined bakery and brewery in the northern portion contained a set of parallel brick chambers – ovens and pottery bread moulds have been excavated from these rooms.[5]  This allowed for larger scale production of bread with multiple loaves being produced at the same time. (Figure 2) shows a pair of these ovens located to the rear of one of these brick chambers.

Figure 3: Gardiner, A. (1927) Egyptian Grammar Being An Introduction To The Study of Hieroglyphs, Oxford: Griffith Institute Page 531
Figure 4: Gardiner, A. (1927) Egyptian Grammar Being An Introduction To The Study of Hieroglyphs, Oxford: Griffith Institute. Page 454

The most basic type of bread is referred to as Ta and is a simple domed loaf.  The letter T in the hieroglyphic script is a representation of this small loaf bread and forms the word for bread [6].(Figure 3) Bread was made using emmer wheat (Triticum dicorcum) and had many varied forms. By the time of the New Kingdom roughly 40 different types were being produced. Of particular interest is the pyramid-shaped ‘t-Hedji’ bread. Which was regularly given as part of votive offerings, which when written alone or being held by a hand can be read as ‘di’ or ‘rdi’ meaning give or to give.[7]  (Figure 4) This conical shape bread was a favourite in the Old and Middle Kingdom and, as I have mentioned, was commonly used in offerings for the dead[8]. An example of such an offering formula can be seen in the Stela of Renefseneb currently held in the British Museum, which shows Renefseneb on the left and two relatives on the right, alongside and a table laden with offerings[9]. I have translated it below:

Figure 5: Close up of the prayer to Renefseneb. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA636

Line 1 “An offering which the king gives (to) Osiris Lord of Djedu so that he may give a voice offering of bread…

Line 2 beer ,ox , fowl and everything that is good and pure on which a god lives for the ka of Renefseneb…..”

If you are wondering why the numbers are on the right hand side of the picture – that is the starting point for these phrases. We can tell this because of the way the faces in the hieroglyphs are pointing, the curled top of the ‘nsw‘ plant points in this example, points to the right in the first line. Therefore, we read the sentence from right to left rather than left to right as we do when reading English. Have a look next time you see hieroglyphs on an object – see if you can spot which way they point. The stela not only talks about bread but also illustrates it on an offering table laden with other gifts for the deceased as described in the offering formula. Figure 6

Joining these stelae, depictions of bread and bread making can be seen on the walls of tombs and temples as a way of magically producing these baked goods for eternity. A clear depiction of the bread making process can be seen in the Tomb of Senet in Western Thebes Figure 7. The scene shows two women kneading and shaping bread into the conical moulds before being baked.

Figure 7 Women kneading and moulding bread from the Tomb of Senet https://www.osirisnet.net/tombes/nobles/antefoqer/e_antefoqer_02.htm

Alongside these there are also some of my favourite objects, tombs models. A tomb assemblage usually included models of servants performing a variety of tasks for their master and their family. This functioned in a similar manner to those produced on the walls of some tombs. Carved in wood, with painted details sometimes added to produce a realistic and lifelike appearance, some models represent a group activity; the most common examples show figurines working in granaries, breweries, slaughters houses, kitchens or weaving workshops to produce food or textiles for the deceased[10].  The example in Figure 8 shows the kneading of dough on the right-hand side and the cooking of the bread in a fire on the left. The fact that the person modelled has their hand raised is a signal that the fire is hot as they are using their hand to shield their face. The character showed in these objects make them a firm favourite amongst Egyptologists and lovers of ancient Egypt.

Figure 8 Authors photography – Tomb Model of Bread-making in Museo Egizio (
S. 8789)

 


References

[1] Strouhal, E. (1992) Life of the Ancient Egyptians. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. Page 126

[2] Strouhal, E. (1992) Life of the Ancient Egyptians. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. Page 128

[3] https://www.amarnaproject.com/pages/amarna_the_place/komelnana/index.shtml, Accessed 25th November 2020

[4] Kemp, B.J. (1990), ‘Excavations at Tell El-Amarna (Egypt) A progress report on work at Kom el-Nana supported by The McDonald Institute’, in Amarna Expedition Reviews,3.1, London: Egypt Exploration Society. Page 1

[5] https://www.amarnaproject.com/pages/amarna_the_place/komelnana/index.shtml, Accessed 25th November 2020

[6] Hussein, A and Mehdawy, M (2016), The Pharaoh’s Kitchen Recipe’s from Ancient Egypt’s enduring Food Traditions, Cairo: The American University of Cairo Press. Page 25

[7] Hussein, A and Mehdawy, M (2016), The Pharaoh’s Kitchen Recipe’s from Ancient Egypt’s enduring Food Traditions, Cairo: The American University of Cairo Press. Page 31

[8] Strouhal, E. (1992) Life of the Ancient Egyptians. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. Page 127

[9] https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA636 Accessed Wednesday 25th November 2020

[10] David, A.R, (2015), A year in the life of Ancient Egypt. South Yorkshire: Pen and Sword. Page 231

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