From papers to clocks, the ancient Egyptians invented a number of things that are used―albeit in a different form―in our day-to-day activities even today.
The Egyptian civilization was born on the banks of the Nile River around 3150 BCE, when Upper and Lower Egypt were unified under the first Pharaoh. The civilization prospered for the next three millennia till it ceased to exist around 31 BCE, when it was conquered by the powerful Roman empire.
From archaeological excavations and interpretation of ancient literature, it has come to light that the ancient Egyptians were way ahead of their time and hence, invented several things that have proven to be extremely valuable to mankind.
♦ Inventions of Ancient Egypt ♦
Though we usually associate the ancient Egyptian Civilization with mummies and pyramids, they did come up with a number of inventions which go beyond just mummification. Some of their most outstanding inventions are as follows:
We owe the invention of paper to the ancient Egyptians who, as early as 3000 BCE, had developed a technique of making paper from the papyrus plant that is commonly found along the banks of Nile. The pith of the plant was taken out and cut into long strips.
These strips were placed diagonally over each other, and for better binding, were placed under a weight for a couple of days. The quality of papyrus is evident as they are still intact almost 5,000 years after they were first written on.
Historical sources tell us that the ancient Egyptians were very secretive about the manufacturing technique of their papyrus. This was because papyrus was one of the main commodities that was exported by Egypt all over the region. Keeping its manufacturing process a secret enabled them to achieve monopoly in the market.
♦ Reed Pen
With the invention of papyrus to write on, it was necessary for the ancient Egyptians to find out how they would write on it. Papyrus sheets were thick and stiff, and so the tool that would be used to write on them had to be sturdy too.
Reed pens were invented by them to serve the purpose. These pens, with split nibs, have been recovered from several ancient Egyptian sites, showing how widely they were used during the ancient times. Many of these specimens date back to the 4th century BCE.
The Egyptians made reed pens by cutting reed straws, and then shaping them in different sizes. These pens were able to make bold strokes on the papyrus, and even today, they continue to be used in calligraphy.
♦ Black Ink
Of all the astounding inventions by the ancient Egyptians, one of the greatest and most used was the invention of black ink. They mixed soot with vegetable gum and beeswax. They substituted soot with other organic material to make ink of different colors. For example, they used ocher in place of soot to make red ink.
These mixtures were quite effective and potent, as the Egyptian manuscripts―which were written as early as 3000 BC―survive till date, in a full or partially readable condition.
♦ Hieroglyphic Script
The writing system first started in the form of pictures, technically known as pictograms. In Egypt, the first pictogram dates back to around 6000 BCE. These pictograms represented drawings or symbols that indicated meaningful words.
With the passage of time, ancient Egyptians started adding more and more symbols/pictures to represent words and even sounds. Later, they also added symbols which represented abstract ideas, and wrote names with the help of them.
The ancient Egyptians also used these illustrations and ideograms to write about culture, war, and politics.
Today, we know the script of the ancient Egyptians by the name hieroglyphics. Several remnants of Egyptian hieroglyphs have been found during archaeological excavations, and fortunately we have been able to decipher the script, owing to which a lot of interesting and important aspects of ancient Egyptian life, culture, and politics have come to light.
♦ Solar Calendar
Ancient civilizations marked the passage of the month by following the phases of the Moon. The ancient Egyptians were the first to have established a solar calendar. The solar calendar indicated the position of the Earth, when revolving around the Sun. It consisted of twelve months, each of which had 30 days plus 5 extra days at the end of the year.
There was a miscalculation in the ancient solar calendar as it did not account for the additional fraction of the day. Hence, this calendar showed wrong months and dates. However, this was later rectified by Ptolemy III Euergetes in 238 BC; he added one day to 365 days every 4 years.
♦ Sundial and Water Clock
The ancient Egyptians taught the world to tell time by inventing the clock. They invented the sundial and the water clock. The sundials were obelisks whose moving shadows helped the early Egyptians to divide the day into morning and afternoon. The Egyptians also determined the longest and the shortest days of the year by noting when the shadow of the obelisk was the longest and shortest at noon.
The Egyptians also invented the water clock as early as 1417 BCE, during the reign of Amenhotep III, that allowed them to read time at night. It was a stone vessel with slanting walls and a small hole at the bottom, like an inverted cone, through which water would drip at a constant rate. The stone vessel was divided into 12 columns which had equally marked spacing inside. The changing level of water along the markings on the inner walls of the vessel, as it dripped out, would indicate the time.
The word “pyramids” have become synonymous with the tombs of the Egyptian Pharaohs. However, the world got its first pyramid in the form of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara that was built in 2750 BCE for King Zoser of the Third Dynasty of Egyptian kings. Before this, the Egyptian kings would be buried in a rectangular mud-brick tomb called mastaba. However, King Zoser’s architect Imhotep placed a number of mastabas of decreasing size one on top of the other to make the world’s first pyramid.
