In one of our earlier articles, we talked about how Mesopotamia is widely considered to have fueled some of the most crucial inventions in human history, ranging from the cursive script, advanced astronomy to complex mathematics. Now from the perspective of objective history, the ancient Egyptians ‘followed it up’ to bring forth their brand of innovations. And quite interestingly, many of these ancient Egyptian inventions are intrinsically related to personal hygiene, health, and even fashion – thus almost serving the evolutionary pattern of societal development (with focus on the well being of the individual).
And as in the case of Mesopotamian inventions, we shouldn’t view these Egyptian inventions as singular events that happened overnight. On the contrary, many of these historical innovations were fueled by centuries of development since the epoch of the Neolithic Revolution.
1) Eye Makeup –
While counted among one of the fashionable (and rather timeless) ancient Egyptian inventions, the scope of the eye makeup, however, went beyond just style statement. Possibly invented by circa 4000 BC, such makeups were not limited to women. Furthermore, different facial make-ups also reflected the status of the person, with noble ladies tending to make more use of multifarious pigments and ointments to appear distinguished. And as we fleeting mentioned before, other than the fashionable take, Egyptians also believed that the kohl of their eye makeup protected them from various infections and the proverbial ‘evil eye’.
Now in terms of the composition of these ancient Egyptian inventions, malachite, a copper carbonate pigment was used for the greenish eye paint (especially in the pre-dynastic period). As for the kohl, the black ointment was created by combining soot with galena, a dark gray ore of lead. Interestingly enough, both of these minerals were not readily available in ancient Egypt and thus hints at advanced chemical synthesizing processes that entailed filtering of rock salt and natron.
2) Ancient Egyptian Technology Of Glass Making –
Naturally occurring glass obsidian was used by various Stone Age groups as sharp cutting tools, while evidence of rudimentary glass-making has been found in Mesopotamia, dating from circa 3500 BC. However back in 2016, a group of researchers theorized that these ancient glass-makers possibly borrowed ideas from more refined techniques that were being used in ancient Egypt. In favor of their notion, the scholars talked about how the numerous old Egyptian glass items displayed a varied range of tints, hues, and patterns, especially when compared to the Mesopotamian Nuzi items.
In any case, by late Bronze Age, the standardized (and far more improved) glass making technology can be perceived as one of the ancient Egyptian inventions. For example, by circa 1500 BC, Egyptian artisans created the very first multi-colored glass ingots and vessels that sometimes replicated carvings made of semi-precious stones. Many of these intricate items were probably made by the core-forming technique, as described in an excerpt from Khan Academy –
Glassmakers shaped the body of the vessel around a core of ceramic-like material, wound colored trails of hot glass around it, and added handles and a rim. They then let the vessel cool and removed the core. Most early core-formed containers were small flasks for perfumed oil.
3) Woven Dress –
The above pictured Tarkhan Dress, which now looks more like a stained and tattered shirt, has been identified as Egypt’s oldest garment as well as the oldest surviving piece of woven clothing in the entire world. In that regard, the standardized methods of spinning and weaving can be counted among one of the ancient Egyptian inventions, with their development taking place around the period of circa 3500 BC. And despite its current decrepit state, the Tarkhan Dress, as the researchers pointed out, was once a fashionable linen garment, featuring knife-pleated sleeves and bodice with a naturally-beautiful pale gray striped design. Unfortunately, the lower part of the dress is still missing, which is why its original length is currently unknown.
In any case, according to Alice Stevenson of the University College London, who played her part in a 2016 study that precisely dated the Tarkhan Dress to circa 3482 BC –
The survival of highly perishable textiles in the archaeological record is exceptional, the survival of complete, or almost complete, articles of clothing like the Tarkhan Dress is even more remarkable. We’ve always suspected that the dress dated from the First Dynasty, but haven’t been able to confirm this as the sample previously needed for testing would have caused too much damage to the dress.
4) Black Ink For Writing –
While the cursive writing was invented by the ancient Mesopotamians, their script was often inscribed as marks on clay tablets. Ink, on the other hand, has a far older history, with its usage harking back to at least around 40,000 years ago, as could be evidenced by earliest known cave paintings found in Spain and Indonesia. During this incredible epoch, the ink was probably derived (primarily) from red ochre, along with consequent uses of black manganese dyes, plant saps and possibly even blood.
However, the first known use of ink specifically for the purpose of writing (as opposed to art) comes from a much ‘later’ date of circa 2500 BC. Historically, this ink-writing trend emerged from both ancient Egypt and China, possibly in an overlapping time period. Now pertaining to the former, the emergence of ink-based writing complimented the use of papyrus, the precursor to parchment and paper – and so we have included black ink as one of the essential ancient Egyptian inventions.
The main pigment of such black ink products consisted of a type of carbon known as lamp black. It was created by tepidly burning tar with vegetable oil and then suspended in some kind of adhesives like gum or other glue-like substance (as a bonding agent), for enhancing its sticking attribute to the papyrus surface. Incredibly enough, the longevity of carbon also allowed many such papyrus writings to survive over millennia.
