Toys in Ancient Egypt

Figure 1: Inherkha surrounded by his naked children from the tomb of Inherkha Deir el-Medina 18th Dynasty Strouhal, E. (1992) Life of the Ancient Egyptians. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press Page 25

This week I had a little bit of fun with this week’s topic. With fun being the operative word as I decided to explore toys in ancient Egypt. So, let’s see what a child in ancient Egypt would grab when they wanted to have some fun.

Toys in the archaeological are difficult to identify. This is because of the ancient Egyptians trend to use models, statuettes and figurines for religious cult reasons and in the practice of magic. Meaning that many of these objects that could be seen as toys to the modern eye might in fact be purely rituals objects.  

Childhood in Ancient Egypt was much shorter than we consider it to be in modern times. From at least the Old Kingdom (2638-2181 BC) both boys and girls often wore a side lock of you marking them as pre-pubescent and often not wearing any clothing[1]. The sidelock is a tress of hair that hangs over the ear and was worn until around the age of ten. (Figure 1) This hairstyle and lack of clothing would then change once that child transitioned into adulthood at around fourteen years old.   

Figure 2: A group of girls are shown playing on the walls of the mastaba of Mereruka https://www.osirisnet.net/mastabas/mererouka/e_mereruka_06.htm
Figure 3: Intricate rag doll discovered by Petrie at Hawara https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/museums/2013/07/03/egyptian-barbie-aka-dhimi-masrya/

Children in ancient Egypt are shown playing outside both with toys and group games (Figure 2). Tops rattles, simple blow pipes and a wide assortment of fired dolls. Dolls ranged from pegs wrapped in cloth through to figures sketchily carved out of a flat piece of wood painted, up to dolls made out of glazed clay[2].   When I think of dolls, I immediately think of paddle dolls although they tread more in the realm of ritual objects rather than purely objects of entertainment. In fact, we do not yet know what their purpose was. During my searching this week I found a particularly fine example of a rag doll from ancient Egypt that I had never heard of! The rag doll in question was found by Petrie in Hawara, although now in an extremely fragile condition, it still holds its charm – made of rushes, with a carved head and real hair still proudly stands at 13cm, despite parts of it missing and being disarticulated[3]. Petrie also noted that she came will a few different outfit options, this has led some to call her an ‘ancient Egyptian barbie’ (Figure 3).

A number of unfired clay figurines of humans and animals survived in urban contexts particularly from Lahun dating to the Middle Kingdom[4] (Figure 4). These simple toys are charming and I am especially fond of small clay pig from Lahun that I found amongst the shelves at the Petrie Museum at UCL and a glazed blue figure of a passant dog in the British Museum EA22877 (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Fired mud figurine of a pig Left (authors own photo) and glazed blue figurine of a passant dog EA22877 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA22877

But just with toys now there are those that a more complex and intricate. A great example of a intricate moving toy comes from the Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BCE) is a figure kneading dough[5]. This is a pull toy with a piece of string attached to the wooden person who is anchored to a platform and bent over an incline, holding an oval object (Figure 5).  Alongside this pull toy, there are other examples of toys with moving parts. Usually made of wood or other materials that could be carved by children and parents popular animals include, crocodiles, leopards, cats that would then be able to open their jaws and wag their tails [6] (Figure 6,8 ).  

Figure 5: Moveable toy of a person grinding flour or kneading dough. AH 84 Rijksmuseum van oudheden, leidenhttps://www.rmo.nl/en/collection/search-collection/collection-piece/?object=22102

Figure 6 is a wooden figure of a striding cat or lion it has rock crystal inlays for its eyes and small teeth of bronze. The lower jaw can be moved by pulling a string that runs through a hole through the top of its head. This is a finely made toy but there are cruder versions of these toys. Figure 7 shows a mouse crudely modelled in fired ceramic and decoration with a brownish-purple paint. The lower jaw is of wood and moves alongside this a wooden toggle pin is attached to the jaw by a string enabling the mouse to be pulled along[7].  

Figure 6 (Top): Wooden figure of a striding cat or lion, upon an integral base EA15671 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA15671 Figure 7 (Bottom) Toy mouse, with body modelled in poorly fired ceramic EA38540 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA38540

I have enjoyed looking at the possible different toys from ancient Egypt this past week. I would encourage you just to have a route around various museums online collections to really get a feel for how charming these objects can be bringing smiles to faces thousands of years apart.

Figure 8: Painted wooden toy-horse on wheels Roman period ( 30 BC to 641 AD) https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA26687

References


[1]  Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 64

[2] Strouhal, E. (1992) Life of the Ancient Egyptians. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press Page 26

[3] https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/museums/2013/07/03/egyptian-barbie-aka-dhimi-masrya/ Accessed 08/07/2021

[4]  Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 332

[5] Mark, Joshua J.. “Games, Sports & Recreation in Ancient Egypt.” World History Encyclopedia. Last modified April 11, 2017. https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1036/games-sports–recreation-in-ancient-egypt/.

[6] [2] Strouhal, E. (1992) Life of the Ancient Egyptians. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press Page 26

[7] https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA38540 Accessed 08/07/2021

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