The pyramids portray the role of a pharaoh or an Egyptian King in society. Besides this, the pyramid also has a spiritual significance, where each side represents God as the creator, the preserver, and the transformer respectively (tri-natured aspect of God).
The pyramids have always attracted tourists from all over the world. Besides tourists, they have also attracted scholars, archaeologists, and historians who keep going to Egypt to study the mysteries hidden inside these mighty structures.
The adorned wig, which has become a style statement nowadays, traces its history back to the ancient Egyptian civilization. Wigs were also discovered from the ancient Egyptian artifacts. Baldness was not considered to be aesthetically pleasing, hence wigs were invented.
Ancient scrolls reveal that wigs were used by both men and women to cover their baldness, and also to protect their head from the Sun. These wigs were curled in an elaborate manner, and adorned in a sophisticated way.
Wigs were used for the purpose of fashion as well. They were made according to the length and style desired by wearer. They were made out of human hair, or sometimes supplemented by plant fiber or sheep wool. They were then coated with beeswax and resin, which made them stiff and gave them a braided look. Not only black, but blond wigs were also made.
♦ Eye Makeup
The ancient Egyptians are credited with the invention of kohl that was used for decorating eyes, as early as 4,000 B.C. They made kohl by combining soot with a special kind of mineral called galena. Some ancient Egyptian paintings also depict people wearing a green eye makeup, which they made by mixing a mineral called malachite with galena.
It is needless to say that just like wigs and high heels, eye makeup was also applied by people of both sexes. Moreover, the amount of makeup applied went hand in hand with the person’s social status. On the other hand, it was also believed that applying kohl, protected the wearer from evil eyes of his/her foes. Furthermore, they had also realized the potential of the substance in preventing/curing certain eye diseases.
♦ High Heels
Women desiring a new pair of heels is not as recent a phenomenon as it may seem. In fact, it is around 5,500 years old. Archaeological findings have established that during 3500 BCE, high heels were worn by the upper-class people of ancient Egypt. Incidentally back then, heels used to be worn by both sexes. Certain lower-class people who were not able to afford high-heeled shoes saw it as a sign of privilege, as heels were considered a work of art.
It is quite obvious that high heels back then would have been more uncomfortable than the heels we get today! During the ancient period, high heels were worn for ceremonial purposes as well. The butchers and the meat sellers used to wear them, as it was easier for them to walk across the blood.
♦ Surgical Instruments
The first medical document ever discovered was the Edwin Smith Papyrus. The document has survived till date, and according to archaeologists, it states a simple way of studying neuroscience. According to it, the ancient Egyptians did not carry out elaborate surgeries, rather brief ones for increasing their knowledge in human anatomy.
They used certain techniques to treat dislocated bones or injuries to the neck, shoulders, breasts, or chest. They had around 48 distinctive surgical techniques to heal the injured areas. There is also a mention of plasters, stitches, and bandages which were used in surgeries or cauterization.
♦ Ox-drawn Plows
The ox-drawn plow was an invention that not only revolutionized the way agriculture was carried on in the Egyptian communities, but a modified version of it is still used by farmers of many countries to plow their fields. The use of the power of oxen to pull the plow made loosening of the soil much easier and faster than doing it with hands, or using human beings for the task.
According to sources, in the very first version of an ox-drawn plow, the plows were hooked to the horns of cattle, however, it was realized that this affected their ability to breathe freely. Therefore, in the more developed version, the ancient Egyptians began to attach the plows to the bodies of their oxen by means of straps. The technique proved to be very effective, and saved the ancient Egyptians from toiling too hard on their lands.
♦ The first breath mints were invented by the ancient Egyptians. These were made by mixing frankincense, myrrh, and cinnamon, which were boiled in honey.
♦ The earliest version of bowling was invented in ancient Egypt. At a site near Cairo, archaeologists have uncovered a 13 ft long room with a hollow square at its center. Several balls of different sizes and weights have also been found.
♦ As early as 4000 BCE, ancient Egyptians had invented the pin-tumbler door lock. In this technology, a hollow bolt was made in the door and then, it was connected to pins, so that the door could be locked. In order to open the locked door, the key was inserted and pushed upwards on the pins, such that they slipped away from the bolt.
♦ Recently, archaeologists have unearthed an ancient Egyptian papyrus that explains in detail, the recipe for making a toothpaste. This is by far, the earliest evidence with respect to toothpaste-making found in the world, and so we can give credit of this invention to the ancient Egyptians as well.
♦ As early as 1000 BCE, the Egyptians were aware of the dangers of unsafe sexual intercourse. Thus, they invented the first condoms, which were made of linen.
As historians and archaeologists delved deeper into understanding this ancient civilization, its people stunned the world with their ingenuity. The Egyptians can be called the forefathers of technology, as they were the first ones to come up with certain inventions which acted as blessing in disguise for future generations. According to many scholars, there is more to ancient Egypt than just these inventions, even though, they do provide a glimpse of the glorious past that made ancient Egyptians truly unique.