5) Police of Ancient Egypt –
Like most ancient societies, the Egyptians during the Old Kingdom phase relied on local warriors and privately employed guards (who were paid by rich landowners and nobles) to guard their strongholds, religious buildings, and more importantly storehouses. However by the end of this epoch, especially by the time of the 5th Dynasty, Egyptian royalty and nobles began to employ more dedicated people for the important guarding posts. These guards were mostly recruited from military factions, ex-military servicemen, and even foreign mercenaries. One of the prime examples would pertain to the elite Medjay, who were basically Nubian desert scouts, and these men were tasked with protecting the high-value public places like markets and temples. They were even accompanied by trained monkeys and dogs to catch criminals – as depicted inside a 5th Dynasty tomb (pictured above).
Thus, the world’s first known police force came into being in ancient Egypt in the field of personal security. And by the time of the Middle Kingdom (circa 2050 – 1800 BC), the overlapping system of employing soldiers (or ex-soldiers) as guards were relegated in favor of raising a full-time professional police force. In addition to guarding strategic and high-value sites, these ancient Medjay ‘cops’ were also tasked with keeping order in their respective zones and protecting trade caravans. And just like our modern times, the burgeoning police force was fueled by a state-administered body that selected the Chief of the Medjay. The Chief of the Medjay, in turn, chose his sub-chiefs, and they went on to appoint their deputies and constables in specific precincts inside the city.
6) Wigs –
Like some contemporary ancient societies, many Egyptians did practice shaving their head. Historians have reasoned that the typically hot climate of Egypt actually made people comfortable with their bare scalps. Some scholars have also put forth the theory that regular shaving countered the infestation of lice, which could have been a predicament in many an ancient culture. However, interestingly enough, in spite of the comfort level, many of the folks did prefer some degree of ‘hair’ over their head, and thus came forth the solution of wig – one of the stylish ancient Egyptian inventions.
To that end, both free men (with the exception of priests and possibly scribes) and women wore wigs in ancient Egypt, while slaves were not even allowed to shave off their natural hair, by law. And oddly enough, the richer folks and nobles wore wigs made of actual human hair, which rather mirrored their high status. Suffice it to say, women tended to flaunt more decorative wigs that were often bedecked with headbands, flowers, jewelry items, ribbons, and caps. Occasionally, some of the wig designs even displayed exquisite colors, like the dark blue wig of Queen Nefertiti. On the other hand, the commoners wore simple wigs mostly made of dyed sheep wool and cheap vegetable fibers.
7) Door Lock –
The oldest known evidence of a door lock comes from the ruins of an ancient Egyptian palatial complex, dating from circa 2000 BC. The fascinating design entailed a simple but effective pin tumbler lock, and it has been described as –
A wooden bolt securing a door, with a slot with several holes on its upper surface. A device attached to the door contained wooden pins which would drop into the holes and secure the bolt. The key, also wooden, was a large toothbrush–shaped affair, whose ‘bristles’ were actually pegs that matched the holes and pins in the lock. To open the door, it would be inserted into the keyhole located below the pins and lifted, raising the pins and allowing the bolt to be slid out.
Incredibly enough, the core design element of the pin tumbler lock is still in use today, though ancient Egyptian keys were significantly larger than our modern counterparts. In any case, the door lock remains as one of the essential ancient Egyptian inventions, and such devices were usually reserved for places of high value, like royal palaces and religious structures –
buildings that often housed treasures and precious objects.
8) Surgery Treatise –
The Edwin Smith Papyrus is a comprehensive medical text on surgery from ancient Egypt that was written around 1600 BC. It is perceived as a treatise that mainly deals with trauma, and predates the famous Hippocratic Oath by almost a thousand years! Simply put, it is the world’s oldest known surgical treatise and is dated from the Second Intermediate Period of the history of ancient Egpyt. Quite intriguingly, it should be noted that the papyrus document exclusively contains only cases and not recipes for treatment of various traumas. These 48 cases are arranged in an immaculate manner with consideration to the location of the injury. In other words, the injuries mentioned proceed systematically from the head down to the spine, much like any of its modern-day counterpart. The cases even individually comprise the sub-categories that are divided into the title, examination, diagnosis and finally the treatment.
The astonishing part is how the organized state of affairs is equally complemented by the rationalized inputs of treatment. Quite possibly, the treatise may entail the first historical mentioning of ‘brain‘ in any language. To that end, many contemporary neurosurgeons (with the help of historians) have actually identified the descriptions of various brain-related sections like cranial sutures, the meninges, the cerebrospinal fluid and the intracranial pulsations. Furthermore, the treatment processes encompass realistic solutions like surgical stitching and different types of injury dressing.
From the historical perspective, what is even more baffling pertains to the hypothesis that the papyrus was actually a copy of a previous medical treatise. James H. Breasted, the then-director of University of Chicago Oriental Institute, ascertained in 1930 that the original source was an Egyptian composite manuscript that was written between the period of 3000 – 2500 BC, probably by the renowned high priest, architect, and medicine practitioner Imhotep. According to Breasted, the scribe who copied this ‘archaic treatise’ made many errors and finally left the Edwin Smith Papyrus incomplete. Thus we only see the traumas and their treatment coverage ranging to the spine, and not the legs. And the amazing scope also suggests how surgical treatments (at least on the theoretical level) can be counted among the ancient Egyptian inventions of prominence.
9) Breath Mint –
From personal appearance to personal hygiene, one of the ‘coolest’ ancient Egyptian inventions possibly pertained to the breath mint. Now while dental hygiene was probably not very high on the priority list, many ancient Egyptians, like most contemporaries of their time, had to deal with deteriorating teeth, partly because of their diet pattern (that did include honey and later even sugar).
Suffice it to say, bad breath was a predicament, especially for the nobles and royals who considered themselves ‘pristine’. The solution came in the form of the first breath mint, made from a combination of myrrh, cinnamon, and frankincense. These ingredients were often boiled together in a honey base and then shaped into pellets for easy consumption. This scope of personally maintained fragrance also extended to other items, like the famed kyphi, a compound incense, first mentioned in a 16th century BC papyrus, made from a fusion of aromatic substances like honey, wine, pine resin, and juniper berries.
10) Toothpaste –
While the earlier entry dealt with freshening one’s breath, one of the fascinating ancient Egyptian inventions might have even pertained to toothpaste itself. To that end, the world’s oldest known recipe for a toothpaste comes from ancient Egypt, though the papyrus itself is only dated from 4th century AD and clearly presents a Greek script. In any case, according to the document, the ancient cleaning agent for our pearly whites calls for one drachma (one-hundredth of an ounce) of rock salt, one drachma of mint, and one drachma of the dried iris flower, all mixed with around 20 grains of pepper. According to Austrian dentist, Dr. Heinz Neuman, who tried out the pungent ancient Egyptian toothpaste –
I found that it was not unpleasant. It was painful on my gums and made them bleed as well, but that’s not a bad thing, and afterwards my mouth felt fresh and clean. I believe that this recipe would have been a big improvement on some of the soap toothpastes used much later.
And incredibly enough, some of these ‘earlier’ toothpaste concoctions did include a range of bizarre items including powder of ox hooves’ ashes and burnt eggshells, both of which were combined with the abrasive pumice.
11) Tables –
The very early forms of tables were used by ancient Egyptians, though not as objects for dining or writing. One of the ancient Egyptian inventions in the realm of typical furniture, such tables (or proto-tables) were simply elevated platforms for storing items and keeping them away from the floor. Over time, few of the designs evolved to account for four-legged, three-legged and even one-legged tables. Some of these rare specimens, mostly made of wood (but few made of stone and metal) were used for dining and also for gaming purposes. Pertaining to the latter, Senet, one of the oldest known board games was mentioned in an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph dating from 3100 BC.
However, beyond such uncommon usage patterns, many of the later Egyptian tables were used as offering platforms inside tombs. Some of these tables were actually laden with food and dedicated to the deceased, who was often portrayed as the host. As one particular tomb inscription makes it clear that the funerary food served a visual purpose, rather than an actual feast –
At the table of one greater than you,
Take what he gives as it is set before you;
12) Honorable Mention – Antibiotic (Beer)
While not exactly pertaining to one of the Egyptian inventions, analysis of bones of ancient Nubian people made in 2010 revealed the presence of tetracycline, an antibiotic that is also used in our modern times for treating bacterial infections. The bones specimens were nearly 2,000 years old, and thus the study hinted at how antibiotics were (possibly) familiar to ancient populations before the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928. And the interesting part is – the Nubians probably took in tetracycline through their special beer concoctions that were more akin to sour porridge.
According to the scientists, there is strong evidence that the Nubians actually knew that their beer concoctions made from grain were laced with tetracycline. Now in historical terms, the first batch of beer was possibly contaminated by Streptomyces, a soil bacteria that produces tetracycline and also thrives in arid conditions such as Nubia (the land encompassing present-day northern Sudan and southern Egypt). But the Nubians, over time, must have noticed how the ‘accidental’ tetracycline antibiotic cured them of various bacterial ailments. So they devised their ingenious ways to propagate and brew this particular variety of beer and consumed them as a part of their diet.
It should also be noted that Streptomyces can produce a golden-colored bacterial colony on the top of the beer, and this particular hue might have enticed the Nubians (who shared cultural entanglement with the Egyptians during parts of history) to consume more of this special ‘antibiotic’ beer, since gold was venerated by many ancient cultures. But unfortunately, as with many historical traditions of observed science, this specific art of brewing the tetracycline beer was probably lost to time. And lastly, if we stretch the ambit a bit, the profusion of Streptomyces in these African regions might also explain the antibiotic resistance showcased by the native fauna.
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I have also heard that part of the development for eye makeup was as a way of counter the glare from the sun. Much like American football players have black stripes under their eyes from the lights.